Dragons vs Wyverns: The Question of Smaug

Tolkien Smaug Artwork 2

- No ‘The Hobbit’ spoilers

I love dragons. They’re simply the most fascinating creatures in any mythology or fantasy story – capable of breathing fire and roaming the skies (among other things). Modern-day narratives seem to place these beings on the good side, and whilst still intriguing, I rather  prefer the good-old evil and nasty creatures from European literature.

Nothing beats the wickedness of Fáfnir from the Volsunga Saga; nor the gold-hoarding dragon from Beowulf; not to mention Tolkien’s own array of scaly beasts; mainly from ‘The Silmarillion’ and ‘The Hobbit’.

So why this post?

A couple of things come to mind as to the reason for this slightly complex, but highly fascinating (to me) discussion.

I’ve just acquired (and seen) the Extended Edition to ‘An Unexpected Journey’ (to which I’ll be adding a review very soon) and noticed something particular about Smaug’s design.

My suspicions first arose when the second trailer of ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ was released in October, noticing that the last shot of Smaug throwing fire to the screen had no forelegs – unlike what we had clearly seen in the prologue to ‘An Unexpected Journey’.

But first let’s give a quick introduction to the technical terms in dragonology …

[Spoilers note: I'll be using a few images from 'The Hobbit' that may give a slight glimpse into the shape of the dragon. Most of these are close-ups or darkly lit illustrations - so do not fear to look!]

- “Dragons” and “Wyverns”

At first glance, they look exactly the same. Even I, up to a couple of weeks ago, thought that the two creatures were basically the same – thinking that the two words were simply describing the same being.

But I was wrong, to my glad surprise.

WyvernWyverns are (or were) described in Medieval literature as being these serpent-like creatures with wings, often having spiked tails and mainly used in heraldic emblems

Pretty similar, right? The catch?

Unlike dragons, wyverns often have only two hind legs – using claws attached to their wings to make their way on ground.

Apart from a whole lot of differences currently not relevant to the scope of this article, you need only keep in mind that dragons have four legs in total – whilst wyverns have only two.

- Smaug IS a dragon

Yes he is. There’s no denying. Tolkien clearly states that Smaug was one of the last great dragons to come out of the North.Tolkien Smaug Artwork 1

The man himself even provided his own illustrations for this creature, clearly outlining the four-legs feature.

In the prologue to ‘An Unexpected Journey’, we even see Smaug’s legs grabbing hold of the gates of Erebor as he storms through, stomping dwarves along the way.

So far so good.

- There’s one slight problem

Here is where things start to diverge a bit.

Ever since the release of both ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ main trailer and the extended edition of ‘An Unexpected Journey’, it seems clear that Smaug’s forelegs are absent – indeed turning him into a wyvern-like creature.

Let’s have a look at two shots from both examples:

Smaug wyvernSmaug AUJ extended

Darkness and smoke do much to conceal the overall appearance of the dragon, but it’s simply unmistakable. Smaug has only two legs and what appear to be claws at the points where the wings bend a little.

But having already seen ‘An Unexpected Journey’ many many times (hopefully), the keenest of viewers might ask then why we get a prologue in which Smaug clearly seems to use a set of forelegs to burst his way into Erebor.

There seems to be some kind of discrepancy here, no?

Peter Jackson solves this (partially) by altering one, single shot for the extended edition.

Let’s have a look at this shot in the two versions of the film:

Smaug-(theatrical)2Smaug-(extended)2

In the top image (theatrical) we can clearly see two immense forelegs stomping around and trampling dwarves, whilst on the bottom image (extended), the shot has been altered to replace those legs with claws attached to a wingspan.

Obviously Peter Jackson has had second thoughts in including his dragon with four legs and re-designed (at least partially) the overall appearance of Smaug.

eye of smaugHowever, although this particular shot was changed, the previous shots showing Smaug bursting into the Mountain have been left the same. And it’s hard to believe that he is using his hind legs to do so.

This begs the question: If they changed the “stomping shot” with the new one, why didn’t they change the others to adhere with the new design?

I simply have no answer; however, I believe it may have been left on purpose to allow a switch between two distinct designs (read about the evolution of Smaug’s appearance below).

Again, it is very difficult to make exact statements on the character, since we have yet to see him in his true form in just under a month. But so far, considering the clues that have been provided in ‘An Unexpected Journey’ and the trailers, it seems as if Smaug is becoming more and more like a wyvern.

