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There Be Dragons: A Primer on Dragons in Storytelling

There Be Dragons: A Primer on Dragons in Storytelling

Nov 14, 2022 | Articles, Latest

Our imaginations today are fired by many kinds of dragons: Smaug, Maleficent, the DragonRiders of Pern, Drogon, Godzilla, Sisudatu, Toothless, Sandworms, Mountain Banshees from Pandora, and so many more.

And now LegendFiction’s first online convention is themed ‘There Be Dragons.’

This has people asking questions.

  • “Should we read books that reverse the rule of the evil dragon?”
  • “Are dragons good now?”
  • “Can faith-inspired people have anything to do with dragons?”

These are good questions. And we’re going to tackle answering them. Since we are storytellers here at LegendFiction, we look more at how dragons are used in literature, instead of liturgy.

That being said… we are a faith-inspired, Catholic & Orthodox community. That means our literature is inspired by our liturgy.

So the points we will cover:

  • What actually is a dragon?
  • Problems with seraphs in myth
  • The three kinds of dragons
  • How to respond to a dragon

What is a dragon?

Whenever Christians start talking about dragons, we assume everyone is on some same page. We often mean great demonic beings, from the book of Revelation, usually spewing lies and flame.

So let’s stop that. That’s not traditional. That’s a modern view, a conventional one, from only a few hundred years of storytelling. Tolkien does not have the last word on dragons. He does in Middle Earth. If we want to be really traditional, we have to look at the whole tradition, all the way back, and see where it’s going.

So first, let’s clear up a few points. Dragons are not fantasy dinosaurs. No, they never existed on planet earth in some genus of reptile. And dragons are not fixed symbols that everywhere in all time meant the same thing. That’s not how symbols work anyway. And, lastly, reducing all dragons to demons is silly, because they are not presented that way around the world.

There are many kinds of dragons. So we need a new definition.

What is a dragon? Dragons are part of the symbolic language of the angelic world. They are a category of being. They are from the perilous, numinous realm of faery.

That immediately means three things:

  1. They can be good, they can be bad.
  2. They demand a specific response.
  3. Their presence tells us something about ourselves.

Dragons usually have distinct characteristics:

  • A snake-like reptilian body
  • Associated with flight, fire, or water, wisdom or lies, light and darkness, hoarding or havening.
  • It is a being we don’t understand and can’t control.
  • It demands humility and attention.
  • It appears monstrous, or fear-inducing.

Note: It’s not always bad to be fear-inducing. Angels routinely ask us not to fear them when they appear. A monster is something that threatens our ‘state of normal.’ It may or may not be evil. We usually pair ‘monster’ with ‘evil,’ but angels seem monstrous at times.

The point of almost all mythic tales is that we (humans) must find a way to become a ‘noble monster.’ The hero is the monster who controls his monstrocity, while the villain drowns in it. Complex literary heroes, like Beowulf, kill the dragon, only to find that they have been a dragon all along. Bilbo discovers he is a dragon on a hoard, and must embrace adventuring to be free of it. Narnia reveals to Eustace that he has a dragon’s heart, and must repent.

In the recent Christian West, our dragons are informed by the mythology of the West. Dragons are often scaled, liars, chaotic, and evil. (But even that isn’t true every time.)

In the east, and in South America, dragons are also serpentine. But we haven’t yet taken seriously the intent of such dragons, as feathered beings of light and inspiration, and chaos. Usually of divine magic and almost always of water and oceans, pearls and skies and good luck.

The difference lies in how dragons relate to chaos.

Chaos of itself is not evil. Chaos is a state of pure receptivity. Chaos is required for order to be possible. Water is pure ‘chaotic’ being. It is perfectly receptive to any pressure or intention. But Resistant Chaos? That’s different. Chaos that resists being formed or ordered is the ‘evil’ kind. That’s refusing to be receptive to ordering. That’s demanding to stay in state of unused potential and never change.

Western dragons are often about Resistant Chaos. Eastern and MesoAmerican Dragons are usually about Receptive Chaos.

That’s why not all dragons are meant to be slain. St George is not the only response to a dragon.

So now we need to look at dragons in myth. Or, more accurately, seraphs.

The problem with seraphs in myth

Some of the earliest dragons I’ve researched are carved on the walls of Babylon. They are often winged serpents with lion limbs, some with feathered wings. As a symbol, it is rich with meaning. Wings and feathers are a symbol of Heaven-realm power – like angels. Lion limbs are symbolic of Earth-realm power.

Of itself, a snake is not evil. It’s not even an evil symbol. Have you seen Orthodox staffs crowned with twisting serpents? Or our own medical caduceus?

Throughout the ancient world, the snake was a symbol for Wisdom, Time, and Resurrection, or Renewal. It appears in Eden under the guise of a Servant of Wisdom. Christ is compared to the Suspended Serpent. Seraphs and Seraphim are associated with flame and serpents. So it’s very important to get that cleared up.

In the last 400 years, something unfortunate happened. The Sacred Scriptures in the Bible were extracted from their setting, like a gem pulled from a brooch. Or, more accurately, like a rose window extracted from a cathedral wall and carted to a new country. Then, all the greatest minds and academies set to study and makes sense of this window, to make commentaries and conjectures.

But there is a problem. That window only makes sense within the wall and the context that birthed it. The same with Sacred Scripture. The inspired authors were distilling stories and truths out of a palimpsest of tapestries and taletelling. That’s why snakes and dragons suddenly flattened out into ‘traditional symbols’ for evil.

