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Review

 

Dragons: Classifications

Last time we considered dragons as a general species, to introduce their role in fantasy fiction, giving introductory examples of their usual staging and appearances in the stories we relish. Whether a giddy groupie or an ardent loather of the (most of the time) bewinged beasts it’s always good to know your dragons: whether to determine your favourite fiend, or to simply know thine enemy.

Y Ddraig Goch by poodychampa

Y Ddraig Goch

Notable breeds or types of dragon appear throughout a variety of fiction, ranging from the Pern series, to J. K. Rowling’s modern-set Harry Potter novels, although commonly the dragons that permeate fantasy fiction are not referred to by a breed classification, rather a description.

Most fantasy fans have heard of wyverns (specifically the Welsh Y Ddraig Goch), worms and drakes, but let’s not forget that hydras, chimeras, and even the cockatrice are all dragonesque in their appearance, all having at least one physical trait that could classify them as at least cousins of the dragons.

It’s fair to say that dragons as a species must adhere to certain racial traits, but what are these traits, and do these traits differ depending on breed or type? The depictions here, including the little-considered cockatrice, both have wings and a barbed tail. The cockatrice breathes fire, whilst the wyvern flaunts poisonous breath and a stinging tail—yet not a spark of firebreath.

If we were to class anything that has wings, a barbed tail and spits flame as a dragon, not only would we deal a great injustice to dragons preferring to project ice, electricity or poison, but a plethora of mythical beasts that are scarcely dragons at all would clamour outside the door, requesting dragon membership. The least we can say is that classifying dragons is a tricky business, let alone determining sub-type and race.

El Chimera by elshazam

Chimera

A quick foray on the internet displays hits classifying dragons by colour and attribute element. Whilst this is great fun, there’s little evidence that these classifications are “accurate”. Admittedly, it’s difficult to specify biological attributes to a fictional/mythological species: a writer could invent a creature that appears entirely identical to the most common image of a dragon, and then give their literary hatchling a set of powers and skills unheard of amongst dragons. This immediately brings us full circle back to: what makes a dragon a dragon?

We lowly mortals are classified by certain traits, especially from race-to-race. If suddenly a human appeared with pointed ears, exceeding elegance and a penchant for trees, would this “human” then not be an elf instead? However, if a human had two hearts, three brains and purple blood, all with the outer appearance of a human insofar as having two eyes, a nose, mouth and all other regularities, surely this individual would be classified differently?

Quetzalcoatl by GENZOMAN

Quetzalcoatl

If so, are dragons such because of how they look, or their inner biology? Having never had the opportunity to dissect a dragon it’s impossible to wholly rely on biological classification. For all we know, if dragons truly ever existed, they might’ve had something intrinsic in common that the human eye has never seen (even when eaten). And indeed, different types of dragons might exhibit entirely different racial traits.

If we take a scientific approach, our fantasy depiction of a dragon has likely been assimilated by the different beasts envisioned throughout the world’s mythology, entirely spontaneously. The most likely reason is that each early culture discovered fossilized dinosaurs and the remains of large reptilian or serpentine ‘monsters’, leading to the global image of a dragon. Taking a world mythology view of dragons, however, further complicates the guidelines for their classification. An accepted definition of a “dragon” is commonly found as: “serpentine or reptilian, hatching from eggs and possessing long, typically scaly, bodies; dragons are almost always portrayed as having large eyes […] often (but not always) portrayed with wings and a fiery breath.” In this case—especially with the emboldened words demonstrating that even this definition leaves room for maneuverability—creatures akin to the mythological Quetzalcoatl (serpentine? Check. Reptilian? Check. Clawed? Check. Scaly? Check.) and even the lesser Tatzelwurm (Scaly? Check. Clawed? Check. Reptilian? Check…) can be considered by some as ticking some of the boxes on their dragon membership form.

The definition is unclear even to the point of wings. Wings. As an avid reader of fantasy, I like my dragons bewinged—who doesn’t? Surely if the lizard in question is ground-bound and wingless, then the poor mite isn’t a dragon at all? Perhaps non-winged dragons could be classified as a different type of dragon altogether…but that serves only to make the waters murkier with conjecture and hypothesis. Wings; or begone, lizard imposter! Or something along those lines.

