Posts tagged ‘fairy tales’

Monday Masterclass: elves

This week I look at elves – their real-world origins in myths and folk tales, and how they’ve been portrayed in various works of fantasy.


The word ‘elf’ comes from the Old English ‘ælf‘, which ultimately probably comes from a Proto-Indo-European root of ‘albh-‘, meaning ‘white’ (also the root of the Latin ‘albus‘). The Germanic word ‘Alp‘, meaning ‘incubus’, is also related to it – it survives in German in the word ‘Alptraum‘ – ‘nightmare’.

The word ‘elf’ is present in various Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian names. ‘Alfred’ means ‘elf-counsel’; ‘Alvin’ means ‘elf-friend’ (and ‘Gandalf’ – the name of a dwarf in the Norse Edda – means ‘wand-elf’). The word ‘oaf’ is a variant of ‘elf’ and used to mean ‘a changeling’ or ‘a foolish child left by the fairies’.

Norse Elves

The elves of Norse mythology were similar to humans in appearance, except for being more beautiful. They were semi-divine beings, possessing supernatural powers. They come in three – or maybe two – or maybe just one type. There are ljósálfar – ‘light elves’, the ‘true’ elves; there are also references to dökkálfar (‘dark elves’) and svartálfar (‘black elves’). These latter may be the same; or one of them (or both) could be another name for dvergar – dwarves. It’s difficult to say for sure as there are few references to elves (of whatever kind) in surviving Norse poetry and prose.

The álfar lived in Álfheimr (‘elf-home’), while the dark elves lived underground or in mountain caves – or, alternatively, in Svartálfarheimr.

Elves were associated with health, fertility and ancestor-worship (and were similar, in this respect, to Roman household deities). Wikipedia has this quotation from Kormáks Saga:

Þorvarð healed but slowly; and when he could get on his feet he went to see Þorðís, and asked her what was best to help his healing.

“A hill there is,” answered she, “not far away from here, where elves have their haunt. Now get you the bull that Kormák killed, and redden the outer side of the hill with its blood, and make a feast for the elves with its flesh. Then thou wilt be healed.”

Folkloric Elves

From being creatures of great beauty, strength and lore in Norse myths, elves changed during the Middle Ages into mischievous, or downright malignant, creatures of diminutive stature (although there exceptions to this description). The mythos of Norse and Germanic elves combined with Celtic traditions, and also perhaps with the Christian demonisation of anything pagan, to produce a being that was a feature of much literature of the early modern period and into the Victorian era.

The story of the Erlking’s daughter (as set down by Johann Gottfried von Herder) concerns Sir Oluf riding to his wedding when he is distracted by elven music. The Erlking’s daughter tries to seduce him with gifts and gold, but he leaves – though not before she strikes him. The next day, before his wedding, Sir Oluf is found dead.

In ‘The Elf of the Rose’, a Hans Christian Anderson fairy story, the elf of the title, who lives in rose blossoms, witnesses a murder and informs the dead man’s lover of the fact while she sleeps. She finds his head and plants it in a pot with a sprig of Jasmine. Although she dies of grief, her brother – the murderer – is killed by the spirits the a jasmine flower.

It’s possible that the earliest depictions of elves with pointed ears date to the Victorian period.

Other Elves and Elf-like Beings

The word ‘ælf‘ was used in Anglo-Saxon translations of Greek and Roman myths to refer to nymphs. The Icelandic huldufólk (hidden people) could be seen as elves (or dwarves). German folklore has moss people and weisse frauen (‘white women’). In Irish folklore, the aos sí (or daoine sídhe or the sídhe) are similar to elves. Welsh folklore has the Tylwyth Teg.

In the folkloric tradition, elves, fairies, gnomes, pixies, hobgoblins and so on are all hard to distinguish from each other definitively; they are all portrayed more or less similarly as very small, michievous beings. The Christmas Elf derives from the elf of early modern folk tale – although it also has similarities with the dwarf of Norse mythology, which was a skilled craftsman.

Elves in Fantasy Fiction

The line between the fairy tales mentioned about and true fantasy literature is blurred, but it is certain that elves were protagonists and antagonists in genre stories from its earliest days. The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany is a tale of cross-cultural marriage and anguish; it dates from 1924. The Broken Sword (1954) by Poul Anderson is a Norse-style story that tells of Skafloc, a half-elf who is captured by elves.

