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.
I’m a content-producing novelist trying to make a living. Despite this, I don’t think piracy is evil.
No, really. One time, a convention attendee joked about pirating my book to his friends (then quickly insisted he wouldn’t do that) — and I laughed and gave him permission. Seriously, I wouldn’t mind if that attendee copied the Remedy ebook and emailed it to 500 of his friends and acquaintances. I might make thousands of dollars if every one of those 500 people purchased Remedy, but I don’t think the issue is as simple as that.
There are some existing cautionary tales, like Napster and the anime industry. Historically, people sold art, music and stories in a scarcity-based model. The only way to get these things was to purchase them through legitimate venues, which were sometimes hard to find and often priced steeply. When the Internet came along, people began downloading the things they were interested in but couldn’t buy legitimately. There was suddenly a way to circumvent the gatekeepers. Is that wrong? Well, the free market is clearly expressing its desires, and I think the onus is on businesses to keep up with demand. No one gets to order the world to stop changing. But is it just a matter of stealing things you haven’t paid for?
Physical ownership is clear and easy to enforce. A car is a three-dimensional object and we treat it as such. This object is valuable because it performs an action, and it’s made of materials with a calculable worth. You could sell a car for its parts or its metal content, but that car has greater value when it still works as a car. We know how fast a make of car can drive, and we can predict how many years it’ll be useful for. It might have social connotations (ie. driving a car as a mark of adulthood), but that’s not the primary reason a car is a valuable object. Forcibly taking that car away from its owner — so you can drive it or sell it instead of them — is therefore wrong.
Information, though? It’s trickier to control, and I don’t even think it should be held hostage for money. Information is a basic right. Everyone gets to learn skills, hear stories and experience art. That’s because we are enriched by ideas in ways we can’t always fathom. You can charge for your time and effort in distributing information — that’s reasonable. You can ask people to support you so they’ll get more information in the future. But I don’t think written stories are comparable to an object, be it a luxury car or a stick of gum. Stories have a word count but they’re not truly measurable. You can’t look at a novel and know that you’ll get so many grams or ounces of joy from it.
Why is a paperback book valuable? We know that paper, glue and ink are physical resources, and that someone needed to print and transport the book. Those books originally sold for a price the publisher needed to keep their New York rent paid up. If you resell old pulp paperbacks you found moldering away in your basement, you might get a few cents each for them if you’re lucky. What about the purpose of the book, though — the story? There’s no telling how valuable that story will be to any given person. I’ve read plenty of classics and bestsellers that I thought were boring and terrible, which meant they had very little value for me. Those old basement books might contain a story you end up loving. And people might read Remedy and think it’s a waste of their time: that’s a risk I take as a writer. I hope people will find value in the characters and ideas I present, but I can’t force them and nor should I.
If people read a pirated copy of Remedy, they’re trying out what I do. Taking my writing for a test drive, to get back to the car example. Determining if my work is worth their money. And I’m okay with that — because as an independant author, awareness of my work is more valuable than a payment of pocket change. I do charge dollars and cents for my books, but that’s basically just an assurance that I’ve worked hard to make a product I believe is worth money. It’s a request for token support of what I do. I understand Internet culture and I’m not stupid enough to put myself in a position where piracy will ruin me financially.
Old perspectives tell us that everything must be policed, enforced, and sold for money. That’s a system that takes failure hard and doesn’t acknowledge its own flaws — especially when trying to sell something as mercurial as ideas. It also makes people overly obsessed with money and ownership, in such distasteful examples as jacking up ebook prices when public libraries are looking to buy. I’d rather operate on a system where people enjoy my work and support me when they think I deserve their token support. Maybe they pay me in the form of reading my work for free, then telling their friends to check me out. That’s cool. I think we can all live with that.
- Why The Government Will Lose the War on Piracy (usahitman.com)
- The Middling circle, an aemet tradition (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- The value of sloppy work (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
On the Aligare Lore page, I’ve outlined the twelve Legend Creatures thought to inhabit the land, maintaining balance and lending colour to the place. The most commonly talked about is the Barghest, a giant green-furred dog. He’s a big part of Aligare morality.
