In the final part of this dragon narrative examining series, I take a look at the outcome of a dragon attacking a major settlement, or being paid off to leave it be.
The story so far
The standard template dragon-as-antagonist fantasy goes something like this: Everyone’s happy. Dragon shows up. Burns down the city or steals the local nobleman’s daughter. The nobleman puts out a hit on the dragon, people try to kill it and fail, and then some sort of chosen boy turns up, whacks the lizard, shags the bird in a forest, and everyone lives happily ever after.
It’s a story arc that completely ignores everybody who’s just had their lives destroyed by a dragon; as long as the hero’s getting some, and presumably producing children, then everything’s OK. The reality is that if a dragon turns up and burns the city down then everything is very far from OK. In fact, the best of a selection of bad options might just be for the noble to exchange their kid to save their city. However, given that there’s no story without tragedy, it’s worth considering the idea that the aftermath of the dragon’s attack is where the real story is. The overhyped showdown between the hero and the dragon to save the damsel is the storytelling equivalent of bumfluff. So, what actually happens with a burned city? A bunch, actually. As is the general theme with this series of posts, the level of destruction is going to determine how much Cerberus syndrome you end up with.
A little singed
If a dragon destroys just part of a city in an era where technology is limited and rebuilding is a slow and resource-intensive process, the wider and longer-term arc of those effects are there a long time after the knight has slain the dragon, rescued the princess, and stumbled through the first shag in an unexpectedly scenic bit of woodland.
People return to their homes, pick up their lives and go back to normal. Those who have homes left, at least. Specifically, the very few with residences far enough away from the burnt bits of city that they might be able to effectively place a buffer zone between themselves and the urban spill-over areas inhabited by the dispossessed. Nobody would ever be entirely insulated; medieval cities weren’t large enough for the kind of social fragmentation facilitated by the expanses of distended suburban sprawl characteristic of the modern metropolis.
A whole stretch of construction and infrastructure burning to the ground means a whole swathe of people are homeless, out of work or both. The local economy takes an immediate hit, with few people able to work and thus pay taxes. Suddenly, a significant portion of the city’s population is homeless and unless there are a significant number of empty properties lying around, then there aren’t a great many places to put those people. Unfortunately, there are almost certainly not a bunch of empty buildings. At this point in history you couldn’t pull a London and just build a bunch of tower blocks full of luxury flats that nobody can afford and leave them empty because it counts as an investment. Fixing the spike in homelessness doesn’t have a (theoretically) simple solution in this scenario.
Without a means of easily rehousing people, a portion of the newly destitute population become migrants and disperse to other neighbouring settlements where the potential for establishing a new life is perhaps more feasible instead of being locked behind the uncertain local ability to rebuild. Some sell up and leave for safer pastures before the dragon returns and they risk losing what wealth and possessions they do have, to further fire. This adds to the number of people on the road, though unlike the less fortunate, these would have the luxury of bringing their possessions with them to their new homes. A further chunk of the newly displaced would cluster together in makeshift accommodations or shared spaces, with a plan to ride out their misfortunes and take advantage of future developments. Some of these may attempt to construct their own shelters, gathering in small communities, unwilling to depart from the location of their previous homes. Without development or oversight, it would be easy for sites like this to descend into the desperate and insecure living situations of a slum. As poverty and desperation rise, fuelled by increasing uncertainty, these areas, and their immediate surroundings would see a rise in crime and unrest, while increasing numbers of people forced into increasingly risky and unhygienic modes of survival would drive an increase in illness and disease – already a relatively common concern for a medieval denizen.
The rebuilding project to replace the destroyed buildings and infrastructure would come at an exorbitant cost in both resources as time. Theoretically, the sovereign could attempt to incentivise the newly homeless into working on the rebuilding effort as labourers, via the provision of food and some form of temporary shelter, or by force, which would still require the provision of food and shelter, and that is an expensive prospect for the ruler on top of the already costly destruction. Realistically, as long as the ruler’s essential backers still supported of them, then they wouldn’t even have to rebuild – they would just need to reallocate resources from various other pools to the pool from which they pay their essential backers. Alternatively, they would need to find or create vacancies for cheaper essentials if or where possible or desired.