Where Victorian literature portrayed elves as malicious or at least morally ambiguous beings, J R R Tolkien instead took the depiction of elves back to its Norse roots, making them beautiful, noble and partly divine in nature. Tolkien’s writing concerning elves (or Elves – Tolkien capitalises the word; other writers follow suit, but some write it all lower case) spans The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and beyond.

In the mythos of Middle Earth, the Elves awoke in the first age and were eventually discovered by the Valar, who invited them to travel to the Undying Lands. Many of the Elves accepted, but some got lost or otherwise detained on their journey west across Middle Earth. Those who remained were the Elves of the stories of Middle Earth. After the War of the Ring, many of these finally went to the Undying Lands. Those who didn’t apparently degenerated into the elves of folklore – ‘a rustic folk of dell and cave’, according to Galadriel’s prediction.

Tolkien’s elves are immortal (although they may be killed or die of grief), have ‘leaf-shaped’ ears, lack facial hair (apart from Círdan – which may have been a mistake), and have a number of superhuman powers: keen senses, enhanced strength, the ability to read minds and see the future, and the ability to make magical or enhanced items such as the lembas bread and cloaks given to the Hobbits in TLotR.

Elves have appeared in many post-Tolkien novels, in one form or another – many of them either resembling Tolkien’s Elves or deliberately contrasting with them. Terry Brooks’s The Sword of Shannara features Elves, along with along with Men, Dwarves, Gnomes and Trolls. The Elfquest comics by Wendy and Richard Pini have elves that are descended from shapeshifting humanoid aliens that have interbred with wolves (which makes them part of the science fiction genre, technically; arguably, one could even say that Vulcans are sf’s elves). In Tad Williams’s Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series, one group of the near-extinct, near-feral elves, or Sithi, seeks to revenge itself by destroying humankind. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series features elves that are decidedly less than benign: they steal children and use enchantment to fool people into thinking they are beautiful.

In both The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and its sequel, The Moon of Gomrath by Alan Garner on the one hand, and Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry on the other, elves – or similar beings – are referred to by their original Norse names of: lios alfar are benign creatures, while svart alfar are evil and more like the goblins of Tolkien’s works. The Malazan Book of the Fallen has three related races – the Tiste Liosan, Tiste Edur and Tiste Andii. They come from, respectively, the warrens of light, shadow and darkness – thus resembling the three kinds of elves mentioned in ancient Norse literature.


Although elves have become a cliché, they are a firm fixture in the wider fantasy genre. While fantasy authors these days don’t write about such beings per se, they are still provide the inspiration for many aloof, nature-loving, magical races. And in the worlds of gaming – be it tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons or computer real-time strategy games like Warcraft – elves are an essential part of the experience.

Elves are mysterious, often dangerous, but also steeped in sadness. Tolkien’s elves are wise and stoical, but they live so long and experience so much, that eventually they must retire from the world. The elves of folk tales that trick people and steal children are just as melancholy, yearning for things that will only bring them grief in the long run.

Whatever the future of elves within the genre, it will likely be a diverse one, with a range of portrayals from the traditional (and traditional within different traditions: Tolkienesque, fairy tale, Norse mythology) to the original. So far much of the reimagining of elves has been a reaction against Tolkien and towards a medieval model. I’m sure there’s great scope for doing something completely different with elves – the trick will be to retain their essential elvishness.

Sources: Wikipedia, Malazan Wiki, The True Elves of Europe, Timeless Myths, Ask Nicola,,, Fairy Tales Collection, Suite 101.

Monday Masterclass: fantasy sub-genres

This week I will outline the main sub-categories of fantasy. This is not as easy a task as it might appear as many sub-genres overlap, many are more properly sub-sub-genres and others a synonyms of other sub-genres; in further cases, the definition of a sub-genre might be difficult to pin down. The list below is presented in alphabetical order, each entry containing a description, important sub-categories within the sub-genre and examples of stories and authors.

Arthurian Fantasy

Technically, we could put Arthurian fantasy under the heading of historical fantasy, but it’s such an important sub-genre that I think it deserves its own listing. As you would expect, Arthurian fantasy deals with King Arthur and the Matter of Britain.