PAUSE.

Let’s be clear. Smaug in ‘The Hobbit’ is still a dragon, no matter whether he has two or four legs. When I refer to him being more “like a wyvern”, I’m referring to the shape and appearance, which is unlike the traditional four-legged dragon form.

Smaug claws 3Jackson himself stated, months before the first film’s release, that they were keeping Smaug a secret, partly due to possible changes in his appearance. Rightly so, it seems that the final look of Smaug was not yet locked and was still evolving over the course of release between films 1 and 2.

By giving only a few glimpses in AUJ, the director was able to happily alter some characteristics of the “dragon” without worrying too much about continuity.

That said, the change in the extended edition is pretty obviously nonetheless …

- The two Smaugs

As a film enthusiast with a slight tendency to go into too much detail, this has some profound ‘consequences’ (not necessarily negative) when it comes to viewing ‘The Hobbit’ as a cinematic trilogy.

I would start asking questions like:

-Which version of ‘An Unexpected Journey’ should I watch?

-If I decide on the theatrical edition, then THAT Smaug is not entirely the same as the one in ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ – so technically speaking there’s not one, but two.

We have two of these creatures were one is shaped like a typical dragon and the other like wyvern. Considering ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ adopts the latter concept, then the particular scene of the attack on Erebor in the theatrical AUJ is nullified.

What?!?!

Pardon me. There goes my instinct of analyzing things I care about in intricate detail and complexity.

If a particular creature design has been shown in a trailer but then turns out to be completely different in the main film, that is perfectly fine (see the first teaser for PJ’s ‘King Kong’).

King Kong Comparison

However, it is a different thing when two “final” versions of the film (theatrical and extended) display two differing images.

A film is a story with its own time and space; consisting of specific rules and content pertaining to that narrative. Visuals complement sound and vice-versa, supporting the overall storytelling within a believable world.

When I see these two shots next to each other, I can’t help but think that there are two Smaugs in ‘The Hobbit’ Trilogy – the Smaug as we shall see in the upcoming films and the Smaug which never was (i.e. the four-legged creature).

And yet, the latter Smaug still exists to some extent. He exists within the time-space continuum (sorry!) of the theatrical version of ‘An Unexpected Journey’. And even though we onlySmaug claws 2 see glimpses of him, we can image the four-legged dragon residing under the Lonely Mountain – and when we see a foot, a tail, a head or an eye, in that version of the film, we can conjure up the image of that particular dragon.

With the alterations in the extended edition, the imaginary path that started with the first film, kind of branches off into a parallel universe where exactly the same things occur in the narrative, but will in some way create a new path for the rest of the story containing a two-legged dragon.

Please see illustration below explaining my chain of thought, in simple terms as much as possible:

mind concept

- I love dragons. And wyverns!

DragonheartAs I said at the beginning of this post, I’m in love with dragons. These beautifully depicted creatures that soar into the sky with a roar and scorch the earth as a hobby, are fantastic.

And that is not to say that wyverns aren’t either. Considering their shape, and the lack of any forelegs, makes them look somewhat more sinister (or evil) than their dragon counterpart.

Eragon (Ed Speleers) and Arya (Sienna Guillory) marvel at the dragon Saphira.Having four legs instead of two, dragons give me the impression that they have more control over their movements, rather than having to rely on their claws and wings; by keeping the wings as separate limbs, they can much easily and quickly fly or run (not sure what dragons do exactly … gallop?) – seriously making them more powerful than wyverns.

Nonetheless, they too are awesome and I still cannot avoid relating (or momentarily confusing) one with the other.

Hence I have absolutely nothing against Smaug having two legs instead of four – as long as he still retains his “dragon qualities”; with Benedict Cumberbatch providing the right amount of spine-tingling moments with his voice and performance (which seems very promising in the trailers).

Yes Tolkien specifically illustrated the dragon as having four, instead of two, legs and I would still prefer it if Peter Jackson retained the original design.

But unfortunately, I can’t change the man’s decisions.

If you’re still not convinced about the whole two-legged dragon, have a look at a couple of other dragon films that you may have enjoyed but never really realized what kind creatures they had.

- A good dose of consolation …

Remember the Harry Potter films?

You may remember the two dragons found in ‘Goblet of Fire’ and ‘Deathly Hallows: Part II’.

