Whence come the dragons …
Within Tolkien’s works there are only two instances in which the Withered Heath is mentioned, and both come from The Hobbit.
The first (and only) time we get to know about this place is from a comment made by Thorin during the ‘Unexpected Party’.
“And I know where Mirkwood is, and the Withered Heath where the great dragons bred.”
The Hobbit, ‘An Unexpected Party’
Whilst my curious reader-appetite has been satisfied, I’ve always wanted to know more about this particular location in Middle-earth.
The next reference in The Hobbit, comes from a poem that is sung by the Dwarves during their stay at Beorn’s house.
The first two verses are as follows:
“The wind was on the withered heath,
but in the forest stirred no leaf:”
The Hobbit, ‘Queer Lodgings’
Contrary to what I had taken for granted for years, this poem is not actually about the Withered Heath, but rather the wind itself (both as a physical element and a metaphorical meaning at the approach of dragons).
In the meantime, we have no documented reference to the Withered Heath in The Lord of the Rings. It still appears in the maps at the end of the book, but remains an unmentioned location and is not part of any of the adventures involving the Fellowship.
So what characteristics can we glean from the scarce evidence provided?
Well, at least we know it’s a windy place, thanks to the poem.
The name itself suggest that it was once a heathland, characterised by an area of shrubs, sandy ground and other flora that thrive on warm and dry conditions. At least it was once. The appearance of the dragons undoubtedly rendered the landscape virtually uninhabitable for any sort of vegetation (hence the “Withered”).
But even the geographical location can give some clues. Being a valley that ran between the two eastern arms of the Grey Mountains, and being far to the North, it might probably have been characterised by a cold and snowy climate.
How the dragons came to breed there is another mystery. If we extract some clues from The Silmarillion, we learn that Morgoth created dragons during the First Age – which would mean that at that time, the Withered Heath was an uninhabited area (as far as dragons are concerned) – and that after the end of the First Age, those of his servants that were left, fled to the East and might have sought refuge in the Grey Mountains until they settled in the valley.
“and Men dwelt in darkness and were troubled by many evil things that Morgoth had devised in the days of his dominion: demons, and dragons, and misshapen beasts, and the unclean Orcs.”
The Silmarillion, ‘Akallabêth’
Then again, Thorin’s remark that his family “was driven out of the far North, and came back with all their wealth and their tools to this Mountain [The Lonely Mountain]”, indicates that the Dwarves (specifically the Longbeards) had a colony in the Grey Mountains (such as at Mount Gundabad), until they were forced to flee by the dragons and the infestation of orcs.
We also must not forget that Smaug refers to himself as “young and tender” when he first came down from the North and sacked the Lonely Mountain. This further reinforces the concept of dragons living, breeding and thriving in the Withered Heath.
And that’s that. If you think you can help out in adding further details and information, which I’m sure to have missed, then please join in the discussion and have your say in the comments section below!
In the meantime, I’m going back to re-read The Hobbit. Maybe some sentence or piece of map will shed more light on this most intriguing of Middle-earth locations …