Arguably, any tale of Arthur and his knights could be classified as Arthurian fantasy – there is no consensus on whether he was a real king of Dark Age Britain, or even a real anything. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittaniae popularised Arthur’s legend back in the 12th century and contained many fantastical elements. Throughout the Middle Ages and into the early modern period and Victorian era, the story of King Arthur exercised a great hold on many literary figures from Thomas Mallory (author of Le Morte d’Arthur) to Alfred Lord Tennyson (who wrote Idylls of the King) and Mark Twain (who gave us the satire A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court).

In terms of contemporary fantasy there are such works as The Once and Future King by T H White, The Forest House by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle, Haydn Middleton’s Mordred series – and many others. Still other works of fantasy have Arthurian elements to them without being overt re-tellings of the Matter of Britain; these include The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay and Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood and its sequels.

Comic Fantasy

Comic fantasy is that with the primary goal of making the reading laugh. It combines all the elements of non-fantasy humour – slapstick, wordplay, irony, comedy of errors, surrealism etc – but also very often contains a large dose of satire: specifically satire of the fantasy genre, but also satire of real-world topics.

Comic fantasists often write long-running series of stories involving the same world or characters. They include T H White (The Once and Future King), L Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt (the Harold Shea stories), Piers Anthony (the Xanth books), Robert Asprin (the MythAdventures books), Terry Pratchett (the Discworld series) and Tom Holt (various books).

Contemporary Fantasy

While some sub-genres of fantasy are very specific, this one is very broad and may contain various sub-categories. Contemporary fantasy is any story set in the present day of something closely resembling our own reality – it’s not actually our own reality because of the presence of some aspect of the fantastic. Contemporary fantasy often overlaps with low fantasy, but the two are not quite the same – contemporary fantasy is tied to our own time and world, where low fantasy is not. Urban fantasy is perhaps the most popular sub-category of this sub-genre.

Contemporary fantasies include J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books, Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, Neverwhere and American Gods by Neil Gaiman.

Dark Fantasy

Dark fantasy is a sub-genre containing elements of fantasy and horror. Where characters in a typical fantasy novel might be inspired to awe and wonder by the magical beings and events they witness, dark fantasy protagonists are afflicted with terror. The term dark fantasy has been used as a synonym for horror, but with the proviso that the horror elements are supernatural in nature.

H P Lovecraft’s tales of the Cthulhu Mythos are dark fantasy, as are Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane stories, Michael Moorcock’s stories of the demonic sword-wielding Elric, Clive Barker’s Weaveworld, and many, many horror stories.

Epic Fantasy

Epic fantasy is what I think most people would think of as fantasy per se. An epic fantasy story is one set in a secondary world concerning an epochal conflict between good and evil and often involving a quest on the part of the main protagonist. Epic fantasy is high fantasy because magic is an acknowledged part of the mechanics of the secondary world (as opposed to low fantasy, where it’s largely secret); high fantasy is not epic fantasy, however, because epic fantasy refers to a type of story, where high fantasy refers to a type of world. Epic fantasy is also broad in scale, dealing with a number of protagonists in various locations, and usually requires a minimum of three volumes to relate the narrative.

Epic fantasies are among the most famous examples of fantasy literature and include The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien, The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen R Donaldson etc.

Fairy Tales

Fairy tales are usually short narratives that involve traditional magical beings such as witches and wizards, elves, trolls, goblins, fairies and so on. They are set in (or taken to be set in) the real world, although the specific location is often vague and unimportant. Some fairy tales have happy endings, some are rather darker; many involve a lesson about morality. Older fairy tales are traditional, but modern writers have either written fairy tales or used fairy tale elements in their fiction.

Madame d’Aulnoy wrote many fairy tales, as did Hans Christian Andersen (the Brothers Grimm, by contrast, collected them). Fairy tale fantasies include Phantastes by George MacDonald, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany and Stardust by Neil Gaiman. Re-tellings of fairy tales include The Bloody Chamber (various stories retold from a female point of view) by Angela Carter, Beastly (‘The Beauty and the Beast’) by Alex Flinn and The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents (‘The Pied Piper of Hamlyn’) by Terry Pratchett.

Heroic Fantasy

Heroic fantasy is very similar to swords and sorcery – but with less sorcery. It’s a difficult sub-genre to define and distinguish from other types of fantasy – after all, all stories have their heroes, one way or another. It is very similar to epic fantasy, in that it is often a story of the titanic struggle between good and evil – but with special emphasis on the personal struggles of a, usually, larger than life hero or band of heroes.

