In a recent article in The Guardian, John Garth has described hitherto unknown parallels between the death of Smaug in The Hobbit and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 poem The Song of Hiawatha.
Garth highlights the moment when Hiawatha confronts Megissogwon, a spirit of wealth covered in hard shell beads, but only has three arrows left:
Suddenly from the boughs above him
Sang the Mama, the woodpecker:
‘Aim your arrows, Hiawatha,
At the head of Megissogwon,
Strike the tuft of hair upon it,
At their roots the long black tresses;
There alone can he be wounded!’
The parallel with The Hobbit, when the Thrush informs Bard of the missing scale on Smaug’s breast, is clear. Hiawatha, like Bard, is thus able to kill this “symbol of material wealth”.
Garth also describes the linguistic parallels between Tolkien’s early works and Longfellow’s poem. The name “Wenonah” (Hiawatha’s mother), for instance, appears in Tolkien’s 1914 Story of Kullervo as “Wanōna”. Tolkien was certainly familiar with The Song of Hiawatha by then. In a 1914 he described the metre of the poem as being “pirated” from the Finnish poem the Kalevala (which is an interesting comment given how much Tolkien borrowed from the Kalevala in his Story of Kullervo).
For much more on Garth’s findings, have a look at his article in the latest issue of Tolkien Studies where he explores these connections in depth.
Daniel is an Officer without Portfolio and Trustee of The Tolkien Society. Elected in 2014, he is mainly responsible for the Society’s digital operations, including this website.