All right buckle in book bees. We’re tackling dragons today! Dragons are pretty iconic, especially in the bookish community. A lot of fantasy readers get their start consuming the iconic Dragonology and then spiral through the most popular dragon books. A lot of us dream of having a dragon ourselves, or just getting to ride one or meet one. So where does this fascination come from?
Dragons in Literature: A Very Brief History
Dragons appear in the majority of cultural mythologies around the world in one form or another. Anthropologists have hypothesized that this is due to a natural primal instinct–fear of snakes–or due to the natural formation of pre-scientific explanations of the world, which develops a dragon-like creature in nearly every culture. Another school of thought is that the discovery of dinosaur fossils around the world generated the distinct types of dragons that different mythologies reflect.
In the history of literature, the first emergence of dragons is in mythological tails–particularly prominent among them being depictions in West Asia. But again, draconic figures in literature span nearly the entire globe in one form or another. Many fantasy novels draw on the depiction of dragons from Western Europe, which developed as the image we think of today at the earliest in the 1200s. Depictions of these western dragons were most commonly featured in tales of martyrs and saints who were said to fight such dragons, or in monk-written histories of the royalty of the area.
Beginning in around the late nineteenth century and persisting until about the 1960s, children’s literature prominently featured dragons. They began as antagonists and monstrous villains, and then slowly began to devolve into inferior and comedic bumbling creatures. Around the 1960s a desire for more serious children’s literature led to dragons fading from the mainstream a bit. Fantasy literature really picked up the dragon and kept it going, drawing on different traditional sources such as Norse mythology the way Tolkein often did.
Common tropes and themes
In fantasy, there are a few of types of dragons that are prominent. You’ve got the drag-antagonist, the heroic and benevolent dragon, the dragon-with-a-rider, and the dragon that has a human form. There are other types of dragons, I’m aware, but these are the kinds I see pop up most often in the fantasy I read so I feel more confident cover them.
A dragon antagonist is common in Dungeons and Dragons, and in the form of Smaug from Tolkein’s The Hobbit. This dragon is generally an ancient, undefeated dragon who lives alone with a massive hoard. The dragon is powerful, cunning, witty, and greedy. An antagonist dragon is likely the big “boss” fight that the main character(s) will face at the climax of the story.
This dragon is generally a wise, all knowing mentor or quest giver. The benevolent dragon that resides in a mystical area, or who otherwise appears to the hero. Often this dragon is a guiding force who also plays the role of deus ex machina at a crucial point in the conflict of the story, swooping in to save the day one last time.
This is, as of late, one of the more popular kind of dragons to be included in a story. Dragons that can be ridden are basically the dream of the average dragon-obsessed book wyrm. Stories with dragon riding usually include distinct personalities for the dragons, and explore how a dragon and a humanoid would bond in order to share magic, thoughts, and battle strategies.
This is another increasingly popular use of dragons as of late; even my own D&D campaign that I DM features dragon shifters. These are dragons that have a human form and utilize both forms often enough throughout the story to have distinct storylines involving their ability to shift. This is common in both more modern fantasy stories–where the dragon shifter may be the main character or a prominent side character–and interestingly in fantasy romance where dragon shifters are among the many popular choices for attractive heroes.
In writing this post, I discovered even more reasons why dragons are so appealing to book wyrms. They have the potential to take on any role as a character or creature in a fantasy story, and can reflect any tradition or mythology that is appropriate. Dragons can be intelligent, or not; they can be human-like or something entirely detached from our understanding. Dragons can conform to a magic system already in place or completely redefine it. The possibilities are honestly endless when it comes to dragons, and I can see why such a creature that has so many potential variables would appeal broadly to fantasy fans.