Hic Sunt Dragones.
—The Lenox Globe (Sixteenth Century)
Our relationship with dragons is a strange one.
The dragon is a myth that has grown and molded itself to whatever contradictions the current age requires. It’s a world-carrier or a treasure-hoarder, celestial or flawed. Fra Mauro, on his fifteenth century map of the world, dismissed the kind of superstition that believed in fictional beasts. Elsewhere on the map, a small island is neatly labeled, “Isola de Dragoni.”
But though there are exceptions in every age, dragons of the classical mold can be found as one of three kinds; though, as most myths do, these dragons may overlap one another, and a few generations may turn a benevolent wish-granter into an obstacle that must be slain.
1. His Heart is as Firm as a Stone: Dragons as Force
In [Leviathan’s] neck remaineth strength, and sorrow is turned into joy before him… His heart is as firm as a stone…The sword of him that layeth at him cannot hold.
—Job 41: 22-26
This great universe, situated on one of Lord Anantadeva’s thousands of hoods, appears just like a white mustard seed. It is infinitesimal compared to the hood of Lord Ananta.
—Srimad Bhagavatam, Canto 5, Chapter 25
The earth is a tangle of dragons.
The dragon is a myth given veracity by the fossil record that offers dinosaur remains as proof positive of the monsters who had possessed the world, once. The dragon is a monster that carries any burden we give it—terror, wish-granter, lesson.
The first incarnation of the dragon is as a force beyond ken, a force so great that it conquers nature, or becomes it. This dragon is pervasive, appearing in dozens of cultures as a serpent with wings or with talons, with feathers or with a mouth large enough to swallow a hundred men. (They are often to be prayed to; while they can grant wishes, they’re quick to anger, and the sword laid against them cannot hold.)
For the people of the Santa Clara Pueblo, Avanyu is the dragon who brings water. His brothers, in spirit if not in geography, are the Japanese Ryu, the Vietnamese Long, and the Hebrew Leviathon. Mayan Kukulkan is the messenger of the sun.
Indian myth, perhaps, trusts its dragons most; Ananta-Shesha, the zenith of serpents, is he upon whom the earth rests. As he uncoils and stretches, time moves forward and the universe flourishes; when he curls back into himself, the universe will cease, and only he will be left; his name marks him as the eternal: “that which remains.”
2. The Imprint of Her Foot Serpentous: The Monstrous Woman
Tiâmat opened her mouth to its greatest extent… Her heart was gripped, she opened wide her mouth. Marduk grasped the spear, he split up her belly…He pierced [her] heart … He brought her to naught, he destroyed her life … He cast down her carcase, he took up his stand upon it.
—Enuma Elish, 4.97-4.104
I was a woman, let me have once more
A woman’s shape, and charming as before.
I love a youth of Corinth—O the bliss!
Give me my woman’s form, and place me where he is.
—John Keats, “Lamia”
“Go thou hence, false serpent!”…
Then she began to give a sore sigh, and therewith flew out the window, transfigured like a serpent great and long in fifteen foot of length; And mark it well that on the base-stone of the window appeareth to this day the imprint of her foot serpentous.
—Jean D’Arras, “Melusine” (from Old English), 1393
Of all the terrifying forms a dragon takes, it seems that to be a woman is, despite all the possibilities, the worst of all.
Though tales of the monstrous woman appear thousands of miles apart, the fate of the woman (often discovered by her beloved to have been a serpent in disguise) varies little. In both the Greek myth of Lamia and the French folktale of Melusine, a dragon takes human form for love of a man. Her beloved spies on her and discovers her secret; he decries her, and each heroine takes her true form and returns to the world of beasts. (Some, like Melusine, are faithful, and haunt but one bloodline; the Lamias all take victims as they stray.)
Monstrous women can come even from within a friendly nest. In Japan, where dragons are often wish-granters and givers of advice, the legend of Kiyohime follows a widow who transforms into a fearsome dragon, tears the monastery to pieces, and immolates the monk who spurned her love. The story ends with a warning about “the strength of the evil in the female heart.”
And sometimes, the monstrous woman needs no human form at all; instead, conquest of the female dragon is necessary to end a reign of terror. Marduk, who climbs on the corpse of the chaos-dragon Tiamat in the Babylonian creation story and uses her body parts to build and furnish the earth, is the first of the great dragon slayers, but not the last; in Portugal, St. George’s dragon was a female, too.
3. A Countenance of Terror: Dragon as Rite of Passage
But George, astride his horse, against this beast rode he,
And commended himself to Jesus Christ and blessed him with his hand.
Against the dragon with strengthened heart quickly he did ride,
And the spear against the beast was set and hit him full and right,
And to the earth George bore him down, all a hardy knight.
—”St. George and the Dragon,” c. 1400
A countenance of terror I bore up before all folk, after that I brooded over the heritage of my brother, and on every side did I spout out poison, so that none durst come anigh me, and of no weapon was I adread, nor ever had I so many men before me, as that I deemed myself not stronger than all; for all men were sore afraid of me.
—Volsunga Saga, “Of the Slaying of the Worm Fafnir”
His rage passes description–the sort of rage that is only seen when rich folk that have more than they can enjoy suddenly lose something that they have long had but have never before used or wanted.
—J. R. R. Tolkein, The Hobbit
The ultimate dragon, of course, is the one that balances the godly with the mortal, the dragon that is fearsome enough to wreak havoc, and fallible enough to be slain.
This third dragon is what proves a hero’s worth.
This is the modern dragon: the beast slain by Sigurd—Fafnir, who shriveled to a reptile as he hoarded treasure—can trace his line directly to Smaug of the Lonely Mountain. This is the dragon St. George slew with a single strike, like Beowulf, Gawain, and a hundred heroes after.
Interestingly, these dragons are already more humanized than their elemental ancestors; the same shifts in cultural perception that make them fallible to heroes make them vulnerable to other human weaknesses. These dragons are petty enough for greed, and are the treasure-hoarders.
This dragon is an obstacle who serves each master to his needs. (This is the dragon that, if the quest requires, can be tamed.) Perseus slew the serpent to win a royal lineage and defy the gods; St. George used his dragon to honor his god, and converted thirty thousand pagans with a dragon’s head.
The Once and Future Dragon
Cimorene felt very frightened. The smallest of the dragons was easily three times as tall as she was, and they gave an overwhelming impression of shining green scales and sharp silver teeth…
“Well?” said the three-horned dragon just in front of her. “Just what are you asking us to do for you?”
—Patricia C. Wrede, Dealing with Dragons
The dragon, a legendary beast more chameleonic than most, embodies the world and the time of those who would honor it, or slay it. The modern dragon is aware of its parentage, but as humanity’s struggles have changed from merely surviving in the world to conquering it, so has the dragon become a steed (as are the dragons of Pern), a helpmeet (The Dragon and the George’s Smrgol), an irascible employer of brave young women (as Cimorene soon discovers).
In a world where humanity has broken nature, the next dragons might complete the cycle of regard, becoming symbols of a natural balance fatally disrupted, a way of life that’s vanished. Or worldly conflict might make use of dragons as both obstacle and savior, and they will fortify their scaly armor and become beasts of war.
But at heart, the dragon may be truer to itself than we think; in both creation and fatality, the old, unslayable dragons would wake, and see themselves, and be pleased.