(I wrote this back in October, a little while after I wrote that thing about dragons. Let’s just say it turned into more than just a mild obsession.
In any case, I decided to write this highly educational article about dragons. This is part of some thought dumping that will hopefully get incorporated into a larger piece at some point in the near future, what is a blog for, if not to throw useless information at hapless readership?)
Let me educate you about dragons. First off, dragons are beautiful, majestic, fierce, entirely imaginary creatures. By which I mean I’m about to tell you all about these creatures that are completely made up1.
Although dragons are often associated with medieval times and are staples of any high fantasy world, dragons have featured in mythology for thousands of years. Like most myths and fantasy, the idea of dragons was probably spun out of something more mundane – early usage of “dragons” might have actually been referring to snakes. Etymologically speaking, “dragon” and its equivalent words in Latin and Greek were used to refer to large snakes up to the 18th century.
Many cultures have their own version of the dragon and its powers. Whether as dragons or snakes, they appeared in Greek and Roman mythology: the Colchian dragon guarded the Golden Fleece, the dragon Ladon protected the golden apples of Hesperides, the Ismenian dragon slain by Cadmus had his teeth sown into warrior men, and some consider the Lernaean hydra (killed by Heracles as his Second Labour) a dragon as well.
In slightly more concrete literary sources, we have the Iliad, in which Agamemnon is described with dragons on his armor, but those could just be snakes. In the Bible (Book of Revelations), Satan appears as a fierce red dragon.
European dragons were commonly depicted as evil or at least malevolent and adversarial, often guarding treasure. On the flip side, dragons have much more benevolent connotations in Chinese mythology, appearing as symbols of wisdom and auspicious power. Dragons have been long associated with heaven and imperial power; so much respect is garnered by dragons that a Nike advertisement of Lebron James slaying a dragon was quickly banned in China due to public outcry.
This brings up an important distinction: the European vs. the Asian dragon2. I like to think of European dragons as more lizard-like, with broader torsos and more musculature. They often have leathery, bat-like wings (although sometimes feathered, depending on interpretation), and generally hatch out of an egg. European dragons usually breathe fire, and are sometimes poisonous (as in Beowulf… I forgive you if you forgot, I blocked that seventh grade reading out of my memory, too).
In contrast, Asian dragons are more snake-like and rarely have wings. They are thought to have power over water and weather, and are generally portrayed as sleek, flowing creatures. Traditionally, Asian dragons were composed of features from nine different animals (making it more like a chimera counterpart), but at some point that kind of disappeared into the image of the Asian dragon we see today.
In both traditions, dragons are considered magical, can usually speak to humans, and sometimes adopt human form. Both European and Asian dragons have hundreds of scales, a variable number of legs (usually four), and often dorsal spines or fins. Asian dragons have a specific number of claws depending on whether it’s an imperial dragon or just a noble dragon. Sometimes dragons have multiple heads. I could continue listing physical characteristics, but let’s remember that any depiction of a dragon is an artist’s rendering, so who the hell knows what features a dragon “usually” has?
Which brings me to modern dragons. There is no such thing as the “modern dragon,” just a lot of fantasy writers and possibly low-budget TV and movie producers making it up as they go. That being said, there are a few highly influential dragon worlds that have spawned their own canonical dragon traditions:
- Lord of the Rings / The Hobbit (J.R.R. Tolkien): Tolkien portrays the traditional, adversarial European dragon who hoards treasure and is deeply magical. However, unlike traditional folklore and mythology, Tolkien’s dragons are highly intelligent. Depictions of dragons in literature are often consistent with this version of dragons, including the many fantasy worlds that were inspired by Tolkien.
- Dragonriders of Pern (Anne McCaffrey): McCaffrey was likely one of the first fantasy authors to portray a deep partnership between dragon and human. Seeking to subvert European dragon clichés (evil, treasure-hoarding, innately magical creatures), McCaffrey portrayed dragons in Pern as intelligent, fire-breathing partners, telepathically linked to their riders3.
- Dungeons & Dragons: I’m not even going to pretend like I know anything about D&D, but I’ll just say Wikipedia explains something about elements and colors. There’s also the DragonLance world, which involves dragons of various colors and moral alignments… I tried to read about it on Wikipedia and just couldn’t handle the information overload (which is saying something, because I absorbed almost everything else here from Wikipedia).
There are also a fair number of other writers that I’ve encountered who depict their own versions of dragons. The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini borrows heavily from Tolkien, but portrays a partnership with dragons closer to McCaffrey’s (with significant modifications)4. The Harry Potter series also has dragons, mentioning some breeds (i.e. Norbert the Norwegian Ridgeback) and creating a little bit of history of dragons in our world, but they largely resemble D&D dragons, or dumbed down Tolkien-esque dragons. Meanwhile, Lawrence Yep’s creatively titled Dragon series is rooted in Chinese mythology; the protagonist is a traditional Chinese dragon with deep links to the sea. I also rediscovered the Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede while browsing Wikipedia; in these books, dragons have princesses that they keep like highly productive pets5. Then of course there are dragons in Pokémon (Charmander) and Yu-Gi-Oh (Blue Eyes White Dragon!!!).
So that’s pretty much it. I of course am working on my own take on dragon lore, and I still have plenty to say about dragons and fantasy. But in the meantime, I’m going to keep being obsessed with them.
Fun and potentially TMI factoids about dragons:
- It’s believed that cartographers used to write “here be dragons” (hic sunt dracones in Latin) on blank areas of maps to indicate these regions were unexplored and potentially dangerous.
- Chinese dragons are often paired with a fenghuang, or Chinese phoenix. The phoenix is considered the female counterpart to the dragon.
- Chinese dragons have exactly 117 scales (81 of the yang essence, 36 of yin essence). Why anyone decided this was an important detail, I don’t really know.
- There’s a mild controversy surrounding Anne McCaffrey’s comments relating to dragon mating habits and dragonrider sexuality on Pern. If you’re curious as to how this even comes up, you can read about it on Wikipedia.
- I am not the first person to carve a dragon on a pumpkin.
1 Which also means all my “research” is from Wikipedia.
2 Important enough that they have their own independent Wikipedia pages.
3 Of the three worlds I’ve listed here, these are the only books I’ve actually read. (But not all of them, by any means… there are way too many of them.) Spoiler alert: although only apparent in later books in the series, Pernese dragons are actually genetically modified firelizards created to fight Thread, a distinction which explains why the novels are classified as scifi instead of fantasy.
4 Much to the chagrin of many in the online writing community, I have indeed read all four books in the Inheritance Cycle. Therefore, I could expand on how Paolini portrays dragons… but I won’t.
5 This is a horrific simplification. I really liked this series when I read it in middle school!