How to Depict Your Dragon

Date Published: 10.02.2022

Wadham Visiting Fellow Professor Paul Acker researches dragons. Dragon myths and legends, that is (the real creatures being in short supply). He’s writing a history of their development and here he shares what he’s uncovered with Martin Dunkley Smith.

The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, MS. Douce 6, fol. 201r (detail).

“They didn’t breathe fire.”
“Not at first.”

Turns out, there are a lot of myths about, well, dragon myths.

“They didn’t breathe fire,” Paul said. “Not at first.”

Our mental image of a dragon is all wrong. At least, you’re not picturing the creatures described in the oldest western sources – not even the one from Beowulf. According to Paul, most scholars don’t get them right either. We all import modern dragon imagery back into ancient and medieval sources.

“Odin’s advice for slaying a dragon is to dig a pit and stab up at it when it slithers over. Does that sound like it would work on something that flies?” It’s a good point. And Paul’s research draws attention to so many details in these dragon traditions that are at odds with your garden variety winged lizard. Just consider how they are described when they don’t get slain. Paul explained how the unfortunate, nameless extras in these tales would suffer ‘death by dragon’…

“They could be poisoned. You didn’t even need to be bitten. These things could spray venom at a distance.” Other fates included being squeezed to death, fed to their young, or just dying from fear when they so much as stared at you. A lot of this should remind you of something: a snake. Paul claims that dragons began in the classical period as monstrous, giant snakes. No legs. No wings. No fire. But how did we get from super-sized serpents to Tolkien’s Smaug?

Paul claims the author of Beowulf was an innovator. Beowulf’s dragon is still firmly snakelike, but it has wings, can fly, and breathe fire. Replace the thin snake body with something more lizard-like, grow a couple extra legs and you might think the evolution to modern dragon is complete. But while this airborne serpent began to shift, we shouldn’t downplay its strangeness. “It was originally a composite creature,” Paul explained. “A lot of monsters begin that way. You take two different kinds of animal and splice them together. Dragons were depicted as having bird wings, or bat wings.” In other words, even when dragons finally took flight, they weren’t propelled by anything scaly or serpentine.

“Have you watched Game of Thrones?” Paul asks. Paul is a fan of the realism with which the dragons are depicted in the show. But the striving for realism that pushes modern CGI is also what shaped dragons into the thoroughly reptilian, four-legged creatures we love today. Paul explains that as we moved into the renaissance and early modern periods, we wanted monsters that were more believable. So, the wings became more reptilian, in keeping with the dragon’s body. And the beast grew hindlegs, remedying the questionable physics of its previous form. Eventually, voila! – a dragon fit for the Potter-verse.

“If you compare the features that these creatures have in the different traditions, there is nothing in common.”

Lest your dragon disorientation be incomplete, Paul has other misconceptions to slay. It’s common to think that dragon legends are world-wide – something of a universal, cross-cultural human fascination. We talk of there being Chinese dragons, as if they are minor variants from European ones. “But if you compare the features that these creatures have in the different traditions, there is nothing in common,” Paul says. The Europeans who first encountered the Chinese legends didn’t read them on their own terms. They squeezed them into their own cultural concepts. And we still haven’t escaped seeing Chinese lore through that lens.

Still, the west loves its dragons even if they are more culturally parochial than recognised. Why all the fascination? “They are the ultimate adversary. That’s why they continue to occupy our imaginations,” says Paul. If so, the story of how dragons have morphed through time is also a story of a shifting sense of threat. From the primeval fear of snakes to contemporary nightmares of fiery nuclear oblivion, Paul thinks dragons have been symbolic in every age they’re depicted.

Despite their enduring interest, Paul’s effort to capture the story of dragon evolution in one historical narrative, “from Ancient Greek to last week” (as he put it), is the first of its kind. Keep an eye out for Draco: A History of Dragons in the West. Within it, you’ll find plundered treasures from dragons across the centuries. All without the bother of digging any pits yourself.

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