Dragons Drag On in the 21st Century

They’re overused, don’t make sense, and the Rule of Cool isn’t going to save them forever.

Is anybody else bored of dragons? I can’t remember the last time I was interested in reading a fantasy book involving one. These days they can actively turn me off reading a book. Perhaps the market it just oversaturated with them, trading on the back of the likes of A Song of Ice and Fire and Skyrim, and as a result I’ve become overexposed to the fire-breathing reptiles. On the other hand, when I think about it, I suspect that dragons as a concept have become the source of their own diluted significance.

Before I go on, and so the Internet doesn’t yell at me, I won’t be dealing with the  numerous types of dragon here. I’m dealing purely with the traditional Western concept – large, stocky, reptilian quadrupeds. Bat wings, breathes fire, and enjoys hoarding gold and nubile young women. Those guys.  

Dragons have always been symbolic of something awe inspiring, mythical, forces blurring the line between the supernatural and the natural. Frequently portrayed as highly intelligent, the more animalistic variety are portrayed with an apex-predator cunning that outmatches all other fauna, while the more supernatural portrayals can often speak human languages and have few problems with advanced subjects that tax even a human mind. They are almost universally powerful, whether by sheer brute force and the ability to drown everything they don’t like in a torrent of fire, or by intellectual prowess, experience, and an arsenal of mystic abilities; there are very few creatures that are supposed to be able to go toe-to-toe with your typical dragon. The problem is that all too frequently none of this is true. Dragons have a good marketing team, but so much the image boils down to literary gold leaf. Peel back the shiny outer layer and all too frequently there’s no substance to the style.

The mythical dragon has become one of the stock antagonists of the fantasy setting. They are everywhere, usually said to be incredibly rare, but there’s always one around ready to do something unnecessary. If you need a guard dog for a MacGuffin, use a dragon. If someone you know was attacked, use a dragon. If you broke a nail, use a dragon. The problem dragons have stems from one of their greatest assets: their prestige. They have accumulated enough of a reputation to be able to coast comfortably and there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of energy around them despite their legendary status as a fantastic force of nature.

Worse, the traditionalists will actively reject any movement on the dragon, if you give too much information about them then they’re likely to lose their sense of unknowable power. Except, I’d say we’re long past the point that they’ve already lost it. Through repetition and familiarity their appearance elicits, if anything at all, a Pavlovian response rather than a genuine sense of interest or awe. We have been bombarded with the cultural notion that we supposed to ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ at the big scaly reptiles for long enough that we do so without thinking. The market is oversaturated and even centuries of compounded cultural association has its limits. It’s not enough to coast on in the modern world. Dragons, like everything else, are going to have to adapt to the times, or become obsolete.

Dragons raise questions. When a dragon appears, the usual questions it should be raising are ‘where does it come from’, ‘what does it want?’ and (usually) ‘how do they make it go away?’ The unflattering reality is that the questions dragons raise now are ‘why does it want gold?’, ‘why does it want women?’ and ‘what the hell is it supposed to do with either of those things?’

Dragons used to be more allegorical. They frequently stood in for the concept of greed. To a post-Christian capitalist audience to whom humility and poverty is clearly not a sign of character nor an indication of future riches in any sense of the word, and authors who understandably don’t feel a need for anyone to dispense another shallow and thinly veiled sermon on the corrupting influence of money, dragons have needed to stand on their own terms for a while now.

Historically, they’ve had enough collateral to get by on shock and awe. Fly faster, roar louder, breathe more fire, eat more peasants, show up during a storm, accentuate the theatrics. It worked well for a while. But the audience is more educated now, they’ve grown up in a world that has reinforced the importance of asking questions and considering critically. Entire economies of information and learning, with lectures, essays, and podcasts dedicated to tackling dense topics and teaching new skills and modes of thinking. We’ve all seen the lizards overhead and the screaming princesses and the burning buildings, and we’re used to it now. Dragons, however, aren’t used to being cross-examined, but shock-and-awe no longer cuts it. Yes, it’s fiction, but that doesn’t get you off the hook – if anything it invites interrogation. The modern world is a court room and everybody is on trial. Get used to answering questions, whether you’re a peasant or a force of nature.

