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Ancalagon the Black: a case study

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“Dragon of the First Age” by rubendevela. Used with permission.

Ancalagon the Black was the greatest of the winged dragons of Morgoth, which were revealed during the War of Wrath at the end of the First Age. (Earlier dragons had been wingless and flightless, though the only one we know anything about is Glaurung.) Ancalagon is implied to have been very large, so large in fact that many question whether it could really have been the case. Trying to make sense of this question requires a deeper investigation into the nature of The Silmarillion and the reliability of its narrators and in-universe sources. But first, let’s focus on Ancalagon himself. Regardless of size, he remained known as a figure of distant legend even at the time of The Lord of the Rings, when Gandalf tells Frodo that:

‘Your small fire, of course, would not melt even ordinary gold. This Ring has already passed through it unscathed, and even unheated. But there is no smith’s forge in this Shire that could change it at all. Not even the anvils and furnaces of the Dwarves could do that. It has been said that dragon-fire could melt and consume the Rings of Power, but there is not now any dragon left on earth in which the old fire is hot enough nor was there ever any dragon, not even Ancalagon the Black, who could have harmed the One Ring, the Ruling Ring, for that was made by Sauron himself.’ (FOTR, I 2).

Unlike many other figures of the First Age who are mentioned in The Lord of the Rings we learn very little about Ancalagon in The Silmarillion. He appears only in the final chapter and is not even named until the moment he is killed by Eärendil:

Then, seeing that his hosts were overthrown and his power dispersed, Morgoth quailed, and he dared not to come forth himself. But he loosed upon his foes the last desperate assault that he had prepared, and out of the pits of Angband there issued the winged dragons, that had not before been seen; and so sudden and ruinous was the onset of that dreadful fleet that the host of the Valar was driven back, for the coming of the dragons was with great thunder, and lightning, and a tempest of fire.

But Eärendil came, shining with white flame, and about Vingilot were gathered all the great birds of heaven and Thorondor was their captain, and there was battle in the air all the day and through a dark night of doubt. Before the rising of the sun Eärendil slew Ancalagon the Black, the mightiest of the dragon-host, and cast him from the sky; and he fell upon the towers of Thangorodrim, and they were broken in his ruin. Then the sun rose, and the host of the Valar prevailed, and well-nigh all the dragons were destroyed; and all the pits of Morgoth were broken and unroofed, and the might of the Valar descended into the deeps of the earth…. (Of the Voyage of Eärendil and the War of Wrath)

The question of how large Ancalagon was arises from the statement that the towers of Thangorodrim … were broken in his ruin. The literal interpretation of this statement is that Ancalagon’s falling body destroyed Thangorodrim. However, Thangorodrim was not merely a tower, but three adjacent mountain peaks thrust forward from the Iron Mountains (TS, Of the Flight of the Noldor & Of the Return of the Noldor). Karen Wynn Fonstad in The Atlas of Middle-earth estimates the height of Thangorodrim as 35,000 feet based on a drawing of Tolkien’s; whether or not that drawing was meant to be to scale, the peaks are stated to be the highest in Middle-earth (for reference, Mount Everest clocks in at 29,029 feet).1 The size of a dragon capable of destroying such a massive landform would be ludicrous. For Ancalagon to emerge from the pits beneath Thangorodrim would require an opening possibly miles wide, and it’s unclear what weapon Eärendil could have used to deal a fatal blow. The idea of a super-massive Ancalagon is too far removed from physical plausibility, too straining of the reader’s credulity, to fit into the inner consistency of reality that Tolkien thought so important to achieve in fantasy (On Fairy-stories).

The more plausible reading, and the one that I think Tolkien likely intended, is that the breaking of Thangorodrim was not meant to be taken literally. Ancalagon was killed and may well have destroyed part of Morgoth’s fortress in his fall, but the actual destruction of the peaks was caused by the immense (probably demiurgic) forces that sunk Beleriand. This is in line with the mythic style that Tolkien employed in “The Silmarillion”, as John Garth describes:

Tolkien was a masterful mixer of the modern and the medieval. At certain points (particularly in many of the descriptions of landscapes traversed in The Lord of the Rings) he is using modern-day realism to create an air of verisimilitude. This is what allows so many of us to feel as if we are reading about something that really happened, or that we are making the journey ourselves. But at other points Tolkien uses profoundly figurative language – particularly when describing distant events in semi-legendary past. It’s quite right that Ancalagon’s fall should be told this way.

