Dragons are fearsome, terrifying creatures. They’re the stuff of legend and of nightmare. Just like how you always hear about knights going off to fight them & save poor, captured maidens from the evil dragon (keep on with the western understanding, here). They’re serpentine or reptilian; lizard-like really. With giant wings and they breathe fire. Sometimes sulfurous, other times just belching hot and melting anyone who gets into their paths. They’re hell-spawn and should terrify any good person who hears about them.
And yet…really, I can’t picture them that way.
I know that dragons were part of my childhood. But I didn’t grow up with Christian tales of St. George slaying the dragon or the devil. No, nothing like that. In fact, I really don’t even remember hearing that tale until about 3rd or 4th grade, from a friend’s parents on a sleepover. So I don’t think I ever really had an ingrained sense of dragons as evil–not from that, certainly. And mythology was certainly not on my radar until quite a bit later, to be honest. Folklore and mythology dragons were very late in coming to me, unlike other folklore/mythology creatures and entities that I got far earlier exposure to and read proper stories about when younger.
The first dragon I really remember is Maleficent as a dragon in Sleeping Beauty. I must have been, as I’ve said before, really young when I first saw this movie, enough that I don’t remember exactly how old I was. That was certainly frightening, but Prince Philip was there–and for a kid, that’s all the reassurance I needed. Maleficent was not going to prosper, she was going to die; everything would turn out just fine. There was no need to be worried, since everything would work out. With that, dragons couldn’t be scary in this story.
The next dragons I remember are paired almost identically in time. I was about 7 years old–and as voracious a reader as I am now. But for some odd reason these 2 came to me at the same time. Quite ironic really; but I was going through a huge fantasy stage at that point of my life in reading (which admittedly has probably influenced my particular taste in reading to this day…)
First was The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley–and it’s prequel The Hero and the Crown–which had Aerin Dragon-Killer. Honestly, these 2 books are completely worth a read, and I highly suggest them to everyone.
I read the sequel first (it was published first), fell in love, and promptly was able to get my hands on the prequel from the library. The sequel mentioned Aerin in the abstract–she was a distant legend, mysterious and strange. And Harry Crewe is interested in her: especially after she is the first woman to wield Aerin’s sword since.
The Hero and the Crown though! That had dragons. In Damar (Aerin’s kingdom) dragons are small, nuisances and pests that are only shadows of their former great selves. And being a dragon-killer was not really highly thought of. But Aerin becomes one, she learns. And she learns because she discovers how to make an ointment that makes you fireproof. There is still one great dragon left though–and that’s part of the story.
Again, as I say, definitely worth reading! I adore these two books quite a bit. They were one of my introductions to dragons (and even the mythic tropes that surround dragons)–at least as far as I can actually remember. Which to me is enough to call them one of my first introductions; because if I can’t remember earlier, then it can’t have made an impression.
At the same time though, there was that brilliant story that is so famous and popular:
That classic fairy-tale by J.R.R. Tolkien
This is the tale that has imprinted on my consciousness most completely for dragons. Smaug was the measure of dragons for me for so many years, well before I ever got to studying mythological dragons or folklore or historical “accounts”. It’s foremost, and the first thing I picture whenever I hear the word dragon–even if we’re talking hard-core mythological versions that are not at all related to Tolkien.
Now, reading the book at about 7–Smaug was terrifying. I trembled on reading of his wits against Bilbo; was nervous when Bilbo realized he gave too much away and endangered Lake-town. (uh….80 year old spoilers?) It was this portrayal that set for me just how clever, cunning and dangerous dragons could be. Which definitely carried on to my mythology, fantasy and other readings.
But then…Tolkien drew adorable dragons. I mean…the image above is from the cover of the original version of The Hobbit, as published in 1937. The header image is one of Tolkien’s own drawings–plates that have been available for decades. And Smaug is just…cute! Absolutely adorable drawings. And I remember coming across these 2 images first when I was about 10 or so? I was trying to find a photo for my own school use (ah, back when you’d tape photos to your notebooks in elementary school)–and came across both of them. It was just so adorable, I think I had the black line art on my notebooks for a good 2 years or so.
That pairs with my inherent understanding that dragons should be dangerous. Cunning, clever creatures that were far more trouble than they were worth. Definitely should be careful of dealing with them. But then, the drawings were too cute for 10-year-old me. Which is a bit muddled on the whole message of “do not meddle with dragons” that inevitably is the message of all fairy tales and folklore. Or at least, as a woman I should leave them alone and stay far away.
It’s a huge dichotomy that I’ve yet to really get out of in consideration. Because while I know the story Tolkien was telling, and I know what folklore, mythology and history he drew from to create his dragons. They are fearsome creatures, terrifying and most of all evil. And that’s the prevailing opinion of almost all western culture in historical attitudes towards dragons. But his cute drawings like these 2 make it difficult for me to keep this in my head at all times.
And nowadays there’s this pretty dragon here. I mean. Really! Most adorable dragon in film, in my opinion.
Toothless is my favorite character in How to Train Your Dragon and the whole series. I fell in love with him watching the first movie. It was just so…novel and new to see him portrayed this way. I’ll admit I avidly consume all the TV/Netflix series that have come out, and I love when new fan art pops up online that I can ogle and smile at seeing. He’s just…well just as adorable as Tolkien’s drawings.
He’s like a giant…cat. Really, definitely more cat than traditional dragon. I spent the whole film laughing at how he reminded me of my kitty and how she would act and behave. That went a long way towards reinstating my internal belief that there are cute, adorable dragons that I wouldn’t mind meeting, given the rare chance.
Which of course, is awesome in my book. So we’ve moved beyond the trope of dragon as terrible, dangerous creature. Now there are media cute dragons like Toothless to amuse us and be good entertainment on the big screen & small. Also, lots more cute drawings out there; and some really interesting new ideas about dragons out in media. I’m also well aware of other more “positive” media portrayals–but these are the ones that have been my influences, hence the focus.
To my mind this is a good thing. I like old mythology, old folklore–old wives tales and the like. They’re fascinating, and often teach us a lot about what our distant ancestors were thinking, how they saw the world–all through their understanding of the world around them. I love old stories, that’s half the reason I got into history to begin with; because I like ancient and old things–long past stories that I can delve into, research and read. And I can understand why dragons were terrifying in old days.
Honestly, if I met a real-life dragon (no matter what type), I would be initially be terrified. Probably pass out in terror. But, I’d like to meet a Toothless. Not Smaug. Definitely not Smaug though. For all that these cute drawings have irrevocably influenced my interest in dragons–Smaug would be a nightmare to meet in person. The Hobbit tells exactly what would happen if I were to meet him. And I don’t have Bilbo’s innate bit of luck to get myself out of any situation.
Smaug artwork was what brought me into a new way of looking at dragons. The cute Tolkien drawings and sketches told me that there could be cute dragons.
Now, whenever I hear about dragons, I picture Smaug-sketches or Toothless. It’s rather amusing, considering that usually I’m reading about terrible, dragons that will kill you as soon as look at you. But, welcome to how my mind sees these things! Perhaps it will be amusing to others to, to read about a dragon eating knights who come to kill him, all while picturing the adorable little drawings Tolkien made.*