David Gemmell (the Drenai series) was a practitioner of heroic fantasy, as are writers such as James Barclay (The Chronicles of the Raven trilogy) and Joe Abercrombie (The First Law trilogy).

High Fantasy

High fantasy is another broad category that can encompass many other sub-genres. In a high fantasy story, magic is a widely known and widely present part of the world. The amount of magic shown in the story may be high or low, but it is not a secret nor a surprise that magic should exist; indeed, magic is essential to the world as it is known by its inhabitants. The ‘high’ in high fantasy does not refer to quality in the same way that high art is seen as better or more intellectual, more challenging than low art.

The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien is high fantasy, as are The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson and The Riddle-Master Trilogy by Patricia McKillip. J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series is a mixture of both high and low fantasy: in the world-within-a-world that is Hogwarts, magic is commonplace; beyond, in the world of the Muggles, wizardry is a secret.

Historical Fantasy

Again, another broad categorisation that contains many other sub-genres such as Arthurian fantasy, mythic fantasy, gaslamp fantasy (Victorian era fantasy; similar to steampunk but with less emphasis on science and technology), Celtic fantasy, Wuxia (Asian fantasy with an emphasis on martial arts), Medieval fantasy and prehistoric fantasy.

Examples include David Gemmell’s Lion of Macedon and Dark Prince, Katherine Kerr’s Deverry books, Jin Yong’s Condor Trilogy, Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Last Light of the Sun and Jean M Auel’s Earth’s Children series.

Low Fantasy

In a low fantasy story, magic is a part of the world, but it is either largely a secret, known only to a few individuals with special training or ancestry, or it is simply not an integral part of most people’s lives; in other words, a low fantasy setting is largely a mundane one, but with some magical elements. Low fantasies are often set in the real world, but they don’t have to be; if they are set in a secondary world, that world must be largely mundane, operating on non-magical principles. Low fantasy also tends to be more morally ambiguous than high fantasy. Again, ‘low’ is not an indication of the quality of the literature.

Low fantasies include most, maybe all dark fantasy and supernatural horror stories, a lot of children’s fiction with magical aspects, such as The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynn Reid Banks, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, and aspects of the Harry Potter books by J K Rowling.

Magic Realism

Magic realism, while it contains fantasy elements, is perhaps not properly thought of as a sub-genre of fantasy as it comes from a different tradition and has different aims. It is the most literary of the sub-categories listed here, and, as is often the case with the divide between literary fiction and genre fiction, its focus is more on the interior life and development of the protagonist, on the quality of language, and on political critique. Another difference is authorial reticence: in a fantasy novel, with that genre’s emphasis on world-building, all the magical aspects of the world will be explained to some degree or other; magic realism will often just let strange events, being etc stand on their own without explication.

Examples of magic realism include One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ by Jorge Luis Borges and The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie.

Science Fantasy

Science fantasy is yet another sub-genre that is hard to put an exact definition to. It essentially a mixture of science fiction and fantasy, but the way in which those two elements are combined. There may simply be high-technology and magic present side by side in the world; or the technology could be powered by magic; or the science fictional elements could be presented in a fantasy idiom, or vice versa. The similarity and potential interchangeability of science fiction and fantasy are highlighted by Arthur C Clark’s famous maxim, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’

There are a couple of related sub-genres that can be mentioned under this heading. Arcanepunk is a genre in which technology and magic are intimately interconnected, the latter often powering the former; this is a sub-genre often represented in roleplaying and computer games. Hard fantasy (which name is based upon hard science fiction) is a sub-genre in which the magical element of the world is treated in as realistic and rigorous a way as possible – as if it were a physical law alongside gravity and electromagnetism.

Examples of science fantasy include The Book of the New Sun (an example of the dying Earth sub-sub-genre) by Gene Wolfe, The Space Trilogy by C S Lewis, the Barsoom books (also characterised as sword and planet) of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Anne McCaffrey’s dragon-filled, science fictional Pern series.

Superhero Fiction

Another sub-genre that may not belong here, superhero stories are, in some ways, more part of the science fiction genre, but they also have a great deal of fantasy within them. Thor, Hellboy and Spawn are examples of the more fantastical superhero characters.

