If there is one thing, one creature, one being that we can point to as the symbol of the fantasy genre, it has to be the dragon. They’re everywhere in fantasy literature. The Hobbit, of course, is an old fantasy story that has come back into vogue in the last few years. More recent books involve dragons as major characters (Steven Erikson’s Malazan series) or as plot points (Daniel Abraham’s appropriately-titled The Dragon’s Path). Movies go through cycles, and dragons are sometimes the “in” subject (the movies based on The Hobbit, but also less recent films like Reign of Fire). Television likes dragons, too, when it has the budget to do them (Game of Thrones, of course). And we can also find these magnificent creatures represented in video games (Drakengard, Skyrim), tabletop RPGs (Dungeons & Dragons—it’s even in the name!), and music (DragonForce).
So what makes dragons so…interesting? It’s not a recent phenomenon; dragon legends go back centuries. They feature in Arthurian legend, Chinese mythology, and Greek epics. They’re everywhere, all throughout history. Something about them fires the imagination, so what is it?
The birth of the dragon
Every ancient culture, it seems, has a mythology involving giant beasts of a kind unknown to modern science. We think of the Greek myths of the Hydra, of course, but it’s only one of many. Even in the Bible, monsters are found: the leviathan and behemoth found in the book of Job, for example. But something like a dragon seems to be found in almost every mythos.
How did this happen? For things like this, there are usually a few possible explanations. One, it could be a borrowing, something that arose in one culture, then spread to its neighbors. That seems plausible, except that New World peoples also have dragon-like supernatural beings, and they had them before Columbus. Another possibility is that the first idea of the dragon was invented in the deep past, before humanity spread to every corner of the globe. But that’s a bit far-fetched. You’d then have to explain how something like that stuck around for 30,000 or so years with so little change, using only art and oral transmission for most of that time.
The third option is, in my opinion, the most reasonable: the idea of dragons arose in a few different places independently, in something like convergent evolution. Each “region” would have its own dragon mythology, where the concept of “dragon” is about the same, while different regions might have wildly different ideas of what they should be.
I would also say that the same should be true for other fantastical creatures—giants, for instance—that pop up around the world. And, in my mind, there’s a perfectly good reason why these same tropes appear everywhere: fossils. We know that there used to be huge animals roaming the earth. Dinosaurs could be enormous, and you could imagine a Bronze Age hunter stumbling upon the fossilized bones of one of them and jumping to conclusions.
Even in recent geological time, it was only the Ice Age that wiped out the mammoths and so many other “megafauna”. (Today’s environmental movement tends to want to blame humans for everything bad, including this, but the evidence can be twisted just about any way you like.) In these cases, we can see the possibility that early human bands did meet these true giants, and they would have told stories about them. In time, those stories, as such stories tend to do, could have become legendary. For dragons, this one doesn’t matter too much, but it’s a point in favor of the idea that ancient peoples saw giant creatures—or their remains—and mythologized them into dragons and giants and everything else.
The nature of the beast
Moving far forward in time, we can see that the modern era’s literature has taken the time-honored myth of the dragon and given it new direction. At some point in the last few decades, authors seem to have decided that dragons must make sense. Sure, that’s completely silly from a mythological point of view, but that’s how it is.
Even in older stories, though, dragons had a purpose. That purpose was different for different stories, as it is today. For many of them, the dragon is a nemesis, an enemy. Sometimes, it’s essentially a force of nature, if not a god in its own right. In a few, dragons are good guys, protectors. Christian cultures in medieval times liked to use the slaying dragon as a symbol for the defeat of paganism. But it’s only relatively recently that the idea of dragons as “people” has become popular. Nowadays, we can find fiction where dragons are represented as magicians, sages, and oracles. A few settings even turn them into another sapient race, with their own civilization, culture, religion, and so on.
The form of dragons also depends a lot on the which mythos we’re talking about. The modern perception of a dragon as a winged, bipedal serpent who breathes fire and hoards gold (in other words, more like the wyvern) is just one possibility. Plenty of cultures have wingless dragons, and most of the “true” dragons have no legs; they’re more like giant snakes. Still, there’s an awful lot of variation, and there’s no single, definitive version of a dragon.
Your own dragon
Dragons in a work of fiction, whether novel or film or game, need to be there for a reason, if you want a coherent story. You don’t have to work out a whole ecological treatise on them, showing their diets, sleep patterns, and reproductive habits—Tolkien’s dragons, for example, were supernatural creations, so they didn’t have to make scientific sense—but you should know why a dragon appears.
If there’s only one of them, there’s probably a reason why. Maybe it’s a demon, or a creation of the gods, or an avatar of chaos. Maybe it’s the sole survivor of its kind, frozen in time for millennia (that’s a big spoiler, but I’m not going to tell you for what). Whatever you come up with, you should be able to justify it with something more than “because it’s there”. The more dragons you have, the more this problem can grow. In the extreme, if they’re everywhere, why aren’t they running things?
More than their reason for existing in the first place, you need to think about their story role. Are they enemies? Are they good or evil? Can they talk? What are they like? Smaug was greedy and haughty, for instance, and it’s a conceit of D&D that dragons are complex beings that are completely misunderstood by us lesser mortals simply because we can’t understand their true motives.
Are there different kinds of dragons? Again we can look at D&D, which has a bewildering assortment even before we include wyverns, lesser drakes, and the like. Of course, a game will need a different notion of role than a novel, and gamers like variation in their enemies, but only the most jaded player would think of a dragon as anything less than a major boss character.
Another thing that’s popular is the idea that dragons can change their form to look human. This might be derived from RPGs, or they might have taken it from an earlier source. However it worked out, a lot of people like the idea of a shapeshifting dragon. (Half the characters in the aforementioned Malazan series seem to be like this, and that’s not the only example in fantasy.) Shapechanging, of course, is an important part of a lot of fantasy, and I might do a post on it later on. It is another interesting possibility, though, if you can get it right.
In a very big way, dragons-as-people is a similar problem as other fantasy races, as well as sci-fi aliens. The challenge here is to make something that feels different, something that isn’t quite human, while still making it believable for the story at hand. If dragons live for 500 years, for example, they will have a different outlook on life and history than we would. If they lay eggs—and who doesn’t like dragon eggs?—they won’t understand the pain and danger of live childbirth, among other things. The ways in which a dragon isn’t like a human are breeding grounds for conflict, both internal and external. All you have to do is follow the notion towards its logical conclusion. You know, just like everything else.
In conclusion, I’d like to say that I do like dragons, when they’re done right. They can be these imposing, alien presences beyond reason or understanding, and that is something I find interesting. But in the wrong hands, they turn into little more than pets or mounts, giant versions of dogs and horses that happen to have scales. Dragons don’t need to be noble or evil, but they should have an impact when you meet one. I mean, you’d feel amazed if you met one in real life, wouldn’t you?