The ancient mythology of the dragon dates far, far back, centuries before Shakespeare. Originally often presented as sea serpents, modern dragons are now commonly reptilian creatures of land, with legs, and of air, with wings. Though dragons are mythological creatures, it has been widely speculated that their existence was once widely accepted. This belief may have originated with prehistoric art, and with glimpses of large amphibious and reptilian creatures such as crocodiles or komodo dragons.
While most cultures have their own unique version of a dragon in their folklore, dragons can be loosely divided into two main categories – East Asian dragons, generally depicted as benevolent, wise and lucky, and Western or European dragons, more commonly evil, aggressive and fearsome – much like the serpent of the Old Testament of the bible. You can find healthy smatterings of widely varying dragons throughout literature, both modern and ancient.
The first literary dragon I remember encountering was the dragon from The Paper Bag Princess (which also my first piece of feminist literature, in retrospect) by Robert N. Munsch. He was some dragon. Sure, Elizabeth managed to outsmart him, but that was a given – the hero protagonist of a kids’ book has to win, in the end, after all. But I was impressed by him nevertheless. Here was no gentle lamb of a magic Puff frolicking in a land called Honah Lee – here was a dragon. Fast, furious, fierce and fire-breathing, this nasty beast was a force to be reckoned with.
My next dragon was the famous Smaug, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Centuries-old, cunning and fearsome, Smaug guarded a wealth of unimaginable riches and had lain there so long that some of the treasure had been enveloped by his flesh and become a part of his already impressive armour. He was one of the last surviving great dragons of Middle-earth, and had seen it all, forcing dwarves and others alike into exile.
It’s fascinating that humans have not only created the fictional, mythical creature of the dragon, but also repeatedly adhered to recurring archetypes around it – where there is a dragon, one can almost always expect to find any or all of the following: gnomes, dwarves, castles, knights, princesses, trolls, goblins or treasure. We have created not only a magnificent animal from thin air, but also entire landscapes to support its legend.
Some exceptional literary dragons depart from the norm and become different beasts entirely. In Anne McCaffrey’s science fiction Dragonriders of Pern
series set on the planet of Pern, they play an altogether different role from that of your usual dragon. Pern is plagued by a terrible phenomenon known as Thread.
While it falls from the sky, Thread’s similarities with the nourishing and sustaining rains of Earth stop there. Thread is a ravenous scourge of spaceborne spores, burning and devouring any living thing with which it comes into contact. Small reptiles known as fire lizards were native to Pern, and possessed the unique ability to chew certain rocks and subsequently breathe fire, destroying the deadly Threadfall. The human scientists of Pern genetically modified fire lizards into larger, full-grown dragons, and those dragons become crucial to human survival on the planet. Specially trained humans, known as Dragonriders, take to the skies on dragonback to protect the people below from Thread.
The dragons in the book can travel by teleportation, and can communicate via telepathy, greatly strengthening their bond to humans, to whom they are no threat.
I’ve always loved reading about dragons, whether friendly and wise ones, such as Saphira from Christopher Paolini’s Eragon,
or the nasty, brutal and terrifying versions. In science fiction, in fantasy, in children's books and more - for all your winged, scaly, fire-breathing needs, enjoy this list of books featuring some of literature’s greatest dragons.