There Be Dragons
Dragons—huge, winged, fire-spewing, thunder-voiced reptiles—have never actually existed, yet people all over the globe have independently dreamed them up. Did they get the idea from fossilized dinosaur bones? From run-ins with crocodiles? The bigger mystery may be why these fell creatures from ancient myth and medieval lore are more popular than ever. Today, there be dragons, fearsome or improbably cuddly, nearly everywhere you look.
Laying waste is a dragon’s favorite pastime. In the backstory to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937), that’s what the dragon Smaug—“the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities”—does to the town of Dale and the surrounding country before taking up residence deep inside the Lonely Mountain. Years on, a stalwart band of dwarves accompanied by their hobbit “burglar,” Bilbo Baggins, approach the mountain and its dreadful squatter. Intent on evicting Smaug and reclaiming the dwarves’ ancestral home, they pass through a lifeless, blackened wasteland where only broken stumps of trees remain. That bleak image resounds in the second installment (2013) of director Peter Jackson’s three-part film adaptation of Tolkien’s novel, subtitled The Desolation of Smaug.
In the backstory to the HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones, Harrenhal was the most formidable castle of the continent of Westeros. It took 40 years to build, but on the day its builder, Harren the Black, moved in, the castle was besieged from the air by Aegon the Conqueror’s three dragons, the heat of whose breath melted the castle’s stones. Centuries later Harrenhal is a cursed ruin—unhappy proof that the works of men, no matter how imposing, are defenseless against dragonfire.
The bite of a dragon is worse than its bark but only somewhat. Among a dragon’s most terrifying talents is its ability to let out a soul-and-body-shattering roar. We get a hint of that in Game of Thrones’ first season finale, when Daenerys Targaryen’s newborn dragons emit screams that seem to pierce the sky. That an adult dragon’s voice can cause the earth to tremble is attested in the Old English epic poem Beowulf (composed as early as the 7th or 8th century), whose author reports that “the earth re-echoed” the dreadful “breath of the monster.” When in Peter Jackson’s film The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug the ground reverberates to Smaug’s awful bellow, one character is puzzled: “Was that an earthquake?” An older, more experienced dwarf replies, “That, my lad, was a dragon.”
Even friendly dragons, it appears, cannot suppress the urge to sound off from time to time. When magic dragon Puff and his young pal, Jackie Paper, go sailing on the sea surrounding Honah Lee, they sometimes meet with pirate ships, on which occasions Puff roars out his name. The pirates, in sensible deference, lower the Jolly Roger.
Heroes often prove their mettle by slaying dragons. In the second of his labors, Hercules fells the Lernean Hydra, a giant, multiheaded serpent. And during the Middle Ages, legends began to circulate that early Christian military martyr Saint George had slain a merciless dragon that had terrorized a town and, in one version of the tale, demanded the townspeople sacrifice their girl children, one by one, to satisfy its appetite. Formerly pagan, the townsfolk immediately convert to Christianity when Saint George relieves them of their draconian oppressor.
One Game of Thrones hero, by contrast, burnishes her reputation not by slaying dragons but by giving birth to them, in a manner of speaking: Daenerys Targaryen earns the epithet Mother of Dragons in the riveting conclusion to the show’s first season, when she walks into the blazing funeral pyre of her husband, Khal Drogo. Sharing the pyre are three petrified dragon eggs Daenerys was given on her wedding day. Impervious to the flames, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) emerges naked from the ashes—as do the three newly hatched dragons that are henceforth her “children.”
In Western lore and legend, dragons are mostly evil beings. Not only are they wanton destroyers, they’re sometimes portrayed as greedy, thieving bastards—amassing and jealously guarding piles of stolen treasure. In creating the villainous Smaug, J.R.R. Tolkien lifted the idea of dragon as hoarder of purloined gold and jewels from a very early source: the Old English epic Beowulf, whose unnamed dragon flies into an unholy rage after someone reclaims a golden cup from its stash.
But dragons haven’t everywhere played the scoundrel. In China, where belief in dragons dates back millennia, the mythical beasts are seen as bestowers of prosperity and good fortune. One of the animals of the Chinese zodiac, the dragon is viewed as so propitious that many couples attempt to schedule a child’s birth for a Year of the Dragon (recurring every dozen years). And a sinuous paper dragon, its serpentine dance enabled by a troop of agile young men, stars each winter in Chinese New Year festivities worldwide. Its “lightbulb eyes lighting up and popping out on coiled wire springs,” it is, in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s 1961 poem “The Great Chinese Dragon,” the “greatest dragon in all the world.”
