MIND MELD: Our Favorite Dragons in Fantasy
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
With the arrival of The Desolation of Smaug on movie screens, We asked this week’s panelists about the most iconic of fantasy creatures: Dragons.
This is what they said…
How could they not appeal to our tangled human tastes for the beautiful and the dangerous?
In all our art and lore going back thousands of years we see the sleek forms of large predators, the ones we fight and yet admire. Add in the element of imagination, and there is the flying, fire-spouting, death-dealing but wise dragon among other fanciful or mythical beasties.
In my own stories, the dragons have been gone for millennia, but dragon-shaped art, and space, remain to inspire stories and songs. Dragons are such powerful figures that they awe in absentia with nearly the intensity they might if present. (Well, if they blasted in, scattering people like barnyard chickens, nobody would have time for awe!)
My favorite dragon story? That’s easy: Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw, which riffs off of Anthony Trollope’s seemingly pastoral novel Framley Parsonage. The lovely ecclesiastical, English countryside masks seething ambitions and sharp actions; Walton’s novel, by reimagining that world with dragons, brilliantly highlights all those conflicts and drives that were apparently invisible to Trollope’s readers. Walton employs heraldic terms to illuminate the dragons’ movements, and changes up the Trollope story enough for plenty of surprises— while the echoes from his novel add polysemous levels to the reading experience of Tooth and Claw.
Jon Sprunk is the author of the Shadow Saga (Shadow’s Son, Shadow’s Lure, and Shadow’s Master) and a mentor at the Seton Hill University fiction writing program. His next epic fantasy series (which may or may not include dragons; he isn’t saying) begins in March 2014 with Blood and Iron.
I’m not ashamed to admit I’m always been fascinated by dragons. Of course, it all started with Smaug from The Hobbit, a wonderful children’s tale about a misfit band of dwarves (and one hobbit) who dare to challenge a mighty wyrm. Not only do I enjoy to read and write fantasy, I’ve been playing fantasy roleplaying games since I was a wee lad. Decades of Dungeons & Dragons only increased my appetite for dragons, albeit to find and slay them and take their treasure hoards.
Trivia: I even have a tattoo of the Chinese character for dragon. At least, I hope that’s what it says.
Despite this dracomania, I shy away from writing about dragons. Not exclusively. It’s just that dragons – like unicorns, elves, and hobbits – have become so intrinsic to the fantasy tapestry that’s it’s difficult to say anything new about them. That’s not to say I never tried. I wrote about St. George (the dragon-slayer) in a short story called “Sign of the Cross” that was published by a small press in 2004, but that story never revealed the beast. One of my trunk-novels also has a scene where the hero, a young warrior sentenced to Hell, rides a talking dragon to meet his new demon overlord. Although I haven’t tackled the dragon since those early days, I did include a fight with an oversized shadow serpent in my novel Shadow’s Son (Pyr Books, 2010).
I like dragons, though, because they symbolize power. Some are massive brutes who destroy everything around them, others are cunning, and some (especially Eastern dragons) can be wise and helpful. Yet they all operate from great personal power. Even miniature dragons, like fae dragons, pack a big punch for their size.
Some of my favorite dragons in fantasy (besides Old Smaug) are:
- Morkeleb the Black, from Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly. This is a beautiful story told from the perspective of a witch who is torn between family and freedom.
- Cyan Bloodbane, from The Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. These books are just pure fun with great characters. Cyan is a huge green dragon who prefers to fight with his mind, and he’s pure evil.
- Anomander Rake, from The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson. Erikson is, in my opinion, one of the most talented writers living today. Anomander is a demigod and also a shapeshifter, able to transform into an enormous black dragon. In either form, he’s a terrific character.
What do I mean by that? Well, I don’t usually care for dragons that speak. Or dragons that sit around offering counsel. Or dragons that benevolently rule this land or that. I like them best as monsters. Majestic, terrifying monsters. You see what I mean, right? In the same way Dracula hunted babies—he didn’t get into love triangles—dragons should set stuff on fire and scare the bejezus out of everybody.
Having said that, I admit of exceptions to my own pedantry. I’ll begin with Falcor the Luckdragon in The Neverending Story. But he’s almost not a dragon. He’s dragon-ish. Still, I love him. Then we’d have to add Robin Hobb’s work. She’s masterful with dragons. There are others, too. But rather than list them, maybe I’ll just make the point that unless you’re an exceptionally good writer, playing loose with dragons for fun and to “break the rules” won’t usually land well with me. And I’m not alone.
So, then, beyond the notable exceptions, how would I clue you in to my dragon sensibility? I’d point you to something like Reign of Fire. Not a great film. But there are some wicked dragons in that flick. There’s one shot of a dragon seen at a distance (kind of slow-motion) hovering over a city and burning it to cinders. I think that’s what a dragon can and would and should do. And it’s hellishly cool!
