Here Be Dragons

Daybreaker by Todd Lockwood
"A constant image [in myths] is that of the conflict of the eagle and the serpent. The serpent bound to the earth, the eagle in spiritual flight – isn't that conflict something we all experience? And then, when the two amalgamate, we get a wonderful dragon, a serpent with wings." - Joseph Campbell

Well of course. Did you not think that at some point I would dedicate a page to Dragons? Joseph Campbell, world-renowned scholar of comparative mythology and comparative religion, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, quite eloquently states above part of what Dragons so special in all our hearts, and I say ALL because Dragons belong not to a single literary genre or culture for the simple reason that they are EVERYWHERE. From the West to Far East, these majestic creatures soar over and through myths and legends, and from there glided into Fantasy literature where they are given life anew a thousand times a thousand times over, for if ANY creature personifies not only Fantasy but mythical/legendary creatures it is beyond all doubt the mighty Dragon. This page explores first where and how they appear in real-world mytho-historical accounts and then their role in Fantasy literature coupled with a description of all different types of Dragons. However, do not expect me to cover everything because that is, in a word and as we all know, is quite impossible - for the human who knows all there is to know of Dragons has stuck a knife in the heart of wonder.

"If the sky could dream, it would dream of dragons." - Ilona Andrews

Dragons in myths & legends

To start, Dragons are no more, and indeed arguably far less, universal in World Mythology than in Fantasy since beliefs regarding them vary greatly depending on the culture. However, since this is not a scholarly dissertation in purpose or length, I can for simplicity's sake safely divide Dragons into two 'species': European/Western and Asian/Eastern. (I apologize to every Asian reading this for lumping your cultures together, as I am well aware that distinct differences exist between, for example, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese Dragons, but this is a blog page, not a book, and Eastern Dragons share more similarities than differences.) 

Beginning with the former, since the High Middle Ages European Dragons have generally been depicted as winged, horned, four-legged, and capable of breathing fire. The image to the left is the oldest recognizable image of a Western Dragon as we today would recognize it and comes from medieval bestiary dating from approximately 1260 AD. Recall that tired old trope of Knights in Shining Armor rescuing Damsels-in-Distress from the evil Dragon, and liberating helpless villages paying tribute to the evil Dragon? That is a European Dragon. Indeed, the whole Dragon Slayer concept was born from and evolved around European Dragons, the common theme being that these Dragons were in effect predators who ranked above humans in the local food chain but could be taken out by bold knights. Predator being the key world, because these quaint medieval-style Dragons were not credited with the intelligence Fantasy literature and gaming grants them today. No one would call a tiger stupid, for instance, but neither are they capable of discussing current events with humans. Such were these original European Dragons. In sum, Western Dragons were portrayed as monsters to be tamed or overcome, usually by saints or culture heroes, as in the unaccountably popular legend of Saint George and the Dragon, and typically have ravenous appetites and to live in caves where they hoard treasure. Sound familiar? Aye, we owe the Dragon's Hoard concept to European Dragons, and with it the trope of the great hero slaying the Dragon both for the treasure and to protect their people from further attacks; the Norse epic Beowulf is a perfect example of this, as is the tale of Sigurd from the Nibelungenlied, the Völsunga saga, and the Poetic Edda.

Now for Asian Dragons which, I might add, are far more civilized than their Western counterparts and look quite different as well – typically being depicted as large, wingless, serpentine creatures with clawed feet. The image to the right shows two such imperial Dragons on the Nine-Dragon Wall in Beijing's Beihai Park. Note the word imperial, for in Imperial China, the Emperor near-always used the dragon as a symbol of his imperial strength and power, since in the East Dragons traditionally personified righteous, potent, power and were symbols of strength and good fortune. Meaning that that whole Dragon Slayer trope is generally absent in Asian lore since, to put in succinctly, Eastern Dragons did not look at humans and think of dinner. That said, they were higher on the metaphysical food-chain because, rather than mere creatures, Dragons were gods (or demigods depending). Shenlong, for example, is a spiritual Dragon from Chinese mythology who is the master of storms a bringer of rain, which makes him fairly typical as Asian Dragons were water-deities, rulers of seas and rivers as well as the makers of weather. The Dragon Kings of the Four Seas (the Sihai Longwang) were the masters of key bodies of water in Ancient China and were revered by those living near them. Note how the two imperial Dragons above are flying over a vast sea, while most depictions of European Dragons are of them coiled around towers (or princesses), in caves guarding treasure, or trying to toast a would-be Dragon Slayer with fire-breath. Not so with Asian Dragons who, in addition to not viewing humans as lunch, could not breath fire. Why would a water-deity breath fire, anyway? Furthermore and given their benevolent Divine status, Asian Dragons are far more intelligent and thus, again, infinity more civilized than their Western counterparts. Indeed, in Asian mythology they are often the key protagonists. One of my favorites is The Four Dragons myth, where the Long Dragon, Yellow Dragon, Black Dragon and Pearl Dragon save humanity from a crippling drought, ultimately sacrificing themselves to become the four great rivers of China. Which brings up the final key difference between Asian and European Dragons: Eastern Dragons could shape-shift, taking on various forms both human and animal. Tis no accident that various images of the Dragon Kings depict them as human.

