Þa se wyrm onwoc, wroht wæs geniwad
— “When the dragon awoke, trouble flared again” (Beowulf, trans. Seamus Heaney, line 2287)
If you grew up on fantasy stories, dragons (in this post’s case, European dragons, the nasty, fire-belching, gold-hoarding, knight-slaying kind) were probably some of the first monsters you were introduced to as a child. They’re probably some of the first monsters you fell in love with as well (I still want to grow up to be Maleficent). It’s hard to imagine a time when dragons were a novel concept; thousands of years of elaboration and adaptation upon the draconic have produced dragons that are variously awe-inspiring, cute & cuddly, and totally metal, but rarely are they frightening or repulsive anymore (the Gaping Dragon from Dark Souls was probably the last dragon that made me recoil in horror). If we’re willing to get a little creative, though, dragons could be scary again. Let’s consider the fundamental features of these beasts, and what those features say about their role as antagonists.
Past the endless variations on the body plan, what characterizes a dragon? At your most basic, you have a creature that is both cunning and cold-blooded. Precisely how cunning varies, but when they’re incapable of speech, dragons are usually capable of making plans, and are savvy enough to not only recognize systems and relationships, but to exploit them; in the folk tales, dragons are often first encountered holding a community hostage (we’ll get to why in a second). As villains, dragons represent the intellect cut loose from the strictures of moral character and social ordinance. They could have been the original mad scientists, but without the benefit of human socialization (and given their superiority complexes), they lack true ambition, and are instead motivated by greed and laziness. They recognize the value of gold and other material goods, but rather than actively pursuing those goods, they force a community of people to give up what they’ve produced. Once they have those goods, instead of putting their wealth to productive ends, they hoard it, indulging in the basest opulence and only bringing their full physical might to bear against prospective thieves. Speaking of physical might, dragons are generally assumed to be about as deadly as any creature can be, but there’s only one aspect of dragons that isn’t derived from a living or once-living animal—the breath weapon. Its source is beyond our knowledge, but its consequences are plainly devastating.
Now, if you’re willing to abstract a little with me, consider our dragon: clever, but utterly lacking in the qualities that make people good (compassion, generosity, humility, kindness), possessed of weapons beyond the ability of a rational person to justify, obsessed with the pointless acquisition of wealth. Consider that these are all qualities of the institutions of manorialism and economic feudalism, the systems in place during the time that our popular image of dragons arose. Consider that the dragon’s qualities aren’t too dissimilar from the qualities of the oppressive systems in place today. Dragons are perfect antagonists for stories with contemporary issues at heart, but familiarity has eroded their credibility as villains and monsters. This is a lukewarm take, to be sure, but it opens up some exciting questions for us creators: if we are to restore dragons to the frightful thrones they once occupied, given that we have access to technology and, yes, a higher standard of living than feudal peasants, given that we know how fire works, how do dragons need to change if they are to reflect our contemporary oppressors more accurately and fearsomely?
I’m not about to present a hard and fast answer, but here are some factors I’ve been considering:
- Wealth isn’t nearly as concrete as it used to be. Sure, the ultra-rich still have way more, but nowadays, rather than our wealth manifesting as material goods, we represent value with pieces of cloth/paper composite backed by our faith in government, and most of us keep it in banks and on plastic cards rather than in our homes. The rich take this abstraction way further; their wealth is represented by stocks and bonds, by shares owned, sometimes even by digits on a blockchain. The ultra-rich fabricate entire corporations to play shell games with their wealth, and don’t even share a land mass with the bulk of their holdings. Any dragon whose hoard reflects contemporary notions of wealth must have a hoard that is cryptic or abstracted from common notions of value. (Little Witch Academia is super on-the-nose with this, and it’s adorable).
- As mentioned earlier, we kinda get fire now. We know what the deal is with fire. We can summon it in any color we want, in a variety of weird ways, and with more than a passing degree of ease. It certainly won’t stop being one of our most powerful symbols (of transformation, of cleansing, of destruction, of the mysteries), but a dragon that employs fire as a weapon is going to need to do so in a pretty novel way to turn heads or make an audience think, after thousands of years of fire-breathing death lizards, that this isn’t just another dragon. If a dragon’s fire breath represents the threat of annihilation at the hands of an overwhelming force, and we’re looking to update that, we should consider that nowadays, if an overwhelming force is looking to annihilate you, it’s going to do it much more slowly or indirectly. It’s going to make an attempt to ruin your life before your life ends. Aspects of slow death, of corruption, of decay, might be more effective here.
- That said, when it comes to destroying an opponent outright, a dragon reflecting contemporary fears is going to do so instantly and irretrievably—nothing remains. Instantly consumed, like the suction mouths of some deep-sea fish. This is what happens to those the dragon decides it is done playing with.
- One way that old-school dragons used to operate that we don’t see as much in contemporary dragon villains is the way that a dragon’s presence warps the environment. A being convinced of its own superiority, hell-bent on the acquisition of wealth without regard for the biosphere around it, is naturally going to produce some changes in the space immediately surrounding it without even intentionally trying to. The dragon at the end of Beowulf has scorched the landscape for miles around its lair, just by breathing in and out. If you’ve ever seen a mountainside being strip-mined, or a rainforest being clear-cut, you might get a sense of this devastation.
- Wealth tends to pass to the brood. A dragon doesn’t have to be huge or ancient to be terrifying.