Sword and Sorcery

As noted above, sword and sorcery is very similar to heroic fantasy. In some ways, sword and sorcery is to fantasy what sci-fi is to science fiction – a somewhat debased, low-brow interpretation of the genre with the emphasis on action, adventure and excitement. Sword and sorcery is high fantasy. It differs from epic fantasy in that S&S stories have a much smaller scale narrative, focusing on the struggle of a single character or small group of characters against some relatively local foe (usually a sorcerer or magical beast); there is no global contest between good and evil; the heroes tend to be motivated by personal gain.

The archetypal sword and sorcery hero is Conan, created by Robert E Howard, but inspiration for the sub-genre goes back to such works as Homer’s Odyssey, Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott and the Arabian Nights. Other sword and sorcery tales include Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique and Hyperborean stories, C L Moore Jirel of Joiry stories and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories.

Urban Fantasy

Urban fantasy is a sub-category of contemporary fantasy that is specifically set in cities – although it could take place in the past, present or future. Vampires and similar folkloric beings are often protagonists or antagonists in urban fantasy; the heroes are often detectives of one kind or another. The urban fantasy genre often overlaps with that of paranormal romance.

Among the many urban fantasy titles are Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files and The City & the City by China Miéville.

Weird Fiction/the New Weird

The original weird fiction was that produced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by writers such as H P Lovecraft, Arthur Machen and M R James and is a mixture of fantasy, horror and science fiction. The term came about largely because those three genres hadn’t yet acquired those names let alone any fixity of definition. Early in this century, this blurring of genre lines has enjoyed a resurgence and writers have started describing their work as the New Weird. Sub-genres such as slipstream – that which combines or falls between sf and fantasy – and bizarro fiction – that which employs surrealism, satire and the grotesque – are closely related.

Weird stories include Books of Blood by Clive Barker, King Rat by China Miéville, City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer and Shatnerquake by Jeff Burk.


Like any genre worth its salt, fantasy is a broad church, as I hope the above list of definitions and examples illustrates. It’s also one that has undergone a lot of change. While the fantastic is, arguably the oldest of all literature (think of the Old Testament or the epic of Gilgamesh), it has only existed as an identifiable genre for maybe 150 years (going back to George MacDonald) – or 60 years as a marketing genre. In its recent history, the boundaries of fantasy have evolved from the amorphousness of weird fiction to the rigidity of high versus low fantasy to a new permeability with slipstream and the New Weird. The inclusion of magic realism and superheroes, of elements of horror, science fiction and even romance show that fantasy can be all things to all men (and women, of course).

What are your favourite sub-genres of fantasy? What sub-genres have I neglected to mention? Are genres and sub-genres even relevant to today’s authors and readers? Speak your brains by posting a comment below.

Monday Masterclass: Dragons

Dragons have come to be one of the most enduring and evocative tropes of fantasy fiction. In this post I will take a look at the history of the dragon and give some examples of how it’s been used in fantasy literature.

Definition and Etymology

Dragons are generally accepted to be large reptilian creatures, usually with four legs – although some may have none, two or more than four legs – wings (in European tradition) or no wings (in Asian tradition), long tails and necks. They are often portrayed as fire-breathing, but this is not a vital dragon characteristic. European dragons are usually represented as malign and destructive, while Asian ones are wise and benevolent.

Dragons may be thought of as either the classic western or eastern dragons from mythology, but the term can be used more broadly for creatures such as wyverns, worms (great legless, wingless serpents), hydras, leviathans, krakens and so on. In biology, the Komodo dragon, an Indonesian monitor lizard, is the largest lizard in the world and has a fearsome, toxic bite; Draco is the genus name of the flying lizard.

The origins of the dragon myth may be in creatures like the Komodo dragon. The spitting cobra has been cited as a possible inspiration. Another theory is that early discoveries of dinosaur fossils led people to believe in monstrous creatures and to create stories about them.

The English word ‘dragon’ comes, ultimately from the Greek drákōn, ‘dragon, large serpent, water snake’, which in turn is likely to derive from drakeîn, meaning ‘to see clearly’.

Dragons in Mythology

The earliest dragon story may be that of the Aboriginal Australian Rainbow Serpent, which may go as far back as 10,000 BCE. This creature lives in waterholes and controls the water. It can be seen as benevolent, unpredictable, or malevolent, and is intimately tied up in the environment, causing monsoons, droughts and volcanic eruptions.

