Dragons? Really?
September 10, 2011 2:39 PM   Subscribe

So what's up with dragons?

Yes, I'm talking about the mythical creatures. From a literary and story perspective, what's their deal or place as characters or icons? They guard gold, right? Why do they guard gold if they can't use it? Does it have some special significance to them? Are they always evil? I'm familiar with the idea of feeding a young virgin (always female) to the dragon as timely intervals (say once a year) in order to appease it and prevent it from killing everyone else. But that's silly, no animal that size could be satisfied with only eating one human every few months. So what the hell?

Never read much fantasy (and have urgent interest to do so), but am curious about dragons and why they exist as literary creations and how they're used, yet seem to have some strange rationality block about them (come on, nothing that large could fly or if it could, be stopped by medieval knights).
posted by Brandon Blatcher to Writing & Language (49 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
 
Wikipedia's a good place to start.
posted by TheBones at 2:41 PM on September 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


It sounds like you are interested in dragons portrayed in Western mythology. Would you mind clarifying?
posted by spec80 at 2:44 PM on September 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yes, I'm curious about dragons portrayed in Western Mythology.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:46 PM on September 10, 2011


Or for a lack of better term, dragons in Western popular culture, the ones that use the tropes I mentioned in the various questions in the post.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:48 PM on September 10, 2011


TheBones: "Wikipedia's a good place to start"

So's TVTropes.
posted by andrewcilento at 2:56 PM on September 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm familiar with the idea of feeding a young virgin (always female) to the dragon as timely intervals (say once a year) in order to appease it and prevent it from killing everyone else. But that's silly, no animal that size could be satisfied with only eating one human every few months. So what the hell?

That's not far-fetched at all. It's basically the modus operandi of all big snakes.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:56 PM on September 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


In Dungeons and, well, Dragons, there are a large variety of different types of dragons with different traits: The SRD says this:

Although goals and ideals vary among varieties, all dragons are covetous. They like to hoard wealth, collecting mounds of coins and gathering as many gems, jewels, and magic items as possible. Those with large hoards are loath to leave them for long, venturing out of their lairs only to patrol the immediate area or to get food. For dragons, there is no such thing as enough treasure. It’s pleasing to look at, and they bask in its radiance. Dragons like to make beds of their hoards, shaping nooks and mounds to fit their bodies. By the time a dragon matures to the age of great wyrm, hundreds of gems and coins may be imbedded in its hide.
posted by jozxyqk at 2:57 PM on September 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


One writer who's fairly sensible about dragons is Terry Pratchett. The Discworld wiki notes that "Swamp dragons can fly, and have to answer to real physics when they do."

Furthermore, "These dragons are generally called swamp dragons because they evolved in swamps, where there is rather little that can be used as fuel, and this is a problem for animals that create flame to incubate eggs, fight off enemies, predators, and other dragons (competitors for food or territory), or just to dispel boredom. Swamp dragons compensate for this by evolving a huge appetite for anything that can be used for combustion. Swamp dragons can rearrange their "internal plumbing", guts, stomach, other miscellaneous tubes, to make the best use of what they have eaten, and to make the hottest flame they can. When having indigestion (a common ailment for swamp dragons), or being over-excited, a dragon tends to explode, which is the most common (practically the only) cause of death for swamp dragons. Swamp dragons are almost permanently ill; the famous swamp dragon breeder, Lady Sybil Ramkin, has written a book listing all swamp dragon diseases, their symptoms, causes, treatments, and so on. "
posted by MonkeyToes at 2:59 PM on September 10, 2011 [5 favorites]


Well, there's the idea that "olden days" people found some large dinosaur skeletons and made up ideas of how those creatures would actually look.

There's also the amusing idea, which I've read in several places around the internet, that dragons came from the idea of some left over dinosaurs being fought by early man (my favorite).

Dragons are also used to symbolize avarice since they hoard gold and jewels and kill anyone attempting to take these items.
posted by DisreputableDog at 3:00 PM on September 10, 2011


They guard gold, right? Why do they guard gold if they can't use it? Does it have some special significance to them?

Dragons don't guard gold; they hoard it, and it's only male dragons that do this. It's a mating behavior, like bowerbirds. Also, if a dragon sleeps on his hoard long enough, some of the treasure will become embedded in his belly scales, providing additional protection to this vulnerable area.

