One of the more enduring ideas of Western-style dragons is that they hoard things. Gold and treasure, most typically. It’s a mental image I have from childhood, where I read The Hobbit in 4th grade and attempted to redraw the cover art of Smaug coiled around his mountainous heap of gold.
More recently, Smaug’s hoard was brought grandly to life in the Hobbit movies, where the coins in Smaug’s hoard were painstakingly computer animated to spill across his scales. Fans are trying to estimate the worth of Smaug’s hoard, and it seems like no one can agree on the dollar value except to say that it’s astronomically high.
Why did this traditional idea of gold piles come about, though? Why do dragons hoard treasure?
In a basic historical sense, dragons were found alongside gold. Or, at least, that’s what our ancestors would have assumed when they dug up precious minerals and ended up finding dinosaur fossils. We’re a species compelled by stories, so people would have made up stories about these ancient, reptile-like beasts who were always found deep in the earth, near gold.
It’s logical enough that dragon hoards are meant to represent greed. Western dragons are classically portrayed as greedy beings of pure evil. They’re thought to have hoards just because that’s what dragons do: dragons simply sit on their treasure and revel their ownership of it, as opposed to a rich human who could use their wealth to build things, provide for the poor, or otherwise improve society.
In stories where a dragon hoards treasure, that treasure can doubles as a reward for the human hero. Anyone brave enough to slay the evil beast can claim its hoard as their own — although Norse and Germanic stories often specify that a dragon’s treasure is cursed, dooming any human tempted to be as greedy as the dragon. Maybe the curse would be dispelled by giving the gold away to needy people, or similar acts of charity? That would make narrative sense.
Okay, so the greed metaphor works when dragons are depicted as evil monsters. What about more benevolent dragons, though? More recent fantasy stories acknowledge that dragons are interesting creatures and they might make good allies to humans — so why then would a dragon covet gold and treasure? What motivation would they have to collect it?
I grew up watching The Flight of Dragons, in which dragons need a soft bedding material that can’t be accidentally set on fire. Gold serves this purpose well.
Other franchises suggest that dragons are just fond of shiny, pretty objects, or they like the idea of owning valuables to impress others with. And why not? That’s why we humans wear pretty jewelry or expensive watches. It’s why we consider a golden crown to be headgear for an important, royal person. It’s not such a stretch to think that other intelligent beings would feel the same way about rare, precious metals.
I tend to think that lifespan is a factor, too. Dragons are generally imagined as long-lived beings, able to watch human dynasties come and go like the tides. They have more than enough time to build up a collection of money and valuables. Maybe dragons want savings for the same reason human beings want savings: to look after themselves and their loved ones in the inevitable hard times to come. Whereas short-lived creatures wouldn’t be as concerned about what the world will be like 50 years from now. I’ve never made this idea explicit in my Stories of Aligare, but the dragon-like korvi people have the longest lifespans of the three peoplekinds and they’re also most interested in the earth’s mineral riches, and they’re most likely to have a stash of metals and gems in their homes just in case. That’s not a coincidence.
Peregrine liked to think he could endure a little work. He had tempered himself in the mines, hauling rock until his body balked at the thought of more, until he felt like spent ashes all over and he still needed to cross the plains home. Fyrian hadn’t intended his sky-child korvi to break rock, but they did it anyhow. Someone needed to provide.
-Remedy (A Story of Aligare), Chapter 9
And the whole reason I wrote the Serpents of Sky collection was to spin lots of different dragon scenarios. Dragons guarding gold to save humans from their own greed. Dragons who physically manifest the concepts of greed and chaos and destruction. Dragons whose close-guarded treasures let them bend time and space. Even a dragon whose precious stash is just cream and sugar to put in their coffee.
