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A Dragon in the East

January 29, 2010

Yesterday, I started a Genre essay on the topic of Dragons, one of the oldest and most treasured of fantasy genre tropes.  I knew it was a big topic – which is why I put it off for so long (unbeknownst to you, dear reader, I’ve been planning this pair of articles since I started this blog) – and that I would be unable to do it full justice in so short a space.  Even with a second blog post, the topic is pretty big (thus the copious Wikipedia links), so after continuing my discussion of Eastern dragons, I’ll finish this off with a short analysis of the use of dragons in fantasy fiction.

Yesterday, I detailed a mythological image of a powerful force of nature embodied in a four-legged, winged, fire-breathing, snake-tailed creature.  But that frightening image differs markedly from what we see in Eastern and Oriental cultures.

There, the dragon is more serpentine than what we know.  It is four-legged, but rarely if ever depicted with wings (though it can still fly).   It is typically depicted with a mane, and frequently has a jewel or pearl under its chin.  Eastern dragons continue to represent the powers of the weather, rains, floods, waters and rivers.  But the most significant difference from the European conceptualization of dragons is that Eastern dragons completely shed any association with evil or avarice.  In eastern cultures, Dragons are not monsters to be slain, or which terrorize mere mortals.  They are auspicious symbols of good luck, fortune, and Imperial Authority.   At worst dragons are typically as indifferent to humanity as the weather but at best they are benevolent.

But there is still some nuance to this depiction.  Japanese Dragons pull folklore from a variety of sources, both the benevolent Chinese “long” as well as the serpentine, cobra-like Naga of India.  Still considered neither good nor evil, the Naga can bring both rain and fertility or drought and disaster.  One one hand, the line of Japanese emperors is thought to be descended from Dragons, yet on the other the Japanese ancestral god Susanoo is famed for slaying the eight-headed and eight-tailed Yamato-no-Orochi, a dragon to which an elderly couple had been forced to sacrifice seven of their eight children.  Here we see some resonance with the western dragon-slaying tradition. 

But it is particularly interesting that Eastern Dragons share many of the same concepts and ideas as Western Dragons: they are nature spirits and water deities with power over rains, seas, and storms.

In looking at these two dragon traditions, we have a lot to consider in analyzing how dragons are depicted in fantasy fiction.  Historically, in the western literary tradition, Dragons have primarily drawn on the western tradition of the evil, avaricious dragon.  Most famed of these fictional dragons is Tolkien’s Smaug.  Role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons picked up this theme, using dragons as the ultimate adversary for the game’s heroic characters.  The concept was occasionally subverted (especially, as far as I can tell, in children’s literature) in which dragons are merely misunderstood, but the this was the standard way to portray them.

I believe the first major shift in how dragons were portrayed in fiction came with Anne McCaffery‘s “Dragonriders of Pern” series (though I have never read these books), in which dragons become the formidable mounts for heroic characters – a theme picked up in the Eragon books as well as one of my own childhood favorites, the “Dragonlance” series.  In Dragonlance (via Dungeons & Dragons), we were introduced to the idea of  a world with two very different kinds of dragons: some motivated to do good, and some to do evil, and the two distinguishable by their appearance.   The idea seems to borrow heavily from the two different depictions of dragons in real-world mythology.  Today, the ideas spawned by McCaffery and later rebroadcast in Dragonlance and other novels now forms the nucleus of the modern fantasy cliché of the dragon. 

Meanwhile, other stories more directly borrow from the eastern version of the dragon.  The most immediate example I can think of comes not from literature but from film, but Falkor the Luck Dragon, from “The Neverending Story“,  is clearly based on the benevolent Eastern Dragon (I realize my example actually does come from literature but, to be honest, I’ve never read the book; an oversight I’m sure someday to correct).

An interesting trend that I’ve noticed, though this is mostly anecdotal, and I’ve not done a thorough study of the entire fantasy literature repetoire, is that throughout the 80’s and early 90’s dragons were fairly plentiful in fantasy fiction – in worlds like McCaffery’s “Pern” or Weiss & Hickman’s “Dragonlance” and many others.  As I said above, today dragons are not so much in vogue, but they’re not entirely absent from fantasy fiction, either.  Instead, however, they seem to more frequently crop up in stories in which they are remarkable because of their rarity.  My gut tells me that this means something, if it’s true, about the message in current fantasy literature, but I can’t say what this is.

The concepts and themes of the dragon have also been personified in the character of Rand al’Thor in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.  Rand is referred to as “the Dragon” in the series, a moniker that suggests both the awesome, destructive power of the western dragon and the benevolent authority of the eastern dragon.  While not an actual dragon, Rand’s title is portrayed by a typical eastern dragon which serves as his sigil.  One of the joys of Jordan’s series is the manner in which it borrows both eastern and western myths and motifs to weave his story at an epic scale, and Rand’s character best exemplifies this dichotomy and duality.  And the best symbol to represent that duality, without question, is a dragon.

The way in which we think about dragons in fiction has changed a lot over the years, particularly as fantasy fiction has opened its doors to take in mythology from sources all across the world, not only from the European traditions and legends, but from Eastern traditions.  The way we view the dragon in fiction will continue to evolve as we borrow ideas and themes from many places, and the potency of this symbol will continue to grow.  These are just a few of the reasons why the image of the dragon is my favorite fantasy trope.  I hope to continue to see dragons take flight in fantasy fiction, written with skill and an eye toward the myriad mythic traditions that give it form.  Happy writing.

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