Recommendations from a cynical self-appointed dragon expert, right here
I recently wrote about the irrelevance of the dragon as a fantasy antagonist. As the world changes around us at an ever-increasing pace, it’s not just industry and job stability in the real world that has been proved to require severe modernisation – even entities in fiction are not exempt from the rigours of the modern reality. Examining everything through this lens of scrutiny perhaps creates an impression that I don’t like dragons. Which isn’t true, I just like the concept of dragons more than I like the execution of dragons, but a few notable novels stand out. There are good dragons and there are bad dragons. Here are a few of the good ones.
Terry Pratchett, Guards! Guards!
Who would expect Pratchett do anything banal with a dragon? While acknowledging the mythical templates set down by ancient mythology, Pratchett’s Errol is a stunted mockery of the grandiosity associated with dragons and turns the hype arse backwards. Testament to Pratchett’s skill with words, the result is still highly entertaining.
George R.R. Martin, ASoIaF
An obvious choice, there are no prizes for guessing that Martin’s sprawling epic would show up here. GRRM’s work, considered as a deconstruction of stereotypical fantasy, takes a look at some of the problems of incorporating dragons into a setting. This is most apparent in Meereen, where Martin gives us refreshing look at how a trio of large fire-breathing lizards can cause all manner of social and political complications by being temperamental and scaring the population, even when not a direct threat. While a lot of fantasy treat dragons as part of scenery, and continue as if they aren’t of significant consequence, the dragons in ASoIaF serve as a much-needed look at how humans are likely to respond when they are knocked off the top of the food chain.
Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant
The dragon in The Buried Giant is a nice example of a trope undermined. Rooted in Arthurian legend, the book plays the concept of a dragon exactly as straight as you’d expect, with the serious tone of the novel and the dragon’s absence, lending the concept some refreshing mystery, rather than putting it front and centre as a marketing piece. In his typically controlled style, Ishiguro’s dragon, when we eventually get to it, is not quite the climax you might expect. Readers gearing up with a cathartic payoff might be underwhelmed, but I was entirely grateful for the way that Ishiguro handled the scene.
The Welsh Dragon
I mean, is there any explanation necessary here? Simultaneously encompassing the majesty and radiation of power, but an original strutting swagger that lends a character that cannot be denied. The Welsh dragon is not just a good dragon; the Welsh dragon is the best dragon.
The fact that dragons generally induce an eyeroll from me has, admittedly, made my list of dragons examples limited and in the immense heap of fantasy literature clanging its way around the publishing world, awkwardly challenging other books to duels, there’s almost certainly some more examples of interesting dragons. The point is that the examples here are not reinventing the wheel, they’re just considering how their dragons work as a functional part of the setting, not as a final boss encounter, proving that dragons don’t have to be leading a Russian-style revolution in fur hats. They just need to go one or two steps beyond stock thematic archetypes from a few thousand years ago, and they will be at least worthy of consideration.