Are they always evil?

No. The intelligence of dragons can range from animalistic to superhuman. Morality, of course, is irrelevant to non-sentient dragons, and sentient dragons can follow any moral path they choose, just as humans can.

I'm familiar with the idea of feeding a young virgin (always female) to the dragon as timely intervals (say once a year) in order to appease it and prevent it from killing everyone else. But that's silly, no animal that size could be satisfied with only eating one human every few months. So what the hell?

Dragons, by their nature, are carnivores, and their diet consists primarily of large prey animals such as deer or goats. Dragons living near human settlements are also likely to prey on livestock, assuming they have no moral compunction against doing so. There is no biological requirement that a dragon eat humans regularly, or ever.

(come on, nothing that large could fly or if it could, be stopped by medieval knights)

On the contrary. Quetzalcoatlus had a wingspan of approximately 11 meters, and is estimated to have weighed in the area of 200 kilograms. That's quite large enough to be menacing, but still vulnerable to conventional weaponry such as swords and arrows. Reports of dragons much larger than this can be attributed to exaggeration.

Any further questions?
posted by Faint of Butt at 3:03 PM on September 10, 2011 [14 favorites]


Dragons are also used to symbolize avarice since they hoard gold and jewels and kill anyone attempting to take these items.

Thanks, this is kind of specific answer to the the questions asked that I'm looking for.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:03 PM on September 10, 2011


The legend of Fafnir might also offer some insight:

"In Norse mythology, Fáfnir (Old Norse and Icelandic) or Frænir was a son of the dwarf king Hreidmar and brother of Regin and Ótr. In the Volsunga saga, Fáfnir was a dwarf gifted with a powerful arm and fearless soul. He guarded his father's house of glittering gold and flashing gems. He was the strongest and most aggressive of the three brothers.

"Regin recounts to Sigurd how Odin, Loki and Hœnir were traveling when they came across Ótr, who had the likeness of an otter during the day. Loki killed the otter with a stone and the three Æsir skinned their catch. The gods came to Hreidmar’s dwelling that evening and were pleased to show off the otter's skin. Hreidmar and his remaining two sons then seized the gods and held them captive while Loki was made to gather the ransom, which was to stuff the otter’s skin with gold and cover its outside with red gold. Loki fulfilled the task by gathering the cursed gold of Andvari's as well as the ring, Andvarinaut, both of which were told to Loki as items that would bring about the death of whoever possessed them. Fáfnir then killed Hreidmar to get all the gold for himself. He became very ill-natured, so he went out into the wilderness to keep his fortune, eventually turning into a serpent or dragon (symbol of greed) to guard his treasure. Fáfnir also breathed poison into the land around him so no one would go near him and his treasure, wreaking terror in the hearts of the people."
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:08 PM on September 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


I guess you're not interested in non-evil dragons?
posted by purpletangerine at 3:15 PM on September 10, 2011


They guard gold, right? Why do they guard gold if they can't use it?

come on, nothing that large could fly or if it could, be stopped by medieval knights


You should check out a book called The Flight of Dragons by Peter Dickinson (wiki). It undertakes to make sense of all the various parts of the dragon myth (flight, gold, virgin sacrifice) with evolutionary science. It's really entertaining.
posted by mumblingmynah at 3:17 PM on September 10, 2011 [7 favorites]


I guess you're not interested in non-evil dragons?

Well, I'm more interested in basis of the myths of dragons guarding/hoarding gold, which presumably could be for good or evil. Are they examples of non-evil dragons that protect gold? If so, what's the reasons they do so.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:23 PM on September 10, 2011


MonkeyToes: "One writer who's fairly sensible about dragons is Terry Pratchett."

And I'll mention that pretty much all of the original questions are answered (for various values of "answered") in Guards! Guards!. If you haven't read it I won't spoil it, except to mention that the age and sexual experience of the dragon's preferred food source is really secondary to its social and marital status. Something to do with they way they taste, apparently…
posted by Pinback at 3:25 PM on September 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


I also came in to recommend The Flight of Dragons -- the illustrations alone are fantastic. I combed used bookstores for a copy of this one for years in the pre-internet days, and it was entirely worth it. Flight of Dragons was combined with the plot of The Dragon and the George (another must-read!) to make a rather entertaining Rankin-Bass animation, also...
posted by vorfeed at 3:28 PM on September 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


Well, I'm more interested in basis of the myths of dragons guarding/hoarding gold, which presumably could be for good or evil. Are they examples of non-evil dragons that protect gold? If so, what's the reasons they do so.

