I'm a big Tolkien fan and have read LOTR and The Hobbit many times. However, there's one quote from The Hobbit that I've never fully understood, and that is the phrase, "Never laugh at live dragons". From the book, the passage reads:

[Bilbo] had been feeling rather pleased with the cleverness of his conversation with Smaug, but his mistake at the end shook him into better sense. “Never laugh at live dragons, Bilbo you fool!” he said to himself, and it became a favourite saying of his later, and passed into a proverb.

Given the context behind this scene (Bilbo getting cocky and snubbing Smaug, only to be nearly burned in the process), I'd interpreted the expression as meaning "don't get too cocky / overconfident, no matter how well you're doing, or it'll backfire on you" or something along those lines. But that's only my interpretation, and whenever I try googling the phrase there doesn't seem to be a consensus on what it means exactly.

So, Tolkien fans and non-fans alike, what are your thoughts on the meaning of this phrase?

  • 7
    It seems pretty clear to me that that is what Bilbo meant. The success of the conversation so far had made him forget that Smaug was a dangerous creature. Feb 28, 2019 at 8:39
  • 5
    Tolkein said that it became a proverb, but he meant that it became a proverb in Middle Earth, and possibly, only in Hobbit society. He wasn't suggesting that it became a proverb in English so you wouldn't find it by using an idiom search in the pesent day.
    – BoldBen
    Feb 28, 2019 at 9:30
  • 2
    You think it's a good idea to provoke a real dragon??
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 9, 2019 at 22:00

3 Answers 3


You normally laugh when you think you have defeated the dragon, in this case, you feel you have triumphed over it.
However, one doesn't know if the dragon is defeated until it's truly dead.

So it could mean: don't celebrate until the danger is truly gone.


I personally think it has a pretty literal and straight-forward meaning like,

'Do not laugh at a living monster.'

Maybe it simply says to -

Be cautious of real danger.


Maybe it means not to provoke those dangerous and easily provoked.

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