It is only after researching for this post that I realized both of them do not have four legs – and yet, they are still “dragons”.

They still look cool and perform the job of chasing or aiding the characters well.

HP dragonHP dragon 2

Let’s not also forget two other films known for their fire-breathing dragons: ‘Dragonslayer’ and ‘Reign of Fire’. In both stories, the dragons are also two-legged, giving them a seemingly more viscous and evil appearance than other similar creatures.

Reign of Fire dragon Vermithax

***

And aren’t we forgetting something from Middle-earth too?

Remember the Ringwraiths in ‘The Lord of the Rings’? After being unhorsed at Rivendell, they acquire fell-beasts to aid them in their search for the One Ring.

Now, now…

I can already hear some of you loudly proclaiming that these are not dragons – and rightly so.

Nonetheless, their attributes and physical characteristics bear a close resemblance to the traditional form of a dragon (at least, according to Peter Jackson’s vision).

Fell-beast

Still not convinced?

Then I urge you to wait just four more weeks to see the finished result on Smaug the Magnificent!

[Copyright of all screenshots, illustrations and images belong to the respective studios and artists]

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129 thoughts on “Dragons vs Wyverns: The Question of Smaug

  1. As you noted, there are illustrations of Smaug from Tolkien himself, clearly showing four limbs. Doing Smaug wrong requires a conscious effort, a decision – “hey, let’s do Smaug wrong!” It is not vision or interpretation, it’s just plain doing it wrong. And Smau is not just a character, but an icon. Doing Smaug wrong is like doing Dracula wrong. Dracula is a Transylvanian gentleman who drinks the blood of young women – two-legged Smaug is like young, American Dracula who doesn’t drink blood and sparkles in sunlight. It’s a travesty. That, actually, is an apt description of the Hobbit trilogy in general. The Lord of the Rings movies were bad enough, but at least Sauron had the same number of eyes as in the book.

    • I feel your frustration towards the “design fault” though I’ve certainly accepted a two-legged Smaug – mainly because of the great performance and CGI work that was done.

      I’m not sure if you’ve been through this link David posted a few comments above: http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1719502/smaug-hobbit-fx-explained.jhtml

      Basically it explains that the VFX artists did consider doing the classical 4-legged dragon, but due to a number of issues, the design was changed. Definitely worth a read.

      Though yes, a four-legged Smaug would have looked even more impressive I agree :)

      • This is how Smaug should’ve been designed, I can’t see why the movement would be so difficult to create. If anyone could bring the classical design Smaug to life it would be Weta. When hes on the ground he folds up his wings and uses his four legs, essentially walking like a lizard or a crocodile. When he flies he could tucks his legs into his side. The classical dragon design seemed to have worked fairly well with Draco in Dragonheart. Anyway Smaug was still AMAZING in the film. He’d simply be more amazing if he’d kept all of his limbs. I just wish they’d never shown us those front legs in the first place.

    • it does not make sense for dragons to have 4 legs.. irrelevant to medieval literature (becuase people back then didn’t know sh*t about animals) dragons to me seem very closely related to creatures such as lizards or dinosaurs or birds. in flying dinosaurs and in birds its the forelimbs that have been altered to produce wings they didnt just get 2 extra limbs out of nowhere!!… so it does not make sense for dragons to have 4 limbs either.. in fact this always pisssed me off when i see dragons depicted with 4 legs + wings.

      • Hey nick, thanks for your input. :)

        I guess since we’ve all seenThe Desolation of Smaug, we can conclude that Peter Jackson wisely took the “mid-way” with Smaug’s design.

        He’s given us as a dragon with two legs and two arms attached to the wingspan. So I guess he’s a cross between a four-limbed and a two-limbed dragon.

        Not bad, in my opinion! :)

      • Haha yeah in fact Ive never heard of dragons with 4 legs and wings until i read as a kid those eragon books, and even then it sounded weird. perhaps because I didnt know in medieval times dragons and wyverns differed in limb number :)

  2. I have to admit, not being a conoisseur of dragon forelimbs (rogueish experience tells me that, when you’re trying to steal gold from under them, both varieties are equally bothersome), that I missed the discrepancy while watching the movies!