However, as Garth goes on to note, this has implications for the way in which we read “The Silmarillion” far beyond the question of Ancalagon. His example is the aforementioned size of Thangorodrim, which may not have been meant literally either, even if it was raised by Morgoth. Once we begin to question the plausibility of the mythology, though, it’s hard to know where to stop. Is the moon really a magical fruit being carried through the sky? Did vast forests really grow in Middle-earth while illuminated only by starlight? Tolkien himself grappled with these questions in the late 1950s, following the completion of the far more novelistic The Lord of the Rings. Regarding the cosmological idea that the world was initially flat, Tolkien wrote:

It is now clear to me that in any case the Mythology must actually be a ‘Mannish’ affair. (Men are really only interested in Men and in Men’s ideas and visions.) The High Eldar living and being tutored by demiurgic beings must have known, or at least their writers and loremasters must have known, the ‘truth’ (according to their measure of understanding). What we have in the Silmarillion etc. are traditions (especially personalized, and centred upon actors, such as Fëanor) handed on by Men in Númenor and later in Middle-earth (Arnor and Gondor); but already far back - from the first association of the Dúnedain and Elf-friends with the Eldar in Beleriand - blended and confused with their own Mannish myths and cosmic ideas. (HoMe X, Myths Transformed, Text I; emphasis in the original)

To change the mythology and cosmology of “The Silmarillion” into something more compatible with modern science would have involved rewriting a great many texts, and Tolkien did not attempt to do so. However, he did begin to make changes to his framing device for the work. Since its origins in The Book of Lost Tales, “The Silmarillion” had been presented as a primarily Elven work, translated by a human mariner, Eriol/Aelfwine, who traveled to Tol Eressëa. Christopher Tolkien notes in “Myths Transformed” that his father wrote in a preamble to the Annals of Aman that they had been written by Rúmil (an Elven loremaster) in the First Age but, crucially, that the surviving version had been written down in Númenor in the Second Age from those parts we learned and remembered (commentary to Text I). Around the same time (late 1950s), Tolkien wrote the latest version of the Akallabêth and still referred to Aelfwine as hearing and recording the tale. However, in The Line of Elros (probably written in the 1960s; found in Unfinished Tales), Tolkien refers to Elendil as the author of the Akallabêth, though this is not repeated elsewhere and Tolkien never revised the Akallabêth to reflect this notion, if he even continued to think it. (The names Aelfwine and Elendil have identical meanings in different languages, which was significant in some stories, so in the interest of clarity: the UT reference is to the father of Isildur and Anárion.)

We should certainly be very careful about applying ideas that Tolkien entertained but did not necessarily follow through on to the whole legendarium. However, Tolkien deliberately wrote “The Silmarillion” in a mythic style, with all the flourishes that entails (consider how many times someone or something is described as the tallest, or some feat as the greatest, etc.). While the Aelfwine framing device shows him writing and/or translating “The Silmarillion” based mainly on direct accounts from people who lived through it, the book tends to read more as a work of legend passed down through many hands and generations, becoming increasingly remote and inevitably somewhat confused. (For that matter, the Akallabêth doesn’t read like a first-hand account either.) Tolkien wrote this way in imitation of other modern recorders of myth such as Elias Lönnrot, who compiled the Finnish Kalevala from a multitude of folk tales and traditions. He may well have realized, during or after the time when he wrote the notes in “Myths Transformed”, that he didn’t have to rewrite his entire mythology, but that extending the work’s framing device to include a longer chain of internal transmission by mortals could explain the work’s idiosyncrasies without making it incompatible with its more modern, novelistic sequel.

There is some reason to believe this. In The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo gives Frodo three books of lore titled Translations from the Elvish, by B.B. (ROTK, VI 6). This is often assumed to be “The Silmarillion”, as is mentioned by Robert Foster in The Complete Guide to Middle-earth. Christopher Tolkien agreed with Foster that his father had probably decided on Bilbo as the conduit for “The Silmarillion”, but could not find a statement from his father about it. As a result, he removed references to Aelfwine from the published version, but did not replace them with the mentions of Bilbo; Christopher later regretted publishing The Silmarillion without reference to how it had been recorded (HoMe I, Foreword). The first edition of LOTR (1954-5) states that the Red Book included many annals, genealogies, and traditions of the realms of the South and the North [Gondor and Arnor], derived through Bilbo from the books of lore in Rivendell (and also through Frodo and Pippin from Aragorn) without making any reference to the First Age. It is only in the second edition (1965), that Bilbo’s books of lore are stated to be almost entirely concerned with the Elder Days and thus not used much by Frodo in his account of the War of the Ring (LOTR, Prologue). Tolkien made numerous mentions of Aelfwine in “The Later Silmarillion”, written mainly in the late 1950s and early 1960s, after the publication of The Lord of the Rings. However, Aelfwine is not mentioned in any of the (relatively few) texts written after the second edition of LOTR. While we can not say for certain if Tolkien decided to replace Aelfwine with Bilbo, I feel that the evidence is persuasive.

Some will reasonably question the significance of any framing device. Is it not enough to simply enjoy the story as it is, and if it includes hyperbole because Tolkien was writing in a mythic style, so be it? Certainly there is nothing wrong with reading and enjoying the books without worrying about the internal history of who wrote down the tales and how they were transmitted through the ages. Anyone attempting a close reading or analysis of The Silmarillion, however, would do well to keep Tolkien’s framing device in mind. One can not discuss the reliability of a narrator without knowing the identity of the narrator, and neither Aelfwine nor Bilbo were always reliable. Aelfwine, in his later appearances, meets Pengolodh of Gondolin and primarily works at translating his written and oral works, though he also reads annals and narratives by other loremasters such as Rúmil. These sources are not incompatible with the Bilbo transmission. Rúmil’s works were written before the Exile of the Noldor and Pengolodh did the majority of his work before the end of the First Age and did not depart from Middle-earth until well into the Second, so both authors’ works would have been preserved in the libraries of Lindon as well as those of Tol Eressëa. From Lindon they likely passed to other realms of the Eldar and the Dúnedain, including Rivendell. On the other hand, if one gives greater credence to Tolkien’s statement in “Myths Transformed” about human authorship of the mythology, then one can trace an intellectual lineage from the Eldar to the Númenóreans and then to the Third Age Dúnedain. The eldest son of Elros, Vardamir Nólimon, is noted as a loremaster who collected lore from both Elves (presumably visitors from Tol Eressëa) and Men (UT, The Line of Elros) and the later Númenóreans (particularly the Faithful) were at times in close contact with Lindon. The Realms in Exile would have preserved Númenórean lore and some of it likely ended up in the library of Rivendell, especially whatever may have been salvaged from the destruction of the North-kingdom. Bilbo is also stated to have made use of living Elven sources in Rivendell (LOTR, Prologue), so figures such as Elrond and Glorfindel are also worth consideration as possible sources, though based on their memories some 6000 years later.

All of the initial sources as well as the scholars who transcribed and translated them had their own biases and agendas within the context of the story. Tolkien described Pengolodh in particular detail: half-Noldo, half-Sinda, a survivor of both the Fall of Gondolin and the Third Kinslaying at the Havens of Sirion (HoMe XI, Quendi and Eldar).2 As such, the works ascribed to Pengolodh are ripe for allegations of bias against the Fëanorians due to his personal history and his connection to Turgon, who had a well-documented dislike for the House of Fëanor. Alex Lewis, in his essay “Historical Bias in the Making of The Silmarillion” (Proceedings of the J.R.R. Tolkien Centenary Conference, 1992, ed. Reynolds and GoodKnight), uses the Bilbo transmission as his starting point to document that differences in the positive and negative attitudes the text takes towards different characters are largely explicable by those characters’ connections to Elrond, in whose house Bilbo was working. This approach has been termed historiocanon by Dawn Walls-Thumma since it argues for deviating from the “canonical” texts of “The Silmarillion” where historiographic analysis suggests that the narrator was biased, poorly informed, or making claims that are physically impossible (as seems the case with Ancalagon). Making claims about what “really happened” behind a fictional story can be controversial, and such analysis involves making sometimes subjective judgment calls as much real life historiography does, but Tolkien provided us with all the tools to perform such an analysis. He even set an example in his treatment of the first edition of The Hobbit, which he did not reject as “non-canon” once he revised it, but rather gave an in-universe position as the version Bilbo wrote when he wished to hide the manner in which he acquired the Ring.