For the vile sky-winger would leave nothing alive in his wake.
The destruction of an entire city, however, poses a new set of problems on top of an accelerated version of the set of problems already created by limited urban destruction. That is to say that the migratory, unrest, disorder, and population issues are all present, but dramatically scaled up. The Hobbesian ‘state of nature’ would become a crystalised reality for a great number of people. An entire population displaced and without a hope of rebuilding, would take to the roads, scattering in all directions. The surrounding towns and villages are immediately overwhelmed and from there subsequent broader rings of farther settlements take the overflow, not dissimilar to a tiered wedding cake of human displacement and desperation, with the ruined city squatting at the apex. Just as crime, unrest, and violence is almost certain to rise within a city when homelessness and poverty, and the subsequent increase in mass desperation, suddenly spike and cannot be accounted for, so too do the same effects ripple across an entire region when a major settlement is destroyed in entirety.
The significant driving force is the power vacuum that opens up when you remove a major civilisational hub. Presuming the majority of the regional power escapes the dragon attack intact, they fast track to the next tract of land with any allies wielding significant political traction, and ask for lodging while they formulate and enact a plan to rebuild before their influence entirely retracts. The number of variables stemming from the dragon-destroys-city juncture in our theoretical narrative is vast, so to keep things on topic, and keep this below 50,000 words, we’re going to continue with the idea that everything is levelled, but the nobility are safe. In all honesty, the castle or keeps would probably be more or less fine if the majority of their construction material is stone. They’d need to replace a few rooftops, anything supported by timber would also have collapsed, the stables are cooked with the horses in them, so no hunting for a while, but slabs of stone don’t burn. Unless your dragon has some way to knock down a building specifically designed to withstand assault, the nobility aren’t in too much danger.
Nonetheless, in the absence of any real defence in the aftermath, anybody with enough ambition, would be looking at these events and seeing opportunities. Anyone who thinks they can take the territory is going to be amassing their own levees, forming alliances, formulating plots, and bolstering their own economic forces, likely using the newly boosted populations of their own controlled lands and settlements. For the rich and powerful, one core rule that you follow is to never let a calamity go to waste. With a number of people therefore eager to capitalise on this new opportunity, an uptick in politicking and conflict is all but inevitable. Knowing this to be the case, one of the first things the unseated power would do is send out some sort of rallying call in order to regroup their wayward populace – you can’t claim any kind of power if you don’t control anybody. With some of the population regrouped, they can still raise a levee and create a force of workers with which to begin rebuilding, but regardless this would be incredibly difficult and both the people and the nobility would be vulnerable.
On the other hand, the rise of people on the road or without homes or jobs to go to, creates a rise in banditry, in turn driving a demand for soldiers and patrols, primarily to protect anybody travelling with anything valuable. If other nobles and land owners are travelling, they are likely going to be travelling with an amount of wealth. If the bandit numbers have swollen due to groups taking in new members from displaced workers looking for a way to stay fed, this makes attacking better defended baggage trains, or even minor settlements, a more reasonable prospect. At the same time, wealthy people looking for protection increases a demand for mercenaries. As a result, anybody out of work, and who doesn’t feel like turning to banditry, sowing seeds in a field, begging, or prostitution, with access to a rudimentary tool or farming implement that they can pay the local blacksmith to beat into some kind of blade, has a reasonable chance of finding work. As a result, mercenary work becomes cheaper.
Inevitably, one group of nutters is going to refuse to leave the ruins of their home, for any number of reasons be they personal attachment to the location, or simply because the ruined city is still the safest place they know. The ruins themselves are going to attract the usual grab bag of disparate looters, scavengers, and anyone economical enough to turn a profit. The depopulated urban husk, littered with corpses, would also attract animals – mostly scavengers. Rodents, birds, dogs and so on, happy to consume all of the discarded meat on offer.