Again, it's an instinctive behavior. A dragon could choose to take only treasure from certain sources (the enemies of humans with whom the dragon is on good terms, for example). As for what they do take, unintelligent dragons have no sense of value and prize whatever is brightest and shiniest, while an intelligent dragon may be quite a connoisseur of art history. Dragons as a whole are loath to lose any item in their hoard, and keep a mental catalog of each piece, but can sometimes be convinced to part with items through the usual means (i.e., threatening, bargaining or appealing to better nature).
posted by Faint of Butt at 3:36 PM on September 10, 2011


I think dragons are often used in a story because they're an overwhelming opponent. You stick a dragon in there, and there's a very real possibility that the hero isn't going to survive. I haven't read Beowulf in a while, but there's one of the earlier dragons in Western literature in there, and he kills Beowulf--the hero--at the end of it. I feel like that's a theme in the books I've read with dragons in them: often the dragon manages to inflict great--sometimes fatal--wounds on the hero even if the dragon does die in the end.

In some ways, I figure the dragon is the product of an ancient story-telling arms race: if you make your hero so strong that he can easily beat any human challengers, and he's already killed a number of smaller beasties, then what does he fight next? You have to give him something really awful to fight or else he starts to look dull. So you get dragons. They're usually intelligent, which makes them even scarier than just an enraged dumb beast, but they retain all of the attributes of a scary animal too--claws, teeth, agility, strength-- And then on top of that, they can fly and breathe flame too. You get your hero to defeat that, and he's unquestionably a bad ass. Or, in the other direction, if you want something to destroy your hero without making him look horribly weak, you can throw a dragon in there, and your hero can die nobly and without shame.

And in a way, at least in more modern literature, dragons are a bit of blank canvas because the only real requirement is that they look like some kind of winged lizard. So sometimes they can talk, sometimes not; sometimes they have other magical abilities, sometimes not; sometimes they can fly, sometimes not; sometimes they're evil, sometimes not. To my mind they're a more flexible magical beast than, say, the troll. I've read a lot of fairy tales and books with magical creatures in them, and I've come across a wide variety of dragons, but--other than in Terry Pratchett's Discworld--I've only ever come across one kind of troll.
posted by colfax at 3:43 PM on September 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


You should check out the "documentary" Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real. It's the "real story" of what dragons were like. It traces dragons' evolution from the Cretaceous period until they went extinct in the Middle Ages.
posted by nooneyouknow at 3:53 PM on September 10, 2011 [4 favorites]


In northeast Asia, dragons are "good" creatures, and are commonly associated with East, Spring, Blue/Green, and Wood. Dragons can also represent water and are related the naga. The Wikipedia page on Japanese dragons is a great intro to dragons/serpents in eastern/South Asian mythology.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:12 PM on September 10, 2011


It also wouldn't be farfetched to assume that dragon legends in the West were the result of dragon legends brought back on the Silk Road from traders, then adapted to tales of knights/courtly love. The idea of "serpents" as mystical creatures, ala the serpent in the Garden of Eden, dates back very far, and a dragon is basically a modified serpent. There are hints that the serpent in the Garden had feet, in that he was cursed to crawl on his belly after tempting Adam and Even; a serpent with legs is basically a dragon if he's big enough.
posted by emjaybee at 4:13 PM on September 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


Their narrative function is that they are a boss fight that drops mad loot.
posted by empath at 4:22 PM on September 10, 2011 [10 favorites]


Much of western dragonlore comes from Beowulf and Tolkien.

The fantasy genre typically involves magic. Adhering to the reality of physics isn't exactly required.

Ursula Le Guin has some dragons that aren't evil. As I recall they aren't necessarily good; they're just off doing their own thing.