In short, there are lots of reasons dragons might hoard gold. It’s one of many traits we can get creative with, and reinterpret as we see fit. If you haven’t seen the Unusual Dragon Hoards artworks by Iguanamouth, I highly suggest taking a look — it’s a cute series where dragons sit possessively on piles of stuffed animals, spoons, comic books and other unexpected treasures. Golden hoards are just one more way for dragons to capture our imaginations.
First things first: a personal update! Yeah, I’ve been quiet these past few months, mostly because my job situation went belly-up while I was finishing Tinder Stricken. When I say that, I mean the boss thought it was fine to give me zero hours per week.
I quit with extreme prejudice and focused solely on Tinder Stricken. After the book launch at What The Fur? 2015 — and a few merciful days of sleep — I got job hunting and found another prep cook position, one with plenty of working hours and lots of physical demands that leave me tired after work. I haven’t had much energy left over for freeform essays. That, and I simply didn’t feel like I had anything to say on this blog. I’m a big advocate of not talking just for the sake of it.
But anyway, here I am with a blog post! Because I read a metaphor today that stuck in my throat like an awkward segue, or perhaps a rock.
We Don’t All Need To Be Diamonds
I subscribe to some book bargain mailouts and today, this testimonial caught my eye:
Not because I have any particular interest in Robin Hobb or G.R.R. Martin, but because a series of fantasy novels was described as “diamonds in a sea of zircons”. That turn of phrase saddens me.
We use diamonds as a metaphor for greatness and they are pretty remarkable stones (if not as rare as we often think). But it’s all too easy to keep barrelling past a love of greatness, right into the thought that only the #1 greatest things ever matter. Only the blockbusters and runaway hits are worth noticing. Only the hardest gemstone on Earth is worth wearing or considering beautiful.
It ties into my thought that “typical fantasy” should be an oxymoron. Sure, it’s sad to be a zircon, a material with nowhere near as much merit as the stone it mimicks. There are few things more disappointing than a fantasy story that’s clumsily imitating a better book. But when we’re considering minerals, we have more to choose from than just diamonds and zircons, just as there’s more to the fantasy genre than who writes the grittiest political coup. We’re not limited to winners and losers — why, just look at the variety out there.
There are minerals for every purpose. Mountains of them, both literally and figuratively. There are quartz crystals for your watch components, and granite that’ll look great as a polished countertop. Quartz and granite are common, humble minerals that will never measure up to a diamond — and why should they? Olivine isn’t the most glamorous stone group around, but if you like how your peridot earrings look when they catch the light, then who cares?
This metaphor is particularly personal for me because I associate Remedy, my first-published novel, with amethysts. At the beginning of the story, Peregrine is a miner who brings home mostly amethysts. These stones aren’t ideal for common useage (clear quartz is preferred, since it’ll take any and all magical charges), but amethyst has its place in Aligare society. It’s perfect for darkcasters. Brightcasters can’t use it and that’s fine; it doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with either the caster or the stone. We all have our tastes and alignments, that’s all. Remedy is my own handful of natural amethyst — amethyst that a New York editor once told me would never be a diamond, so I should rewrite it. No, thanks. I happen to like quartz formations.
It’s great to write a classic-styled epic fantasy, or wear a diamond. But as with all things, the world needs variety. I tell myself this every time I read or write a story. There’s plenty of room in the fantasy genre for jasper and amber, and even room for an old piece of petrified wood if it manages to shine.
Lately, I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be happy. Y’know, other than the obvious.
This isn’t a new quandary for me. I’m part of the millennial generation, an age group that’s getting a lot of mixed messages about what to do with our lives. And as a fantasy writer trying to make meaningful statements, I’ve always questioned what life and its components really are. But in the past year, I’ve been thinking particularly about what happiness is —partly because I’ve been managing anxiety in that past year, too.
I mean, it was nothing serious. Difficulty sleeping and some general unease, fixed with a tiny daily dose of antidepressants and some life changes. Pretty easy fix, as far as medical conditions go. My family history of nervous dispositions — we’re like horses, you see: strong but sometimes finicky — wasn’t as big an issue as the fact that I needed to examine my life. Get a different job. Adjust my writing career focus. Throw out some junk, both literal and figurative.
