There is perhaps no fantasy creature that is as awesome, iconic and ubiquitous as the dragon, which is as popular in mythology as it is in fiction. In fantasy novel terms, perhaps the earliest fictional depiction of a dragon appeared in The Hobbit, J R R Tolkien’s 1937 prelude to The Lord of the Rings. In Tolkien’s story Smaug the Dragon is entirely antagonistic, although it must be said that he makes an eloquent and charming villain, and many of the other authors who wrote novels in the same epic fantasy tradition have also utilised dragons as principal antagonists for their heroes. For example, in the first volume of Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, the ‘iceworm’ Igjaruk is depicted as an implacable foe, while the dragons which appear in Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders and George R R Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, while not strictly evil as such, are at best amoral and certainly not friendly or safe to be around. Although there are exceptions (notably in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern) this appears to be a common theme with dragons in literature – the heroes take care around these fabulous beasts, even when they appear to be on the same side. For the origins of this contradictory characterisation of dragons, we must look to real world mythology rather than speculative fiction.
In Europe, early cartographers were known to place the Latin phrase hic sunt dracones or ‘here be dragons’ on maps and globes to denote dangerous or unexplored territories. This is consistent with the fact that in this part of the world dragons had almost entirely negative associations, stemming from references in the Bible and, even earlier than that, from Greco-Roman Classical mythology. Greek myths are full of references to dragons: Ladon was the serpent-like dragon that twined around the tree in the Garden of the Hesperides and guarded the golden apples; the Lernaean Hydra was a dragon-like water serpent with fatally venomous breath, blood and fangs; and the Colchian Dragon guarded the Golden Fleece. In the New Testament, the Devil takes the form of a red dragon with seven heads and ten horns (echoing the multi-headed Ladon and Hydra) in his battle against the Archangel Michael. Both the Norse dragon Fafnir and the dragon which appears in the Old English poem Beowulf breathed fire, which was to become another key aspect of later literary depictions of these beasts. Like the other dragons in European folklore, they were also entirely malignant.
Interestingly, on the other side of the world an entirely different body of mythology concerning dragons grew up, one in which the beasts were revered rather than feared. To this day, in Asian religions and cultures, especially China, dragons are often held to have major spiritual significance and are venerated as representative of the primal forces of nature, religion and the universe. They are also associated with wisdom and longevity and are commonly said to possess some form of magic or other supernatural power. In Asian mythology, dragons are not the same unthinking brutes as their European counterparts but are capable of kindness, reason and speech. In some cultures, dragons are said to have taught humans to talk and are even described as having the power to assume human form at will. It remains the case that in China those born in the Year of the Dragon are considered to have been blessed with good fortune.
The prevalence of dragons in mythology all over the world perhaps suggests that there is some truth behind the legends that relate to these fabulous beasts. Real world animals that may have inspired a belief in dragons include the gigantic Nile crocodile, the now extinct rainbow serpent and, of course, the Komodo Dragon. Although there is virtually no evidence to support their hypothesis, some creationists believe that the dragons of folklore were actually a type of dinosaur, and that they died out with other prehistoric creatures around the end of the ice age. Whatever the truth behind the myth of dragons is, one thing is certain: dragons do live on, in film, fiction and fantasy and are likely to continue to inspire authors, artists and adventure gamers for many years to come!