There are at least two obvious recurring themes. One is that they hoard gold (which doesn't necessarily make them evil, but it likely does put them outside of the conventional morality of men). The second is that they are wise, and much more so than men.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:10 PM on September 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


And in Arthurian romances there has to be a quest. Fighting a dragon is as good as the others.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:11 PM on September 10, 2011




The thing about dragons is they're persuasive. Tolkien does some nice things with this in "The Children of Húrin" and Le Guin with the dragon girl in "Tehanu". Tolkien's repellent character Wormtongue is called this because he speaks with evil persuasiveness like a worm, or dragon.
posted by zadcat at 6:07 PM on September 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


On a related note, has anyone ever wondered why the sacrifice always has to be a virgin? I can understand this when sacrificing somebody to the gods, since gods tend to want people who have pure souls and all that. But I really don't think a dragon could tell the difference.
posted by sramsey at 6:14 PM on September 10, 2011


lord...he's the DEVIL. get it? 7 deadly sins and all that? lust (for virgins) gluttony (of sheep) greed (for gold) etc etc...the further back you look at western art, back to the dark ages, the closer the two are related...remember st. george and the dragon? the earlier representations of satan are undeniably dragons (as opposed to his current incarnation as 'horned goat-man'...though he often still retains reptillian aspects...barbed tail, wings, scales, etc) ...midieval monsters are facinating...the sheer abandon with which species were intermixed was delightful...birds and bugs and reptiles and mammals and sometimes even plants all mixed together and flying out of cracks in the walls...*sigh*... they really knew how to do satanism right back then...
posted by sexyrobot at 7:37 PM on September 10, 2011 [4 favorites]


Dragons are sweet and scary because they are like wild animals that are more intelligent than humans. They are primal forces of nature. In Jacqueline Carey's novels Godslayer and Banewreaker, all the gods come from the various body parts of the creator god (who died). So the firstborn, leader type god comes from the head, the compassionate goddess comes from the heart, etc. But dragons? Dragons come from the bones of the creator god, and they know things that not even the gods know.

Dragons are cunning. They are predators who might want to eat you, but they can also talk with you--mostly, probably to toy with you but maybe also to grant you unspeakable magic power.

Also, is it only dragons who guard gold? I have this idea in my head that Jungians would say that many monsters guard treasure, and this symbolizes that the hideous monsters are in fact rejected parts of the self that must be confronted in order to gain the treasure (the strong, creative aspects that have been rejected along with the scary, unacceptable parts). Maybe I just made that up though.

Another similar idea is that monsters are the guardians of the gates, i.e., challenges that you must defeat in order to claim your power and step into the wider world. I think dragons definitely play that role in some stories. Like the Hydra, in Greek mythology, which is probably another of the deep roots of modern dragon stories. Hercules has to kill it as part of his Twelve Labors.
posted by overglow at 7:38 PM on September 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


sexyrobot, I definitely think you're on to something really fascinating. There's definitely some deep mythic connection between dragons and the devil, and I never really realized it before. But do dragons really commit the seven deadly sins?

Let's see:

Wrath--sure, dragons get pissed and burn villages to the ground.

Greed--you covered this.

Sloth--yes, dragons just laze around on their piles of gold most of the time.

Pride--certainly, dragons are arrogant.

Lust--covered.

Envy--I'm not so sure about this. Who would a dragon envy? I'm willing to be convinced though.

Gluttony--already covered.

Well, six out of seven ain't bad.
posted by overglow at 7:43 PM on September 10, 2011


No, no -- In real life a dragon could not possibly care about the sexual experience of its food. That is retconned to make the moral choice here even less ambiguous, and set up the rescued damsel as a love interest for the hero.

Everything has to eat, right? So eating a person is not prima facie evil -- but a person who, though in the first flower of adulthood, has not yet experienced the joys of love? Well, it is pretty sad such a person should die. So a supposed preference for eating such people -- evil, for sure. Especially if they have hair of gold.

And you save some random woman -- she may very well be married and/or a mother already, so however swoony she may feel towards our hero, it is not exactly valiant to deprive children of a mother. If it is established that her um heart has not yet been touched, then obviously romance ensues. Someone rescues you from a dragon, that pretty much bypasses whatever you might have considered dealbreakers under other circumstances.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 8:05 PM on September 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


With regard to the satanism comment...