It’s a lot like what Peregrine does in my first book, Remedy. His doubts and fears need to be addressed, and a job change and a plague relief effort help him break out of his little rut of worries. I didn’t take as long to straighten out my issues as Peregrine did, thankfully (partly because I’m not a dragon and I don’t have 80 years to spend on a midlife crisis).
And as the Tinder Stricken draft opens up to me, I find more and more that Esha isn’t simply chasing the thief phoenix to get her stolen heirloom knife back. She’s also chasing that phoenix as a desperate attempt to put her life in order and, ultimately, be happy. The story isn’t about a petty theft so much as Esha and the phoenix reacting to their crummy lots in life, and trying to change those lots. That’s how I write. I don’t typically like stories that focus on hatred, or revenge, or a lust for power — because there’s too much of that in our real modern Earth. I’d rather spend time with characters who seek happiness and comfort in the middle of a turbulent world.
Last time I saw my nurse practitioner, she said she’s glad to hear that I’ve made some positive changes.
“I had all the pieces,” I told her. “I just had to move them around.”
“Yeah,” she said, smiling kindly, “but some people don’t move their pieces around.”
I think that’s an important way to view life. We all have pieces. Maybe they’re not the pieces we want — but we have pieces. Maybe we can construct happiness if we just try moving them.
- Why do we have “the usual” fantasy stories?
- Fiction begins with real life: The story of a rapping guy
- What maturity means
With my love of variety in fantasy literature, I try to experiment with lesser-used mythological creatures. I’ve talked before about the phoenix, that metaphor everyone knows — but few fantasy writers use to full potential. And I’ve dabbled with black dog interpretations ever since I first found out about that interesting little clump of British Isles lore.
Today, I’m here to discuss sirens. You know, those mythical aquatic women who aren’t mermaids?
Originating in Greek mythology and later adopted by the Romans, sirens are supernatural women who sing in enchanting voices. They tempt or hypnotize men, most notably sailors on long, lonely journeys. Sometimes the sirens distract the sailors into crashing their ships; sometimes the lovely singing just lulls the sailors to sleep so the sirens can easily kill them. Either way, it’s a bad outcome for any man enchanted. The first Greek examples of sirens were associated with meadows and earth, but later siren lore had a water connotation — including dangerous, rocky seashores for befuddled sailors to crash their ships onto.
That ocean context sometimes causes sirens to get mixed up with mermaid lore. Nowadays, particularly sexy mermaid artwork is sometimes tagged as a siren. But Greek texts originally described “winged maidens” with bird legs. The siren was sort of like a harpy‘s more attractive sister. Her bird traits represented her beautiful singing voice. An early Christian text also points out that love is a sharp-clawed bird: it “flies and wounds”.
There are also historical artworks of sirens as fish chimeras who look slightly like mermaids. And some artworks where sirens looked like ordinary human women, lounging on rocky seashores. Like most mythological beings, sirens are open to interpretation.
As for me, I grew up hearing a bit about Greek/Roman mythology and its singing sirens. My more memorable siren encounters came in video games. Final Fantasy games and their summoned spirits represent a wide variety of Earth folklore, after all.
But in the modern fantasy genre, siren encounters are fleeting compared to elves, dragons, vampires or werewolves. The siren doesn’t seem to be a mythical creature that gets much thought or reinterpretation. So when I saw the submission call for the Distorted anthology — asking for modern, realistic, or fantastic interpretations of mythology — I thought sirens would be a great subject. Their flexible lore would let me worldbuild. Their built-in themes of love, temptation and punishment would help me make a great story.
I wrote a piece called To Sing Which Tune. It’s about a version of modern Earth where sirens (feather-covered humanoids with gills) have always been friends to humans. They call boats away from danger, and they perform their lovely songs on TV for our entertainment. At least, that’s how it used to be.
