Quite a few people have asked me the significance of my tattoo. I think it’s because it’s only a picture with no text to connect it to an idea. It is a drawing, sketched by Tolkien, when he was attempting to design the cover of The Hobbit for publication. The dragon is Smaug. For those of you who don’t know, Smaug is the terrifying monster whom Bilbo Baggins faces to steal the Arkenstone from the Lonely Mountain at the request of Thorin Oakenshield, King Under the Mountain. The dwarves, cast out long ago by Smaug due to their accumulation of wealth which attracted the dragon in the first place, are trying to regain their home under the Lonely Mountain. Throughout the whole story, Bilbo is smaller and less courageous than the thirteen dwarves he’s travelling with. Gandalf, the one who chose Bilbo to be the “burglar,” knows this. He knows that Bilbo is not an adventurer. Yet he sends him on this long, dangerous journey anyway.
He, Bilbo, is in his 50’s and, like any sensible hobbit, has never in his life had any sort of adventure. He is used to comfort and warmth and good food (Hobbits love good food, and eat six times per day: breakfast, second breakfast, elevensies, luncheon, afternoon tea, dinner, and supper). The journey is a shock to Bilbo, and there are many points when he thinks he may not make it back to his warm, comfortable hobbit-hole in Hobbiton. In fact, he never asked to go on this journey and was not told that it was happening until thirteen dwarves barge into his home and begin consuming all of his food. As Bilbo travels the long and perilous road to the Lonely Mountain, playing the part of the burglar who possesses the skills to steal the Arkenstone from Smaug, Thorin doubts him all the way.
But Bilbo, by continuing on the journey, displays more courage, cunning, and bravery than anyone thought he had in him, including himself. When he finally arrives at Smaug’s lair, deep within the Mountain, he sees this immense beast and is terrified. This is it. This is the final obstacle. This is what they’ve travelled months and months in order to defeat. And he is so vast that it seems impossible to Bilbo. But Bilbo manages to steal the Arkenstone, and Smaug, once he is roused to rage and decides to attack the small town that resides on the lake at the foot of the Mountain, is defeated by a dragon-hide-piercing bolt shot by Bard down in Laketown.
And all of this, to me, is held within my tattoo. This story exists on my back in the form of a serpentine, winged dragon with claws bared. It is a reminder that no dragon, no matter how fierce and large and terrifying, can live forever. It means that, like Bilbo, there is more to all of us, even the ones who are constantly overlooked, than meets the eye. It means that no matter how small you are, and how little courage you think you have, and how unlikely you are to be the hero, all it takes is doing it anyway. Take the step, or the leap, of faith. It’s a reminder that courage is not being fearless, but going forward despite your fears. The dragon will die, because good always triumphs over evil in the end. Tolkien himself, within his story, says, “So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their endings.” The storm passes, the waters will calm, the wind will stop, the thunder will roll away, and there will be a bright blue sky waiting behind them. You just have to keep going. The tattoo is also a symbol of one of the greatest story-tellers and story-creators of our time. And I’ve wanted to be like him since I first read his books, in middle school. That’s what it means. But when people ask, I just tell them it is a sketch that I liked, drawn by an author that I love, because it is. But it’s also a lot more. I just don’t know if I could convey that in one conversation.