We can apply this type of analysis to the question of Ancalagon by examining the textual history of his story. It is likely that the first written account of the War of Wrath would have been set down by Pengolodh. A dragon the size of a mountain is hard to accept as straight historical fact, suggesting that either (1) Pengolodh wrote a deliberately non-realistic account, (2) Pengolodh was misinformed about the events of Eärendil’s battle with Ancalagon, or (3) a later scholar misunderstood or altered Pengolodh’s description. Since we have little to work with it’s impossible to give a definitive answer, but a case could be made for any of the three. However, Ancalagon comes across as particularly implausible even in a book full of supernatural entities, suggesting that perhaps the cause was not Pengolodh deliberately exaggerating. Furthermore, The Silmarillion tells us that:

Of the march of the host of the Valar to the north of Middle-earth little is said in any tale; for among them went none of those Elves who had dwelt and suffered in the Hither Lands, and who made the histories of those days that still are known; and tidings of these things they only learned long afterwards from their kinsfolk in Aman. (Of the Voyage of Eärendil)

Pengolodh could not have been a direct witness, but later in the same chapter the Edain are stated to have taken part in the fighting. At the end of the war, the surviving Eldar and the Edain both ended up in what was left of Beleriand (Lindon), from which many Elves departed for Tol Eressëa and many humans for Númenor. Pengolodh would have had to acquire accounts of the war here, in the first few decades of the Second Age before the settlement of Númenor. Perhaps he heard only exaggerated descriptions of the dragons and simply recorded what he had been told. However, while Pengolodh had been born in Beleriand, he knew Elves who had lived in Aman and met the Valar, so it is hard to imagine that he was easily overawed or would believe the most exaggerated accounts. In any event his written account would presumably have been of interest to Gil-galad, and copies were undoubtedly made eventually. From there, we can trace at least three possible paths the story took through various manuscripts and languages.

  1. Oral Edainic account → Pengolodh’s account in Tol Eressëa → Aelfwine’s translation into Old English → manuscript lost(?) → Tolkien’s translation into Modern English
  2. Oral Edainic account → Pengolodh’s written account in Lindon → copy of Pengolodh taken to Imladris → Bilbo’s translation into Westron → various copies of the Red Book → Tolkien’s translation into Modern English
  3. Oral Edainic account → Pengolodh’s written account in Lindon → copy of Pengolodh taken to Númenor → copy taken to Gondor → added to the Red Book by Findegil in the Fourth Age → merges with option #2

Every new (inevitably imperfect) copy of the manuscript made and every translation into a new language would create opportunities for changes to sneak in. Moreover, not every translation would be literal, but all would reflect the translator’s era and culture to some extent. As Tolkien knew well from his study of medieval literature, damage to manuscripts could introduce uncertainty, not every scribe necessarily understood what they were transcribing, and so on. The point is not to say for certain where the chain broke and an error was introduced into the account of Ancalagon, which is impossible to do with a fictional chain of events but often nearly as difficult in the real world with incomplete records. Rather, it remains worthwhile to keep such considerations in the back of ones mind whether one is thinking about what “really” happened in Middle-earth or trying to understand Tolkien’s intentions in his writing. He all but asks the reader to think about the sources in the passage quoted above, where he briefly brings the framing device front and center and talks about who wrote the histories and how they were working with imperfect knowledge. Even a limited understanding of the internal textual histories underpinning “The Silmarillion” helps lead to a richer and deeper understanding of the mythology.

As for the true size of Ancalagon, it is admittedly frustrating at times to have to answer “we just don’t know” to so many questions, but our incomplete knowledge is one of the things that Tolkien’s invented mythology has in common with real world mythologies, and it contributes to the sense of Middle-earth being in some way real. When you stop to think about it, it doesn’t make much sense for us to have perfectly clear and consistent records of a far distant mythic/historical era, fictional or otherwise . Of course, the door remains open for fanfiction authors to push beyond the misty edges of our understanding or the intractable contradictions between various texts. In this way too, Tolkien’s legendarium is very much like real world myths. But whether you write fanfic or not, engaging with and thinking critically about “The Silmarillion” can be a rewarding experience and one very much in the same spirit as which the book was written.