As an avatar of avarice, dragons are an odd choice, especially when that avarice is focused on a human-centric economy. What is a dragon supposed to do with a hoard of gold coins? Sleep on them? Why? What possible explanation is there for a big species of lizard inexplicably being driven to sleep on a big pile of gold? What was wrong with a human as the avaricious wealth hoarder? There are so many basic problems with the concept of dragons as wealth hoarders. 

For a start, how are these dragons even getting hold of all this gold? If they’re extorting the local kingdom and having the humans deliver it and dump it on the floor, given the rarity of gold, presumably the hoard will only grow to a certain size before you bankrupt the entire country. This begs the question – does the gold have to be in coin form or part of a crafted object, or will gold ore do? Clearly, they’re not going to use all of this wealth, even if they know how to. There’s probably not a lot in the local economy that they’re going to buy or couldn’t just take by force. 

If they’re more of the force-of-nature style dragon, presumably they will be stealing the gold directly, but how? Are they showing up to the local bank with a swag bag? They don’t have opposable thumbs, how are they carrying all of these coins? What drives this greed? Are they magical magpies, intent on attracting a mate? Wouldn’t any shiny object work? Why primarily the obsession with gold? What is the link between shininess and value to the mind of a dragon? I suppose the idea of a dragon sleeping on a pile of pepper, cattle, or other period-centric valuable resource just isn’t as romantic.  

Once they’ve got this big hoard of gold, and presuming they link shiny objects with value, whether instinctually or consciously, why would they be hiding in some dank cave? It’s far more likely that the more bestial dragons would just take up residence in the shiniest building in the area, and the intelligent dragons would force the local humans to literally build them an opulent palace out of polished marble and precious gems. If there are multiple dragons in the area, or if dragons are migrating through the area looking for a new home, there’s a good chance of territorial battles over these sparkling locations. Presumably, you don’t want to be around these places during mating season…

Abducting humans is an even weirder choice. Humans, it seems, should actually have relatively little to fear from dragons. As a source of food, humans might, at most, make for a light snack. They’re relatively populous, they’re easy to pick up. Humans, to a dragon, are the equivalent of peanuts at the pub. If a dragon were after an actual meal, they’d probably want something more calory-intensive, like livestock and horses. This bears out, it’s common enough for fantasy to have dragons snatching cows and horses off the ground, it serves as good foreshadowing to the audience while also making sense. If the world is high fantasy and filled with mythological creatures, they’d probably feed on even larger prey, like giants or ettins.

Unless it was starving, I can’t see any reason for a dragon to eat humans, it would be like a bear trying to survive on field mice. If they’re starving, it’s probable that they’d just migrate to new territories since they can fly and cover great distances in a short time. Given the sheer size of the typically described dragon, they’d eat through the local fauna in a relatively short time, unless they either had incredibly slow metabolisms, or the local food chain can somehow replace its giant-sized prey with alarming speed. Given that a dragon seems to spend a fair amount of time flying, and considering that it would take a great amount of energy to keep these behemoths in the air, we can assume that they’re burning through energy very quickly. Given the problems of energy consumption and limited longevity of food sources, there is literally no reason for them to be particularly attached to a single feeding ground or territory.

This leads to the next obvious questions – why virgins? Why nobility? In what way is a dragon interfacing with human ideas of social hierarchy or notions of sexuality in relation to equally abstract concepts of spiritual purity? If they are just after a meal, and have, for some inexplicable reason, decided that humans are the choice, the bafflement inspired by this choice of food is only made more bemusing by the deliberate limiting of their pool of nutrients to an incredibly niche class of humans.

We’re going to assume that dragons demanding virgin nobility are of the intelligent type. If the intelligent dragon is concerned with the sexual history of its food… why wouldn’t the locals just grab a peasant girl, give her a bath, throw her into a nice frock and lie? Even if this peasant girl works in the local brothel, there’s no reason for a dragon, no matter how intelligent, to be any the wiser. How is it planning to verify whether or not its next offering is a virgin? Actually, given the historical precedents on that front, perhaps I’d rather not know…

If the virgin humans are demanded for some other purpose… what is it? They all seem to disappear, or are just kept as a trophy, so they’re either food or substitute gold.

