Where Be Dragons? (12/4/2009)

(An abridged version of this article appeared in the April issue of Sci Fi now, and got repeated loudly and with much gesticulating at the Eastercon panel ‘Don’t trust a book with a dragon on the cover’)


Here be dragons. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Filled with mystery and anticipation. You don’t know what to expect, but whatever it is, it’ll be something impressive, something vast, something that will change anyone who comes by it. Something not easily faced. It sits there on the edge of the map[1], impassive, implacable, a challenge to anyone who dares to explore the unknown corners of the world.

So where be dragons? At first glance the answer appears to be absolutely bloody everywhere. There’s something about them, something that fascinates us with a grip that no other mythical monster has. Flip through the myriad of satellite channels and you’ll come across a cartoon of some sort with a dragon in it. Fantasy literature can’t get away from them (mea culpa and proud of it); even when we’re not writing about them, we’re thinking about them or flirting with them or actively avoiding them. Not only is that true now, it seems to have been true forever. Dragons (or lion-snake-raptor things that might be a bit like dragons) appear in indigenous art across Europe, the Far and Middle East and the Americas. As early as Babylon’s Ishtar Gate[2], as geographically disparate as Vietnam and the Arctic Circle. Pretty impressive for something that doesn’t exist. You might point at crocodiles or giant snakes or lizards, or at the unearthed fossil remains of dinosaurs, but none of that seems to account for the geography of the beasts. I think, if we can’t leave it as a mystery, I like the collective hard-wired subconscious fear of large flying, slithering and clawed predator-things all rolled up in a tidy fire-breathing package. OK, I’m not sure where the fire bit comes from[3], but I’ll put that down to those early fantasy authors who wanted to make their Beowulf and Sigurd characters look really hard.

But what is a dragon? What does it mean? A common conceit among fantasy writers is that names matter. To call something a dragon should mean much more than ‘four-legged flying fire-breathing big thing’. The dictionary is, at first, a little less than helpful:

dragon, n, a fabulous winged scaly-armoured fire-breathing monster…[4]

Right. So four-legged fire-breathing big thing. With wings and scales. Did that bit already and anyway, lots and lots of fabulous creatures that get labelled as dragons don’t have wings and/or don’t breathe fire. That just tells you what some (i.e. contemporary European) dragons happen to look like. Wings and scales and fire might define how a dragon appears (or they might not – most early depictions of ‘dragons’ don’t tend to have the wings or bad breath; given the origins of their name, they’re more likely to have the same deadly gaze as a basilisk[5]), but they don’t define what a dragon is. They’re colouring, clothing, dressing to hang over the fundamental essence of dragon-ness that lies underneath.

dragon, n, Something very formidable or dangerous. [6]

That’s more like it. For me, that fits, whether we’re talking about Fafnir or Smaug or the more benevolent dragons of Asia. Something formidable or dangerous. I don’t think that’s enough, though. The dragons that Beowulf and Sigurd fought weren’t merely dangerous. They stretched the strength and courage of the greatest heroes of their time to the very limit. Their point, I think, was that they were so formidable and dangerous that they could not be stopped by any man save one. They defined the heroes that defeated them. Without their dragons, the myths of Sigurd and Beowulf wouldn’t have existed.

Which brings me back to the very first question. Where be dragons? Things with the label ‘dragon’ are regularly wheeled out in works of fantasy, both book and film. But do they deserve the name? Are they something very formidable or dangerous? The answer, in my opinion, is almost always no. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with flying, fire-breathing ponies, or with an armoured company aiming their 30mm cannons and Stinger missiles at things with wings that flap instead of wings that don’t. They can wear the clothing and the label of a dragon, but that alone doesn’t make them  a dragon, at least not in a symbolic sense. They become trappings of the background world, a colourful piece of scenery.

I think, with a very few exceptions, we have emasculated our dragons. We give them traits that are recognisable as human. We try to explain how they work, how they live, what they eat, how they came to be. We steadily bring them within the circle of our understanding. In the end, we make them like us, and there’s probably a very straightforward reason for that. There’s no space on the map any more for Here Be Dragons. Sigurd and Beowulf are, to be blunt, rather one-faceted heroes. Modern protagonists (and I’m talking about fiction in general now) are expected to be much more human, much more multi-dimensional and, frankly, are much better for it. Dragons have simply followed the trend. Besides, you can’t get away with having a dragon and simply going ‘Oooh! Dragon!’ and expect anyone to be impressed, because we’ve seen it all before. Dragons have evolved in order to survive within our changing stories, but I think they’ve lost something on the way.

We have a book at home called You’ve Got Dragons. It’s a story about a boy who is chased by scary dragons. Gradually he learns about them, turns to face them and they stop being scary. It’s fine enough for what it is, as a parable for children. It’s a natural human thing to do after all, to try and understand something. That’s how we deal with the unknown. That’s how we conquer fears, by understanding things, by breaking them down into little pieces and assimilating them one by one. It’s a thing that children need to learn. The dragons in this case are a blunt metaphor for childhood fears – as you come to understand them, they diminish and go away. In the context of teaching children not to be afraid of the dark, that’s fine. In the context of a work of fiction, I think we’ve shot our collective selves in the foot. By understanding our dragons, we’ve diminished them. In doing that we’ve diminished the heroes that fight them and ultimately ourselves.

The very last sentence of You’ve Got Dragons is: No dragon is more powerful than YOU. However well intentioned, that sticks in my craw. No dragon is more powerful than me? Excuse me? Yes they bloody well are! That’s their whole point, damn it! Something formidable and dangerous, remember? Something that only a hero can overcome. And anyway, don’t we need a few dragons? A few lurking monsters and terrible mysteries to keep us from apathy and complacency?

And that’s just dragons. Don’t get me started on what we’ve done to vampires.

[Exits to the strains of The Stranglers “No more heroes”]

[1] Dragon trivia: The phrase ‘Here be dragons’ seems to originate from the Lenox Globe, c.1505. That appears to be about it, until fantasy writers took up the baton. Never mind, eh.

[2] Creatures that look like hybrids of eagles, lions and serpents are documented in descriptions of the gate and appear on the reconstruction in the Berlin museum.

[3] Alright, alright, it’s probably an embellishment of the flickering red forked tongue of some snakes and lizards or something like that.

[4] The Chambers dictionary

[5] From www.etymonline.com: c.1220, from O.Fr. dragon, from L. draconem (nom. draco) “serpent, dragon,” from Gk. drakon (gen. drakontos) “serpent, seafish,” from drak-, strong aorist stem of derkesthai “to see clearly.” But perhaps the lit. sense is “the one with the (deadly) glance.” Nice.

[6] A secondary definition from wikipedia’s online dictionary.

2 Responses to “Where Be Dragons? (12/4/2009)”

  1. Mary Beth says:

    Fascinating post–and something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot lately, as I look back on my 14-year-old attempts at writing a dragon-rider story and think about how I’d do it now. As a kid I was fascinated by the idea of dragon-as-friend; at 24, I think dragon-as-uncontrollable-force-of-nature is a lot more interesting. (And if humans manage some sort of partnership with the dangerous dragons, well, that’s a lot more impressive than if the dragons are emasculated from the start.)

    If the dragons show up like this in your book, I’ll have to check it out. :)

  2. Stephen Deas says:

    They start out the emasculated sort. Then they begin to wake up…

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