Note 1: meaning of the term towers of Thangorodrim

Since writing this essay, it has been suggested to me that the phrase towers of Thangorodrim refers not to the massive mountain peaks I discussed, but rather to watchtowers or other fortifications built on the slopes of Thangorodrim to guard the gates of Angband. If this were the case, then the account of Ancalagon’s fall could be taken literally without the dragon needing to be quite so massive. However, this would not be consistent with how the phrase towers of Thangorodrim is used elsewhere in The Silmarillion, where it clearly refers to the volcanic mountain peaks:

Morgoth … returned to Angband, and built it anew, and above its doors he reared the reeking towers of Thangorodrim (Of the Sindar)

[L]ooking out from the slopes of Ered Wethrin with his last sight [Fëanor] beheld far off the peaks of Thangorodrim, mightiest of the towers of Middle-earth (Of the Return of the Noldor)

[Morgoth] piled the thunderous towers of Thangorodrim, that were made of the ash and slag of his subterranean furnaces, and the vast refuse of his tunnellings (Of Beleriand and Its Realms)


Note 2: alternative account of Pengolodh

A friend of mine who is a Vinyar Tengwar subscriber brought to my attention an alternate biographical sketch of Pengolodh which I have reproduced below. For those who don’t know, Vinyar Tengwar and Parma Eldalamberon are the two scholarly journals of the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship, which publishes previously unseen Tolkien material that was left out of The History of Middle-earth. The passage below was written in 1968, whereas Quendi and Eldar (the source of the better-known biographical sketch of Pengolodh) was written in 1959-60. Neither was published by Tolkien and I don’t argue for treating either as definitive, but I think the alternate account is relevant not simply for completeness’ sake but also for some insight into Tolkien’s conception of his “conceit” late in life. The association of Pengolodh’s text with Elendil the Tall provides an intriguing parallel to the similar change (not followed through on) to the framing device of the Akallabêth.

§4 The following account is an abbreviation of a curious document, preserved in the archives of Gondor by strange chance (or by many such chances) from the Elder Days, but in a copy apparently made in Númenor not long before its downfall: probably by or at the orders of Elendil himself, when selecting such records as he could hope to store for the journey to Middle-earth. This one no doubt owed its selection and its copying, first to Elendil’s own love of the Eldarin tongues and of the works of the loremasters who wrote about their history; but also to the unusual contents of this disquisition in Quenya: Eldarinwe Leperi are Notessi: The Elvish Fingers and Numerals. It is attributed by the copyist, to Pengoloð (or Quendingoldo) of Gondolin (Authors Note 3), and he describes the Elvish play-names of the fingers as used by and taught to children.…

Authors Note 3: Reputed to be the greatest of the Lambeñgolmor (linguistic loremasters) before the end of the Elder Days, both by talent and opportunity, since he himself had known Quenya (Vanyarin and Noldorin) and Telerin and preserved in a memory remarkable even among the Eldar the works (especially on etymology) of the earlier loremasters (including Feanor); but also had as an Exile been able to learn Sindarin in its varieties, and Nandorin, and had some acquaintance with Khuzdûl in its archaic form as used in the habitations of the Dwarves in Ered Lindon (Editors Note 25).

Editors Note 25: An earlier and more detailed biographical sketch of Pengoloð appears in Quendi and Eldar (XI:396-97), which describes him as an Elf of mixed Sindarin and Ñoldorin ancestry, born in Nevrast who lived in Gondolin from its foundation, and who after the fall of Gondolin collected much material among the survivors of the wars at Sirion’s Mouth concerning languages and gesture-systems with which, owing to the isolation of Gondolin, he had not before had any direct acquaintance. He is said to have remained in Middle-earth well into the Second Age to further his studies, dwelling for a time among the Dwarves of Khazad-dûm, but he sailed to Eressëa when the shadow of Sauron fell upon Eriador.

The account of Pengoloð in ELN differs from this in some points. ELN states that Pengoloð was an Exile, meaning that he was born in Valinor instead of Nevrast and had no Sindarin blood. Also, in ELN Pengoloð is said to have learned something of Khuzdûl in its archaic form as used in the habitations of the Dwarves in Ered Lindon (i.e., in Nogrod and Belegost), whereas Quendi and Eldar states that Pengoloð gained his knowledge of Khuzdûl from the Dwarves of Khazad-dûm in the Second Age. (VT 48, Eldarin Hands, Fingers & Numerals and Related Writings - Part Two; Text II)