A secret keyhole only revealed in moonlight.
An ancient key.
A hidden stone door which leads into the inner recesses of a dark, abandoned mountain hall filled to overflowing with vast hordes of gold and treasure.
And, of course, a dragon.
In the latest Hobbit film by Peter Jackson, underneath the endless piles of scintillating subterranean riches of Lonely Mountain, lies hidden Smaug the Magnificent – one of the most legendary characters ever to have burnt the pages of fantasy lore; a dragon of dragons, subtle, crafty and menacing; epically frightful and deadly.
But for all the hype, seeing Smaug the Magnificent in Imax 3-D didn’t quite deliver the goods. He was anything but magnificent. If you’re dying to see the cinematic visage of this horrendous beast in all of its three-dimensional splendor, then by all means. But let me suggest it will be pretty much the same thing on DVD. The huge screen and third dimension only add to the price of a ticket, not the soul-shuddering fear and trembling of being in the presence of a real dragon.
But are dragons real? I mean if they aren’t, whose to say what the “best” kind of dragon is?
While Jackson certainly has all the visual elements of a good dragon in place, the film portrayal of the creature isn’t the best. It’s a bit too cartoony and really, well, not at all that frightening. One almost found oneself endeared to the scaly furnace of Smaug and all his sagaciously witty, fire-breathing maleficence and would have liked to conversed a bit more with him, maybe have some coffee with him or something (he could have kept it warm for you). His voice was smooth and sonorous, like James Earl Jones with the low-end bass cranked to stadium-shaking decibels (only it isn’t James Earl Jones, it’s the voice of actor Benedict Cumberbatch). On this level, Jackson succeeds in making the dragon rather entertaining, but only like a really gregarious and likeable American Idol contestant who can’t sing.
But if one desires an encounter with the “real” Smaug consider the creature as portrayed in J.R.R. Tolkien’s prose, not Hollywood’s cinematography.
For one, the book version of Bilbo’s encounter with Smaug is brief (which is what an encounter with a dragon ought to be – not the long, drawn out cat-and-mouse game in which the dwarves and Smaug engage in the film).
In the book, after a bit of dialogue with the barrel-riding burglar, the antagonist reptile of epically flammable proportions quickly flies away to wreak havoc on a nearby village leaving Bilbo and the dwarves alone for quite some time wondering what the beast might’ve been incinerating.
Yet it’s precisely what Tolkien doesn’t say about Smaug which makes his prose portrayal of the mythical beast all the more devastatingly epic and wondrous.
Much of what the audience sees in the film of Smaug, however, is a great deal of over-the-top, visually creative license. Impressive, but not very convincing or realistic. In the end, Jackson’s Smaug was too much. So much so, Smaug became a rather nondescript but mildly amusing portrayal of what is traditionally considered a rather terrifying character.
He was Smaug the Entertainer, Smaug the Visually Interesting, and perhaps on a similar level with “Puff the Magic Dragon” who established his renown by frolicking in autumn mists, Smaug the Benign.
After all, the massive beast with all his horrendously torrential flame-throwing capabilities and infinite brute strength never succeeds in taking the life of even one dwarf! Look here, sir, if you can’t even roast a few little mountain imps in all your unquenchable, fiery ferocity, then, well, what does anyone really have to fear?
The scene with Smaug also reminded me of the scene in the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy and her eccentric band of early-twentieth century agrarian fauna confront the fire-encircled green head of the Wizard. The “scary” factor barely registers.
But again, though, isn’t the depiction of dragons a rather subjective undertaking? Am I being too unfair? Well, no. I don’t think so.
Jackson’s aim was to entertain, and he delivers on that account (this film flows better than the first one, although there are still a great many insertions and deletions from the book itself). I was entertained. There were some humorous moments when Bilbo and the blazing, scaly miscreant begin engaging in small talk.
But Smaug, for the most part, was rather predictable standard fare.
Perhaps Jackson is at a tremendous disadvantage in this day and age of incredibly advanced visual effects. When you can do almost anything with film nowadays, perhaps doing less is truly more. Smaug’s character needed less. Much less.
Despite having a great many of the mythical qualities dragons possess, Smaug was still missing something. In addition to the overly-dramatic visualizations, he also didn’t seem “ancient” enough. He was too polished, too smooth, too predictable, dare we say, too modern?
But how can we “know” when we’ve seen something close to the mark of a “realistic dragon” if dragons don’t really exist?
For starters, a “real” dragon has to be legendary, and old. Jackson’s beast has no real ancient build-up, historically speaking. We aren’t adequately prepared or tantalized by the myths and legends of the beast hibernating in the dark recesses of the mountain. There’s nothing like reading about the legends of which Tolkien writes. Such a flavor of the ancientness of dragon lore is lost when text is substituted for the image. Images move too quickly. Text marinates the imagination. Images tend to microwave it.
There does seem to be almost a universal standard regarding what this ancient beast looks like, though. Through legends both oral and written, we hear of a horrific creature of massive size, spiked and scaly, almost armor-plated, fire-breathing, winged, subterranean; a symbol of chaos and an enemy of man.
But despite what would seem like a stunning visual feast, ready-made for our culture’s cinematic obeisance to story, Smaug – and dragons in general – actually look (and sound) better on paper.
From the ancient Babylonians to the ancient Chinese, to the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, to English lore of St. George, right down to the present day in Tolkien’s Smaug, dragons permeate the stories we tell our children (why, one wonders, would we do such a thing? Tolkien originally wrote The Hobbit for children).
Consider the stars for just a moment.
High above us, surrounding the north star Polaris is the mythical constellation of Draco, Latin for the dragon. If you find it, you’ll instantly discover it hardly looks like anything at all, let alone a dragon. It’s just a trail of stars, it would appear. Where’s the beast? How do you get “dragon” out of that?
It’s not one of the twelve constellations of the Zodiac, but it is one of the oldest and most universally recognized. Its the 8th largest constellation of the 88 we know today, encompassing 1,083 square degrees of the night sky. It’s one of the few constellations which are “circumpolar”, one which never rises or sets, but perpetually circles the northernmost star.
In the middle of Draco’s tail, set some twenty-five degrees from the north star Polaris, lies the alpha star of Draco called Thuban, a rather dim, yellowish star believed to have once been the northernmost star several thousand years ago but has since receded due to the precession of Earth’s rotation on its axis. Several Egyptian temples were also aligned with this star.
It’s not the star pattern itself, but what it has come to symbolize.
Greco-Roman legends abound with stories and tales of this epic lizard-like beast being hurled into the sky in defeat by the gods.
How did so many diverse cultures over the course of many millennia actually come to have similar ideas about this particular pattern of stars? How did their come to be such a wide range of similarly negative connotations about this arrangement of heavenly luminaries?
It’s an intriguing question, but one which I think is possible to answer.
Dragons, or at least a dragon, does exist, one that has been thrown down from heaven, falling to Earth like lightning in defeat, bringing woe to both Earth and sea with his great wrath. In his demise, as he fell, he succeeded in sweeping a third of the stars from heaven with his tail.
The serpent of old; the adversary and enemy of man; the devil and Satan.
For years, Biblical scholars have debated the precise meaning of the creature in the forty-first chapter of Job called Leviathan. Many have said God is speaking of a crocodile, but given the fact that verse eight of Job 41 says, “Lay your hands on him; remember the battle – you will not do it again!” seems to indicate that no one would even want to go near a crocodile, let alone attempt to kill it, if in fact Leviathan is a giant croc. “Behold the hope of a man is false. He is laid low even at the sight of him. No one is so fierce that he dares stir him up.”
In other words, why in the world would you want to hunt down Leviathan? A crocodile, ok. Certainly a significant challenge. A little intimidating, no doubt. The Egyptians thought Draco to be a giant croc, but is that really what Leviathan is?
Given the fact that men (and women – pictured here) have indeed killed crocodiles, however, I remain unconvinced by the comparison. God asks Job in verse 14, “Who can open the doors of his face?”
I think the answer to that would be no one. If a young gal with a rifle can not only kill a crocodile, but prop open its mouth, I don’t think its the creature to which God is referring. I’m not sure she’d be smiling, either.