    When I think about it, the four-limbed dragon model satisfies my western fantasy archetype better, and fits more nicely into my ‘medieval’/’knights and dragons and princesses’ thoughtspace, but dragons (wyverns? Dryverns…Wagons? :-D) who use claws at their wing joints instead of forelimbs are somehow more terrifying. Perhaps it’s because they’re that much less familiar, it’s more unsettling. Might be the added ‘batlike’ quality?

    It’s a very interesting debate! Thanks for covering it so thoroughly :-)

    • Thanks for your input! I agree with you that the lack of forelegs makes Smaug look more sinister and able to do some creepy-crawly-like movements.

      I guess the best way to see it is that he still has forelegs in the film version, except that they are attached to the wingspan rather than protruding as separate arms/legs :)

  3. i think they went with the whole “four limbed rather than six limbed” thing because Smaug’s animation or whatever was based off of Benedict Cumberbatch’s movements and he unfortunately doesn’t have six limbs. However i was deeply upset because the book clearly states that he was a dragon, and he is not really… although I must say I loved the movie.
    Did you notice that they refer to Smaug as a drake? Drakes don’t have wings. Smaug clearly does.

  4. The dragons in game of thrones Drogon, Viserion and Rhaegal are also termed dragons but have 2 legs. They are wyvrens then? Even the 3 headed dragon sigil of Targaryen is a Wyvren.

    • Hey sayan :)

      I believe you’re referring to the series rather than the books; am I correct?

      Because cinematic portrayals of dragons seem to give them two legs rather than four – I believe it’s something to do with the movements produced and that two legs would make it more natural than four.

      Thus, the creators/producers don’t seem to make any particular distinction between a two or four-legged creature. If what they need is a dragon, they’d prefer to design it with two legs (for easier interaction/animation) and forget the connection with a wyvern.

      But strictly speaking, it would still be a dragon I guess … :)

  5. I don’t care what anyone says. To me two legs + wings means it’s a wyvern and 4 legs + wings means it’s a dragon. End of story

  6. Well actually, the “dragons must have four legs to be a dragon!” is a recent construct, probably in the last century or so. The original western dragon didn’t necessarily look like the stereotype of today, with four legs and two wings.
    Don’t believe me? Look at this 17th century drawing: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ef/WingedDragon.jpg
    Two wings, and what looks like two front(?) legs. Anyhow, only two legs.
    Saint George and the *Dragon* from 1470: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/50/Paolo_Uccello_047.jpg/800px-Paolo_Uccello_047.jpg
    I only see two legs.
    Different version of the same one, decades earlier: http://www.nga.gov/kids/rogier/dragon.jpg
    Two legs.
    Yet another Saint George and dragon, late 1800s: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/97/Stgeorge-dragon.jpg
    Serpentine body, two *front* legs, two wings.
    Another one: http://misfitsandheroes.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/eagle-saint_george_and_the_dragon_by_paolo_uccello_paris_011.jpg
    Dragons in heraldry: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/c3/Blason_famille_fr_de_Condorcet.svg/545px-Blason_famille_fr_de_Condorcet.svg.png
    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/1e/Wappen_VG_Westhofen.svg/500px-Wappen_VG_Westhofen.svg.png
    1400s, fluffy with two legs: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d1/Yvain-dragon.jpg
    Dragons may or may not have wings.
    They may or may not be able to fly (wings or by other means).
    They may or may not breathe fire. (Some breathe ice, acid, or nothing.)
    They may or may not have scales. (Some have fur or feathers.)
    They may or may not be magical.
    They may or may not lay eggs.
    They may or may not be intelligent/speaking.
    …so what is this fight about whether a dragon has front legs or not?
    If I make a creature that flies with wings, breathes fire and is intelligent and scaly, and only gives it two hind legs and two wings – it is still a dragon.
    A wyvern is a specific (barbed tail and cannot ever breathe fire), and different mythological creature that may be thrown in the “dragon”-basket like basilisks and cockatrices, but they’re still a very different creature. It’s not in the number of limbs.

    • Hey Frida! Thanks so much for your feedback :)

      I must say I’m no expert in dragonology and the like, but I’m really glad you’ve contributed to this article.

      You have provided some very interesting information and together with the illustrations, they certainly help in clarifying the subject matter. So thanks!

      It would be great if you continued to contribute to other posts on this blog in the same manner – I’m sure people would love to read more :)

  7. I am a dragon lover, and I wrote my university dissertation on draconic imagery, its depiction and meaning throughout history in world art and culture.

