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.