Dragons of various sorts abound in Greek mythology, although in ancient Greece and in the West up until the 18th century, the word dragon was a synonym for serpent. The Colchian dragon guarded the Golden Fleece from Jason; the Hesperian dragon had a hundred heads and was defeated by Heracles, as was the Hydra, a nine-headed water dragon; the Ethiopian Cetus, or sea-dragon, was the beast slain by Perseus and from which he saved Andromeda; a chimera was a fire-breathing, three-headed, lion-goat hybrid with a serpent’s tail; a dracaena or she-dragon was a creature with the upper body of a beautiful nymph and the lower body of a serpent, the most famous example of which being the Scylla. In addition, the Greeks believed that distant lands such as Africa and India were inhabited by dragons, the African ones being thought to prey on elephants.

The tale of Perseus and Andromeda and the fire-breathing aspects of the chimera were the origins of the most famous dragon story: St George and the dragon. George was a Palestinian soldier who lived in the late third and early fourth centuries CE. It was during the crusades of the Middle Ages, though, that the story of him fighting a dragon evolved. One version of the legend is that near a Libyan city called Silene, a dragon lived in a pond. In order to appease the dragon, the people gave it two sheep every day, and when there weren’t enough sheep, they would have a lottery to choose a child to give the dragon instead. One day, the king’s daughter, Sabra, lost the lottery. On this day, Saint George happened by the lake and charged the dragon with his lance, seriously injuring it; he then used Sabra’s girdle to leash the dragon, whereupon it became tame. He took the princess and dragon back to Silene, where thousands converted to Christianity in exchange for George killing the dragon with his sword, Ascalon.

In counterpoint to their voracious, malignant occidental relatives, Chinese or eastern dragons are traditionally portrayed as wise and benevolent. They are also a little different in form, being longer, more serpentine, and lacking wings (although this doesn’t mean they can’t fly); they are often depicted with a pearl, which may represent the sun or the moon. The number nine is important to Chinese dragons: they have a number of scales that is a multiple of nine and the are said to have the characteristics of nine different animals: a camel’s head, a deer’s horns, a hare’s eyes, a bull’s ears, an iguana’s neck, a frog’s belly, a carp’s scales, a tiger’s paws and an eagle’s claws.

In China, a five-toed dragon was a symbol of the emperor, while three- and four-dragons were for the commoners; Korean dragons have four claws, while Japanese have three. One story tells of the four dragons, the Long Dragon, the Yellow Dragon, the Black Dragon and the Pearl Dragon, each of which lived in one of the four seas, defied the Jade Emperor, the ruler of heaven, by bringing water from the seas to a drought-parched land. When the Jade Emperor discovered this, he had the dragons imprisoned in four mountains, from which the dragons escaped by transforming themselves into rivers; hence, the Long River (aka Yangtze, the world’s third longest), the Yellow River, the Black River and the Pearl River.

India has the nāga, a type of cobra deity. England has the Lambton Worm. Wales has Y Ddraig Goch, the Red Dragon. Scandinavia has the greedy dwarf Fáfnir who turns into a dragon to guard his treasure – a major inspiration for Tolkien. Judaism has the Leviathan in the story of Job. Central/South America has the Quetzalcoatl. Egypt has Apep, the serpent that tried to swallow Ra’s solar barque every day. To go into the many dragon and dragon-like myths from around the world would be far beyond the scope of this essay, but there are some links below for interested readers.

It’s interesting to note that, while most people would probably associate dragons with the element of fire, in European tradition they are actually connected to earth by virtue of often living in underground lairs or caves; eastern dragons, are associated with water, living in seas and rivers and controlling the weather.

There is a common belief that medieval maps were annotated on their peripheries with ‘here be dragons’, representing unknown regions. However, this only appears on one historical map, the Hunt-Lenox Globe of the early 16th century, which has the Latin ‘HC SVNT DRACONES‘ (‘hic sunt dracones‘) on the east coast of Asia. Many maps were, though, decorated with sea monsters.

Dragons in Fantasy Literature

In addition to retellings of myths such as that of Saint George and the Dragon, dragons and similar beasts have cropped up in fantasy works for hundreds of years. There are dragons in Spenser’s The Faerie Queen and Geothe’s Doctor Faustus, as well as in fairy tales by d’Aulnoy and the Brothers Grimm, and Carroll’s poem ‘Jabberwocky’. The Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa wrote a story (‘Dragon: the Old Potter’s Tale’, 1919) in which a monk sets up a practical joke, advertising the coming ascension of a dragon into heaven; the joke then appears to come true.

