Dragons: An Introduction
Dragons: Why do they permeate fantasy fiction, and moreover, what are they supposed to be? Despite the varied literature in which they appear, the appearance of a dragon—with a little room for the writer’s own aesthetic—has not changed. Even the noble vampire has a wealth of different faces, as does the cunning werewolf; yet not the dragon.
The fact that dragons appear the same in each of their casting roles could imply to someone not of our world that these giant lizards are as such in our stories, because that’s truly what they looked like. Of course, this can’t be true. Taking the realists’ view here: dragons don’t exist. In fact, it begs the same mystery as to why across the globe, at various archaeological sites, murals of different skinned men have been plastered across the walls of caves and temples, dating back to times when inter-cultural mingling between the world’s people was impossible.
But whatever the reason, the mighty dragon is as s/he does. It’s no great wonder that, dating back to years that have only three numbers, and featuring throughout world mythology, the dragon finds itself as a stock fantastic beast in our fantasy literature. From the biblical leviathan, the unnamed dragon in Beowulf, and Sir Gawain’s “worms”, to The Hobbit’s Smaug, and Harry Potter’s Hungarian Horntail adversary, it’s clear dragons aren’t about to be replaced soon. On the contrary, they’ve always been here. Never as much as now.
Initially the beasties were antagonists, laying in wait to merely do away with our heroes with the idle swipe of a wing, or deft claw. Then, likely wakening to the idea of wise and benevolent dragons, as in Chinese mythology, the great wyrms became advisors, symbols of great wisdom. Though still feared—or more, respected now?—even these dragons never took centre stage. They remained monstrous figures, dominating only the background and subplots.
Before we talk about dragons in an immediate sense in fantasy fiction, let’s consider the question again: What are they supposed to be?
Etymologically speaking, dating back to the classics, the words for ‘dragon’ and ‘serpent’ (or ‘snake’) were synonymous at times. So are dragons a fantastic evolution of the humble serpent? Depending on their depiction, their likeness to the slithering fiends alters, although elements of their reception and supposed personalities remain throughout. Fork-tongued, devious and vicious; snakes and dragons could be brethren. Although when offered the most common image of a dragon—appearing even on the Welsh flag—proffering armoured scales, monstrous, agile wings, and great heads housing greater teeth, they appear as little more than second or third cousins to whatever serpent they might be compared with.
So let us agree that dragons are large lizards, bewinged and bescaled. They may or may not breathe fire—or ice, or electricity, if you like!—but it’s more fun if they do. Let us then decide that they have differing personalities, goals and ambitions, and that their main occupation isn’t always to sit idly upon hoards of glittering gold, merely awaiting plucky interlopers. Those dragons are boring.
Not only boring, but so outdated that the notion belongs in a museum next to a skeleton of a ferocious tyrannosaurus, where the two ancient things might yawn away the hours, covered slowly by a layer of time and dust.
The dragons in fantasy right now are far more interesting. Take Stephen Deas’ The Memory of Flames beasts—now they’re fun. When they’re at their best, they’ll smash you to bits, tear your arms off and gobble you up, as soon as look at you. I said “interesting”, not “nice”.
The Memory of Flames series is all about its dragons. It highly regards its political struggle, too, and gives much thought to the machinations of each and every character. But really, it’s about dragons.
Furthermore, these gargantuan beasties aren’t as thick as the trunk of an oak tree—oh no!—that would be too easy, too safe. If you can outsmart it, you can overcome it, right? Humans like to believe that. Deas’ dragons are intelligent, quick and you’ll quickly learn that when they’re awakened to their full intelligence, they can speak in your mind. In the world Deas presents, Prince Jehal and the rest of the lazy, fat empire’s royals, fighting as they like over power and dragons, little do they know that one slip, one change in the status quo and them and their palaces will be reduced to little more than food and kindling. That is, of course, if they don’t destroy themselves first and save the dragons the trouble, leaving behind only the meat for them to gnaw on amidst the rubble.
At first look, it’s easy to accuse Deas of following the act of other writers, his dragons being the monstrous fiends they are. However, in this story, no matter what transpires between and around the main cast, the dragons are never far away; plotting and lurking, planning a return to a time when the world was bathed in fire and humans offered only sustenance.
Despite these appearances, lurking beneath the surface and likely not acknowledged until the third and final book (The Order of the Scales, due 19th May 2011) might well be a twist that does even more to make this series a very different outing for dragons. Purely conjecture, supported only by the preview of the front cover for The Order of the Scales, but we appear to be in for an exciting ride. Dragons fighting amongst themselves is what this cover says to me, but we will have to endure the wait. Either way, I doubt they’ll forget to crunch on a few humans along the way.
Of course, other writers have striven to break the image of dragons lurking at the edges of our protagonists’ lives. Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings series painted our scaly friends differently, having it that humans and dragons once lived together. Subsequently, their essences mingled, creating two half-races on either side of the gene pool. A new and exciting idea to make the imaginations of even the most ardent of dragon fans tingle. Since then, whether they’ve been ridden, or slain, or even heralded as deities, the majestic dragon still hasn’t had its day in the true limelight.
Even if we start talking about Eragon and Pern’s mounts, the dragons are merely devices; the story is not necessarily about the dragons, rather, the characters. In The Memory of Flames, the dragons are characters.
Whether you like your dragons to steal the thunder from whatever humanesque characters they coexist with, to be guides, deities and harbingers of wisdom, or to remain as evil beasties existing within the plot solely to be dispatched by sword and nerve, the flapping lizards are here abundant enough that you’ll find precisely what you’re looking for. Majestic and regal, or monstrous and terrible, dragons in fantasy aren’t about to be dispatched.
The subject of dragons is far too deep and varied to fully discuss in one sitting; there are many more paths any form of exploration can go down. Not least of all, types of dragon—which should prove to be the most interesting part!
So let’s call this an “introduction to the dragon in fantasy”, with the promise of a more detailed exposé to come.