Dragons: From Primordial Chaos to Fantasy Cliché

Okay, before you rage quit or try to punch me through the internet, I’m not saying that dragons are cliché. I’m saying that they can be cliché. After all, anything can be cliché if it’s done improperly. The thing about dragons is that there are so many different ways to include them in a story, a game, or a fictional science manual. Yes, I said a fictional science manual; I’ll get to that later.

The characters Bowen and Draco from the 1996 film "Dragonheart"

The characters Bowen and Draco from the 1996 film “Dragonheart”

Let’s start at the very beginning. It’s a very good place to…never mind. The beginning, as in Creation. In the creation story of the Babylonians, the primordial dragon Tiamat represents the salt water, while her husband Apsu represents the fresh water. When Apsu is killed by the gods, who are led by Marduk, Tiamat is understandably ticked off. She responds, of course, by trying to kill the gods, and therefore everything in the universe that is not her. You see, as the salt water, thereby being the ocean, Tiamat represents chaos incarnate. When Marduk kills her, he forms the world out of her corpse (a fairly common trope in creation myths). Meanwhile, all the demons, evil spirits, and monsters are born out of her. So, by that, Tiamat is chaos, the formation of the earth, but the mother of all dragons. Daenerys Targaryen, eat your heart out.

At any rate, dragons have traditionally been evil, ever since Tiamat essentially birthed evil itself. In just about every western tradition, including Egypt, serpents have been a representation of death and chaos. After all, Set, who killed and dismembered his brother, was not only the god of chaos and the desert, but a crocodile, which are about as close to dragons as most of us have seen.

With the advent of Judeo-Christian influence, dragons got even more of a bad rap, since the Dragon and the Serpent are both names that are used to describe the Big Bad of the Bible, Satan. A lot of the stories of saints have them going up against dragons, with St. George being the most well-known, since it’s the most basic of dragon slayer stories. Hero comes in, finds a virgin being sacrificed to a dragon, kills the dragon, and saves the girl. He’s not the only one, though. St. Margaret defeated a monster known as the Tarrasque, who no one else was even brave enough to approach. (It’s where Dungeons and Dragons got the idea for their Tarrasque.) Meanwhile, there’s a story of St. Patrick defeated a basilisk, which was just as deadly, although it was on a smaller scale.

It’s not just the Christian religion, though. The Greeks had their gods and heroes go up against dragons and other serpentine monsters all the time. Apollo vs. Python. Jason vs. the guardian of the Golden Fleece. Hercules against the Hydra. The Norse have the story of Fafnir, who turned into a dragon to guard his stolen gold but was later killed for it. Then there’s Jormungand, the world serpent. The son of Loki, Jormungand grew so large that he encircled the entirety of Midgard, and is destined to try to destroy it at Ragnarok, only to be killed by Thor while killing Thor.

Yes, Loki is the father of a giant serpent. That’s nothing. He’s also the mother of an eight-legged horse. What happens in Valhalla stays in Valhalla.

As for the kinds of dragons, there is some disagreement on what to call them. Some people say that, if they have two legs and wings, they’re wyverns, but if they have four legs and wings, they’re dragons. Honestly, both are dragons. Some dragons have wings, some don’t. Some dragons have legs, some don’t. Some dragons breath fire, some…yes, there are dragons who don’t breath fire. There are, honestly, all sorts of dragons.

So how did dragons go from being villainous monsters to the more complex, intelligent creatures we have today? Well, there are two movies I want to bring up to show that. The first is Dragonslayer. Made in the Eighties, with some pretty good stop-motion animation for the time, Dragonslayer is essentially the basic young adventurer story where a kid goes to kill the last of the dragons. In this story, dragons are decidedly evil and monstrous, and the passing of the dragons from the world isn’t so much of a bad thing.

In contrast, you have Dragonheart, with Sean Connery as the voice of another dragon, who is also, very possibly, the last of them. Unlike in Dragonslayer, Sean Connery’s character Draco is both intelligent and wise, albeit cynical and reclusive, and even works with Dennis Quaid’s character Bowen. Released fifteen years apart, the two movies show a good contrast between the two conceptions we have in the West about dragons. One side: good, wise, as intelligent as (or more intelligent than) humans. The other side: evil, monstrous, and possibly demonic.

A Flight of DragonsThere is a third version of dragons I want to talk about: the animal kind. Peter Dickinson wrote a book called A Flight of Dragons. There was an animated movie by the same name that was loosely inspired by it, but the book was nothing like it, even more so than most book to movie adaptations. For one thing, A Flight of Dragons doesn’t tell a story, not in the traditional sense. It’s a biological manual on the physical attributes and life habits of dragons. Dickinson approaches dragons as if their animals, just like any other animal on Earth, and uses supposition and fantastic artwork to explain how they eat, how they are born, and most importantly, how they breath fire and fly. A few years ago, a fictional documentary was released called Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real. It’s basically the same concept, using many of the same ideas that Dickinson used in A Flight of Dragons. I’d recommend both if you’re interested in the concept.

A still from the 1981 film "Dragonslayer"

A still from the 1981 film “Dragonslayer”

At any rate, those are just the western dragons, Western Eurasian serpents of death and destruction born from Tiamat and…eventual steeds for teenage sky cowboys. Well, however you want to use dragons in your stories, if you do at all, just know that there’s really no wrong way to go about it. They’re big lizards.

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3 thoughts on “Dragons: From Primordial Chaos to Fantasy Cliché

  1. Great article, I’m rather fond of dragons. I hadn’t thought of the third category as distinctly different, but your right. I totally agree with you about the kinds of dragons, I don’t like the whole it’s a wyvern or dragon debate, they are all dragons! 🙂

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