Now that we know where Dragons came from one can see how the myths and legends they appear in influenced Fantasy literature. An influence which began, as ever, with the great J.R.R. Tolkien. Before I go on, if you, dear reader, have committed the criminal act of not having read The Hobbit then do so now because otherwise you will run into SPOILERS here.Now then, while who does Dragons best in Fantasy is an open and subjective question with no answer, Tolkien set the original standard with Smaug, the greatest fire-breathing Dragon of the Third Age who overran the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain and the humans of the adjacent realm of Dale, claiming the treasure of the mountain for himself. As one can see from the picture (drawn by Tolkien himself) and his bloody habits, Smaug the Golden is inspired off of European Dragons, yet is far an away smarter per his unforgettable conversation with Bilbo in which the brave Hobbit identifies himself with many riddling, yet not untrue, names.
"This of course is the way to talk to dragons, if you don't want to reveal your proper name which is wise, and don't want to infuriate them by a flat refusal which is also very wise. No dragon can resist the fascination of riddling talk and of wasting time to trying to understand it." - J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
the description of a classic Western Dragon, none of whom were known
conversationalists, with the single exception of Fafnir from the late
Norse versions of the tale of Sigurd. As said Tolkien, "Fafnir in the late Norse versions of the Sigurd-story is better; and Smaug and his conversation obviously is in debt there."
That being said, Fafnir cannot even be called the exception that proved
the rule of his race since he began his life as one of Dwarf-king
Hreidmar's three sons. I am sure Tolkien appreciated the irony of this
fact, and all the more so since I have little doubt that Fafnir's
behavior may have influenced Thorin's as well to a degree, but then,
Dwarves and European Dragons both suffer from a lust for gold that
Tolkien names the Dragon Sickness. Anyway, the point is that Fafnir was
not a natural-born Dragon and thus hardly counts as an example of an
intelligent Western Dragon. The quintessential member of that
unenlightened species would be the likewise treasure-hoarding one from
Beowulf, who Tolkien was far from fond of: "I find 'dragons' a
fascinating product of imagination. But I don't think the Beowulf one is
frightfully good. But the whole problem of the intrusion of the
'dragon' into northern imagination and its transformation there is one I
do not know enough about." Another irony there, that the man who
claimed little scholarly knowledge of Dragons ended up writing the first
Old Worm in a whole literary genre. Yet while Smaug the Chiefest and
Greatest of Calamities may have been based primarily in Fafnir, from a
strictly Dragon-lore perspective his intelligence is far more in keeping
with an Asian Dragon, though it is naturally soured by typical European
Dragon behavioral characteristics.
Meaning that J.R.R. Tolkien created in effect a whole knew type of
Dragon that, lust for gold notwithstanding, can be succinctly described
as a Dragon with a Western-style physical form and non-Divine nature
coupled with Eastern-style intelligence.
This Fantasy Dragon, as I will call it, began and remains the classic of the genre in books and games alike. Dungeons & Dragons came by its name honestly, and here are a list of books in which Dragons feature as important plot elements/characters:
The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini
The Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones
The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien
A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin (as much as I hate to use this as an example, GRRM's usage of Dragons cannot be ignored)
The Seraphina series by Rachel Hartman
The Annals of Drakis by Tracy Hickman
Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell
The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
The Cygnet Duology by Patricia A. McKillip
And then, of course there all those masterworks that I have somehow not read (yet), such as The Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey.
Indeed, Dragons possessing the Eastern Dragon ability to take human form is now almost commonplace, such as Haryman's The Seraphina series, Fire Emblem games, and D&D, and McKillip's The Cygnet Duology. Fire Emblem even takes it a step further by having many of the gods be Dragons. The left is Tiki, princess of the Divine Dragon tribe whose alternate form is a silver-white Dragon. She likes sleeping in, gets lonely easily, treasures her friends above all wealth, and spend most of her time in human form. In all honestly, Fire Emblem's Dragons are some of the finest, deepest, I have ever seen, flawlessly blending Asian-style high-mindedness with Western-style animalism. Such Dragons-in-human-form, saarantras as they are called in the Seraphina books, are absolutely fascinating in that they show their non-human qualities/mindset while in human form, having an outsider's observation and insights into the human condition. The overall point being that, when dealing in Dragons, Fantasy authors seldom simply pick whether follow a more Eastern or Western influence. I have often said that nobody, but nobody, does Dragons like Ursula K. Le Guin, because, in the Archipelago, a dragonlord it is not someone with a mastery of dragons but rather one whom the dragons will speak with, and Le Guin directly said that it took her a while to find her Dragons. Indeed, she stated that she drew influence from Smaug, Pern, and Eastern Dragons.
|Valyrian dragonlords. (Art by Magali Villeneuve)|
Why do I not mention Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time?
Simply put, because there are no Dragons. Rather, "Dragon" and "Dragon
Reborn" are titles for the champion of the Light against the Dark One.
Yes the Dragon Banner depicts an Asian Dragon and Jordan certainly
imbues the title with the critical cosmic importance consistent with
Eastern Dragons, but the Dragon and Dragon Reborn, Lews Therin Telamon
and Rand al'Thor, are human.
Do you understand that you must always fail, as long as your goal is not truth, but guidance? That as long as you seek dragons around you, you will never become the dragon within you? - Sarkhan Vol