So… the Hobbit. First of all, squeeeeeee! Haven’t seen it yet… probably next week some time. However, Smaug gets me to thinking about dragons. There are three dragons that have been the stars of my entertainment life in the last two years, and, no, this isn’t about my book. I’m talking about Deathwing, Alduin, and soon… Smaug. May the best dragon win.
Dragons are, of course, a cornerstone of the sword-and-sorcery genre. The first fantasy book I ever read was the Hobbit, and my next encounter with dragons after that was in the Dragonlance Chronicles. The D&D Dragons (the game on which Dragonlance is based) seemed to have a very different feel from Tolkein’s Smaug. We see very little of Smaug. He’s vein, crafty, conceited, greedy, and powerful. The dragons in Dragonlance start out grand, but the more we see of them the more they become simply other characters in the books. Cool characters, but they lose some mystique with exposure. (On a somewhat related note, this is why I appreciate Tolkien never actually using Sauron in a scene in the Lord of the Rings… the threat of the unknown is better than the devil you know. Always leave the Dark Lord as the devil you don’t know.)
There’s a lot of freedom when implementing the dragon concept in world construction. Western dragons and Eastern dragons are very different. Eastern dragons can be treated as celestial incorporeal spirits as much as they are physical beings. They are closer to gods or gods’ servants than Western dragons, which are treated more like classical monsters. Easter dragons are hybrid animals: “The horns of a deer. The head of a camel. A demon’s eyes. The neck of a snake. A tortoise’s viscera. A hawk’s claws. The palms of a tiger. A cow’s ears. And it hears through its horns, its ears being deprived of all power of hearing.” (Wikipedia reference on Chinese Dragons) Western dragons are more purely serpentine or dinosaur-like.
Let’s consider a spectrum of western-style dragon types. How mythical do you want your dragons to be? Building dragons into your story requires that you determine how you want your reader to feel about them. This, in turn, drives how you should have your characters react to them. Are dragons little more than fantastic creatures, or are they epic? Are they plentiful and dangerous, but no more dangerous than say, a rhinoceros on steroids? Or are they capable of devouring kingdoms and breaking lands with the sheer physical might of their powers?
1. Dragons are symbolic.
The term ‘dragon’ also has biblical connotations. It’s been used as a symbol for satan, or satan’s beast. Basically, an evil create of badness and monstrosity. The classic dragon stealing away the maiden (virgin) carries the symbolic weight of Christian emphasis on sexual purity.
In Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, the Dragon is a title for a particularly powerful, messianic man with super-human powers. (Let me add one more Dragon to this year’s list of dragon’s: Rand al’Thor. It should be noted that the Wheel of Time’s epic conclusion comes out in January of 2013. Best fantasy series ever. Ev. Ver. If you disagree with me, I’m just going to call you a silly figwimple.)
2. Dragons are fearsome beasts.
Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince series featured a land where dragons were highly important beasts, but in the end were little more than intelligent animals. There weren’t magical as such (although later we discover they have sunrunning abilities), nor did they have the ability to speak. They didn’t really interact with humans, nor did they meddle in the affairs of princes. But, they would eat you if you got too close. (Really good series of books, BTW).
3. Dragons are magical creatures.
Now we get into D&D worlds, and all types of standard fantasy, a la Dragonlance. Dragons are long-lived races with magical abilities, in addition to their fearsome breath weapons, and often interact with mortals by shapeshifting into human, elven, gnomish, or other bodies. They are not gods or spirits, but can impact the rise and fall of kings.
4. Dragons are immortal or god-like beings.
Here’s where dragons cease to be mere creatures of the world and take on the power-scale of angels, or even gods. This has its roots in mythology with the Tiamat of Babylonian mythology (the Marduk/Tiamat myth is an arguable proto-myth for Michael/Satan) and the Jormungander the Midgard Serpent just to name two. These dragons outlast civilizations sometimes worshipped and sometimes feared. Their lives are incomprehensibly long, and they are tied to magic at a level beyond mere wizards. Alduin, Deathwing, and Smaug all fit into this category. One might argue that Smaug is debatable between this category and the previous, and that’s a fair point. In the Hobbit, it’s not apparent he’s a god-like being (at least not in the book). However, the way Tolkien describes dragons, (particularly Ancalagon the Black), they seem to be a sort of maia (lesser spirit).
So… let’s look at the 3 great dragons in question.
Deathwing. This dragon is the nemesis in World of Warcrafts’s last expansion, cataclysm. He’s the aspect of Earth, and as such is something of a god-like being. When he awakens, he breaks out of the ground and reshapes the continents of Azeroth. Cool, right? Actually, I thought Deathwing was kinda lame. He’s supposed to be this all-powerful evil insane dragon, but I guess the MMO platform doesn’t get me excited about villains. He never inspired dread in me as a player–and in WoW, even Arthas the Lich King evoked some “that’s pretty awesome” feelings. For me, I think Deathwing had too much of a Japanese RPG villain feel… he’s got a bazillion hit points and you’re going to whack at him forever until he finally dies. Lame sauce.
Alduin. Now, this might be my favorite dragon depiction in fiction (… cause the dragons in real life are awesome, right? :-p). He proves that I can get excited about a dragon character in the video game medium. First off, Bethesda did an outstanding design of dragon physiology, where they only have two legs, and their arms and wings are the same (rather than having 4 limbs, plus 2 more wings). Their in-game animations of dragons are superb. But what really is neat about Alduin, who is something of a dragon god, is the concept of their breath weapons being their actual language. It is said that a battle between dragons is also an argument. I like the concept of language holding power, and words themselves unleashing magical effects into the world. It gives Alduin a very god-like feel, since the power of his words shapes reality around him. Dragons become akin to creator gods, albeit in a focused way.
Smaug. Here’s the thing. We haven’t seen P.J.’s rendition of Smaug and I suspect we won’t in this first movie. So, we don’t know how Smaug is going to be executed. But, with all things Tolkien, Smaug carries a mythical quality of mystery that most fantasy dragons today seem to lack. Tolkien carries that old-world feel, and I suspect in concept, Smaug is grander than Alduin. (Deathwing can just go home for being lame sauce). That’s a key ingredient to mythical feel: “grand”. In that sense, even Alduin is somewhat lacking, if only in relative comparison. Again, we haven’t seen Smaug yet, but if the rumored concept art is any indication,
Smaug could eat Alduin for breakfast. (Although, this depiction is much larger than Tolkien’s own concept painting. Is it me or is the above image way too large to have a lucky arrow killing him to be at all believable? Sorry if I spoiled that for you, but the Hobbit isn’t new material.)
Verdict: Alduin wins.
Ok, I know you’re going WHAT? After all that talk of breakfast? Smaug is the awesomest dragon ever! Well, maybe. But Smaug is outfoxed by a hobbit. So, his vanity kinda makes him stupid. Alduin seems a clever fox by comparison, and it takes a hell of a lot more than a lucky arrow to bring him down (you know, elder scrolls, time travel, and someone who can speak the same dragon language) so I’m going to go with Alduin on this one, but might revisit this when all three Hobbit movies are out.