With this bevy of unburied corpses and looters about, you might also find the city ruins becoming a draw to the religiously zealous. Much of religion circulates death, and unless a given faith practices exposure-based corpse disposal detached from the specifications of symbolically significant locations, such as a local landmark, the especially devout are likely to feel a great sense of obligation to deal with the untended bodies in whatever way they deem necessary. They would become targets for other hostile city inhabitants unless these religious people could either make themselves not worth troubling over or protect themselves from antagonists.
In this way we can see that even the ruined shell of a settlement can become the microcosm of a broader power vacuum, in the accumulation of disparate groups with conflicting goals, creating an environment in which the Hobbesian all-against-all state of war becomes an unfortunate reality until some semblances of a wider community can be re-established (though this may not be entirely dependent on the imposed punitive order of a sovereign, as Hobbes suggested). The focus for the conflict becomes self-interest, a lack of immediate resources, and the tenuous prospect of keeping any resources one is capable of accumulating. Scarcity drives the informal market and informs the propensity for profit via the removal of competition.
A rich man’s world
On the economic side, the effects could be just as potent. Towns and cities functioned as economic hubs, potentially in more tangibly fundamental ways than they do in the digitised global-access economy of today. As the host of trade and markets in concentrated areas, with buyers and sellers of local produce and crafts trading at them. The nobility designated space and schedules in return for revenue from tolls and fines and from there, naturally, there was fierce competition between markets.
If one market stops existing, merchants and tradesmen go the next, opening opportunities for competing interests to gain more wealth and political clout. Given the relative rarity of large settlements in the real-world equivalent timeframe to the standard template fantasy setting, it’s relatively reasonable to predict that the same overflow effect that applies to migrating populations also applies to trade, with the result that surrounding market settlements benefit from the increased toll revenue and extra commercial traffic.
With this decentralisation of wealth, trade, and population, comes a dispersal and shifting of power. Other relatively prosperous settlements could attract more wealth to them by way of reputation and, seeing an opportunity to leverage their positions, the sudden availability of large numbers of people could result in competition between settlements to attract new supporters, workers, wealth, and power. Of course, there’s always the possibility for any one of these settlements to experience the same dragon-related destruction as the settlement from which their new populations originate, creating the opposite effect over a long enough timeline – an acceleration of centralisation of power, but it seems relatively unlikely for the destruction of major settlements to repeat often enough to get to such a stage.
More wenches and mead
To round things out, the other common traditional arc says that dragons have a real thing for princesses or miscellaneous daughters of noblemen. I’m not sure what a big lizard wants with royal or semi-royal bints, the physics and all that, but whatever the case the dragon, in this version of the story, steals the girl. In response the nobleman effective puts a bounty on the dragon, various people go off to get it and don’t come back. The point here is not the dragon stealing the women so much as the fact that there’s a great amount of emphasis placed on the noble’s daughter. The sad reality is that the poor girl would most likely just be left to the dragon. In very rare, specific instances an exception is possible, but the vast majority of the time she wouldn’t be worth the attention. It might actually be more politically beneficial, circumstances depending, to consider turning her into a propaganda figure or martyr to galvanise the public into supporting the local nobility, if she wasn’t strictly necessary, in her own right, to secure political ties.
At the core of it, a nobleman’s children were there to be used for powerbroking. The sons were expected to maintain the lineage and lands, and later try to advance on those fronts by pumping out as many children as possible and trying conquer as much territory as possible. The daughters were effectively economic IOUs and bargaining tokens. They secured alliances by being marriageable and fertile, and preferably for having a big dowry, which was basically a payoff for the sheer burden of having to accommodate one of those most weighty of creatures: a woman. To be fair, as long as this theoretical nobleman already has a tonne of kids, he won’t miss a few sons either. It’s just less of a headache where the inheritance is concerned. Nevertheless, the basic principle remains: The man who expires with the most kids wins. Long story short, the cost-benefit analysis of a dragon stealing your kids, presumably in order to not burn your city down, ends up being a pretty damn profitable trade for the father.
So, if the local hedge knight rocks up and proclaims that he’ll save the day, all the better. Let him try. It’s literally a no-lose situation: If he wins, you’re minus a dragon, if he dies… well, who cares? Nobody is going to notice the absence of Sir Whatshisface.