One of the earliest original dragon stories of modern times is Kenneth Grahame’s 1898 children’s story ‘The Reluctant Dragon‘; possibly the first story in European tradition to portray the dragon as a sympathetic character. Other children’s authors wrote about dragons, including E Nesbit (‘The Last of the Dragons’ is about a dragon that drinks petrol and is transformed into an aeroplane) and C S Lewis (in The Pilgrim’s Regress and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader).

Then, of course, we come to J R R Tolkien and Smaug in The Hobbit, and Glaurung, Ancalagon and Scatha in the earlier history of Middle Earth. As noted above, Tolkien’s dragons are firmly in the European tradition, specifically inspired by Norse mythology. Smaug’s avarice resemble’s Fáfnir’s; Glaurung’s death, mortally wounded from below by Túrin as he hid in a river gorge, is also based on Fáfnir – Sigurd dug a pit to hide in and from which to strike the dragon from below.

Dating from the 1960s – about the time of the great surge of interest in The Lord of the Rings – Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea stories feature dragons that have both positive and negative qualities; rather than being malign, they are powerful creatures that are simply ambivalent towards humans. In Gordon R Dickson’s Dragon Knight series (from 1976 to 2001), the main character is translated into a fantasy and into the body of a dragon called Gorbash; the dragons of this world call humans ‘georges’ because of their experience with Saint George.

Since the 60s and 70s with the great rise in popularity of fantasy, there have been scores of novels involving dragons. Robin Hobb’s books have dragons that start out as sea serpents that cocoon themselves on land to hatch out as dragons; after dragons died out, humans carved statues of them out of living stone. In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, Swamp Dragons are the size of dogs and are bred like dogs or horses, although they tend to spontaneously explode. In Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, the hero is known as the Dragon Reborn, the reincarnation of an ancient hero called the Dragon; apart from the oriental-style representation on the Dragon Banner, there are no actual dragons in the books. Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind has a herbivorous dragon that is addicted to narcotic trees.

Laura and Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weisman’s Dragonlance universe contains evil chromatic dragons and good metallic dragons, as well as Draconians, reptilian humanoids created by corrupting a dragon’s egg. The details of the Dragonlance setting are closely linked to the various Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying games, in which there is a huge range of dragon types, each with specific qualities and abilities. Gem dragons, for instance, are neutral in alignment and include amethyst, crystal, emerald, sapphire and topaz dragons, whose breath weapons are, respectively, force, blinding light, wind, ‘panicking sound’ and dehydration.

Dragons, while being essentially magical creatures, have also become a mainstay of science fiction. Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, films like Reign of Fire and arguably anything with dinosaurs in it, Animal Planet’s fascinating fictional documentary The Last Dragon, are examples of dragons in sf.


From myths and fairy tales, to novels, movies and games, to toys and tattoos, dragons are one of the human race’s most pervasive and powerful images. They are a personification of the danger and majesty of nature. They are dangerous and beguiling; they make terrifying antagonists or thrilling vehicles for sheer escapism. Although their depiction in many fantasy settings may go little beyond the usual clichés, in the hands of imaginative of skilful and imaginative storytellers they are portrayed with authenticity and are constantly being reframed and reinvented.

Dragons are a key trope upon which fantasy writers can call, but the aspiring teller of a dragon tale should take care to consider all the possible ways of showing dragons. Good or evil – or neutral? Sentient and wise or bestial and naturalistic? Eastern-style or western-style? Lizard-like, worm-like, dinosaur-like? Even bird-like, or mammal-like, or something completely different? Magical or explicable by the laws of science? Rare or widespread? Misunderstood or exactly as they seem? And what about the ecosystem into which they fit? How much food does a dragon need to survive? How does it get it? What dangers do dragons face? What is their life cycle? Do they form monogamous pairs or do they have alpha males and harems? Do they live in groups? How do they interact with each other? Can they crossbreed with other races? Can their body parts be used for magic? How do they affect human economies?

What are your thoughts on dragons in fantasy? What are your favourite dragon stories? What are the most interesting interpretations of dragons you’ve read or seen? All comments welcome.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Dragon Stone,, Theoi Greek Mythology, Crystal Links.