“I do not care what comes after; I have seen the dragons on the wind of morning.” - Ursula Le Guin

Dragons in Fantasy

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

Hardly 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 

Dragonworld by Byron Preiss and Michael Reaves (I have never read a more criminally underrated book. Tis truly a forgotten masterwork of the highest order.)

The Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones 

The Hobbit and 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.

I will not pretend that Asian Dragons – more Divine, wingless, and born of water – have not been left out of the picture. They largely have, yet not as much as one might think. The three elements I just listed certainly have, but Fantasy Dragons have evolved since Smaug. They are still predators, to be sure, masters of wind and flame, but civility has definitely gained the edge over more beastly character traits. Saphira here, for example, is bonded to the human Eragon in Paolini's The Inheritance Cycle as Dragon and Rider. She is blunt, kind, proud, protective, gentle, vain, caring, and as good if not better a friend and lifemate anyone could ask for. She also brings up the fact that Fantasy featuring Dragon Riders are now not exactly uncommon, which again shows that, unlike with European Dragons and Smaug, Fantasy Dragons have adopted the more Asian trait of being less antagonistic towards humanity.

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)
Very rarely do Fantasy authors these days employ the animalistic, speechless European Dragon, the most notable and in my mind, poetic and not unsurprising exception being George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire where Dragons were made into weapons of war by humans, the dragonlords of Old Valyria being  brutal and shameless warlords and slavers who controlled Dragons with sorcery. Tis hardly a shock that GRRM corrupted even the mighty Dragon, since he tainted everything else. Sure one could rightly point out that Smaug the Golden was hardly a paragon of virtue, but it is safe to say, I am sure, that he would look upon Balerion the Black Dread with contempt for letting a human control him. And yes, I am well aware that GRRM is hardly the only Fantasy author to utilize Dragon Riders, but in all other examples that I am aware of, most notably and again Christopher Paolini's The Inheritance Cycle, Dragon and Rider are equal partners who regard each other with unconditional love transcending all familial bonds. Meaning that, while Saphira and Smaug would surely scoff at each other, both would doubtless look down upon GRRM's Dragons. The picture above says it well enough for, though I admit it is only a hatchling and that perhaps this is petty of me, I find the image of a Dragon sitting on human's shoulder like a parrot would a pirate captain offensive. (Though on the flip side I suppose it is appropriate seeing as the morality of the average Valyrian dragonlord was approximate to that of a corsair captain.) That said and in the interest of fairness, GRRM does have one truly masterful quote which I will give now: "Once a man has seen a dragon in flight, let him stay at home and tend his garden in content, someone had written once, for this wide world has no greater wonder."

Why do I not mention Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time? 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? - Ugin

Other species of Dragons

Almost finished, for now we at last reach other subspecies of Dragons, species most typically found in gaming.

Frost/Ice Dragon: One of my favorites, Frost Dragons are of ice where typical Fantasy and Europeans Dragons are of fire. Wreathed in and white as frost, Ice Dragons live in intensely cold regions and can arguably be called winged blizzards for they breathe ice instead of fire and are thus frigid to the touch. Interesting, I can actually point to works literature that utilizes the Frost Dragon: Harrowing of the Dragon of Hoarsbreath by Patricia A. McKillip, and Tad William's Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. Why are they my favorite? Purely personal taste, for I find them to be absolutely beautiful and coldly elegant. Fascinating too, since being of ice renders in many ways the opposite of the traditional image of the Dragon. I have loved them ever since I first read Dragonology: The Complete Book of Dragons in elementary school.