Nowadays, the siren population is showing more and more cases of violent dementia, attacking humans unprovoked and with little warning. Marine ornithologist Helen thinks it’s because of toxic chemical buildup in their bodies, a side effect of human pollution. Helen is driven to help all sirens — most of all her lifelong friend, Odyssia. But she might be too late.
To Sing Which Tune is darker than my usual stories, but it was an interesting project and I’m delighted to be included in the anthology! And I’m glad I jumped at this chance to write about beautiful, deadly sirens on a modern seashore.
So, here’s something I just thought of. English sci-fi usually refers to its interstellar spacecraft as “space ships”, or “starships”, or something else with “ship” in the name. It’s a commonplace term.
Because it makes sense for humans to root our space travel in the nomenclature of sailing. The Age of Sail was a major formative period in Western history, so modern English still uses sailing idioms like “batten down the hatches”, “know the ropes” and “close quarters”, even though sailing is now a tiny niche of world travel. The vast majority of human cultures use boats in some way, and can relate to the imagery of travelling by wind and water. Sailing has a nostalgic sense of exploration and bold human endeavor. But if we dig a little deeper, sailing also touches on the less pleasant lessons history has to teach us — issues like the soul-sucking conditions of long-haul travel, and the human rights atrocities committed in the Age of Sail. The glamour and the grimness of the Age of Sail make a good blueprint for a space opera.
I was thinking about this while listening to The Picard Song, a Star Trek fanwork that starts with Captain Picard’s stately declaration of, “Here’s to the finest crew in Starfleet.”
Huh, I thought. Starfleet. Like a fleet of ships, in keeping with the nautical theme and the military implications. I wonder if alien races have metaphors like that for their space programs — different metaphors than ours.
And it suddenly occurred to me that I can’t think of any non-human versions of the term “spaceship”. Much as I appreciate Star Trek’s efforts to show non-humans in a dignified light, its alien races always seem to accept the “ship” and “fleet” terminology that humans use. Now, granted, universal translation technology is partly to blame. Of course it’s going to use our most commonly understood nomenclature. But still, I don’t recall any sci-fi media where an alien says, “Oh, you call it a space-[water-going vessel]? My species calls it a space-[something else].”
Why doesn’t that happen? Why don’t we hear other colourful names for spacecraft? Why aren’t there more telling glimpses into alien cultures?
I don’t ask that question directly at Star Trek, of course. That franchise had enough of a struggle on its hands, making its vision palatable to mainstream TV audiences of the 20th century. No, I think this is a question to ask of science fiction in general — and maybe fantasy, too, with its “airships” sailing the skies. Sci-fi made me think of this question, but I firmly believe that a magical non-human can do as much thought-provoking as a hard sci-fi alien.
I mean, what about a race that glorifies farming and plant husbandry? They might call their vessels “space seeds”, since they’re tough little packets of life meant to colonize new lands. Or aliens who see spacecraft as a mimickry of stars and planets, a mortal being’s attempt to fit in with the celestial bodies? Maybe their vessels would be called “hardstars”.
Now, I don’t claim to be aware of every book, TV show and movie ever made — actually, I get through novels pretty slowly for someone who writes them. So I hope there are examples of space not-ships that I’m simply not aware of. This concept just has so much creative potential, I hope it’s being used to add colour to fictional societies.
Do you know of a sci-fi/fantasy series with an interesting name for its spaceships/airships? Share in the comments!
I have lots of final prep to do before Serpents of Sky launches next week! So I don’t have much in the way of bloggish thoughts today, but I did do a few rough sketches. Just some random Aligare folk.
I think it’s about time I update the diagram of the Aligare peoplekinds — the one that appears at the beginning of every Story of Aligare book. In the original image, I was trying for a clean, simplified look. But I’m thinking a more detailed, dynamic art style like these sketches might make it easier for readers to visualize the Aligare races in the story to come. Thoughts?
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)