Friday evening, as we settled into our motel room after taking our older son back to college, our younger son asked me something that I had been wondering about myself. Why are dragons so popular?
He had brought home a “free reading” book from school (they are required to read three books during the term, though I’m sure Al will read far more than that), and I started reading it after I realized that it was about dragons. As soon as I finished it, I got the sequel from the public library, which we both read during the trip to Michigan. (He read while I drove, I read it in the motel.) Now we’re taking turns reading the third book.
I can’t remember the first book I ever read about dragons, but I remember getting a book on the “natural history” of dragons back when I was a young adult. I loved the idea of a book that tried to examine dragons in the same way a non-fiction book would examine any other animal – its physiology, mating habits, habitat, history, etc. Some of my favorite novels that deal with dragons are Anne McCaffrey’s books about the dragons of Pern, and the Dragon Knight books by Gordon R. Dickson.
Other memorable dragons, while less central to the books they appear in, are Smaug in The Hobbit and the dragon Eustace turns into in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Unlike McCaffrey’s and Dickson’s dragons, these are “traditional” dragons (at least in the Western tradition) in that they are characterized primarily by greed and have no positive character qualities.
Certainly if you’re looking for a fearsome enemy to be the villain of the story, it’s hard to beat a dragon. Heavily armored, but capable of flight, armed with teeth, claws, and fire – even well-equipped modern soldiers might fare poorly against such an opponent.
Looking for other people’s ideas on the popularity of dragons, I was surprised to find, among the early hits in Google, pages about the popularity of dragon tattoos. But when I read one of these, I realized that the answer is probably the same: versatility. Visually, a dragon’s form can be easily altered to fit the “canvas” (of skin) available. And in literature, a dragon can be adapted to fit just about any kind of story
You can’t do the same with a real animal. There are a lot of different kinds of dogs, with different looks and temperaments. But reality imposes certain limits on what you can make a dog look like or do. Mythical animals have no such limitations. Just because dragons have traditionally been symbols of evil in Western civilization doesn’t mean an imaginative writer can’t make a dragon that works in harmony with humans – as long as it serves the dragon’s purposes also.
But other mythical creatures don’t seem to have the same versatility dragons do. Unicorns have a certain popularity, but not nearly as much as dragons. (Is this because unicorns have traditionally been considered good, and it is easier to create an interesting bad character than an interesting good character?) Mermaids have to stay in or near the water. Centaurs and satyrs, being half-man, aren’t nearly exotic enough, perhaps – and not especially well-armored either.
I found it interesting that a web page addressing the question of whether old maps really say “hic sunt dracones” (“here be dragons”) points out that old maps also feature other creatures that were equally exotic to most people. Today, zoo animals such as lions, elephants, and hippos no longer seem all that strange or mysterious. Even dinosaurs have lost a lot of their mystique, I think, as scientists learn more and more about them. But dragons, being quite unavailable for scientific study, preserve their air of mystery and danger.
Dragons also offer wonderful opportunities for artists and sculptors to display their craft. Their scaly bodies can display the iridescent beauty of many fish, while their wings offer much greater scope for creativity than do fish fins and tails. My husband and my younger son both collect dragon figurines, and while these all have certain similarities, there’s an amazing variety among them. (My bunny collection, in contrast, shows that there’s only so much you can do with a timid mammal.)
Of course, once something gets to be popular, two things happen:
1. Its popularity grows simply because people know it is popular, regardless of what its original reasons for being popular were. It shows up more and more throughout popular culture, in books, music, TV and movies, clothing – and tattoos.
2. And that leads to a lot of mediocrity, as people with little interest in what made it popular to begin with just want to cash in on the latest fad. It gets harder and harder to find examples that show real imagination and skill. Even McCaffrey’s and Dickson’s later books were a disappointment.
Fortunately, Chris d’Lacey’s books are not a case in point. I don’t like everything about them, but I do really like the dragons.