The Evolution of Dragons in Fantasy Fiction Essay (Article)

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Jun 27th, 2020

Because of their constant craving for something miraculous and unusual, people have created a number of mythological creatures which live their full life in numerous legends and fairy-tales. Made up not only for children, but also for those in whose hearts there is still some room for wonders and adventures, the mythological creatures are at the service of modern writers. The latter create imaginary worlds of theirs, inhabited by the beasts so powerful that a man can only stand in owe and gaze in fear at the legendary creatures. One of the most significant figures among the range of the animals inhabiting the land of fantasy is a dragon, the symbol of wisdom and power.

It must be remembered though, that, described by the modern writers whose works left a significant trace in the modern literature and culture, the image of dragon underwent great changes. As a result, one can see that the old-fashioned idea of a leather-winged beast has almost nothing to do with what the modern fantasy and fiction suggests. Taking a look at the works of the most well-known writers, one can see the paradigm of the dragon image development, starting from the old legends up to the modern fiction books.

The Dragons in the World of Tolkien: The Magnificent Beast of the Immense Powers

In spite of the fact that dragons are mythological creatures, they have always been most close to the people as the necessary element of a fairy-tale. Without these incredible beasts, the world of tales and legends would have suffered great losses, and many tales would have been left untold. However cruel and merciless dragons could be depicted in the stories, they would always leave a trace of something unknown yet possessing the wisdom of the centuries, a creature with stone heart and the wisdom of the universe.

Made a major element of the modern fantasy, they can be encountered in almost every story about the fantastic. Although the creatures were depicted in different ways by different writers, they all give certain similar elements to dragons. The question is, which features are in common in the most famous stories and which make difference between the dragons?

Because of the fact that Tolkien created a world so unusual and unfamiliar to what people have already known, yet giving it the treats of the human’s world with its wars, misconceptions and – well, and the unceasing fun which have been helping people to survive so far. In the imaginary world of his, the dragons do not possess the features of the wise. Being characterized rather as the beasts which have few human treats, bloodthirsty and violent, Tolkien turns the scope of the audience back to the Middle Ages, when people feared everything that was connected with magic, and, as a result, thought everything which beheld the magic gift a curse to the mankind. He based his idea of a dragon on the German tales, which had a significant effect on his book (Berman).

However, according to what the modern culture suggests, dragons exist no longer! As Judith A. John noticed, Dragons are dead! Killed by science, jokes, logic and technology, the once-vigorous symbol of evil in Western culture has been vanquished. In the past dragon sightings were so numerous and so well-documented that, like UFO spotters toady, most rational, intelligent, scientific thinkers including Pliny the Elder, Herodotus, and Edward Topsell accepted dragons as a fact, and Marco Polo recorded witnessing flying dragons during his trip to China (219).

Fortunately, as Tolkien was writing his incredible story, the science had not ruined the vision of the fairy-tales which people had, and dragons lived a full life in people’s imagination, feeding on the beliefs and the legends composed in honor of the wise and terrifying creatures.

Tolkien depicts dragons as the creatures which possess peculiar traits of character. Describing Smaug, a creature born by his exciting imagination, John points out that “Smaug is mesmerizing and intelligent, but suffers from what Tolkien defines as “dragon sickness”” (254). In Tolkien’s understanding, dragons are flesh and blood, but rather dangerous one, and the incredible mystique of theirs is what people should stand in awe and amazement in front of. With such an approach, Tolkien creates a most convincing image of a dragon, not harming the “reputation” which the beast has acquired through the centuries of legends and myths.

However, Tolkien also admits that the powers of a dragon are rather frightening, since they are immense:

… in two illustrations Tolkien did for the book, both of which, at least as originally drawn, show a full moon in the eastern sky on the night of the dragon’s marauding. (Sturgis 13)

Indeed, dragons as Tolkien depicted them were the creatures of rather scary appearance and influence.

The Imaginary World of Lewis: On Leather Wings

On the other hand lies the description of a dragon given in the book by Lewis. In The Chronicles of Narnia, the world of dragons is quite another mystery. Lewis makes them one of the most powerful and strong animals as well, yet he adds them the tint of humanity which Tolkien deprived them of. In Lewis’s opinion, the beasts are a true power of nature, just as incontrollable as the four elements. Narnia makes a world where dragons can ride free, without any cavaliers in the saddle, and that makes them even more impressive and majestic.

It is peculiar that the image of a dragon, as well as the rest of the images depicted in the book was started literally from the scratch:

All my Narnia books … began with seeing pictures in my head. At first they were not a story, just pictures. The Lion all began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood. This picture has been in my mind since I was sixteen. Then one day when I was about forty, I said to myself: let’s try to make a story about it. (Anderson 53)

As well as the rest if the images, the picture of a dragon popped out of the depth of the author’s imagination just as unexpectedly. Despite the seeing simplicity of the image, it was developing long until it became the image of a dragon which all children know now. Lewis comes very close to the point made by Tolkien, depicting dragons like live creatures with immortal soul. However, in contrast to Tolkien, Lewis makes his image of a dragon kinder and closer to what children expect the beats to be. Dusted with the fairy-tale magic powder, the dragon of Lewis’s world is the creature which is wild and free, yet which can become a man’s friend.