If they’re food, we run into a problem of scarcity. There’s going to be, quite quickly, a limit to how many virgin women you can demand vs how many the local population can supply, given the lengthy time between birth and biological sexual development – which I assume is the marker here? Otherwise, surely, you’d just offer babies? As that point is gender an issue? Probably not. At a time when infant mortality was incredibly high, the willingness to offer up a baby or two probably wouldn’t be that low. If the probability of death prior to the first year is high, and you’re only sacrificing the one or two kids per year, as is traditional, then you’re basically just saving time on grave digging. Hell, if the dragon isn’t fussed about age or gender, you’d probably end up with a horrific industry of ‘breeders’ – women specifically kept in order to supply dragon-tithes. Which is pretty grim, but ultimately seems to make the most sense in that specific scenario. In the traditional scenario, it seems like the only outcome is depopulation and the drying up of the food source.

If human virgins are not food, you’ve got a really weird scenario where the dragon is basically keeping a human as a luxury pet. It therefore has to keep its human alive, fed and sheltered for a start. Presuming that the human comes from nobility and is standing in for valuables, we can assume that the presentation of that human is going to matter to the dragon. Humans get pretty nasty pretty fast if they’re not maintained. If that human is squatting in a cave all day… they’re going to end up incredibly dishevelled in under two weeks, unless the dragon is also acting like some kind of groomer. Humans become show ponies for big reptiles. If the human becomes dishevelled and the dragon isn’t acting as the groom, what happens then? How a big reptile goes about maintaining its show-human, and for what reason is its own series of bemusing musings…

The theme here is that the focus is always the dragon itself, not the effect of a dragon on the setting. In trying to convince the readers that dragons are this big bad threat that everybody should be scared of, the hype train of mythology has been scarcely delivered on by the novel writing of the contemporary era. The expectation that ‘dragon’ is synonymous with awful power is taken for granted and so the fact that they can wreak great swathes of destruction and steal a local virgin princess is never questioned, and is thus never truly considered outside of the bounds of a plot hook. The actual consequences of having a dragon exist in your setting, and the immediate effects it would imply on any location that one existed in, exists in a strange fictional blind spot. Which is a shame, because having them exist in this unquestioned format creates reams of inconsistencies between their mythos and their portrayal, for instance – if they’re such a big deal then why aren’t the army, with ballistae and war bows, dealing with this threat instead of a small gaggle of glorified mercenaries with, from the dragon’s perspective, toothpicks. A dragon actually seems to inadvertently make a setting shallower by removing the impetus to world build around it, due to the weight of pre-existing expectations and presuppositions alone.

I shy away from sword-and-sorcery-style fantasy these days, and in part a lot of that comes from the tendency for the worldbuilding to be very wide, but either shallow or unrelated to the story. If you can give me a five thousand-year history of a central bit of your setting, but can’t tell me how it impacts your setting in story-relevant terms, then you need to think about that element in more pragmatic terms. Five thousand years of historical fluff is nice, but if that element exists in a bubble, never relating to the world around it, in effect becoming little more than check box for the protagonist to put a tick in before moving on, then more focused consideration needs to be taken. This, I think, is the problem dragons find themselves in. Volumes of precedent has created an understanding that little more needs to be said about them, when in fact that very opposite is true.

Fantasy as a genre needs to move away from just accepting old narratives and take a close look at the way their settings work on a down-to-earth way and the grounded impact of any one element on another. Frequently those legends were limited by technology and format, if you’re conveying most stories through word of mouth and they serve as allegory, there isn’t a practical purpose to deepening them beyond a point. In the modern era we have more space to expand and add to these old archetypes than we can use. The dragon, being so ubiquitous an association with the genre, is a good place for examination. Languishing on its old legends, it has not kept up, even with more mundane concerns gaining an increasing, and much needed, presence in the genre, such as economics and politics. If the dragon symbolises anything in contemporary fantasy, it is stagnation or irrelevance.    


One comment

  1. Thank you Francis for your latest offering – another fascinating glimpse into the workings of your mind!

    You create a very cogent argument and I am just surprised that dragons are still appearing in adult fantasy fiction. You might remember that I have never been a fan of that stuff myself and in fact I think the last book I read which featured a dragon was about a very friendly one called Ashley, which was beloved by Mikaela. You are right about the mythological archetypical purpose of dragons; as with witches and ogres in literature they speak to our unconscious; they are frightening but safe at the same time … rather like life itself when we are very young.

    Anyway, all good stuff and really enjoyed reading it!


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