To your first question then about what makes Dragon’s appealing? Fire-breathing! Gigantism! Flight! Attitude! Need there be more?
I’ve not used dragons thus far in my own work. That said, you may find some stuff in the upcoming volumes of my Vault of Heaven series that interests you, if you’re a dragon person.
And I can’t let a dragon discussion slide by without mentioning a couple of other dragon-y thing:
- Bruce Lee
- The sweet brand on Kwai Chang Caine’s one forearm resulting from his Kung Fu rite of passage
- “Tears of the Dragon” by Bruce Dickinson
- X-files abductee Blaine Faulkner: “I didn’t spend all those years playing Dungeons & Dragons without learning a little something about courage.”
- “In the Dragon’s Den” by Symphony X
- Lyota “The Dragon” Machida—because I’m a UFC fan
- The dragon on the D&D Basic Box Set
- “Dragon Rider” by Two Steps from Hell
- The cool blocky dragons in the Atari 2600 video game Adventure
- “Chasing the Dragon” by Epica
- Dragonforce—you may know them for their Guitar Hero hit “Through the Fire and Flames”
- Skyrim. ‘Nuff said
- Slayer started as Dragonslayer
- “Rock the Dragon” the Dragon Ball Z intro
- Dragon’s Lair. I wasted so much money on this game as a kid
- “Dragon Attack” by Queen
Hell, I could go on forever. That’ll have to do for today, though.
Hic Sunt Dracones – I love the Hunt-Lennox Globe and its warning to adventurers. On that map, dragons aren’t the unknown, not exactly. They are a most assured danger that lies beyond the safety of hearth and port. But with that danger comes rewards, for, from antiquity, dragons guarded treasures, including both the Apples of the Hesperides and the Golden Fleece (The Argonautica). They appeal for that combination: danger and reward.
I think they are also appealing because of scale. (Pun intended.) Relative to us, their sheer size makes them terrifying and unfathomable. So when a Hero/ine beats or tames a Dragon, you know it’s something special. This ratio of scale extends to other qualities too: dragons are beautiful in ways we are not – their claws, their scales, their wings, their fire. They are wise or jealous or greedy beyond our capabilities. And yet? They seem to want to dip a toe in our world. They like our shiny things. Some of them want to talk with us, or snack on us. So part of the fascination with dragons is that these vast creatures, so different from our normal, safe lives, are potentially discoverable — somewhere, possibly over that next hill, around that next island, somewhere on that map.
How do I use dragons in my work? For now, dragons are a benchmark that I measure my own monsters against.
Which are my favorites?
- The red and the white dragons in Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave – Those two enormous beasts beneath the earth, thwarting Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon’s affairs. There are ripples of the red dragon in Geoffrey of Monmouth.
- Ancalagon the Black. Tolkien’s The Simarillion, referenced in The Lord of the Rings. I don’t *like* Ancalagon. But I do think him a fierce adversary. His name translates to “rushing jaws”. That’s about perfect for a terrifying dragon.
- Rocky, Diver, and Lazybones. Menolly’s fire lizards in Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall Series. I entered Pern through the Harper Hall series. Even once I met Ramoth, the fire lizards remained favorites.
- Temeraire. Naomi Novik’s dragons are powerful and multidimensional. Temeraire most of all.
- Seraphina. A teenaged half-dragon, living between worlds. She’s wonderful. Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina is one of my favorite reads from 2012. I am looking forward to the sequel.
- Eustace, in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – Because Eustace becomes a dragon AND remains himself. He is transformed by the experience.
- Melusine. Oh I like her so much because she’s such a liminal figure in myth. To some, she’s purely a mermaid, or a fairy, or a water-nymph. To others, like Sir Walter Scott, she’s a lady betrayed who transforms into a dragon and flies away.
- A-through-L – a wyvern, from Catherine M. Valente’s Fairyland series.
- The dragons of Earthsea – in part because LeGuin’s dragons are ‘worth speaking to,’ but there are always consequences.
- The dragons of Tooth & Claw – Jo Walton’s dragon family cannot escape the ‘axioms’ of a Victorian novel. And are all the more wondrous for it.
- And Toothless from How To Train Your Dragon.
What’s appealing to me about dragons is that they’re simultaneously utterly alien and superficially familiar. The fact that they’re reptilian gives us a touchstone to what they’re like, a sense of “been there, seen that.” And yet reptiles are hard to connect with. You can be near a snake or lizard, but if you’re neither food nor a threat, it doesn’t give the slightest hint of real interest in you. It’s got its own thing going on, and whatever that thing is, it feels entirely unfathomable.
