the depreciation of smaug: the anatomy and economy of dragons

I’ve been thinking the last couple of weeks about the second Hobbit installment, The Desolation of Smaug, which I saw in the theater with everyone else over Christmas break. I’m not so concerned with whether it was good or bad, but more about how it got me thinking on a certain paradox I can’t make sense of.

The paradox could be true of almost any fantasy or sci-fi fiction, but as it happens I’ve been mulling it over in relation to the eponymous dragon of the movie. It’s like this: Smaug, as your typical dragon in a work of fantasy, is clearly not bound to the laws of physics, biology, or even common sense. And yet I find — and I suspect many would agree — that I want to object that he is not, after all, “realistic.”

It’s an absurd objection, yet it seems intuitive. In our wizard-centric movie franchises and space-faring epic blockbusters, we suspend disbelief as a matter of course. Yet at some point, a line is drawn, and finally we do expect internal consistency and a resemblance to life as we know it here in reality. Each viewer might each set that line at a different place, but almost to a person we have that boundary somewhere, and when a movie crosses that threshold of unlikelihood and incoherence, we are vexed.

Why would that be, if the movie is already known and acknowledged to have violated the basics of science? I often think of fiction and film as a sophisticated way for us humans to play with hypotheticals. Be it domestic and familiar, or interstellar and fantastical, fiction makes us think about all the possibilities of the universe. (As I often do, I find myself here using the ideas of Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct and Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories.)

But if they become too unlike the universe as it has actually been given to us, and if those hypotheticals get far afield from reality, we’re going to be less interested in them and they will seem like less useful ideas to toy with.

I might give something a pass on “realism” if I think it’s emotionally or psychologically engaging, but if you’re arguing that The Hobbit makes good melodrama, then you are in the minority. Instead, it’s largely a movie whose appeal is the wonderful world it inhabits and the excitement of its adventure. The movie version works in something about Bilbo finding himself, but it seems pretty perfunctory to me and a sideshow to the glory of CGI ghoulies — beautifully rendered ghouls, to be sure, but that’s about where their significance ends.

So if the movie isn’t going to get a pass for being emotionally resonant, then I think it’s got to make its world seem a little less hocus-pocus. If it had some closer resemblance to real life, I believe, it might achieve the effect of being an intriguing hypothetical, a vision of a world that might have been if only for a few arbitrary differences. And it would have been more engaging. As is, however, it isn’t: As I watched Bilbo confront Smaug in the heart of the Lonely Mountain, I was only half-heartedly involved in the hobbit’s story, and mostly preoccupied by how “unrealistic” the dragon was.

Surely this tells you more about me than about the movie, but let’s make it about the movie for now. What I could not quite shake was the sense that this creature was completely divorced from the exigencies of evolution in our world. He’s so massive it seems impossible that he would have any natural predators, and then he also gets to have human-level intelligence. (In fact, the light British accent and the haughty tone make him seem a little smarter.) In short, from an evolutionary perspective, he’s highly unlikely.

ArchedCory1 treats this in detail at thorinoakenshield.net. He (or she) concludes,

Bottom line: an animal the size of Smaug could simply never fly, but then again he wouldn’t exist at all, couldn’t talk or breathe fire, so this problem could be neglected. After all he is a dragon — a fantasy creature — some things about him just have to be impossible and that is good. In exchange his other characteristics are incredibly well thought out!

Notice that use of “characteristics,” as though Smaug were an assemblage of traits. If I’m not going to get a dragon that seems like a compelling zoological hypothetical, then I’d at least like a dragon that has a meaning to the story. I’m not sure this dragon does either. Is he dangerous? Certainly. But I don’t think of him as scary, not in the terrifying sense, nor could I tell you why he’s important to Bilbo other than that he’s likely to turn the tiny fellow into a hobbit hot dog. In the end, Smaug is just an animated obstacle to a pile of gold, and that’s not saying very much.

***

About that: One of the aspects of the most disconcerting aspects of Smaug for me is his abiding love of gold. What, exactly, is he planning to do with his hoard? He’s not going to spend it, evidently. He can’t eat it, as far as I can tell. It’s an odd anthropomorphic touch on J.R.R. Tolkien’s part to make a dragon want hard currency.

While researching for this article, I discovered a trove of articles examining the economics of Middle Earth. One celebrated blog post seems to have gotten the ball rolling with zingers like, “One has to ask whether or not a more innovative monetary policy framework could have ameliorated the impacts of the dragon-induced economic downturn.”

In the comments section, a Basil H starts asking some solid questions about Smaug’s interest in the shiny stuff:

What did Smaug want with the gold? Did he plan to trade it for dragon food or other goods and services? Did he plan to leverage it to gain power or status? From what I understand from the movie (part I), Smaug just sat on it. So, was he just trying to disrupt the dwarvian economy? Are dragons mortal? If so, he’d probably never spend it. Did he just want it for the consumption value of owning it? Did he want it just to feel rich?

But enough about Smaug. An even better question is whether Thorin is aware what financial havoc he’s going to wreak with the mountain of gold if he ever gets his hands on it. Yes, it’s true: I’m suggesting that a mountain of gold is not an unalloyed Good Thing, and I seem to have the agreement of at least one blogger who notes the possible hyper-inflationary consequences if Thorin were to put this gold into circulation.

photo from Peat Bakke via cc

photo from Peat Bakke via cc

Now I return, on a dour note, to my point about a sense of reality being useful even in fantasy fictions. One advantage of hewing closer to reality is that by sticking to it, we sometimes get stories that overturn our sense of the world.

For example, The Hobbit movies treat Thorin’s quest for gold as sympathetic, and the logic behind this quest is never questioned. (I’m under no illusions that this is a surprise to anyone.) But back in the non-fictional world, a similar fascination with precious metals in pre-industrial economies had some horrible consequences. Niall Ferguson, in The Ascent of Money, recounts the hell conquistadors inflicted on native South Americans and Africans in their efforts to mine silver. Even putting aside the constant threat of death, the conditions are painful to think about:

The air down the mineshafts was (and remains) noxious and miners had to descend seven-hundred-foot shafts on the most primitive of steps, clambering back up after long hours of digging with sacks of ore tied to their backs. Rock falls killed and maimed hundreds.

And to what end? The permanent wealth of the empire? Well, not really. Back to Ferguson, explaining why the Spanish were not able to do much with all this new silver:

They dug up so much silver to pay for their wars of conquest that the metal itself dramatically declined in value. … There was in fact no reason other than historical happenstance that money was for so long equated in the Western mind with metal.

I found this more compelling than anything in The Desolation of Smaug. In the movie, we aren’t really asked to change our understanding of anything: Gold is good, dragons are bad. But real life is far more dramatic. I ask you, what is more moving — the fate of these dwarfs, who seem mostly driven by a sense of entitlement, and who seem well-off enough without this massive wealth they believe is their due — or the crushing reality of the conquistadors who worked natives to death in service to a delusional economic model?

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