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.