I thought it would be a good idea to spend just a few minutes understanding the concept of “dragon-talk” and “dragon-sickness”. I have always found that many people confuse the two as being one and the same. Moreover, with the advent of the film trilogy, this distinction between them seems to have disappeared completely.
So, whilst I claim to be no Tolkien expert, here’s my take on the issue.
The “dragon-talk” or “dragon-spell” was the psychological effect produced by Smaug on Bilbo during their conversation inside the Lonely Mountain. Through the deceiving words of the dragon and his hypnotic stare by means of a “roving eye”, the beholder and the listener is subjected to a strong malevolent influence that twists facts and reality. The subject is forced to believe the lies spoken by the dragon and this in turn causes damage to both victims and anyone around them.
“Now a nasty suspicion began to grow in his [Bilbo’s] mind […] That is the effect that dragon-talk has …”
The Hobbit – ‘Inside Information’
We find a similar example in The Silmarillion when Glaurung, the great worm unleashed by Morgoth, wreaks havoc in Túrin’s already cursed life. Unlike Bilbo, the dragon’s spell works successfully on both the hero and his sister – causing the two to eventually spiral down into madness and cause severe repercussions to each other and those around them.
“Her [Nienor’s] will strove with him [Glaurung] for a while, but he put forth his power, and having learned who she was he constrained her to gaze into his eyes, and he laid a spell of utter darkness and forgetfulness upon her …”
The Silmarillion – ‘Of Túrin Turambar’
Now “dragon-sickness” is somewhat different. Victims are indirectly influenced by the dragon through the use of treasure. One can almost say that the power of greed can easily be borne from a hoard of gold itself, but the added effect of a dragon’s influence on that gold seems to multiple and further increase the lust and intense greed for claiming the treasure. The prime example in The Hobbit is its effect on Thorin Oakenshield and his inability to see reason.
“… he [Bilbo] did not reckon with the power that gold has upon which a dragon has long brooded, nor with dwarvish hearts.”
The Hobbit – ‘The Gathering of the Clouds’
However, just like “dragon-talk”, the power of “dragon-sickness” also appears to depend heavily on the subject or victim. In both cases, Bilbo never succumbs to these influences and, in fact, we are told that for him the effect of the gold itself soon wore off. Yet, in the sentence just quoted, that lust that is already kindled within a dwarf’s heart is what enhances the effect of “dragon-sickness”. Just like the One Ring itself, the power and influence it has on the victims, relies very much with their own inner weaknesses in the face of these external temptations.
“… being of the kind that easily catches such disease he [the Master of Lake-town] fell under the dragon-sickness, and took most of the hold and fled with it”
The Hobbit – ‘The Last Stage’
In a scene reminiscent to Thorin’s and the other dwarves’ reaction when they return to the Lonely Mountain and witness the treasure hoard, a brief event from The Silmarillion occurs in a similar way once the dragon Glaurung has left the fortress of Nargothrond and all the gold and treasure behind.
“Mîm the Petty-Dwarf had found his way to Nargothrond , and crept within the ruined halls; and he took possession of them, and sat there fingering the gold and the gems, letting them run ever through his hands, for none came nigh to despoil his …”
The Silmarillion – ‘Of the Ruin of Doriath’
Perhaps not a direct reference to “dragon-sickness”, but the similarities are difficult to miss.
I hope that through this post I have helped in clarifying some misconceptions and outlined the concept behind the two terms. They are very similar to each other and it is not to be marvelled at that some readers might find this somewhat confusing.
Until the next time!