I cannot recall if I’ve ever written a story with a dragon, though my current series of novels and stories would certainly have room for them–it has harpies and mermaids and various kinds of giant. If I did, that would be part of what I’d want to capture: that distance and difference, combined with the size and intelligence of an enormous winged lizard.
What makes dragons appealing? For me it’s their intellect. They’re these massive, bestial beings breathing fire and laying waste to entire villages, and yet they are scholars. Their incredibly long life spans give them an intriguing morality and lens through which they view events. They collect knowledge as well as everything shiny under the sun. Also? They’re so versatile. Dragons come in every color and have multiple options for magical ability. Some breathe fire, some fly. Some are more serpent like and swim in the sea. Some have horse-like features and frosty talents while still others shoot lightning and resemble cats. Dragons can be as varied as the creator wants them to be. This creature has a very lush, fertile mythology. One can take from past influences or strike out with their own ideas.
Seriously, dragons are cool.
I have yet to include a dragon in one of my own stories, but that’s not due to a lack of interest. If I do a dragon story, I want to do it justice…and quite frankly, there are too many ideas/options of HOW to play with my dragons that I quickly develop story ADD.
I’ve really loved Kerry Schafer’s dragons in her debut Between and can’t wait to see what else she does with them in Wakeworld. Another fascinating twist on dragons came in Jim Butcher’s Grave Peril. We are introduced to a very human-looking Ferrovax at a masquerade ball held by the area’s top dog vampire. This character is barely on screen–so to speak–yet he commands respect, awe and fear. And damn if I don’t want to see more of him. And, I have to admit, I’m a sucker for Toothless from How To Train Your Dragon. Freaking adorable, first off, and a spectacularly written character who says NOTHING.
I’m looking forward to seeing Smaug on the big screen. And voiced by Cumberbatch? Yeah. I’m in.
I’ve spent about an hour trying to come up with a succinct, wide-appeal answer to the question of what makes dragons appealing, but it’s just too much like asking why I loved dinosaurs when I was ten or why I will see any movie with giant robots: because they’re awesome.
I know what dragons have been used to represent in Western culture for ages: greed, primarily, and corruption. Power and violence. That makes them great bad guys, but so many of the compelling dragons in modern literature aren’t bad guys in the traditional sense. Dragons CAN be the great metaphorical corruption of power, but they can also be environmental stand-ins, they can be grand, royal figures, or representations of regeneration and survival. They are the ancient magic sleeping still, hiding under mountains and waiting to be rediscovered. Dragons are flexible and big enough (in every sense) to contain whatever we want them to: in short… they are just awesome.
In my own writing I’ve used dragons sparingly. In my short story “Date with a Dragon-Slayer” the dragon is merely the representation of external threat: the danger from outside the community. But my favorite depictions in fantasy are the massive, destructive Maur from Robin McKinley’s novel The Hero And The Crown, the insanely cool dragon-ships in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, and the unintelligent, carbon-eating dragons in the upcoming alternate history The Story Of Owen by E K Johnston.
Dragons always fall into three categories for me. You have your vicious princess-eating dragons who are nothing more than giant flying crocodiles of menace. Then you have the gentler dragons who live in harmony with humans, such as the dragons from Pern or Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon. They’re like scaly dogs; loyal and protective. The third category of dragon is my favorite, the kind I love to read about or see in movies. It’s the philosopher-dragon; highly intelligent creatures who have no desire to go light quaint towns on fire or gobble up knights. They’re wise, ancient and terrifyingly smart.
My first introduction to the philosopher-dragon was in an old 80s cartoon. For years I didn’t even think it existed and I imagined it until I was able to track it down on the internet. It’s called Flight of Dragons and it is 80s-tastic. It’s drawn with the same thin, swirly lines as The Last Unicorn. The film involves a 20th century scientist who is taken back to a fantastical medieval world and accidentally becomes a dragon. He learns all about what makes dragons tick; the way their lungs are honeycombed to make fire, the way they use magic to fly, down to their customs and philosophies. It cemented in my mind that dragons shouldn’t be portrayed as just mindless killing machines that need to be slain by an idiot in a suit of armor. They should be seen as wise and noble creatures. I wish more fantasy stories utilized this trope.
Honestly, I think much of the enduring appeal of dragons lies in two deep-seated human impulses: our wish to fly, and our fascination with fire. I know, I know, there are countless varieties of dragons in world myths and folklore, and not all of them fly or breathe fire – but when you look at the prevalence of dragons compared to other mythological creatures in modern western fantasy, I suspect those two reasons are a large part of dragons’ popularity. They often feature as either the ultimate badass opponent, or the ultimate ally. The latter, I think, is a particularly powerful trope to children, who often feel so powerless compared to the adults in their lives. What kid wouldn’t want a dragon as their protector and friend? Puff the Magic Dragon, Elliott in Pete’s Dragon, Falkor in The Neverending Story…children’s fantasy is full of dragons as allies.
