Dragons, big scaly fire breathing reptiles. So many of our folk tales and even many modern tales include dragons as an important component, usually as a hostile force. Of course in many tales the dragon is merely a device to give the hero some seemingly impossible difficulty to overcome.
Sometimes dragons are mere beasts, but in some tales they are intelligent, if malevolent, beasts. Smaug, in “The Hobbit” by J R R Tolkien is of the latter kind. He sits on a pile of treasure and is furious when Bilbo Baggins steals a golden cup. He later accuses Bilbo of trying to steal from him (which is true).
The patron saint of England is Saint George, who was an early Christian martyr. Saint George is noted for slaying a dragon to save a princess. The princess was intended as a sacrifice to the dragon who was causing sickness in the inhabitants of the local town.
In legends, once a dragon has been killed, it’s body, blood and teeth could be used for various purposes. Sometimes the blood was beneficial to humans, conferring invincibility or other virtue, or it could be poisonous. The teeth could be sowed to raise armies, sometimes of skeletons.
Most fictional and mythical dragons are scaly reptiles, but one of the odd ones out is the furry creature called the “Luck Dragon” in the film “The NeverEnding Story”. This dragon had a head resembling that of a dog, front limbs and a tapering furry body which merged into a tail.
Most fictional dragons are noble creatures, but the “Swamp Dragons” created by Terry Pratchett in his discworld series of books which are altogether baser than the “Noble Dragons“. Swamp dragons are small creatures, are almost always ill (because of their diet) and are prone to explode if very ill or excited.
On one occasion one exploded after being enraged at the sight of itself in a mirror, imaging that it was in the presence of a rival. It does appear though that the fraught gastric processes may have a reason – a swamp dragon is described as flying on its stubby wings by emitting gasses created by its digestive processes.
Some dragons can apparently be tamed. In Anne McCaffrey’s Pern of books series, a partnership has developed between the flying dragons and humans to deal with the threat of “thread” which comes from a companion planet and is inimical to all life forms on Pern.
These dragons, which similar the standard dragon type from mythology, are large enough to be ridden by humans, and breath fire to kill the thread on being fed a particular type of rock. The dragons are genetically modified from the much smaller fire lizards and communicate with their riders by telepathy.
One unique ability of these dragons is to teleport from place to place carrying their riders with them. It also becomes apparent that they can also time travel while teleporting, Unsurprisingly, Terry Pratchett created a cameo parody or homage to the Pern books and their dragons in the first book of his discworld series, “The Colour of Magic”.
Where there are dragons, the untamed variety, The more I think about them, the more I remember cases of dragons in literature and in films. A fairly recent example is the film “How to Train Your Dragon“. The dragons are at first treated as hostile, but the aspiring dragon killer, Hiccup, finds an injured dragon, it transpires that the dragons are friendly creatures and only attack humans because the humans are attempting to exterminate them.
The modern dragon is built along the same physical plan, whatever the media they are described in. Dragons are reptiles, usually lay eggs, mostly have four legs or limbs and a pair of wings. Mostly they breathe fire, and where this is touched on, it is usually implied that the fire is generated internally by ingesting and digesting rocks.
However, early myths about dragon describe dragons as more akin to large serpents, even to the extent of having no limbs. Indeed, in early texts, the word used for dragons also means serpent.
Interestingly, although England’s patron saint is a dragon killer, the red dragon has come to symbolise Wales. “Y Ddraig Goch” is a red dragon and can be found on the Welsh national flag. He attains ascendency over an invading white dragon who symbolises the Saxons, after a long battle and an interval when both dragons were imprisoned in a hill in Snowdonia.
Dragons are associated power. Having scales and claws, and being able to breath fire, are attributes that give them strong defensive and offensive capabilities. Their size gives them strength and they are a very great challenge to any heroes who take them on. Often they can only be defeated by trickery or luck, such as when Smaug was killed because he had a small unprotected area on his belly which allowed the hero to shoot fatally in that one spot.
Dragons are associated with magic, with wizards, witches, princes and princesses and supernatural items and events of all sorts. “Dungeons and Dragons” melds all these factors into a table top and role playing game which was popular in the 1970s and 1980s.
However, dragons as such do not appear to be a large factor in the game, which revolves more around the characters who may be clerics, fighters or magic users. Dungeons and Dragons does have monsters and while some may be dragons, there are many other types of monsters, which may or may not be controlled by other players taking part in the game.
Finally, to bring this ramble through the topics dragons to a close, I will mention one other dragon that I recall from films, and that is the one which appeared in film and book “Doctor No” by Ian Fleming.
In the book and film James Bond is sent to Crab Key to investigate Doctor No. Rumours abound about the “dragon” which roams the island, deterring anyone from visiting. In the end the fire breathing dragon turns out to be a vehicle fitted with a flamethrower. This goes to show that while fictional and mythical dragons may be common, real dragons are scarcer than hen’s teeth.