When Christianity spread north toward the Germanic areas, part of getting the population to accept this new religion and cast aside their pagan beliefs meant integrating and re-imagining their folklore as symbols of Christ/Satan. It was a really interesting hodgepodge of beliefs where folkloric monsters and magic existed together with Christ's sacrifice. It's why Easter is based on a pagan fertility festival, etcetera.

So, while dragons were initially a pagan superstition/belief in the area, Satan's attributes were definitely applied to them after the fact and then became part of the mythos.

In Beowulf, every single monster - from the sea creatures, to Grendel's mother, to the dragon - are described as the surviving offspring of Cain, after he committed the first fratricide and God shunned him. Of course, they also described his first generation of children as Giants who walked the earth, and I don't remember that being in the bible.

There's other non-dragon monsters that this applied to. The Whale was particularly feared (at least, we guess they mean the whale, but it could also be a turtle) and is considered more analogous to Satan because it was about deceit. It was depicted in stories as a false island that lured sailors to land, and once they've left the safety of their ship it would drown them beneath the water.

Previous comments where dragon's hoarding gold because of avarice are very true - this become the dragon's defining feature as far as the religious tangent goes. He's also sometimes considered the symbol of sin itself to be conquered by a hero to prove their virtue. There's also some analogies to be made about Satan appearing as a serpent, and a dragon also being a serpent.

IIRC there's some translations of words in the bible that result in "dragons" mentioned as vague undefined serpent-like monsters.

posted by subject_verb_remainder at 8:15 PM on September 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Are they examples of non-evil dragons that protect gold? If so, what's the reasons they do so.

The Beowulf dragon is referred to several times in the poem as the guardian of its hoard. I don't think it's treated as evil, just destructive. (Although that distinction arguably didn't mean the same thing to the poet as it does to us. Or, more precisely, didn't mean the same thing in the moral framework of the (pre-Christian) culture about which the (Christian) poet was writing. But I digress, and make contentious claims at the same time. Let's move on.)

The story is that some group of people all died, and the last survivor buried their treasure in a barrow before himself dying. He commits the treasure (back) to the earth:
"Hold now, o thou earth, for heroes cannot,
the wealth of men — Lo, from you long ago
those good ones first obtained it! Death in war,
and awful deadly harm have swept away
all of my people who have passed from life,
and left the joyful hall.
(Liuzza's translation, about line 2250)
This guy grieves some more, then dies, leaving the barrow open. A dragon takes up residence:
... An old beast of the dawn
found that shining horde [sic] standing open —
he who, burning, seeks the barrows,
a fierce and naked dragon ...
... It is his nature to find
a hoard in the earth, where, ancient and proud,
he guards heathen gold, though it does him no good.
(roughly lines 2270 to 2280)
There things stand for three hundred years. Then somebody sneaks into the barrow and steals a cup. The dragon, enraged, comes out and starts burning down villages and killing people.

So, the poet doesn't explain why the dragon guards this hoard (or why dragons guard hoards in general). One way to read between the lines: this gold was given back to the earth; stealing it back will make the earth angry. In a sense, the gold is cursed; the dragon is just the implementation of the curse.
posted by stebulus at 9:10 PM on September 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Another reading of the Beowulf dragon's hoarding behavior is that it is contrasted with the values of Beowulf's society, where gifts and good hospitality are important means of cementing social bonds. Good leaders are known as "ring-givers" because they distribute gold to their bands of followers. The dragon is solitary and does not share the wealth.
posted by Orinda at 9:42 PM on September 10, 2011 [3 favorites]


From a literary and story perspective, what's their deal or place as characters or icons?

Well, this has nothing to do with the tropes you mention (as far as I know), but anciently, I think the idea was that a dragon is a sea serpent, and the sea represents chaos (as in the first few verses of Genesis, for example). A battle between a god and a dragon is thus a battle between order and chaos: if the god wins, it's part of the establishment of the cosmic order with the gods in charge (see Typhon versus Zeus, Tiamat1 versus Marduk); if the dragon wins, or if both die, it's the end of the established order (see Jormungand vs Thor, and maybe the dragon vs Beowulf, as a metaphor for the end of the pre-Christian culture, or just specifically the Geats).

Hm. I see Wikipedia is ahead of me here, and has more examples.