ToothlessTherefore, a dragon must: have wings (whether s/he uses these to fly is entirely her/his choice, of course), be a reptile/appear serpentine, and have scales, as opposed to feathers, fur or a mixture of the above. Any number of fantasy dragons match these criteria, from the three dragons in Eddings’ Belgariad and Malloreon, to the cutesy dragons in Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon, so it seems a safe blanket statement with which to wrap our fiendish friends.

The lion’s share of cataloguing dragon types belongs in the role-playing realm: whether Dungeons and Dragons or in role-play video games, the colour of dragons is important and plays a sizeable part in their classification, regarding both ‘abilities’ and temperament.

Crystal Dragons by sandaraA clear divide first appears with the consideration of “metallic” versus “chromatic” dragons. It is suggested, and perhaps supported by their appearance throughout the genre, (Dungeons and Dragons displays this divide) that the former are generally good, benevolent dragons known for their helpful wisdom, whilst the latter are generally perceived as evil and often fiercely territorial. The Hobbit’s red dragon, Smaug, nicely demonstrates a ferocious territorial demeanour (and a penchant for sparkly things).

If this is true, perhaps the human camp in Stephen Deas’ The Memory of Flames could do with rallying the support of some metallic dragons, lest they all be eaten soon by the cast of chromatic dragons reigning supreme over the series so far. Snow—arguably the main dragon in the series—a brilliant white, is plotting the demise of many humans whom she regards as little more than food. Even (lucky) Kemir, a supposed friend to the dragon is merely viewed as “useful food”. Of course, there are deeper intentions afoot, but Snow’s temperament is hardly up for dispute throughout the course of the novels: she’s devious, cruel and demonstrates a frighteningly harsh opinion of humans. Ash and Silence, other chromatic dragons haven’t demonstrated much benevolence or a pleasant demeanour either.

In other fantasy sectors, the elemental attributes of a dragon help to classify it. Water dragons, air dragons, and so forth: the element usually determines not only their colour, but their powers—usually their exhaled ‘breath weapon’. Matters become complicated further if we consider Eastern views of “elements”, wherein wood and metals become relevant categories of their own. What would a “wood dragon” be like? Would a “copper dragon” be copper-coloured, or simply have a penchant for the metal?

Copper Dragon by BenWoottenAlthough important, colour and ability are perhaps the second tier of classification points, much like skills chosen for role-play characters after the initial class choice. A dragon with only wings and no legs would surely be a different racial type to a dragon with four legs as well as wings, and different again to a serpentine dragon with two pairs of wings and a longer neck: the (realistic) combinations are endless. Fire-breathing dragons would be grouped together, as would dragons who breathe electricity/lightning. But when we consider that two dragons might both breathe fire, but look entirely different—say, one with two heads, a forked tail and metallic scales, compared with a single-headed beast with magenta scales, straight tail and four wings—the task of defining racial groups for dragons becomes even harder.

Classifying cats or rabbits isn’t so hard, so why do dragons give us the fly-around? Simply put, because it’s the imagination of the creator that doles out a dragon’s specific points: whilst most dragons have a fundamental similarity of appearance based on whatever world mythology the creator has chosen to soak up and use in their work, whatever else the dragon can do, or looks like is fair game. All said colour, elemental type and oddly, least important, physical appearance are the ways in which dragons are classified, with the requirements for each class differing from one fantasy world to the next.

Next we look at dragons from Asia.

Title image by sandara.

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5 Comments

  1. […] can read more of this series here: Chinese Dragons European Dragons Chinese Dragons VN:F [1.9.18_1163]please wait…Rating: 9.7/10 (18 votes […]

  2. Avatar Overlord says:

    This remains one of my favourite all-time Fantasy-Faction articles! Nice one, Leo 🙂

  3. Avatar Davieboy says:

    Good stuff!

  4. Avatar Moi961 says:

    I must agree in quite a lot of this review, but this would make asian dragons out of the family, and if a dragon could switch between having or not having wings (say maybe of magic or growth), they wouldn’t be dragons neither. In my opinion, dragon is what you call dragon, a term too unclear to be sure of anything.

  5. Avatar arnold kent says:

    i don’t believe that they existed. all is a mythology

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