July 2, 2010

Why Dragons Are Cool

        That dragons are seriously cool is, of course, a given among all right-thinking people (i.e. readers of fantasy.) But what is it about dragons that makes them so much more fascinating than other monsters? Perhaps it’s obvious:
1. huge predator, massive as Tyrannasaurus Rex, lithe as a tiger,
2. magically enhanced weaponry, such as poison and fire,
3. flight, what every person dreams of and what every prey creature fears.
        What’s not to love? Add to that the possibility of a hoard of treasure, and it all looks pretty good. That’s where some dragons end: as the ultimate test of valor for Our Hero. That’s St. George’s dragon, for example, or J. K. Rowling’s Hungarian Horntails. However, this view of dragons leaves them on a par with plenty of other beasties provided by a generous mythology for warriors to battle. It’s good stuff, but it’s really nothing special.
        Now add to that awesome physique sentience… and Voila! You get the coolest fantasy creature ever. Now your dragon, if it be wicked, requires more than brute strength to vanquish. There must be wit to match the dragon’s guile, wisdom to match the ancient knowledge of a creature that learns for centuries. There must be psychological strength to withstand the cruel taunts of a monster that understands how to play on our emotions and fears. There must be creativity to discover the hidden weakness of a predator too perfectly designed to be conquered by the mere physical strength of any puny human. Now that’s just the thing for a ripping good tale!
        It is the combination of deadly power with formidable intelligence that makes possible Bilbo Baggins’s conversation with Smaug, or Ged’s bargain with the Dragon of Pendor. What could be cooler than the contest of will against will and wit against wit, with fanged and fiery death as the penalty for the slightest miscalculation?
        Sentience, however, shifts the dynamic between dragons and humans in one more way. It holds open the possibility of understanding, the possibility of alliance. This is the most recent development in fantasy (especially Western fantasy): good dragons. Personally, I don’t care so much for cute, friendly dragons. We have unicorns for that. (Although I’ll admit to being fond of My Father’s Dragon, and The Reluctant Dragon.) A truly cool dragon requires some high stakes uncertainty: the possibility of painful annihilation balanced with the possibility of earning that Top Predator as an ally, or even a friend. This combination pushes every Cool Fantasy Creature button there is: awesome powers, keen intelligence, animals that can talk, and animals that might even let you ride them – flying, no less! Whoooeee!
        I thought I’d put together a list of some of my favorite dragons, and much to my surprise, I could come up with only a short list. Apparently my entire beloved concept of dragons has been built up on only a few examples. Strange. At any rate, I’m sure you’ll have a different list, so please share yours. (And just for fun I threw in a couple of my own dragons, because of course I tried to create them to reflect all that I find coolest in dragonhood.)

Droofus in How Droofus the Dragon Lost His Head, B. Peet
Kalessin in Tehanu, U. LeGuin
Kazul in Dealing With Dragons, P. Wrede
Koir in Song Against Shadow, A. Nydam
Kurit in A Threatening of Dragons, A. Nydam
Smaug in The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
Yevaud (The Dragon of Pendor) in A Wizard of Earthsea, U. LeGuin (Actually, what’s cool here is not so much the dragon himself, but the interaction between dragon and wizard.)

Also, not quite the epitome of dragon coolness, but still good dragon-based fun:
Boris in Elmer and the Dragon and The Dragons of Blueland, R. Gannett
Chrysophylax in Farmer Giles of Ham, J.R.R. Tolkien
Embyr, Pyro, Byrn, etc. in Dragon’s Milk, S. Fletcher
Toothless in the movie “How to Train Your Dragon” (but not in the book, where he's pretty annoying)
unnamed dragon in The Reluctant Dragon, K. Grahame
[Pictures: Watchful Dragon, Knot-tailed Dragon,
rubber block prints by AEGN, 2008 (sold out).]


Anne E.G. Nydam said...

P.S. Having now read the "How to Train Your Dragon" series I have to say that Toothless as portrayed in the books is most definitely not cool! In fact, he's pretty much the exact opposite of dragon coolness (which is Cowell's point, of course.)

Tim Moon said...

Wonderful article Anne! I'm a big fan of dragons myself particularly those along the lines of the Dragonlance series and D&D. I thought the dragon in Eragon (the Inheritance series) was pretty good - a strong, smart, powerful companion.

Have you read any of Christopher Paolini's books?

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Hello, Tim! It's always nice to meet another dragon-lover!
I have to admit that I wasn't a huge fan of Eragon - I felt that there weren't any particularly interesting twists on the formula - but I'll absolutely agree with you that Saphira is a most excellent dragon companion!

Unknown said...

what about the asian dragons? the ones that are praised as gods?

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

I think these are really a different kind of creature altogether, despite that we use the same word in English to describe them. They're certainly awesome and cool, but in a rather different way.