1Wikipedia sez Tiamat is not actually a dragon in any extant ancient text.
posted by stebulus at 9:43 PM on September 10, 2011


Avram Davidson's Adventures in Unhistory (highly recommended) has a chapter on dragons. The book is generally about the origins of various legends, usually as confabulations and confusions of travelers' tales passed through a giant game of Telephone. I think he connected dragons to elephants in some way.
The dragon is solitary and does not share the wealth.
This just makes me think of Alan Moore's dragon that looks like a cat.
posted by eruonna at 11:45 PM on September 10, 2011


Revelation 12 has some explicit linking of Satan to an enormous red dragon with seven heads.
Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. 8 But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. 9 The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
(NIV)

I also like this imagry: "Then from his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river," which isn't exactly fire breathing.

It isn't clear whether this is imagery or actually taking place.*

I don't know any Greek (or Hebrew) to look and see what else the word for 'dragon' could mean.

* I think it's explaining what spiritually happened during the Christmas story, rather than the baby in a Manger physical history story.
posted by titanium_geek at 12:07 AM on September 11, 2011


In Beowulf, every single monster - from the sea creatures, to Grendel's mother, to the dragon - are described as the surviving offspring of Cain, after he committed the first fratricide and God shunned him.

I always love the special mention of Cain as the ancestor of Someone Evil.
IIRC, Abel was killed without issue. Therefore, every single human being now alive is descended from Cain.
posted by likeso at 1:52 AM on September 11, 2011


Back when I was writing my wishywashy undergrad psuedo-thesis on dragons, the most interesting bit of my research to me was that every physical aspect of a dragon could be traced to an animal that early humans had complex relationships with. Depending on the relationship with these animals, you can easily see a development of the "type" of dragon that became prevalent in folklore.

It kind of all boiled down to snakes, big cats, horned animals like antelopes or aurochs, and large raptor birds like eagles. The combination of these real animal traits into one terrifying or super-powerful beast makes for a good warning about predators, easily fits in lots of metaphors for various human behavior, and of course makes a cracking good story.

This was all soft anthropology theory stuff, but it made a heck of a lot of sense to me as a budding folklorist at the time. Like for example, you see in early asian dragon illustrations that the horns look far more like antelope horns on the dragons that are supposed to be benevolent. And in europe, the addition of a goat-like beard on dragons coincides with the whole christian - goat - devil thing taking proper hold.

Books that may interest you that I still own after repeated culling of my "dragon library": Little History of Dragons, Dragons and Unicorns, a Natural History, and Fire in the Dragon and Other Psychoanalytic Essays on Folklore.
posted by Mizu at 2:53 AM on September 11, 2011


I always though the virgin bit came from Greek sea monster stories (Andromeda, Hesione) filtered through Latin. In those myths, the royal blood of the girls is more important than their sexual past, but because virgo in Latin is used for pretty much all young girls (like the female equivalent of iuvenis, youth) they would have been called virgines. From there, it's a pretty easy mental leap to "scaly monsters like to eat virgins."
posted by oinopaponton at 7:15 AM on September 11, 2011


Female virgins are favoured for sacrifice because they are valuable. Sure, a real-life lizard wouldn't care.

Also, from the virgin's POV: being sacrificed to a monster is a manifestation in story of anxieties around getting married. (Wikipedia sez that in the St. George story, the king's daughter is "decked out as a bride" when they send her to the lake to get eaten.)

Of course I'm just making this stuff up.
posted by stebulus at 9:26 AM on September 11, 2011


One way of looking at the dragon is not as myth, that is; fiction, but as early transfer of knowledge about animals that lived in faraway place that hardly anyone had travelled to themselves, but about which tales were retold. Tales either from historical sources or from travellers.
Medieval encyclopediae of knowledge about exotic animals were called bestiaries.
In a bestiary one can find somewhat factual knowledge about dromedaries besides 'knowledge' about dragons.
posted by joost de vries at 10:01 AM on September 11, 2011


WRT the list of the seven deadly sins above - dragon's don't envy, but they do covet and therefore hoard.
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:05 PM on September 11, 2011


likeso: "Therefore, every single human being now alive is descended from Cain."

