There he lay, a vast red-golden dragon, fast asleep; a thrumming came from his jaws and nostrils, and wisps of smoke, but his fires were low in slumber. Beneath him, under all his limbs and his huge coiled tail, and about him on all sides stretching away across the unseen floors, lay countless piles of precious things, gold wrought and un-wrought, gems and jewels, and silver red-stained in the ruddy light.
— J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
Smaug is probably the most famous dragon in fantasy fiction. With a starring role in The Hobbit, he’s been interpreted countless times by different artists, some off the cuff, others more faithful to the book. Let’s look at some of them.
Tolkien’s version of Smaug
Though J.R.R. Tolkien described himself as not much of an artist, this is actually a decent rendition that would not disgrace a children’s book today. Here Smaug looks appropriately smug and lazy, but his size is… well, underwhelming. There’s nothing here of the evil power and majesty of the creature from the book. Bilbo’s proportions (if that is Bilbo at the right foreground of the treasure pile) also look off; he’s more humanlike than hobbitlike. I get the feeling Smaug might swallow him whole, but it would be a struggle for him.
Smaug by Tim Kirk
As I wrote in this post, Kirk’s Smaug remains my favorite, even though his coloration is not true to the text. His eyes with their horizontal pupils — like a goat’s, that animal of Satan — are different, and hypnotizing in their alien aspect. The skeletons in the foreground add a gruesome touch and are indicative of his great size
Smaug by Ted Naismith
Along with Alan Greene and John Howe, Ted Naismith is one of the most prolific Tolkien illustrators. I have to say he has a better hand with landscapes and buildings than characters though — his Smaug looks too spindly and static to be much of a threat, even though, by his nasty expression, he thinks he is. I’m reminded more of Gollum hissing, “My Precious.”
Alan Lee’s Smaug
Alan Lee was instrumental in designing the delicate, pastoral look of Peter Jackson’s movies, yet like Naismith he misses the mark on Smaug, who is just too ethereal and pretty here to be a man-eater as he sleeps gently coiled and dreaming on his nest.
Smaug, by the Brothers Hildebrandt
From pretty Smaug we move to this massive creature by the Brothers Hildebrandt, which graced a Tolkien calendar in 1976. The color is right, the treasure, the size, the power… yet, he could be any dragon. There’s nothing here that says Smaug. He’s neither coiled nor sleeping on his treasure heap, and his expression is just… BLAARGH! MAKE FIRE! Plus, his butt is too huge to belong to Tolkien’s snakelike coiler.
Ian Miller’s Smaug
Ian Miller, who has also done other Tolkien illustrations, contributes an abstract, tissoplastic version. His technique recalls Victorian-age scientific illustrations like this. It’s interesting, yet doesn’t much recall Smaug either.
John Howe’s Smaug
Howe does a wonderful Smaug here. His color, size, expression, and sleeping habit make him the dangerous antagonist of the book. My only quibble is his head is too long and narrow for his body.
Smaug from an Italian edition of The Hobbit
Smaug gets extra goofy here (admittedly, so is Bilbo, at lower right.) His size is way too small considering the open treasure chest by his side. And why the lion paws?
Smaug by Katarzyna Kniecik
Kniecik gives us a wonderful version here inspired by movie Smaug yet not adhering 100% to it. Smaug is red-gold, large, greedy, and coiling on his pile — in fact he is dwarfing it — and his downturned jowl, pouched neck, and hooded eyes suggest malice and craftiness, and the ability to swallow things whole. Bilbo can only stand before him in awe, perhaps a little too closely. The watercolor technique recalls Alan Lee’s version.
Smaug from the 1977 Hobbit movie
Rankin/Bass made an animated television special of The Hobbit which was aired in 1977. It’s pretty fun, but not definitive. Smaug is a strange creature in this pic, with a wolflike face, furry back, and bloated red body, but the depiction was effective in motion combined with the voice acting, done with gravelly roughness by actor Richard Boone. When he utters, “And my breath… death!” he takes aim at a suit of armor and melts into slag. That’s the Smaug I love!
The Desolation of Smaug, by Mas Barlett
DeviantArt, a showcase site for fantasy artists, has many wonderful versions of Smaug that are as good as, or better than, the older ones from the 70s and 80s. This one by Mas Bartlett captures the dragon’s size, suspiciousness, and power. He is not exactly “red-golden” but his underside glows from the internal flames within.