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, Draconian.com, Theoi Greek Mythology, Crystal Links.