I love fantasy as a concept, but I dislike most fantasy in practice. Many fantasy books, movies, and games rely on stale renditions of the same ideas and stories. Despite that, it’s still my favorite genre on the whole, and the main genre that I write. Out of fear that my own books will turn out equally stale, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the true essence of fantasy.
Yes, I recognize “the true essence of fantasy” is among the most pretentious phrases I’ve written in my life, but bear with me. If you’re a fantasy nerd like me, chances are you get excited by the idea of a kingdom of elves besieged by dragon-riding necromancers. But do elves, dragons, and necromancers add anything fundamental to a story, or are they merely set dressing? If you wrote the same story about a human nation invaded by paratrooping demolitions experts, would that really impact the essence of the story?
I don’t think so, at least not given the way many creators approach fantasy. Orcs and druids appear in fantasy because they have appeared before, but most of the time nobody asks why or what they contribute. These are the sort of questions I’ll tackle every Sunday, as I deconstruct fantasy’s most important tropes and then put them back together, one dwarven runestone at a time.
Western Dragons: Monstrous Glory
To kick off the series, we’ll look at a creature that’s been a fantasy hallmark for thousands of years: the dragon. Dragons are easily one of my favorite mythological creatures, which is kind of like saying pepperoni is one of my favorite pizza toppings. Everyone loves them to the point it feels banal for me to admit my love for them, but like pepperoni on pizza, there’s a reason they’re the go-to.
The dragon myth is believed to have arisen in the earliest agricultural human civilizations. Specifically, ancient Mesopotamia and its neighbors. All the dragon myths that followed can be broadly divided into myths that arose to the west of Mesopotamia and those to the east. Most of us living in the Western world are more familiar with the Western myths, and that’s where we’ll start.
Reptilian, fire-breathing, four legs, two wings, animal intelligence. All but for that last one, this is probably what you picture when you hear the word dragon. In modern fantasy, dragons are often Western in appearance but with human sentience, a distinctly Eastern trait. Let’s put that aside for now and assume dragons are just giant, fiery lizards.
Tales of heroes or gods vanquishing monstrous serpents appear in almost every Indo-European mythology. Sometimes these serpents breathe fire, but they are universally associated with water. Even our word for dragon comes from a Latin word for serpent which comes from a Greek word for sea snake. The association between dragons and treasure came a little later, and is thought to have been inspired by a common practice of putting snakes in the village granary to catch mice.
Dragons even appear, in a sense, in the one European mythology that is still widespread today: Christianity. Though translations change over the years, the serpent in Eden was often considered to have been a dragon in Medieval times. Satan himself was also frequently referred to as a dragon. Christ slaying the devil in Revelation is thought to be an expression of the much older dragonslayer tales that were the cornerstone of European myth.
Taking all of this together, a few common threads jump out. Dragons are more than human in terms of size, ferocity, and deadliness, but are also subhuman in intelligence and behavior. They represent death and danger and the ultimate expression of nature’s wrath, and they are all, without fail, conquered by humanity. This resonates with how dragons often appear in modern fantasy: a force to be conquered. They appear as final antagonists because they are recognized as ultimate forces, and conquering them secures a hero’s status as unquestionably heroic. What force they represent, however, has changed.
Sometimes dragons are an ultimate force of evil, which is consistent with Christian mythology. Sometimes they represent greed, due to their habit of hoarding shiny things. Now that the average Western dragon has been bestowed with Eastern intelligence, their actions are generally down to calculated malevolence rather than animal instinct. But if we recall that the first dragons had no intelligence, and their treasure-guarding tendencies developed later, what did they really represent?
A small detail added to maps by some early cartographers present a telling answer. The phrase “here be dragons” or drawings of dragons on sea serpents sometimes appear on old maps, in places that were unexplored or considered dangerous.
To put it simply, dragons represent nature. They represent all that is not human, that which has not been explored, conquered, or understood. Modern people might find this idea uneasy, as nature has become almost synonymous with good lately, but respect and preservation of nature is a modern luxury. In the old world, the world beyond the hearth was filled with predators which could match any human weapon, unidentified poisons and diseases that could not be cured, and the daily enemies of hunger, thirst, heat, cold, and weather.
The Western dragon is nature incarnate, the unthinking hunger of the wolf bundled up inside the destructive terror of a thunderstorm. The dragonslayer, then, represents everything that allows humans to thrive in a world which should rightly crush them: the courage that allows us to venture into the unknown, the ingenuity that allows us to breed wolves into dogs, and the camaraderie that allows us to shelter one another from the storm. Slaying the monster confers glory to the hero, just as triumphing over nature brings glory to the human race.
Eastern Dragons: Sacred Humility
I had more to say than I thought about Western dragons and will not pretend to be an expert on their Eastern cousins, so I’ll keep this section brief and return to it at a later date. It is interesting to note, however, that what dragons represented in ancient Asian cultures is a complete 180 from what they represented in Europe. This is an important lesson for any fantasy creator: the same concept can mean very different things to different people.
Eastern dragons are typically more serpentine than lizardlike, with four wings and no wings. They are generally more intelligent and far wiser than humans, possessing magical powers and the ability to speak. In some stories dragons even taught people to speak, or at least to write, which explains why their writing systems are so much more sophisticated than ours. We were probably taught by monkeys.
Dragons are benevolent in Eastern myth more often than not, and typically represent primal forces of nature and the universe as well as wisdom and longevity. They’re also tied to the healing and life-giving properties of water. Again, I am by no means an expert on Eastern culture, so in the interest of not accidentally saying something alarmingly racist I won’t dive too far into this one. I will say it’s fascinating that both Western and Eastern dragons are expressions of nature, but Europeans saw nature as something to be conquered and Asians as something to humble oneself before and be taught by. I would not be surprised if these mythological archetypes are indicative of greater cultural values.
The Dragon As Artist
When I said Eastern dragons were a 180 from their Western brethren, I may have misspoken. Dragons everywhere actually represent similar things, but those things they represent have different meaning to different people. For example, in Europe and Asia dragons are tied to nature and water. Nature is full of danger, but also secrets and wisdom. The ocean is a deadly place that is also responsible for all life on Earth. Your worldview determines which side of the story you focus on.
Nothing in this world is black and white, though, excepting penguins and artistic Johnny Depp films. Let’s return to that fascinating detail about how dragons came to guard treasure in Western legends. Humility is rarely given a high place in European mythology the way it is in Eastern cultures, but some European somewhere once looked at a granary snake eating a mouse and said, “You know what? I think I’m the mouse in this story.” The dragonslayer narrative is a celebration of human merit triumphing over the brutality of nature, but whether the storytellers consciously recognized it or not, this structure only works when the assumption is that humans are small, insignificant, and weak. The story of the mouse who slays the snake is glorious only because, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it goes the other way.
The same is true of Eastern myth. Dragons represent knowledge and life-giving water, and seem like pretty chill dudes. But these stories are about humility, and you wouldn’t have to humble yourself before a dragon to get water and wisdom if those things were easy to get. The process is quite different, but just like in the Western stories, the premise here is that human survival is inherently difficult. Only with the help of dragons can humans persevere.
This isn’t to say that, as a creator, you should force your dragons to conform with one of these two archetypes. The East/West divide is an oversimplification; some people even consider the Kukulkan/Quetzalcoatl figure here in Mexico to be a kind of dragon, and he’s a whole other thing. The only goal is that you ask yourself why dragons are (or are not) in your story to begin with. Are they just a scary monster that guards the treasure? Or could they represent more?