On the Use and Abuse of Dragons

Who doesn’t like an immense, terrifying, awesome Dragon thrown into a fantasy story? The problem I often find, however, is handling a dragon with… respect? Dignity? The first thing I suppose a writer needs to consider is sentience. Is your dragon a beast or a conscientious entity? Is it somewhere in between? The answer to this has a number of repercussions. It seems almost certain that a dragon will get used in some way. In the few stories where I can think of that the dragon doesn’t get exploited (David Eddings, Terry Goodkind) this is when it only appears in a few scenes and is mostly treated like a beast of nature that you should leave well alone… a bit like if you’ve stumbled across a moose in the Canadian outback.

Reddit picture of moose to show scale

More often, though, if a dragon pops up in a fantasy book, they’re likely to become a minor or major element in the story. Interestingly, although much of contemporary fantasy is inspired by J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and its precursor, The Hobbit, contemporary authors seem to avoid taking a page from Tolkien’s book with regards to dragons. While Tolkien kept to his medieval inspirations by casting dragons as an obstacle or quest to defeat and overcome, dragons in contemporary fantasy seem to take the form as a resource, an item that must be captured, conquered, tamed, and brought under control. By taming a dragon, the hero conquers not only nature, but also the supernatural, finding an unlimitless supply of power. Consider Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, for example, an alternate history which reimagines the Napoleonic Wars with dragons as an air force in the army. (Although,I confess, I haven’t read the entire series and my memory of them might be faulty.) Novik’s early precursor, Anne McCaffrey, employs dragons in a similar way in her Pern series; here, McCaffrey’s dragons are bioengineered to fight a pestilence that falls from the sky. In each case, the dragons are sentient, taking an active part in the war they’re bred for. But the fact remains that, though sentient, they are still bred for these activities, domesticated much like a hunting dog and given no other purpose except to kill or be killed.

While these examples show sentient dragons that don’t seem to dwell on their own purpose in life – no existentialist crises here – there are, of course, examples where dragons are aware of the way in which they’re being exploited and destroyed. Though I haven’t read the complete series, Robin Hobb’s Liveship and Wild Rain trilogies is one such example. Another that leaps to mind is Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory’s Obsidian trilogy (which I first talked about here). Although I lamented the slow pace in the first book, the second book moves along at a brisk speed. In the first quarter of the book, we meet the dragon Ancaladar, who has been hiding away as he doesn’t want to risk bonding with a mage. Once a dragon forms a bond with a mage, the mage is able to access unlimited sources of power to fuel their spells. Thus, while Lackey and Mallory’s worldbuilding specifies early that magic has a price, they created a deus ex machina in the form of dragon. Unfortunately for the dragon, the dragon’s immortality is taken away, shortening to match the life of their bondmate. So not only do they get used as a battery pack, but they’ll be discarded soon after. Unlike (most) of the dragons of Pern or Temeraire, Ancaladar does object to being exploited, but as he usually ends up complying with his bondmate’s request, all this shows is that Lackey and Mallory have at least taken some time to consider the feelings of their non-human characters. The drawback, however, is that a dragon with an unlimited supply power risks functioning as a deus ex machina when things go wrong. Their ability to fly also adds to this effect. In a fantasy world where long-distance communication is often a problem, a dragon removes this obstacle fairly effectively. The authors must find other ways, then, to maintain narrative tension.

Finally, we have dragons that are purely beasts. They may form a bond with humans similar to a wild animal that may be raised from infancy, but, at the heart, they are still savage animals. In these scenarios, dragons are even more heavily exploited. Owning a dragon means – almost literally – owning a form of power. Consider George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, for example, where many of the characters try their best to take control of the dragons. Afterall, the Targaryen dynasty was established through dragons, as Aegon the Conqueror was only able to take over Westeros because of these beasts. Other instances of dragons-as-beasts makes the exploitation of dragons even more explicit. In Jane Yolen’s Pit Dragon trilogy, for example, dragons are bred for fighting, in a gladiator-style dragon cock-fight. It’s a brutal and savage use of dragon-kind, made even more so as the trilogy slowly conveys that the dragons are much more intelligent that the humans give them credit for. J K Rowling treats them similarly in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (although one wonders what was the thought process that went into deciding to use school children as dragon bait for these gladiator-style games. But I digress.)

I suppose my question to all of these authors is why? What is the purpose of adding dragons to your worldbuilding? Do they even have a purpose beyond sheer desire? Have they set out to say something meaningful about the way we perceive animals and nature, the way we see any object that is of use to us – whether sentient or not – and set out to find ways to exploit it? Or is this simply a secondary side effect of the world we live in? Is exploitation the underlying force that moves us all?

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