But now, if you think of Job 41 in light of what we know of dragons, it becomes a bit more intriguing. “Out of his mouth go flaming torches, sparks of fire leap forth.” Imagine this beast here throwing forth fire out of those jaws, but on a scale a few sizes larger.
Yes. Dragons, as we know them, do this. Here we have met a few criteria stated above.
One, we have text. And two, not only do we have text, but very old text, old text which has a considerably similar tie-ins to the ancient myths of so many other countless civilizations regarding “Draco”; myths that have spanned millennia. There’s got to be some semblance of reality to all of it somewhere.
But ask yourself, do crocodiles breath fire? Does smoke come out of a crocodile’s nostrils?
So am I suggesting Leviathan might just fit the bill for a “dragon”? Well, why not? Consider Isaiah 27:1.
“In that day the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.”
“Leviathan”, “dragon”, and “serpent” in one verse. An enemy of man, iron scales, fire, the whole nine yards. And with whom is God conversing in the opening chapters of Job?
None other than Satan, the serpent of old, the great dragon who stood defiantly in God’s presence and repeatedly accused Job of only loving God for the benefits which were bestowed upon him, breathing his fiery epithets against God and his elect (see Zechariah 3).
Consider how this fallen angel is described in Revelation 12, too. The accuser of the brethren is referred to as a “dragon.”
“Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him. Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: ‘Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah. For the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down.'”
He is the accuser, the “great dragon”, the “ancient serpent” and, I believe, in the context of the book of Job, the creature to which God refers in chapter 41 as Leviathan. I think this particular passage is a reminder to the devil that he too is a created being under the sovereign dominion and control of God Almighty as much as it is a reminder to Job and ourselves just what little we know of God’s doings in the heavenly realm.
Go back to the first chapter of Job (v. 16). What’s one of the tragedies which befell Job’s family?
Fire. Some translations render it “the fire of God” in a superlative sense, meaning incredibly great, either like a massive bolt of lightning or a raging torrent of flame.
There is deep paradox in Job 1:16. Whether it was mistakenly called God’s fire by one of Job’s servants and it was instead the fire of Leviathan’s mouth, or whether it was indeed God’s fire, we know God was in control of it from start to finish. That fire could not have been unleashed without God’s permission.
But why wouldn’t God just come right out and say to Job what happened? Why be so cryptic? Why not just say, “Hey Job, you were just harassed by a giant, fire-breathing dragon who sought your very life and tempted you to deny Me. But I’ve made sure your faith will not fail.”
I have no idea why God gives us a glimpse behind the scenes but choses not to tell Job of the particulars. Why God does what He does sometimes is more often than not beyond my ability to comprehend (Isaiah 55:8-10).
But yet isn’t the above imagined dialogue not something that Jesus says to Peter many centuries later? “Satan has demanded to sift you as wheat, but I have prayed, that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:31-34).
It is, I think, an encouragement and a reminder to us as Christians that God is sovereignly in control of the great dragon of old. As Martin Luther once said, he is God’s devil. In short, Scripture exhorts us that the enemy of our souls is strictly confined to the sovereign dominion of God’s Right Hand.
Yet, like St. George, we ought not just sit around and do nothing. We needn’t go dragon hunting, but we must put on the “full armor” of God if we are to do battle with the adversary when he does come. We don no ordinary chain mail and take no commonplace protection. Our shield is not carved from the finest metals, but forged in faith. Faith in Christ Jesus, our true Strength and Shield, is the only way to extinguish the “fiery darts” of the evil one.
Take up the sword, which is the Word of God.
Apart from Him, we cannot hope to stand against the enemy of our souls and resist his temptations.
In short, beware of entertaining dragons if you are not versed in the Word. It is written that the primary way to do battle with the enemy is to remind him of what is written (Matthew 4). The dragon knows what is written. But he twists it and uses it to tempt us. If you don’t know what is written, though, you won’t have a clue as to how to disengage Satan’s maleficent entertainments or wrest yourself from his destructive interpretations of Scripture.
