Words: Andrea Zanin
Illustration: Fleur Beech

It prowls the highstreet and skulks in the Google search bar, realising its victim by the flutter of an anxious heart, the gasp of an asphyxiating chest, the glance of a covetous eye. Plato called it a vice, Ayn Rand a virtue; Oscar Wild thought of it as ‘passion’; Einstein said it rules the world; and by the ethics of ‘Trumpism’ (Sugarism too), ‘motivation’ is a more effective synonym. It is Greed.

The sagas branded it ‘dragon sickness’; a concept originally hinted at in the legend of Beowulf, who invoked himself as categorical hero by defeating man-eating monster Grendel and his maniacal mother on behalf of Danish King Hrothgar. Beowulf goes on to reign for 50 years as King of the Geats in Scandinavia before meeting his death at the tooth of a jealous dragon on a murderous quest for a stolen cup – but not before the hero has inflicted a deathly injury on his scaly assassin. One cup (out of a seriously massive hoard of treasure); that’s all it took to sign off on a fiery massacre. What kind of crazy-ass dragon gets killed over a single cup, especially when there’re about a billion more in reserve? It seems sort of irrational and highly embellished. Yup, that’s dragon sickness: a monster, benevolent and ravenous in its need to possess. And it sounds familiar, right? Like, when you bankrupt your credit card on clothes, cars, wine, dinners, holidays, gadgets, gizmos… stuff… because you just couldn’t help it.

Thorin Oakenshield couldn’t help it either. After leading a posse of seriously pissed off dwarves in a battle to reclaim both their treasure and their home from a dragon-fiend that managed to make a comfy bed out of an insanely huge (sharp and knobbly) heap of very lovely loot, Thorin Oakenshield succumbs to a ‘madness’ identified by Peter Jackson as dragon sickness – something JRR Tolkien insinuated rather than actualised in The Hobbit original. But in light of the writer’s love for Beowulf, which Tolkien not only translated but analysed, and the self-stated influence the text had on his writing, Jackson’s interpretation is not haphazard.

By overstating Tolkien’s original understatement, Jackson highlights the book’s initially astute comment on society’s greedy girth, the effects of which are played out by Thorin Oakenshield who, in The Battle of the Five Armies film, surmises in a final philosophical musing: “Farewell, Master Burglar. Go back to your books, your fireplace. Plant your trees, watch them grow. If more of us valued home above gold, it would be a merrier world.”

Lore and legend, fantasy too, help us deal with the flaws in our own nature by affording us the freedom to consider them within the safe boundaries of a fictional world

Of course, the great irony enveloping Peter Jackson’s three-year rant against materialism is not lost on viewers, who are significantly distracted by the heavy clinking of coins being raked in by Team Hobbit. But before we go hating on über-fan Jackson’s rather extended version of Tolkien’s trifling 300-page book (which got the same treatment as the hefty 1000-plus page the Lord of the Rings trilogy), the director’s impassioned paraphrase draws on an age-old literary tradition of exaggeration, which goes a long way to validating Jackson’s filmic gluttony.

If we take a second to think about the function of myths; as allegories that offer insight into general psychological, cultural or societal truths, then we realise that the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet responsible for ballsy Beowulf and his epic escapades was on to something big – man and his dark heart. Jackson, inspired by the grandiose myth of Middle Earth, has tapped into this style of storytelling. What better way to confront the human condition than to fictionalise its voracity? Lore and legend, fantasy too, help us deal with the flaws in our own highly fallible nature by affording us the freedom to consider our iniquity within the safe boundaries of a fictional world. And one could easily argue the case for Peter Jackson’s self-reflexive awareness; in The Battle of the Five Armies, Gandalf tells Bilbo that “Dragon sickness is a malady that affects us all.” None are exempt.

The interesting thing about this so-called malady, this greed, is that although the cursed gold spoken of in legend is quite literal in its symbolism (wealth is an attractive proposition for any human being) in Beowulf King Hrothgar warns the mighty hero not to give way to pride, which, as we know, usually comes before a fall. This caution invokes a more figurative metaphor; that the essence of man is easily corrupted by a hunger to satisfy the desires of his heart, motivation irrelevant. The danger is excess. In The Desolation of Smaug, the dragon warns Bilbo of the effects of greed, saying “Watch it destroy him. Watch it corrupt his heart and drive him mad.” And it does; Thorin Oakenshield involves himself in some serious coin counting at the expense of both honour and friendship, in spite of the righteous claim that was at the core of the dwarf’s ambition. Dragon sickness has the inclination to rot any well-intentioned heart to a state of severe discontentment. It is diabolical that way.

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