Aubrey Beardsley, Dragon illustration.
“I have to tell you, princess Auslag, it is the greatest privilege and honour to be seated beside you, the daughter of Sigurd.
It is true I have also slain dragons, just like your father. Unfortunately, like most men, the dragons were only inside my head.” (Vikings, season 2, episode 2: King Horik to Auslag)
Fire-breathing lizards seem to be everywhere, from the roofs of gothic churches to the gates of medieval castles, where they appear not just as statues, but also as bands of metal used as gate reinforcement, amd in the names of pop bands (Imagine dragons), too. Today, dragons are most of all in fantasy fiction, be it on the page or on the screen.
Considering how popular they are, we tend to take it for granted that there are just as many in the place where fantasy digs for material, that is, northern mythology . Yet in his essay Beowulf: the monsters and the critics, JRR Tolien reminds us : “And dragons, real dragons (…) are actually rare. In northern literature there are only two that are significant”, Fafnir, the dragon killed by Sigurd/Siegfried , and Beowulf’s bane. Although we have actually very little pagan germanic poetry, so there may have been more.
In his essay, Tolkien confuted the opinion of those scholars who saw the monsters of northern literature as weaknesses, the sign of immature imagination: “(…) a dragon is no idle fancy. Whatever may be his origin (…) the dragon in legends is a potent creation of men’s imagination.” So after centuries in which the fireworm had been degraded to the marginal role of generically evil monsters in european literature (think of the dragon in the Faerie Queen, or Gerione, in Dante’s Inferno) he, himself brought the creature to literary dignity with Smaug. There is no mistaking him for just another repelling monster like Shelob: Smaug has speech, and a keen mind. Facing a dragon requires intelligence as well as courage, and it is a feat that makes a character a hero.
The question is, why dragons? When he discusses the relative merits of classical mythology and the northern tradition, Tolkien underlines that in classical literature monsters are secondary features, at the centre are men and gods, their conflicts and alliances. In the archaic germanic world instead, monsters are at the centre, and fighting monsters is what heroes do. Anyone may go to war and slay enemies, but it takes a hero to kill a dragon – or, it is a slain dragon that makes the hero. “Classical literature pushes monsters to the margins, as they are an embodyment of the forces of chaos, and of the horrors in wait. (…) It is the strength of the northern mythological imagination that it faced this problem, put the monsters at the centre, gave them victory but no honour, and found a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage”. (Beowulf: the monsters and the critics). The writer adds that this is why the southern imagination, with its nymphs and its immortal deities “faded forever into literary ornament“, while the northern imagination “has power (…) to revive its spirits even in our times.”
As dragons are powerful embodiments of the power of nature, but are also uniquely intelligent, they become the perfect monsters for our imagination to contemplate. So perfect that, at least in some flat imaginary world, it is enough to imagine one to have it ready to unfold its wings and take the hero to safety.
In 20th and 21st fantasy novels each writer has a different use for “fire made flesh”. George RR Martin, who coined the expression, imagines dragons essentially as animals: they are enormously powerful, magical, but they do not have wisdom or speech. They do have supernatural qualities, though, as their return marks an increase in the magic of the world. In the opening book of A song of ice and fire, A game of thrones, we are told repeatedly that dragons died out centuries ago, and that the last were the size of dogs. Who needs them… there’s steel, and poison. Dragon eggs are now fancy objects to keep around, a suitable wedding gift for a royal bride. But towards the end of the novel the eggs hatch, and the young bride finds her true path in life thanks to them – wherever it may take her. One thing we know for now, is that in Westeros dragons are less likely to get killed than direwolves.
In the Earthsea cycle, by Ursula K Le guin, their intelligence surpasses ours, yet they, too, can be the victims of chaos when the powers that rule the world are tampered with: in The farthest shore, the third book in the series, the gigantic creatures have taken to killing one another and are losing their minds, but it is one of them who explains what is going on to Ged, the protagonist, and tells him what he needs to do to bring the world back to its balance. In the fourth novel, Tehanu, some human beings are said to be actually dragons, though you can only see that if you look at them in the right light.
JK Rowling has dragons in her first novel, Harry Potter and the philosopher’s stone: Hagrid says they guard the bottom vaults at Gringotts, the wizarding bank, but there isso much to take in at that stage of th plot that both Harry and the reader only register that for a moment. Then Norbert, the Norwegian ridgeback, is hatched in Hagrid’s fireplace, Charlie Weasley is mentioned as working with dragons in Rumania, so you forget about the dragon somewhere under London.
Because dealing with such monsters is one of the feats required of heroes, Harry meets a full-fledged, rather nasty one in Book 4, The goblet of fire; if you have the British Bloomsbury hardback edition, at some point you turn a page and read
Here, too, they are magical animals, whose eggs cannot be traded and whose hide is used to produce protective gloves.
In The Deathly Hallows everything in the Potter novels comes full circle. Everyone and everything which we have met in the six previous books comes back to us, as if JK Rowling wanted to leave no hanging threads in the tapestry she had woven, but in some cases, the seventh book is where we find a meaning, beyond the desire to enchant and entertain. I believe the way she deals with the dragon thread of her tapestry is one of the best things the writer has imagined: yes, there are really dragons at Gringotts, we learn, or rather, there is one, huge and old, white and blind for having being underground for ages, furious and scared, because it has been tamed with pain and kept in chains. It is probably the one literary dragon that a reader really manages to feel for – the way it realises that freedom is at hand, the pleasure of flying again, of feeling fresh air and water.
Arnold Bocklin, Dragon gorge.
Dragons as vulnerable creatures, subjected to human domination, enslaved. While their narrative function of providing a test for the true hero does not change, and although they remain a metaphor for the power of nature, the approach has changed: dragons signify the beauty of what mankind is destroying. It is the point of view which can be found in The tale of tales by Garrone, in which a sleeping water-dragon is killed so that the queen may conceive a baby, and in the latest Disney chapter of dragon-lore: Pete’s dragon may be a film for children, but the point is made with clarity: now that human beings are a threat to nature, and not the other way round, the human approach to anything large and wondrous remains to kill it, or put it in chains.
Just to end on a lighter note: if you look for Neil Young’s song “Helpless” on Youtube, you will find a video where the musician plays it with Bob Dylan. As the song ends, the two start Dylan’s”Knocking on heaven’s door”, only they actually say “Knocking on the dragon’s door”: at first I thought I had misheard, but it is repeated all along. Dragons are truly everywhere.
(Sorry, I couldn’t find the artist who drew this illustration.)