Forest/Swamp Dragon: One generally do not think of Dragons being at home in the wooded or wet areas, but what are human rules to a Dragon's tenacity? These Dragons vary, but are invariably more reptilian, resembling lizards and crocodiles more than aught else. With scales typically green or black, or dark green, for camouflage, or having a bark-like hide instead of scales, Swamp/Forest Dragons breath neither fire nor ice but, rather, poison that comes out as a toxic gas. One could say they are the evolutionary apex of a venomous snake. Some people classify Forest and Swamp Dragons as separate species altogether and, in a way, they are, but not there are not enough differences to warrant dividing them here.

Cosmic/Astral Dragon: These Dragons will really make you see stars, literally. Enigmatic as a rule, Astral Dragons are closely bound to the cosmos and glitter with the light of far off stars, their scales being all the colors of the night sky and the typical nebula – i.e. a ever-shifting shifting mix of blue, black, purple. Ineffable and invariably hyper-intelligent to the point where humans rank as near-universal simpletons, they are the stuff of myths, hazy legend, and are chiefly concerned with high matters beyond human knowledge or comprehension. What do they breathe? Usually starry light made corporeal that looks benign yet is no less and often far more deadly that regular dragonfire.

Dark/Chaos Dragon: These are the Dragons who may be summed up by one word: evil. They take many forms and I am sure some question why I chose to merge Dark and Chaos Dragons into one sub-species as, technically speaking, Dark Dragons are merely evil Dragons of any species that deal in dark magic whereas Chaos Dragons are in effect the opposite of Cosmic/Astral Dragons, crazed beings of pure chaotic energy. I blend them because each serve the same function in stories: the evil Dragon whom the heroes need to slay or cripple. Unlike other species of Dragon they view humans with active, typically genocidal, scorn and their power draws foul and power-hungry minds to serve them. What do they breathe? Depends, but a Chaos Dragon generally breathes dark 'fire' that takes more than mere water to quench.

Ghost/Spirit Dragon: As their name implies, these are Dragons who died and came back after a fashion for much the sames reasons human shades return; unable to accept death, unfinished business in the material world, or an emotion so powerful it cheats death. Generally rare as few Dragons have such issues and fewer necromancers are mad enough to try and raise one, Spirit/Ghost Dragons are either beyond reason and, much like a human ghost, more interested in haunting and punishing intruders than talking, or highly intelligent and thoughtful
– having learned something from death itself and/or whatever mistake or mishap killed them (okay, maybe mishap is too light a word seeing as Dragons very rarely die accidentally, but I am sure you get the point). I guess one could also technically include Bone/Zombie Dragons in this category, but I do not since they are no different from regular mindless undead things and last only as long as their rotting flesh and bones do. What do Ghost/Spirit Dragons breathe? Typically pale, ghostly fire of course. What did you expect, ectoplasm?


And that is just about it, though naturally there is much more. As I said in the beginning, if any creatures captures the majesty and mystery, glory and wonder, beauty and power of Fantasy literature it is the mighty Dragon. We all know what a Dragon is and instinctively react to the word, but there is so much more. I have seen Dragons that breathe lightening, light, and shadow. I have seen the above species blended, and have not even included Sea Dragons since I classify them as belonging more to the Sea Monster category. Nor have I mentioned wyrms, wyverns, metallic Dragons, Dragonborn, Dragonkin, or any other offshoot Dragon-like races found in Dungeons & Dragons, other games, and the rare book. What do you think I am, a Fantasy encyclopedia writer? If I tried to cover everything I would need a whole new website dedicated exclusively to Dragons. Ever heard of Dragon Ogres? They are from Warhammer and combine ogres with Dragons in the same way centaurs do humans and horses.

However, if you are interested in learning more then I highly recommend reading the aforementioned Dragonology book or, even better, the Fantasy series' I listed, for when one immerses oneself in the Fantastic then, eventually, one will become a master of Dragon-lore. Do I know everything there is to know about Dragons? Hardly, though I admit that it is the rare author (or game) who can come up with new twists that I am unfamiliar with. The point being that do not for a moment believe that reading this page makes one proficient in Dragon-lore for, as said Ursula K. Le Guin "it is one thing to read about dragons and another to meet them," which in this context means that the only way to truly know Dragons is to dive headlong into Fantasy, meeting them as unforgettable characters on the printed page and the gaming screen. For truly there is no sight more wondrous, more awesome in the old sense of the word (i.e. awe-inspiring), than a Dragon in flight.

"People who deny the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons. From within." - Ursula K. Le Guin

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