I haven’t ever written any stories with dragons myself, but dragon tales certainly have had a deep influence on me as a fantasy reader. I remember one summer when I was seven years old, we stayed in a beach house that had a scattering of battered books left behind by previous tenants. The only “children’s book” in the bunch was a dog-eared copy of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonsong. I picked it up on a whim, and was soon utterly captivated by Menolly and her fire lizards. I read Dragonsong at least four times over before our vacation ended, and the moment I got home I ran to the library and read every other Pern book I could find. (And not just the Pern books – I hunted down and devoured pretty much everything McCaffrey had ever written.) From there, I continued my dragon kick with Jane Yolen’s Pit Dragon Chronicles, and Weis & Hickman’s Dragonlance series. (I know it’s fashionable these days to slag off the Dragonlance books as poorly written, but let me tell you, those books meant the world to me in my preteen years.) Later, I discovered Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane, and was captivated all over again by Hambly’s wonderful heroine Jenny Waynest, a fiercely intelligent witch who’s also a mother and a wife.
Amazing as it may seem after all these years of authors writing dragon fantasies, the trope is far from played out. One of the best YA novels I read last year was Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina, a clever, witty tale involving shapeshifting dragons and a female protagonist who’s strong without needing to be a Buffy-style badass. In the adult realm, I’ve certainly enjoyed many of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire novels – and it seems many other fantasy fans do as well, since Novik’s series has quite a large following. I’m sure future authors will come up with yet more twists on the trope – I look forward to reading them.
So, last week, while my son and I were baking a Mario Mega Mushroom cake for his Cub Scout Bake-Off, we were discussing what to call a series of space ships that we wanted to name after dragons.
(Isn’t that what you discuss when you bake with your Cub Scout?)
We decided that the great dreadnoughts would be called Leviathan. The speedy star jets would be called firedrakes. For the one man fighters, I suggested wyvern.
“That’s a two-egged dragon, right?” he asked.
After a few questions, I discovered that my son’s ideas of what various dragon-related terms mean—wyvern, wyrm, lung, etc—all came from the board game Dragonology. He had watched movies about dragons. We had read stories about dragons. He had studied encyclopedia about dragons, but the thing that had really sunk in for him had been this board game, where players travel around the world gathering information about dragons and capturing them.
This got me to thinking: where did my ideas of dragons come from? What books had helped shape my primary thoughts about what a dragon was?
After some meditation, I have concluded that the answer is: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin.
There were not nearly as many stories about dragons in my youth as we have today. Vikings named Hiccup were not yet training their toothless companions. Nor were there Dragonlance encyclopedias devoted to the habits and habitats of the Gold and Red. There was Smaug, of course, buried beneath his stolen dwarven gold, and other monstrous lizard creatures. And there were humorous dragons who appeared in kids books.
But nothing struck me as strongly as the strength and wisdom of the dragons in Le Guin’s trilogy.
What made Le Guin’s dragons stand out was the wisdom. Up until that point, Western dragons were creatures of violence and wrath. Monsters to be slain by St. George. Eastern dragons—river spirits instead of fire breathers—were beings of wisdom and contemplation.
In her Earthsea trilogy, LeGuin combined these two elements. Her dragons had the shape and temperament of Western Dragons, but the keen wisdom and insight of the Eastern tradition. This made them both frightening and admirable.
My brother and I loved them dearly!
We loved how dangerous they were to approach. We loved how they knew secrets of which no one else had any inkling. We loved how they dragged their scaly bellies along the rocks. (There was a line somewhere in the book about ‘dragging its scaly belly,’ which we always repeated as ‘dragon its scaly belly.’ This made us laugh every time.)
As a child, I went on to invent my own race of dragons, the Parlieon. They took much of their character from the deep impression that the dragons Sparrowhawk met on his journeys made in the minds of two impressionable children—my brother and myself. I always pictured the Parlieon as so old and vast that the peaks of a mountain range were but the ridges of their backs. Someday, I want to write the scene where my characters go to speak to one of these ancient beings. When it finally stirs, its eye will be as big as a lake.
My son won the Bake-Off. He will be going onto the District competition. When we get together to bake that cake, I should tell him about my Parlieon.
Maybe I can convince him to name a class of star jets after them.
Well, they’re the perfect combination of elegance and power, aren’t they? They can symbolize nearly anything; they’re a broad-shouldered sort of metaphor. They work as feral beasts, as cold and calculating intellects, as barely-glimpsed mysteries, as forces of nature… they have all the cachet of wizards and all the coolness of dinosaurs. My favorite current treatment of them in fiction would probably be Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane, which explores the mentality of the dragon as well as the physicality.
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