Aligare’s Barghest is based on the black dog folklore of the British Isles. These monstrous, ghostly dogs go by many names, including barghest, cu sith, or black shuck. Most black dogs are malevolent creatures that stalk lone travellers in the night and cause people to disappear. But a few black dogs are benevolent — like really scary guard dogs who escort travellers instead of eating them. I drew from both versions when imagining my Barghest. There’s also a little Grim Reaper in him, and some Lady Justice, too.
It’s said that if an Aligare being has lied, cheated, stolen or caused harm, they will eventually get the strange feeling that they’re being watched. No one else sees or senses anything unusual, but the victim knows something is up. They’ll catch glimpses of glowing eyes in the shadows. They’ll detect the shape of a dog slinking along behind them — not an ordinary dog, but a beast bigger than a horse. The Barghest is a master of darkcasting magic; it is only seen when it wants to be seen, and it can hide in an ant’s shadow if it wants to.
Eventually, when the victim is alone, the Barghest appears before them. The hound can’t speak, but it’s said that a victim’s sins will come flooding back into their mind as they look up at the judgement creature’s face. If the victim is a sentient person, this is their chance to explain themselves. They have one chance to plead their case, explaining why they committed sins, maybe even promising to rectify the situation. And the Barghest is capable of mercy — but the excuse had better be very good. If he doesn’t like what he hears, the person will vanish without a trace. Some say the Barghest devours his victim on the spot. Others say he banishes them from existence, so it’s like the person and their sins have been erased from the land.
The people of Aligare may genuinely value teamwork and sharing, but there are still temptations. Sentient beings are the most suscteptible to greedy, cruel impulses. So in Aligare’s oral history, on the rare occasion a character acts sinfully, they always vanish mysteriously. Could they have simply gotten lost in the forest, or drowned without a trace? Maybe. Are these historical stories just tall tales invented by the bards? Could be. Or those sinful folk might have met the Barghest and been forced to pay the price for their transgressions. If the benefits of teamwork aren’t enough motivation for a person, then the thought of a scary judge-cum-executioner usually does the trick. If someone still decides to act sinfully, well, they must have a good enough reason to risk meeting the Legend Hound.
I haven’t heard back from the other korvi fellow I sent to Fenwater [with a supply of healing stones], gods only know where she is.
“She wouldn’t have taken your stones? It happens in times like these.”
It did sound as though she had aemet friends in Greenway … A frown marred Ethen’s face, and he said, She can plead her intentions to the Great Hound, I suppose.
Remedy, a story of Aligare, Chapter 19
So the Barghest is mentioned with reverence, and he’s meant to be scary. But Aligare folk don’t really fear him. This isn’t some slavering monster that eats anything he can catch. The Barghest only notices and stalks those who do wrong, and he only renders judgement on those who have knowingly sinned against others. If you have a clear conscience and you always try to do what’s right, then you have nothing to fear.
Tijo bent over a bag of stones now, sorting them with fierce motions. “Nothing is hopeless, Syril. I heard of a young aemet with stipple fever some years ago. She boiled in her skin for two entire days and came out of it fine. Seeing, speaking, remembering everything. If I can make such good fortune happen for those poor souls you found in the fields, then let the Barghest take me if I choose to stand idly by.”
Frankly, if Syril were the Legend hound judging rights and wrongs, he would swallow up all of korvikind for making choices at all, terrible mess of wormy apples that this was.
Remedy, a story of Aligare, Chapter 13
The Barghest also won’t punish any creature for its basic nature. Carnivorous animals must kill to eat. As long as a person kills animals mercifully, and for a good reason like needing food, that’s acceptable, too. And the Barghest allows demons to cause illnesses and bad luck in people, because they’re only nourishing themselves in their own strange way.
So the Barghest is partly there to answer the question, “Why is everyone so nice in these books?” The Aligare world has what we’d consider strong morals and a ridiculously low crime rate — so the Barghest isn’t often needed. But the Legend hound is there in the minds of Aligare folk, providing yet another reason to do the right thing.
- Aligare wildlife: the pandora (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- How lifespan affects the fantasy viewpoint (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- Are utopian and dystopian worlds even possible? (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)