And so the stories of dragons continue because, you know, I do love my dragons. Now we progress to happier days in which dragons are loved and accepted by all.
Well… maybe not quite yet. There is still the issue of Smaug. Smaug, the sneaky and clever and oh so unlovable dragon with whom Bilbo spars in Tolkien’s The Hobbit, managed to delay the dragon’s entrance into polite society for several decades more. To be quite blunt, Smaug is not a friendly dragon. However, fortunately for dragons everywhere, Tolkien does hit upon the notion of making dragons actual characters instead of mindless beasts. Dragons have personalities. They have names and enter into dialogue with the bright and brilliant heroes of the tales.
Because emulating Tolkien became the thing to do in epic fantasy writing, dragons began popping up all over the place in one story after another. They make fantastic foes for enterprising heroes who wish to prove their mettle. As Smaug himself says,
“My armour is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!”
What noble and courageous knight can resist the siren call of such an opponent? But these dragons are not to be taken lightly. Bilbo wisely states,
“Never laugh at live dragons.”
He has a point. Aside from being crunchy and delicious with all manner of sauces*, people in general have begun to grate on the nerves of dragons who wish only to be represented as they are: perfectly honorable creatures who admittedly love fire, but also enjoy a good conversation and an afternoon tea. Dragons have grown rather tired of being the victims of writers’ pens. They have declared their independence. They are stepping out of the shadow of villainy into the light of heroism!
More or less.
Now, wise authors realized that an abrupt turnaround might be too much for the delicate constitutions of all those knights who were used to pure villainy of their favorite foe.** Ergo, stories began to appear wherein dragons were neither fully good, nor fully evil. Instead, like people, dragons could be either good or bad or somewhere in between.
One brilliant story that comes to mind is Vivian Vande Velde’s Dragon’s Bait. In this story, the unfortunate maiden Alys is sacrificed to a dragon*** who has been ravaging the surrounding villages. So this dragon is a menace in its own way. However, Alys finds out that not only can the dragon take on a human shape, but that he has a distinct sense of honor and a vaguely ironic humor about him. I utterly refuse to give away any more about this amazing book, but suffice to say that the dragon of Dragon’s Bait is one of the first dragons that I ever fell in love with. So go read it. Now.
Patricia Wrede wrote several books reacting against convention in her Dealing With Dragons and its sequels. In these charming books, the princess Cimorene decides that she is fed up with being a proper princess**** so she goes and offers herself to the dragon Kazul to be her princess. Cimorene becomes involved in the plots of wizards and dragons as she aids Kazul and sends pesky knights who come to rescue her on their way.*****
Dragons have emerged as real and fascinating characters in modern fantasy literature. Most wonderful of all, in my mind, is the representation of dragons in a certain historical fantasy novel that I happen to cherish above all others. However, I will save that one for its own special post next time.
*modern dragons are not averse to trying things other than the generic ketchup and fish sauce so popular in the olden days
**knights still don’t seem to know what to do with good dragons
***the villagers decide to go all cliché on her and call her a witch
****she reads Latin and likes to cook
*****as I said, knights refuse to believe that dragons are anything but vicious, maiden-stealing beasts. Though in all fairness, most of the other dragons did have to steal their princesses. Cimorene was an exception.