Adam and Eve had a third son, Seth, who is the start of a massive 'begat' passage in Genesis.

posted by titanium_geek at 6:13 PM on September 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is nothing but my own musings, and I may be a douche. Also it's 1am and I'm falling asleep at the keyboard so this may be brief. Anyway:

At the end of the day, what most people basically want is to be treated with respect, to be powerful and good at what they do, to have nothing in the way of material want, and to have a quality human being as a mate/partner. Ye Olde Dragon in the average tale is just a cookie-cutter villain - no different to whatever dictator or crime boss is the villain in the average Hollywood action flick.

If the dragon were a person instead, you'd suddenly have on your hands the classic dictator, really. Doesn't need wealth, but takes it anyway and hoards it for himself just because he can - like the rulers who tax citizens into the dirt while they live in mansions they don't need, or even just the jerk playground bully who takes your lunch money that he doesn't need. Demands that the people living in his domain worship him for no real reason, like how, say, under Saddam's regime it was mandatory to celebrate his birthday with big posters and flags on your house, or you were arrested (or so I heard). Takes their women for himself - again, the rich guy or jock guy who seduces other people's wives and doesn't care about the damage, or just out-and-out rapes the women he wants, etc. Your classic dragon is just a complete prick of a human being with fire breath and scales.

So the hero kills it and solves everything in a stroke - he's got rid of the jerk-ass and set the people free, he gallantly rescues a woman from danger (common fantasy for men, apparently), and wins himself a pile of wealth and respect, all in one go.

People just like to recycle things and a massive lizard makes a good pre-cut plot device, which is why I suspect they get re-used so often.

Also, to quickly address a few of your other questions: a dragon might demand a sacrifice, but it doesn't necessarily mean that's all they eat. And to a lot of people, the fact that a dragon's too big to fly just won't register - lots of people can't analyse things completely objectively and see what is definitely possible and what isn't - if they could then there'd never be any mistakes in engineering or construction or in anything at all, to be honest.

As for the implausibility of knights in armour killing a fifty-foot beast of ill-tempered pointy bits: I practice karate, and I can punch reasonably hard. It is my dream, one day, to punch my opponent so hard he smashes through a wall and lies in the rubble dazed and confused (but unharmed except for his wounded pride) while all the hot girls in the room swoon at my prowess. That will never, ever, ever happen ever. Doesn't mean I don't enjoy thinking about it, though. ;)
posted by Fen at 6:13 PM on September 11, 2011


My perspective on the gold hoarding is as follows:

Dragons are pretty much impossible under normal physics. Size of a bus, flies, breathes fire? Right. "Flight of the Dragons" had the awesome "organic zeppelin" idea but that is totally undignified, and dragons are noble beasts IMHO. Dragons do their flying, fire breathing, and occasional shapeshifting via magic.

They're rare because, well, ain't much magic in the world. All the mana sources have pretty much passed their half-life. We might get some more showing up, we might have permanently passed Peak Mana, I dunno. (See Niven's "The Magic Goes Away" and its sequels for more in that vein.)

Which brings us to the gold. Even before peak mana, dragons consumed a lot of the stuff just to live. Gold, as it happens, tends to accumulate background mana and focus it in one place. Sitting on a pile of the stuff is the draconic equivalent of a sun-bather using a few mirrors to catch all the rays she can.

Don't believe that? Well, in the words of the dragon in John Gardner's Grendel, "My advice to you [...] is to seek out gold and sit on it.”

Oh, and the preference for virgins, especially noble ones? Have you ever really thought about how many diseases your average post-pubescent medieval peasant would be carrying? Man, if I was a dragon, I sure wouldn't wanna put one of those in my mouth. Sure, you have the purifying fire, but sometimes you want sushi, you know? The day to day diet is more along the lines of cows, probably with pretty lazy lifestyles like any other creature prone to occasional binge eating. Princesses are a sometimes food.
posted by egypturnash at 6:32 PM on September 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


"Princesses are a sometimes food." Love it!
posted by titanium_geek at 3:01 AM on September 12, 2011


Adam and Eve had a third son, Seth, who is the start of a massive 'begat' passage in Genesis.

What a blunder! Thanks, titanium_geek, good call. :)
posted by likeso at 4:51 AM on September 12, 2011


« Older Help me get over being dumped for the first time.   |   Come for the meeting, stay for the candy. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.