Jackson’s cinematic portrayal of Smaug, like so many others before it, put dragon lore on a level with the effervescent and transient nature of pop-culture, where such an entertaining entity can be easily dismissed as insignificantly trivial. No armor needed. No text to decipher. No patience. No contemplation. Just rapid scene changes with no fundamental time for contemplation. Smaug makes us think dragons are merely for our entertainment.
But to know a real dragon is to have read the right books. Again, here we are with words, not pictures. Not reading the right texts about dragons, as C.S. Lewis says was the problem for Eustace Scrub when he encounters a dragon’s lair in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, puts one in a precarious predicament.
“Most of us know what we should expect to find in a dragon’s lair but, as I said before, Eustace had read only the wrong books. They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons.”
Lewis might have perhaps encouraged us to read the old books about dragons rather than see a movie about them.
And the best old Book on dragon lore is Scripture. The Word of God. When you’re taken up to the top of a high mountain by the dragon of old and tempted with all the kingdoms of the world, what would you say? How would you even know you were being tempted? What other forms might a dragon take? Do dragons talk? Can they really fly? How do you talk to a dragon?
Well, Jesus was rather terse and to the point with the devil. So was the archangel Michael. Seems the best defense is a quick, verbal rebuke in the name of the Lord Jesus and a thoroughgoing grounding in the Word Himself. Don’t entangle yourself in any sort of lengthy dialogue with the enemy, neither taunt, accuse or ridicule, but rebuke steadfastly in the name of the Lord Jesus.
Resist the devil, not entertain him, and he will flee from you. And don’t believe for an instant that Mr. Jackson’s rendition of Smaug will adequately prepare you for an encounter with the great dragon of old, either. Smaug is entertaining. Satan is not.
Right above the constellation Draco, by the way, is the constellation Hercules, the “kneeler” as many of the mythologies suggest. The traditional star patterns and myths depict this heroic being crushing the head of Draco; yet another stunning reminder in the heavens of what the Lord Jesus has done and will continue to do for us who live and move and have our being in Him.
In closing, consider this “Christmas Ornament” nebula the Hubble Space Telescope captured last fall. NASA released this image this past December and called it a Christmas ornament. Technically it’s a vast, spiraling cloud of luminous gas and dust being thrown off in all directions from a dying star.
But take a closer look at it. A few weeks ago, I posted a short article where I suggested there was an “angel” in the center of the image.
You can see that here, although, given my overactive imagination, considering once more that the heavens declare the glory of God, I might go so far as to suggest in this nebula we have symbolic imagery of not just an angel, but of the Lord Jesus Christ sovereignly presiding over the great dragon of old, almost seemingly having the ancient serpent by the tail.
Consider another striking feature of this nebula though, running the length of the right hand side. Take a look at the two pictures here below. What do you see?
Am I going too far in suggesting this stunningly beautiful display of divine luminosity might just very well be Jesus and the devil?
I do not by any means wish to say so with any sort of certitude. I’m not at all saying that’s precisely what’s going on here. I can’t. I’m not making any predictions about the end of the world or claiming to have any secret wisdom or insight pertaining to the heavens or Scripture that has not already been revealed.
Jesus didn’t come to me in a dream and tell me that’s what this nebula means. But these two things “stuck out” so much I couldn’t help but at least be reminded of God’s discourse with the devil.
But if it weren’t for the text of Scripture, I would more than likely just seen a Christmas ornament, as did the NASA technicians.
My imagination and thought pertaining to
the enemy of our souls this Christmas is by no means intended give Satan any particular prominence or glory, but rather a Christmas reminder for us all not to rejoice that we have power over the enemy, but that our names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. Yes, a book. Old Text.
It’s an ancient Book, one written before the foundation of the world; one in which, I pray, my name is inscribed.
In that I must rejoice.
Jesus Christ is the Light. He is the Key. He is the Door.
In His storehouse of heavenly treasures, there will be no dragons, no burglars, no more death and no more crying.
Let us lay up for ourselves treasures in that realm and rejoice.
Immanuel has ransomed captive Israel from the clutches of the great dragon. Let Him rescue you, too.