    From what I have found in my research, What one culture describes as a ‘dragon’ can be vastly different to another. This stems mainly from bad translations of their description from one language to another, and very early descriptions being rather less than specific. In some cases, the language has no word specifically meaning ‘dragon’, just a word meaning ‘fantastic or mythical creature’…… so the same name was applied to ALL mythical or abnormal creatures. Further to this, the word Dragon and Serpent are pretty interchangeable in most early cultures.

    Secondly, depending on the animals the culture had around them, tended to influence the shape of the ‘Dragon’. So, In South American myths they have the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl, yet in india the have a crocodilian inspired god mythos of Makara for example.

    Which takes us onto Chimeric or blended animal creatures, such as the chimera, Manticore, hydra, kraken, sphinx and griffin etc……. If your not going to be specific about defining your dragons looks or abilities, then these could well come under the classification of the word ‘dragon’ as well.

    So….. I choose to be specific. For me, calling a two legged clearly western Fantasy/medieval/christian inspired depiction of a creature a ‘Dragon’ and not a Wyvern or a worm/wyrm, is a bit like describing a domestic cat the same as a wild tiger. Are they both Cats, Yes, are they both of the same basic animal type, yes. But even given that, they are clearly NOT the same thing, they have many distinct differences.

    So instead of lumping everything in the same group, or saying that it just a made up creature, and using both as a cop out, why not take the time to do things properly. I somehow doubt that someone would make a film based on chinese mythic archetypes, and choose to have the dragons looking like Western wyverns. It just doesn’t sit right. If your going to do a dragon type specific to a culture, then do so, don’t namby pampy about with something incorrect.

    Film makers are taking the easy way out, and just using the image that someone has a pre prepared and changing it up a bit in horn shape and colour. It’s irksome and insulting. And shows a great lack of imagination.

    Which brings me to the ‘How to train your Dragon’ films. These I actually have no problem with, their dragons are of all different types, shapes and sizes, that is half the point of the whole story….. and yet the main draconic character does have 4 legs and two wings. What brings the dragons together is their basic Personalities.

    Upon which I will make my final point, Dragons are not necessarily evil, in fact they most often start out as part of creation myths or are beneficent…… the whole evil gold hoarding, maiden eating beast came about in part, because the sublimation of pagan/polytheistic religions and imagery to the Monotheistic christian religion. Basically speaking, the quickest way to get rid of/ or take away power from something culturally is co-op it, but make it evil/aberrant, and have sanctions against its use/meaning.

    So, there is my position. Interestingly, on aside note, while doing my uni research I found out that I bit off a bit more of a topic than I thought, as all but two cultures (that I could find info/research on, and this was over 10 years ago) from the whole of earths recorded history don’t have any creatures that can be linked to anything even remotely resembling something recognisably ‘Dragon’ based in looks, personality or story. (And if you doubt me, you are quite free to look into it yourself……. take it from me though, it will take you a good long while!)

  8. First up, a question. What makes a dragon? I didn’t think that they HAD to have four legs AND wings. And Frida Nyberg made a lovely post to illustrate this fact.

    Now moving on, I love the idea of wyverns… purely because from a biological point of view, they seem more realistic. Why? Because I’m a fanatic and I want to believe that dragons are real (and that wyverns are a subset of dragon).

    If comparative anatomy has taught me anything, it’s that pretty much everything (excluding arachnids, insects and… octopus related stuff..?) all have four limbs. But the problem with that is that they also only have five finger bones, which is a problem because Smaug needs those bones in his wings AND in his claws…

    OKAY I JUST NULLIFIED MY OWN POINT BUT BUT BUT THAT DOESN’T MATTER T-T
    Smaug still has four legs and wings in my mind. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make sense, it just seems a lot cooler. And dragons don’t make sense. Smaug doesn’t make sense.

    (maybe dragons can be like crawling pterodactyls..? I mean, flying dinosaurs? How is that not a dragon??! DX)

    That aside, if I hadn’t read this post, I would have continued thinking that Smaug had four legs, AND wings with claws, because that was the impression I was under after watching ‘An Unexpected Journey’ AND ‘The Desolation of Smaug’… Well, that just shows that I’m not observant XD

    And I don’t know the point of this post. It’s excessively long, but I think I just wanted to say that I’m pretty happy with Smaug’s two leg and two stompy wing/claw design ^_^

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