What do dragons represent to us?Posted: November 26, 2013
Lately, my mind is mostly on my upcoming collection of dragon short stories. Not the NaNoWriMo murder mystery I’m supposed to be hammering out, haha, oops. I’ve just always found dragons fascinating. All of human culture has, it seems, because there are so many dragon-like things scattered across our folklore.
Dragons are pretty much always amazing creatures in their mythologies. Most can fly, whether they have wings or not, and there are few things humans envy more than a naturally flighted creature. But dragons aren’t the delicate little birds and bugs we’re used to seeing in the air. They’re beings of great size, power, longevity and/or wisdom. Sometimes they have fire breath, poisonous blood or other dangerous skills. Sometimes they are wise, benevolent creatures, guarding water sources or teaching speech to humans. Whether humans are supposed to slay them or worship them, dragons just seem to demand human attention. They represent a thick stew of our primal fears and desires.
In the last 50 years or so, mainstream English fantasy books have added some new ideas to the mix. Dragon-riding is probably the most notable. Dragons were mostly evil monsters in Western culture, even in Tolkien’s highly influential works. But this idea suddenly caught on that dragons could be loyal companions who help protect humanity. Maybe that was influenced by the kind-hearted Eastern dragons? Maybe people just realized that dragons would be even cooler if we didn’t need to go out and murder them? Who knows.
So we’re all confident we know what a dragon is, and yet there are so many angles to approach the idea from. Dragons kidnapping princesses because that’s just what dragons do. Dragons guarding something valuable — golden treasure or golden knowledge — that humans want to take because that’s just what humans do. Flight and companionship and bravery, being shared one way or another between humans and dragons. There are so many ways to spin the concept. That’s why I’m trying to hit as many of those angles as possible in my short story collection.
In the Stories of Aligare, I already took the companion dragon concept in a different direction. In the development of the Aligare world, I wanted to take the idea of ally dragons and make the dragons more mundane. More typical to see walking around in a town. So korvi folk are like weird little friendly birds compared to most Earth dragons — but by Aligare standards they’re large, strong and courageous in combat. They have the gift of flight and all the freedom that comes with it. So korvi are dragons and yet they’re regular, relatable people in their society. It would be hard to do that in a world with humans.
But the short story collection is letting me play with more human-centric concepts of dragons. I’ve got two standout favourite stories so far:
1) A wise queen tries to befriend and negotiate with the dragon who kidnapped her all the time when she was a princess.
2) Small, magical dragons are the dominant race and they use humans to power their magicpunk flying machines. Y’know, so the dragons are riding the humans.
These subversions seem obvious to me, but I haven’t seen them around nearly enough.
So to answer the question “what do dragons represent to us?”, I’d say they’re the embodiment of the fantasy genre itself. Dragons can be very familiar and predictable, like the comfort food of speculative fiction. Or they can be radically different from everything else out there — yet still recognizable. I think we can all agree that that’s pretty neat.
UPDATE: My dragon short story collection, Serpents of Sky, is now available! Check the Books section of this blog for all the buying options, or just click this cover image to go to Amazon:
◦ Anthropomorphic stories: what are they and who are they for? (heidicvlach.com)
◦ Flying characters in fantasy and sci-fi (heidicvlach.com)
◦ Chimera creatures in mythology: why are they so familiar? (heidicvlach.com)