Sunday, December 9, 2012

Thoughts about Dragons, for Some Reason

I've been a dragon geek since I was a toddler. They've consistently been my favourite monster/fantasy creature, because they are such a flexible concept. While other geeks draw blood over what constitutes "real" vampires, werewolves, or zombies, dragons are mostly left to be whatever that particular creator thinks they could be. There have to be some out there who think dragons are becoming too "cuddly", or that giving them sapience or heroic qualities dilutes their mythic power, but thankfully people like this are rare.

While I'm open to almost any depiction of dragons, as an adult nerd I've developed certain tendencies and desires, ones that I make exception for, but that are common. What I prefer from modern dragon fiction is for dragons to be treated like characters rather than serving as symbols or plot devices: they are not purely evil or purely good, but have distinct individual personalities and a defined culture. This happens rarely, and I enjoy other types of dragon stories, but this ideal has a special place in my heart.

While I can enjoy books where the dragon has a small role, if asked what I want from a story that is defined as a "dragon story", I prefer a story about dragons rather than one with dragons, where the dragon is a major viewpoint character that participates in the main events of the plot. Again, this is rare, so I make exceptions.

When it comes to that classic, dragon riders, I dislike the standard Pern-inspired stuff, but can enjoy it when the dragon is an animal, and when the human has to earn that animal's trust. These and many other reasons are why How to Train Your Dragon was a great film.

But the type of dragon rider everyone remembers, the one with a sapient dragon steed and intense telepathic bonding, has always left me cold. It's just a little skeevy to have a thinking being treated like a horse, no matter how the narrative tries to justify it. The implicit wish fulfilment of a companion that immediately loves and understand you is also part of the problem.

The kind of story I don't prefer to read when there can be one about the protagonist earning their place in the world instead. It's similar to my dislike of vampires always being sexy, suave, and aristocratic with tiny pretty fangs: the fantasy is just a "fantasy", instead of an impetus for character growth.

When it comes to dragonslaying, I mostly find dragonslaying stories to be boring. It's not because I'm morally against dragonslaying stories, but standard Perseus and Andromeda story is too predictable and too rigid. But if the dragonslaying story is presented in an interesting or vibrant way, I'm in for it. Dragonslayer is one of those exceptions, as is a children's book adaptation of Saint George and the Dragon, because of the gorgeous art by Trina Schart Hyman.

Modern stories that flip the mythic roles so that the dragon is now a pure, saintly creature persecuted by evil humans aren't appealing, either. Role reversals can be exciting, but "dragons good, humans bad", is just as banal and overplayed as its opposite, still limiting the possibility of characterization and originality. I liked DragonHeart, but I keep to that principle….

Portraying dragons as saintly gets even more aggravating when it seems fans are using dragons to create their ideal vision of society, a fantasy of something that they would rather be than be human. This is ludicrous and a little bit crazy, even before you get to the otherkin and furry stuff, or the nuts who believe dragons are real.

How about the speculation on how dragons could function in real life, the taking of traits from other animals then combining and extrapolating them to create a dragon species? Some of these make for entertaining reads (see: Peter Dickinson's The Flight of Dragons), and I like them as thought exercises. But honestly, I've never needed these kinds of explanations.

I accept that the usual image of "dragon" is biologically and evolutionarily impossible. Animals that specialize for specific abilities often have other ones diminished in the process, so it's hard to imagine an enormous animal that can function equally well on the ground and in the air, which is also a six-limbed vertebrate, and a four-legged animal with a sentient mind and has jaws that can produce both speech and fire. This is too large a mix of abilities that are too equal with each other, in which nothing is sacrificed.

To make dragons even remotely plausible, their distinct qualities have to be hamstrung, and even then, it doesn't quite align with the laws of nature and physics. Those attempts to create plausible dragons are just another way to write them, and not superior to the concepts that do not try. The best thing is to make a fantasy internally consistent, and not necessarily conforming to the laws of the real world.

When it comes to designing dragons, I do have a soft spot for the standardized modern dragon: four-legged with handlike forepaws, two bat wings, long muzzle, long thin horns, maybe finned ears, a long tail...but at the same time the prevalence of this design is disappointing, because dragons have so much visual potential.

I'm glad to see any exception to it, like the many species of the How to Train Your Dragon universe, and often turn to Medieval European depictions of dragons. These could get much more wild and strange, including the incorporation of human features. I wish modern artists would look back upon the offbeat past of the western dragon and buck the trends more often.

(Oh, and I like "cute" dragons, but not fat ones with tiny wings, except Gronckles)

These are the last things I have to say about dragons in general, and I'll close out this post with a list of my favourite dragon media. This is not a list of the best of dragon media, or a wide-ranging history, but works that I find something worthwhile about. Where there are omissions, I either haven't looked at them yet, or I personally don't like them.


How to Train Your Dragon
Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real


Age of Fire (Dragon Champion/Dragon Avenger/Dragon Outcast/Dragon Strike/Dragon Rule/Dragon Fate), by E.E. Knight
The Black Wing, by Mary Kirchoff
A Book Dragon,  by Don Kushner
The Book of the Dragon, text by Montse Sant, illustrated by Ciruelo
A Diversity of Dragons, text by Anne McCaffrey Richard Woods, illustrated by John Howe
Dragons: The Modern Infestation, by Pamela Wharton-Blanpied
The Dragon Book: Magical Tales from the Masters of Modern Fantasy, edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois
Dragoncharm/Dragonstorm/Dragonflame, by Graham Edwards
Dragons Can Only Rust/Dragon Reforged,  by Chris Cymri
The Dragons of Babel,  by Michael Swanwick
Dragons of Darkness, edited by Orson Scott Card
A Dragon-Lover's Treasury of the Fantastic, edited by Margaret Weis
Dragons of Light, edited by Orson Scott Card
Dragons: A Studio Book, by Peter Hogarth
The Flight of Dragons, by Peter Dickison
Guards! Guards! , by Terry Pratchett
The Iron Dragon's Daughter, by Michael Swanwick
Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher, by Bruce Coville
Miss Fanshawe and the Great Dragon Adventure, by Sue Scullard
Saint George and The Dragon, Retold by Margaret Hodges and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, adapted from Edmund Speser's The Farie Queene
Tooth and Claw, by Jo Walton
Winterlands (Dragonsbane, Dragonshadow, Knight of the Demon Queen, Dragonstar), by Barbara Hambly

1 comment:

  1. Google sent me here because you mentioned my name, but what I want to say is that you want to read _Seraphina_ by Rachel Hartman. It's exactly what you're looking for. Dragons as characters with their own culture. I read it recently and really loved it.