For Crusaders, the story of Saint George’s dragon slaying epitomized Christian knighthood. As George’s legend developed he came to represent the ideal courtly lover, willing to risk his life to protect a lady. That’s the tale set down in Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend, a popular 13th-century compilation of saints’ lives, in which good George vanquishes the dragon to rescue a princess. Widespread images of George’s heroic deed owe much, however, to another, more ancient motif in Christian iconography: the combat between the sword- or lance-wielding archangel Michael and Satan, depicted as a squirming dragon. That image’s source is the biblical book of Revelation, which reports a war in heaven between Michael and the “great dragon…that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan” (Rev. 12:9). Described as a “great red dragon, having seven heads and 10 horns” (Rev. 12:3), the satanic worm also captured the imagination of visionary English artist William Blake (1757–1827), whose series of Great Red Dragon watercolors in turn shaped novelist Thomas Harris’s portrait of a deranged serial killer in Red Dragon (1981)—the book that introduced the world to the devilish Hannibal Lecter.
Smaug’s spawn are legion. In the years since J.R.R. Tolkien published The Hobbit (1937) and its sequel, The Lord of the Rings (1954–1955), the “swords and sorcery” genre has become a media-industry mainstay. Many works of fantasy fiction, set in perilous medieval worlds, feature dragons in either leading or supporting roles. A partial list of such works includes Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea novels, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books (and their film adaptations) and George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire cycle, on which HBO’s Game of Thrones is based. For fantasy maniacs who cannot get enough of this stuff, there’s the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, which has gone through numerous iterations and been played by millions. D&D’s complex history and cultural impact cannot be summarized, but boy has the game ever upped the dragon ante, expanding the numbers and powers of giant, winged saurians far beyond the imagination of even the most hallucination-prone medieval bard. D&D monsters include chromatic dragons, metallic dragons and a host of other species, each with an array of horrific “breath weapons” at its demonic disposal.
Since the 1990s when they acquired Dungeons & Dragons, the game’s publisher, Wizards of the Coast, has periodically released updated editions featuring myriad dragons of varying colors, moral characters, habitats, diets and levels of intelligence. The various dragons in turn possess unique destructive abilities (spitting fire, acid, sludge, ice, poisonous gases, etc.) and thus must be fought in so many different ways you really need a guidebook to keep it all straight. Or maybe several guidebooks. So the Wizards have obliged, publishing a compendium of information, the Draconomicon, as well as several supplements dealing with specific dragon races.
So too are the young Viking dragon slayers of How to Train Your Dragon urged to consult a reference book—their community’s Book of Dragons—when learning how to battle their flying-reptile foes. These likewise belong to a variety of species, including Scauldrons (which disgorge boiling water), Thunderdrums (which emit sonic blasts) and Night Furies. Hiccup, the movie’s hero, is especially interested in this last category because his own dragon, Toothless, is a Night Fury. It’s only a matter of time before Hiccup realizes he knows a lot more about the species than can be found in that musty old book.
Friendships between dragons and people are rare, but when a dragon does take a shine to a human, it’s usually a boy. The dragon-boy bond sketched out in folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary’s 1963 monster hit “Puff, the Magic Dragon” is so close that a devastated Puff retires to his cave and forevermore ceases to roar after his little chum, Jackie, putting away childish things, stops paying visits to the neverland of Honah Lee. The 1969 TV show H.R. Pufnstuf similarly explored a friendship between a boy and a caring dragon: When 11-year-old Jimmy shipwrecks on Living Island, he’s taken under the wing, so to speak, of the island’s mayor, the lunkheaded puppet-dragon Pufnstuf (a.k.a. Puf). But watch this treacly program (episodes can be found on YouTube) at your stomach’s peril. Much less indigestible is How to Train Your Dragon, about an unlikely alliance between a misfit Viking boy named Hiccup and the big black dragon he injures, then restores to airworthy fitness. Sweet without being gag inducing, this coming-of-age tale features eye-popping Vikings-versus-dragons combat and exhilarating dragon-riding sequences. Dreamworks has proposed a trilogy of adaptations, getting back down to business with 2014’s How to Train Your Dragon 2.
“I looked at him, and I saw myself.” That’s how Hiccup, the teenage hero of How to Train Your Dragon, explains his refusal to kill a dragon he has wounded—the dragon, that is, who will become his best friend. Hiccup’s Viking kin don’t understand his empathy or take kindly to the relationship. Dragons are, after all, their mortal enemies, and Hiccup’s dragon—he nicknames it Toothless—has participated in a full-scale assault on their village. But by the end of the movie [Spoiler alert!], we learn that the dragons of Hiccup’s world are actually friendly, docile creatures who’d much rather be the Vikings’ pets than their exterminators. Well, with one exception: a gigantic, multieyed, tyrannosaurus-like dragon that resides in a fiery pit on the dragons’ home island and that has heretofore kept all the other dragons under its demonic control. That horrible winged monster’s domicile resembles hell in Christian iconography. Hell, of course, is presided over by another winged monster, the fallen angel Lucifer, alias Satan. Over the centuries artists have often given Satan and his minions full-on dragon-like attributes: See, especially, 19th-century illustrator Gustave Doré’s engravings for Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno.