A fantasy writer's guide to dragons
What is it about dragons that make them so popular? In fantasy realms they must be the most common form of fauna you can encounter. It's a serious question. One I'm going to try to answer in this post. They are a fascinating species and I think part of that fascination comes down to their diversity.
I have to confess, dragons appear in each of my stories. In The Knights' Protocol trilogy, Cochrann is a red wyvern and she's one of my favourite characters. Yes, she has a character. She is intensely loyal, highly intelligent (compared to the lumbering conventional dragons I include) and impetuous, performing rescues and putting people at risk in equal measure. In The Valkyrie of Vanaheim, I introduce lyndworms, a flying, fire-breathing dragon with a snake-like body. The lyndworms were part of the world's vicious fauna and nothing more. Cochrann was different. From the start I wanted her presence to be not only unusual but unpredictable, she would mix things up in ways people couldn't. Animals are good for that, we can't always control them, we can't predict them either.
Having introduced this sub-species, I'll start this guide with the wyvern. It is bipedal and usually depicted with a tail ending in a diamond or arrow-shaped tip. The Oxford English dictionary provides 14th century references to a mixture of Middle English and Latin to define a snake-like beast. Later uses compare it to a javelin. In 1682 it appears in heraldry documents where it has two legs. Their use in heraldry made them a common feature in coats of arms (they're used now to represent Wales and Somerset) as well as kingdoms in Portugal and France. The Welsh wyvern, called Ddraig goch, fought the white Anglo-Saxon dragon which, according to Merlin, meant the English would one day be subdued by the Welsh.
The monstrous dragon featured in Beowulf was also a wyvern.
Traditionally, wyverns are not firebreathers. Within fiction this fact gets overlooked. Smaug is a wyvern but strafes his world with fire! In my trilogy, my Cochrann had acid saliva.
Why use a wyvern in a story?
If you dispense with the generic idea of 'dragon', most dragons in films/TV are wyverns because they are intelligent and so can be trained. That leads to the possibility of them being ridden. Look at dinosaurs, the cleverest were the velociraptors, they had to be to survive because they were smaller. In the animal world, isn't it usual for the large, cumbersome creatures to be less intelligent?
With intelligence comes character. You can give a wyvern a personality.
Not to be overlooked, they can walk. So, like a pet they can follow someone, go on a journey with them. That gives the animal far greater versatility as a character in the story.
Now for the fire-breathing bit! Isn't that rather cliched these days? It might have looked good but having dragons destroy Kings Landing in Game of Thrones was such a cliche. It provides the writer with ways to destroy things but fire-breathing dragons leads the reader to expect that kind of weaponisation. Wyverns offer an alternative, they bring you unpredictability. And personality.
Traditionally, there are nine Chinese dragons. Nine is a magical number in Chinese culture. Throughout China's long history, dragons have represented power - in many forms - a useful point of reference for any writer. My good friend, author of the Gensoki series, Virginia McClain uses them to good effect. Each one has a connection to the elements but also display different characters too.
This coin, from the Australian mint, shows all nine.
1: Qiu Niu - With a head resembling a yellow dragon, Qiu Niu is often depicted on the head or bridge of traditional Chinese instruments. The eldest of the nine dragon sons, the Qiu Niu, is generally considered the patron of musicians and a protector of homes.
2. Ya Zi - is highly aggressive and loves to fight. His bad temper and powerful nature sees him frequenting battlefields, and his appearance signifies victory in battle while enhancing the morale and strength of soldiers. His image is often carved on edged weapons to make them more powerful and accurate.
3. Suan Ni - Suan Ni resembles a lion, loves fire and smoke, and can be found on incense burners and as a guardian in front of doorways. Associated with Chinese Buddhism, his profile can also be seen on the seats of the Buddha statues.
4. Bi Xi - The Bi Xi dragon has the body and shell of a tortoise with the head of a dragon. Capable of carrying very heavy objects, his image is usually carved at the base of heavy stone steles, pillars and gravestones.
5. Bi An - known for his fairness and impartiality. Resembling a tiger, he is wise and can differentiate between good and evil, and honesty and lies. He is usually featured as part of the decoration of courts and prisons in ancient China. His images are ferocious and he has the appearance of a tiger with very large fangs.
6. Chi Wen - lives in the sea and is said to control rainfall. He resembles a fish. The Chi Wen dragon image is often placed on the ridges of palaces and buildings to protect the building from fire.
7. Chao Feng - The fearless risk taker, Chao Feng has the head of a phoenix with the body of a dragon. His image is often used as embellishments on roof corners, particularly in ancient palace architecture.
8. Pu Lao - Known for his loud crying, Pu Lao lives by the sea and is often cast as the handles on the top of a bell. He was afraid of cetaceous creatures such as dolphins and whales, and upon seeing a cetacean he would shout loudly in fear. It became a tradition for people to put his likeness on clocks with a carved wooden cetacean as the bell-striker in order to increase the vibration of the toll.
9. Fu Xi- has the head of a lion with a dragon’s body. Known for his love of literature, his image is often found in libraries and on book bindings, and depicted on graves and monuments.
10. Dragon Father - The legendary Dragon is said to be the most potent symbol of good fortune in the pantheon of Chinese symbols. A benevolent creature with power over water, rainfall, hurricanes and floods, it also signifies power and strength. Since nine is noble number in Chinese culture he also symbolizes harmony.
Why use Chinese dragons?
The eastern culture features in a number of fantasy stories recently, its mythology has remained untapped for a long time. As is the case with Virginia McClain's dragons, they bring a connection to the environment and the elements, linking them to forms of magical realism.
Their diversity of appearance also offers a welcome break from our traditional perception of dragons. This means that, rather than using the dragon as a threat, it can be a magical ally, or won over in some way. For example, imagine how you could use Bi An, the tiger-like dragon with its ability to discern truth from lies, how might that idea be used in a story? What does th creature do to anyone who lies?
Chinese dragons offer originality, diversity and connections to the environment as well as magic!
Sinuous, the most snake-like of all the dragons, the wyrm has a distinctly British identity. Perhaps the most famous is the Lambton Wyrm from Northumbria. The tale tells of a huge snake-like creature that kills anything it encounters until it is despatched by John Lambton, son of the local aristocrat, back from the Crusades. The creature is supposed to be long enough to wind around a hill seven times and uproot trees when thrashing its enemies.
The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh is another legend from Northumbria (obviously Snake Paradise) where a princess turns into a dragon - the Laidly Worm. It's a fairy tale saga of evil queen, jealous of her beautiful step-daughter, Margaret, casting a spell on her. Her step-son, Childe Wynd returns from his journeys to discover the crime. He kisses the dragon, rather than fight it (hmm??) and it turns back into his sister (hmmm???). He then uses his own magic to turn the evil queen into a toad.
There's another wyrm found in Knotlow, Derbyshire (its lair was an ancient volcanic vent in a hill) and another in Knuckerholes in Sussex.
There are also Norse wyrms to think about too. Fafnir turned into a wyrm after suffering a curse. Jörmungandr was Loki's middle child and became the Midgard wyrm after Odin threw him into Earth's oceans (not what a grandfather should do, surely?). Lagarfljótsormur is the Icelandic version of the Loch Ness monster, it lives in a lake first witnessed in 1345, there is even a video of the creature from 2012. Finally we mustn't forget the Nidhogg which gnaws at the roots of the World Tree, Yggdrasil. It was a major villain, guilty of murder, rape and oath-breaking - the 3 greatest crimes in the Viking world!
Why use Wyrms?
Wyrms appear to be a sub-species of dragon which offers the writer an animal intent on bringing violence and great harm. Hunger appears to be a common factor, they kill to eat. Their sinuous bodies, like boa constrictors, enable victims to be crushed in the coils. Little to redeem them then!
Dragons from Greek Mythology
Quite a few of our pre-conceived ideas of dragons comes from Greek mythology, they feature in lots of films and stories - think about all those wonderful monsters created by Ray Harryhausen for films like Jason and the Argonauts.
Perhaps most famous is the Lernaean Hydra - a dragon-like water serpent with fatally venomous breath, blood and fangs. The creature was said to have anywhere between five and 100 heads, although most sources put the number somewhere between seven and nine. For each head cut off, one or two more grew back in its place. It had an immortal head which would remain alive after it was cut off. It was eventually killed by Heracles during his twelve labours.
There is also the earth dragon, Python. It lived in caves in Delphi, a name you might recognise. Apollo killed the beast in its home which belonged to the oracle. The location became known as Pythia because of the rotting corpse of the dragon that remained in the cave. (Pythia, Greek for stinky cave!)
The Colchian dragon lived on Colchis, it was enormous and said to never sleep, rest, or lower its vigilance. According to Ovid's Metamorphoses, the monster had a crest and three tongues. Jason fought and killed it on his way to find the golden fleece.
Why use Greek dragons?
The Hydra is a particularly useful dragon to use because of all those heads and its ability grow new ones. Having blood that could kill you (in the films the Hydra's blood was like acid), it posed an even greater threat. In this mythology, dragons presented threats that needed to be defeated in battle. Doing so offered the hero a means to demonstrate their heroism, almost as a rite of passage.
The Sea Serpent
Dragons don't only live on land. Interestingly, we tend to refer to them as serpents in oceans, perhaps it's because of the alliteration! For many tales set on ships, the dangers posed by such things are enormous and varied. A quick search for images on Google showed some amazing real life images of skeletons and bodies of creatures which offer explanations for the creation of such beasts. Anyway, here are a three classics.
The Leviathan is a dragon from the Old Testament, a beast created by a vengeful Yahweh that could boil the sea so sailors' skin melted - that's the kind of god you want to worship! The beast was never defeated and it has passed into popular culture as any enormous beast in the oceans.
I've already mentioned Jormumdandr in the Viking dragons section - it lived in the sea, it was enormous and destroyed shipping. So big it could wrap itself around the globe and swallow its own tail. Beliefs maintain that when it stops doing this, the earth will self-destruct. Cheerful eh?
Cetus is a generic Greek sea serpent, the most famous version is when one is used by Poseidon who sends one to devour Andromeda. This was done to punish Andromeda’s mother for making a boast that her daughter was more beautiful than all of the nereids (other creatures of the sea – one of which was Poseidon’s wife). Andromeda was saved at the last minute by Perseus, but it is noted that he was only able to overcome Cetus by using Medusa’s head.
Why use sea serpents?
I'm reminded of RJ Barker's brilliant Tide Child trilogy where the vessels are formed from the skeletons of giant sea creatures. If you haven't read these stories, you should! Pirates and monsters galore told in RJ's epic style, full of adventure and excitement. The three examples I've used rely on one thing - size. Human beings might like to think we are masters of the planet but we're shown otherwise when we travel across large areas of ocean. Their depth, their expanse, offers places for monsters to live undisturbed. It's from such places Godzilla appears, isn't it! Like the Japanese dragon, it can be amphibian, making it a threat on land as well. They provide the writer with truly epic opportunities to bring mayhem to communities.
There are other forms of dragon, hybrids and chimeras which need to be included.
The Cockatrice is Wyvern-like in appearance except for its head - which looks like a cockerel. This image is from a transome window in Belvedere Castle in New York's Central Park, 1869. It still has the wings, tail and legs. They were occasionally used in British heraldry too.
In The Worm Ouroboros by ER Eddison, published in 1922, we get a good description: 'Therewith came forth that offspring of perdition from its hole, strutting erect on its two legs that were the legs of a cock; and a cock's head it had, with rosy comb and wattles, but the face of it like no fowl's face of middle-earth but rather a gorgon's out of Hell. Black shining feathers grew on its neck, but the body of it was the body of a dragon with scales that glittered in the rays of the candles, and a scaly crest stood on its back; and its wings were like bats' wings, and its tail the tail of an aspick with a sting in the end thereof, and from its beak its forked tongue flickered venomously.'
The Basilisk is another strange creature that might have a dragon role to play in a story. According to the Naturalis Historia of Pliny the Elder, the basilisk of Cyrene is a small snake, "being not more than twelve fingers in length", that is so venomous, it leaves a wide trail of deadly venom in its wake, and its gaze is likewise lethal. Apparently, our Roman expert maintained it could be killed by the smell of a weasel. Pliny didn't mention how the weasels felt about this use of their species but it might go some way to explain why they became villains in Toad of Toad Hall. It was known as the King of the Serpents, which may be down to the crest on its head which looks like a crown. In mythological sources they were supposed to be able to breathe fire - I bet the weasels wouldn't have been happy with that news.
Why use a Cockatrice or Basilisk?
I think there is something exotic about these beasts. I can imagine encountering a basilisk in an underground tunnel where it could prove dangerous. Admittedly, in daylight it doesn't look quite as fearsome as you might want. But with all those legs, I bet it's fast! The cockatrice is something else though. Like a wyvern, it could pose a real threat with those claws, swishing tail and a vicious beak. Being able to fly offers aerial combat too! Can you imagine a squadron of these things?
If you're looking for novels where dragons play a significant role, here are a few suggestions:
Eragon is the first book in The Inheritance Cycle by American YA fantasy writer Christopher Paolini
Temeraire by Naomi Novik is about Captain William Laurence and his fighting dragon Temeraire as they are thrown together to fight for Britain during the turbulent time of the Napoleonic Wars
Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey, the classic Dragonriders of Pern series. A must!
Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb - part of her Rain Wild Chronicles, another classic!
A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan - Victorian biography in style, this is a different take on the usual kind of dragon story.
Dragons of Autumn Twilight (Dragonlance Chronicles Book 1) by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman introduces a world where dragons arrives and the old gods depart
The Fire Within by Chris d'Lacey is the first in a series of low fantasy stories for children
Dragon Champion by EE Knight is the first in the Age of Fire series about a grey dragon who searches for others of his kind amidst of world ready to kill him and every other dragon
The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde is aimed at kids but the usual Forde brand of anarchic humour remains. Even when magic release form B1-7g hasn't been filled in correctly!
There are lots more (of course!) but I've tried to provide a mixture of genres and audiences, some classics and some that are less well known. Add your own recommendations in the Comments section.
It's obvious we love dragons in our fantasy stories, just as we do in our different cultures. Isn't it incredible that, lost in the depths of history, stories were told about dragons across the world and they appear in they now appear in the mythology of those cultures. Dragons can do a lot more than breathe fire and fly. The diversity of the species offers more opportunities for writers, I hope I've proved that in this post and provided the inspiration needed to write new stories.