I am a dragons’ rights activist. I learned this last summer when I found myself sobbing at 4 AM over killing a dragon in Dragon Age. Maybe it was because I hadn’t slept in two days, but as I stared at the lifeless body on my screen I thought, ‘Why did I have to kill this dragon to complete this quest? Couldn’t there have been an option to approach it nicely and offer a goat as a peace offering?’ These half-deluded notions have stayed with me since and have motivated me to examine a few of the most popular examples of dragon mythology in fantasy stories.
For thousands of years, dragons in Western mythologies have been portrayed as evil. This dragon is a gold-hoarding, village-decimating monster who must be slain by a Knight-In-Shining-Armour. This tale was popular in medieval times and was brought back to life by the father of modern fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien. The dragon of The Hobbit, Smaug, is created in the medieval tradition of an evil creature that is killed by the protagonist. So while Tolkien re-popularized the mythology of the dragon, he did little to promote a positive view of them.
Recently, however, dragons have been portrayed more dynamically in fantasy works.
In the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling portrays dragons fairly traditionally. What is not traditional is the suggestion that they ought to be treated as well as any other creature. Following the general theme of the series, all beings—including dangerous dragons— should be treated equally and with respect. An especially heart-wrenching example of this is the liberation of the abused Gringotts dragon in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Meanwhile, in A Song of Ice and Fire Daenerys Targaryen develops a parental bond with dragons and eventually comes to be known as the “Mother of Dragons”. While Ice and Fire dragons are still shown as typically dangerous and powerful, the ability to form familial connections with humans is more unique attribute that this fantasy develops.
In these two popular series, we can see a shift from the archetypal evil dragon to a creature that is still dangerous and powerful, but also sympathetic.
The ultimate portrayal of dragons, however, is from—don’t laugh—How To Train Your Dragon. Regardless of the target demographic, it is completely unprecedented in its unique representation of dragons. It breaks all traditional stereotypes from the way dragons look to their behaviours and motivations. There is one Big Bad Dragon™ to satisfy all your traditionalist dragon needs, but the rest of the dragons are as cute and cuddly as cats and definitely cooler than your typical tabby. I guarantee that Toothless will have you pining for a dragon as a pet, even if you’re not a dragon fanatic like me.
At this point you may be thinking: ’But Emily, dragons aren’t even REAL, so why should their depiction in fantasy works even matter?’ Because, dear reader, nothing in fantasy is actually real, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. So I am here today to advocate for the positive, or at least dynamic, portrayal of dragons in future speculative fiction. Why stick to the traditional depiction of dragons as monsters? Should games like Dragon Age be forcing us to kill dragons in order to complete the game? More and more contemporary fantasy works have been giving us new, interesting views of dragons that are, in my humble dragon-obsessed opinion, much more compelling. I’m excited for more Charlie Weasleys, who go to Romania to dedicate their lives to studying dragons. I can’t wait to see more Daenerys Targaryens sharing familial bonds with dragons in order to take back the Seven Kingdoms.
I want more Toothlesses and less Smaugs!
– Contributed by Emily Maggiacomo