The Worm of Dread is slain and dead
Which leads me to a final consideration: Just how do you kill a dragon? Well, tradition suggests hitting it with a sword. Tradition is fucking stupid. Let’s get one thing clear: The local overly confident neckbeard out to save m’lady, dressed like canned food and riding a lasagne, isn’t saving anything. Not even getting close. There is no good reason for anybody to attack a dragon with a sword in the first place – what would they be aiming to achieve, precisely? Nobody is going to win a physical fight with many tonnes of angry lizard. It has the strength advantage. It also has the weight advantage. It also has the reach advantage. It’s got feet bigger than a human body. It can fly. Do the maths.
All that plate mail and chainmail is just going to absorb heat. Shields are also pointless – a metal shield is going to absorb heat the same the armour, so the person holding it will be forced to drop the thing or lose the use of that hand. Wood and hide shield aren’t going to fare any better for obvious reasons. It turns out that metal conducts heat. Even the medieval folk had that one pegged – hence the existence of all that fancy plate mail in the first place. Anybody attempting to fight a dragon is going to want to leave the metal armour at home, unless they are hell bent on experiencing the excruciating agony of being slow-cooked to death.
The question of what sort of weapon can get through the hide of a dragon is one without a definite answer. Depending on how mythical an author wants their dragon to be, and how well they can justify improbably tough natural scales, depends on what they can get away with before the audience’s suspension of disbelief starts to crack. At the lowest end of the scale, there isn’t actually a reason why an overgrown lizard with a permanently upset stomach would be impervious to swords and arrows. It’s important to remember that you can’t go for the sort of one-sided realism that says that the dragon can be harmed by any sharp edge, but the protagonist is somehow immune to a dragon. The ‘realist’ author is doubly held to their own exacting standard. If their characters are inexplicably immune to the very rules that the author has set down, then their drama falls apart because the audience doesn’t feel they can trust the author to remain consistent, thereby destroying the engagement potential of the writing. In the realist’s dragon vs swordsman fight the dragon’s foot comes down and the story ends. The even more likely scenario in the realist’s world, is that the swordsman doesn’t even get close enough to hit the dragon. If the dragon knows that swords hurt, it’s just going to burn the hero alive and the story ends there.
But what about those big leathery bat wings? They’re going to be the sized of a barn. No armour on them, as armour would literally render them useless. If your dragons lean more high fantasy and your average scrap of vaguely sharp iron literally isn’t going to cut it, then try focusing on the membranous tissue keeping the thing in the air. My memory of the Hobbit is hazy, but I was always perplexed by this focus on a missing scale. Put a few arrows through the wings, make enough holes, and you’ve grounded the thing. One significant advantage nullified.
A dragon with clipped wings is going to be slower on the ground, so if you can get through dragon scales with basic arrows and crossbow bolts, just pitch up with a lot of guys and shoot it to death. However, most fantasy authors and readers don’t like dragons that are so easy to kill. They stop feeling significant, so you’re more likely to come across settings in which dragons do not care about the medieval equivalent of small arms. However, in the words of Isaac Arthur (who was probably paraphrasing someone else): if brute force isn’t working, you’re not using enough of it. With that in mind, get a hold of a dozen ballistae, onaga, hwacha, or whatever serves as the nearest equivalent to ‘a machine that shoots spears at things’ in your setting and stick them on a hilltop at an appropriate distance. Fire the spears at the dragon. You now have a dead dragon. Congratulations.
Ok, so that rounds up this series of deconstructive ramblings on dragons. None of this has been to say that the traditional fantasy/dragon arcs are all terrible and we must collectively shun them for all time because they’re easy to pick apart etc., but that in a more educated age we might need to reconsider how we think about the major traditional monsters of fiction, because the same sort of themes apply more or less across the board. They may have made sense once, and they may work with certain tones or framing, but because we now have so much information to draw on and we can easily answer all the smaller questions that have far larger consequences that might first appear, we have never had such an easy way to take these barebones archetypes that we like, and put some real meat on them, flesh them out and give them, and their settings, their own personality, rather than a simply rehashing of the same mythological skeletons that have been rattling around for the past thousand or more years.