In contrast to Tolkien, Lewis describes the beast as an animal merging between the real world and the world of fantasy, the creature which can feel, and be happy, and suffer. In other words, the difference between the dragon and a man in Lewis’s understanding is very little. The contrast set between a dragon’s strong and almost invulnerable body and the tender soul of a living creature is striking. However, Lewis makes the dragon’s spirit as strong as the shell which covers its back. Thus, the author creates a vision of a fairy-tale beats which does not frighten children and nevertheless is doubtlessly a real, obvious dragon.

Dragons live in all tales of the ancient times, making the stories even closer to the truth and adding the scent of magnificence, making them sound even more unbelievably probable. The world of the unreal crosses the reality, making it change in the way children want it to, and the creatures breathing fire also breathe a tint of trust in the hearts of the little readers.

Singing the Song of the Dragon: McCaffey’s Vision of a dragon

The unceasing faith is what dragons create in Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey. Unlike the other writers pursuing the topic of the mythology, she makes the dragons the central characters of her story. She makes them not the background which dragons are turned into in Tolkien’s and Carol’s stories, but makes them full characters in her legend. In this story, dragons are already the beings with heart and with the feelings of compassion and affection.

The dragon that saves the girl, Brath, is a clear-cut example of an image of a dragon coming so close to the one of a human being that the boundary between the two can be hardly drawn. In this respect, the dragon depicted by McCaffrey is very similar to the creature which was described by Vandergrift: “If a dragon dies and the rider survives, he or she is but a half creature” (28). Indeed, as the dragon rescues the girl, he seems to be an integral part of her, as if they were a single creature, struggling with the unjust people, willing to free itself and thrashing about in the nets of the foes.

However, it must be admitted that Brath is the only exception out of the range of the fierce dragons of the fairy-tale world. The rest of them, the fire-breathing lizards, create an impression of wild savages. Still being a part of the guard that does not let the heroine go, these dragons are the slaves of people, the watchdogs which have duties and which are supposed to follow people’s orders.

Thus, exploring the image of Brath, McCaffey shows the way an enslaved “fire-breathing lizard” turns into a free and proud dragon, the animal which makes the foes tremble in dread and fear. The final part of the trilogy, The White Dragon, shows a beast completely different from the one seen in Dragonsong. Brath has turned into a wild and free creature, with all his gorgeousness.

Thus, McCaffey shows the readers that dragons can be wild, mad and very, very unhappy. The humane approach of hers makes it clear that the era when dragons were the enemies of a man is over, and the new era of legends begins, when dragons can make friends with the mankind. The very term ‘dragonrider’, which is rather humiliating for a dragon, is the symbol of the wrong relationship between a man and a dragon – why not saying, “dragonfriend” instead?

The way the Hand of Golden Compass Swings: in Search for a Dragon

Tracing the evolution of a dragon’s image, one could suggest that the next idea suggested will be the one of a dragon being a human in the dragon’s clothes.

In spite of the fact that in The Golden Compass there is not a trace of what people are used to call a dragon, the world is full of the unusual creatures which can easily substitute the image of a dragon to create the necessary atmosphere. As the audience watches the film, people start understanding that the image of a dragon has been transformed to the fantastic images of incredible animals which people would have never been able to imagine.

The movie shifts the idea of a dragon which was developed by the previous authors and practically comes close to the idea which Tolkien’s story is shot through with, the idea of unceasing adventure: “When Frodo leaves home, it is not to slay a dragon or win some treasure but to let go of something.” (Loy 8). Indeed, the movie lacks the savage image of a dragon which was glorified in numerous legends and ancient stories. The image of a dragon becomes almost the image of a man – practically, a man with wings, that is, a creature more powerful than a man is, yet with the feelings which a man can possess.

As a matter of fact, the creatures in The Golden Compass at times show even more humanity than people, with their ability for compassion to the girl who is making her way to the south much more explicit than the feelings displayed by people. Indeed, in this story dragons or the dragon-like creatures are the mode for people to follow. It is completely unbelievable that the image of a dragon could develop so rapidly and change so hard since the legends of dragons and knights saving the world from the awful beasts became so famous.

In The Golden Compass, the beasts which are clashing with each other in a terrible fight are petrifying in their magnificence, yet they are the true image of fairy-tale creatures. However, the deliberate artificial features of the animals in the movie make them ever closer to the reality. The weird beasts barely jump out from the screen into the real life.

Harry Potter and Three Dragons: Making the Difference

The last, but not the least, is the cycle of stories about Harry Potter. Here, dragons play the part of background characters, providing the frame for the rest of the heroes. Among the dragons mentioned, one can differentiate the three most distinctive. The first ones are the images of the guardian dragons which are used by wizards in order to guard the premises of the magic bank. These dragons are very close to the image of a watchdog, just as fierce and emotionless.

The idea which Rowling expresses in describing this kind of dragons is that wizards make use of these fairy-tale creatures without thinking that they might have feelings as well, treating them as if they wee merely unthinking beasts. In this respect, the way in which the wizards treat their dragons is close to the ways in which they are used to address the elves in their houses. As it is known, the elves in the houses of the wizards were playing the part of those deprived of their rights, neglected and discriminated – and yet unwilling to change anything:

…, which praises Rowling for depicting a non-ideal fantasy world before homing in the focus specifically on the moral problem of house-elves as apparently willing slaves. (McDaniel 183)

In contrast to the “watchdragons” that guard the bank in the wizard world, the dragon which Hagrid, the forest warden in the wizards’ school, keeps as a house pet, is described as a loving, though rather awkward and not very smart creature. Although it seems rather hard to make friends with such a beast, unless you are Hagrid, of course, the creature is still unwilling to harm people and even displaying friendly attitude towards the creatures and the environment around. Still it is well worth noticing that Norbert, Hagrid’s dragon, was described as the beast of rather doubtful intelligence. In contrast to the magnificence of the dragons described above, this one is rather a mock dragon.

The dragons which have been trained for the tournament are quite another subject. Here, with all their force and seeing splendor, they are just as pitiful as the house-elves, for they are the circus animals used for the fun of the spectators. Trained to amuse the others, they make the image of the animals rather unhappy than frightening, for they can be just as easily tamed and restrained. The wild nature of the fairy-tale beast has been cut according to the needs of the wizards once and for all, and the remaining of the once free beasts is worth feeling sorry for.

It is also worth noticing that the name of one of the negative characters, Draco Malfoy, is also translated as “dragon”. Thus, Rowling tells that there is a dragon within some people, latent in its sleep; however, taking into consideration the features of Draco’s personality, one can see that the image of a dragon employed in this very case is close to a mock-dragon described above, cowardly and sly, but without a slightest idea of magnificence and pride.

Tracing the development of the image of a dragon through the works of various writers, one can notice that dragons are gradually losing the natural power of theirs. Succumbed to the needs of the people, the beasts are no longer the legend which they used to be once. Their wings are clipped, and they become the tamed animals in the circus created by the storytellers. In contrast to the authors of the ancient legends, who worshipped the dragons and added to their splendor with each and every legend created, the authors of the modern books adjust the image of a dragon to the modern understanding of a house pet.

In spite of the fact that Tolkien followed the traditions of the English idea of a dragon and created the picture accordingly to the understanding of the dragon which used to be the dominant one, the modern fiction writers make the image less and less impressive, until it turns into a tiny creature walking leashed and muzzled. However sad this might sound, the image of a dragon has changed to the idea of a creature enslaved. Well, this is just another twist of history. Dragons are powerful enough to shake the feeble people off the dragons’ mighty backs. After all, as Bates said, “The dying dragon killed the heroes too, at the end of an age” (96).

Works Cited

Anderson, Gregory M. ‘It All Began with a Picture’: The Poetic Preaching ofC. S. Lewis. Past Watchful Dragons: Fantasy and Faith in the World of C. S. Lewis. Altadena, CA: Mythopoeic, 2007, 153-167

Bates, Brian. The Real Middle Earth: Exploring the Magic and Mystery of the Middle Ages, J. R. R. Tolkien, and ‘The Lord of the Rings’. NewYork, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003

Berman, Ruth. Dragons for Tolkien and Lewis. Mythlore: A Journal of J. R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and the Genres of Myth and Fantasy Stu 11.1 (39), 1984, 53-58.

John, Judith A. From Death to Rebirth: A Short History of Dragons and Their Presence in Modern Fantasy. Flashes of the Fantastic. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004, 219-228

Loy, David R., Linda Goodhew, and Jane Hirshfield. The Dharma of Dragons and Daemons: Buddhist Themes in Modern Fantasy. Boston, MA: Wisdom, 2004.

McDaniel, Kathryn N. The Elfin Mystique: Fantasy and Feminism in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series. Past Watchful Dragons: Fantasy and Faith in the World of C. S. Lewis. Altadena, CA: Mythopoeic, 2007. 183-207

Sturgis, Amy H., and Darrell Gwaltney. Past Watchful Dragons: Fantasy and Faith in the World of C. S. Lewis. Altadena, CA: Mythopoeic, 2007.

Vandergrift, Kay E. Meaning-Making and the Dragons of Pern. Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 15.1, 1990, 27-32.




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