We need to reground ourselves in the context of the symbols that birthed the myths and stories.

“But every time we see a serpent in  myths, they’re dangerous! Doesn’t that mean they’re evil?”

Do you think good angels and the gods and God himself aren’t ‘dangerous?’ Christ and ‘good spirits’ are terrifying to those of us hellbent on preserving our lives here and now.

Serpents are Symbols for Time and Wisdom. Those two things are terrifying right there: time is an ongoing process of renewal (meaning death and rebirth), and Wisdom is a constant process of change and deepening (death and rebirth). It’s for very good reason that every hero starts flawed and ego-centric, and invariably struggles with a snake. Sometimes they overcome it, sometimes they are overcome by it.

Seraphim are the element of fire in the angelic hierarchy, the flaming love of the cherubim and the light of the seraphim fractalling the Holy Spirit into our own physical reality. Evil dragons turn that inner fire to death.

So maybe it’s a bad snake. Maybe its a good one. Maybe we need to be bitten, to be broken into, because we try to armor ourselves against God so well.

But in Sacred Scripture, dragons are usually associated with water. Water is the symbol of Wisdom and Chaos. The question is always: is it Divine Wisdom, or our own Wisdumb? Is it Receptive Chaos, or Resistant Chaos?

What are the 3 Kinds of Dragons

Storytelling (especially today) gives us three kinds of dragons:

The Overwhelming Numinous: this kind of dragon is like a Lovecraftian beast. Or the seven-headed dragon from the Apocalypse. This dragon has an intelligent personality. It may be good or bad. But it is explicitly ‘numinous’ – meaning from the angelic world. It is all about divine magic and power. Ancalagon, Glaurung, and Smaug from Tolkien fit this kind, perhaps Beowulf and his Firewyrm, Monstro in Pinocchio.

Unwieldy Natural Powers: This kind of dragon is a storytelling concept. Like the Tyrannosaurs from Jurassic Park, the Sandworms from Dune, or Godzilla, this dragon speaks to the incapacity of humans to corral and wield a natural power. We must instead collaborate with it, in a state of reverence. These are not evil beings. They are monumental and powerful. We may ride them, but we do not bend them to our will.

Cultural or Personal Issues: These dragons are often smaller, sometimes cute, usually misunderstood. They are Toothless from ‘How to Train Your Own Dragon,’ Eragon, or Sisudatu from ‘Raya.’ They might be demonic or angelic beings. They may be dramatic allegories for things we don’t like to deal with. Jordan Petersen shares a short story about slaying the dragon within us. It is a brilliant tale that uses a motif of a dragon as a small inconvenience in a family’s life, and the family studiously ignores it. The dragon grows in size the more it is ignored. It grows until it destroys the family’s home completely, so large it becomes unavoidable. At that point it gets their attention. Dealing with the problem deflates it, and it becomes manageable again.

Some dragons mix and match these elements.

(Again, these points are from our western tradition.  I don’t know enough about the East or MesoAmerica.)

From a psychological point of view, Carl Jung talks about dragons as a shadow side we must integrate. That is also very true. We have elements of ourselves that we repress and hide in an inner dark. And that creates problems later on, or even immediately. Dragons are a good narrative symbol for something preternatural that we must face and understand, or be broken by.

On one level, dragons are a symbol for everything in creation that we must face, understand, and overcome. Perhaps that means killing the dragon to gain the hoard. Perhaps it means learning the appropriate humility and collaboration with it,  because we are not the god of our context. And perhaps it means we must become the dragon ourselves in the best sense – a good dragon is benevolent power, vs malignant hoarding.

What is the Christian response to a dragon?

As our world closes together into a human family, we are revisiting and renewing our symbols.

Dragons in the west today exist as a symbol without a home. They are emerging as a new symbol that we’ve not really told tales about – the overwhelming power of natural creation. A power we must honor and revere and collaborate with.

In almost all cases, dragons stand for contact with something ‘other,’ an other with great power that we cannot ignore.

Sometimes the ‘other’ is the outsider, the stranger, the enemy. We can’t get away with killing them as we used to. In modern storytelling, we can’t even characterize villains as we used to, because we are constantly humanizing with greater care and attention.

That’s why ‘evil’ in stories today is presented in metaphorical and fantasy ways – such as zombies, aliens, orcs, etc. Dragons almost always stand for contact with spiritual and numinous reality, or perhaps reality itself. Perhaps for an dark aspect of ourselves.

Bilbo is a dragon like Smaug, who confronts himself and his hoard, and learns to own his own capacity for heroism and violence and sacrifice. We could say that these are the masculine sides of dragoning – death, fire, power. But the feminine side of dragons are life-bringing, chaos, luck, protection.

The question is not if dragons are evil.

The key question then is what kind of dragon are you dealing with? Is it a:

  • Demonic liar like Fafnir and Glaurung and Beowulf’s Wyrm?
  • A kind of preternatural Godzilla that we must respect and collaborate with?
  • A pet ‘fae beast’ that can be tamed, friended, and learned from?

Every single kind of dragon demands the response of humility and change. That is the proper first response.

  • Our humility before evil is to put down our arms and turn to conquering ourselves, leading ourselves with love and compassion back toward the light of goodness and God.
  • Our humility before Godzilla is recognizing our inability to absolutely control cosmic power, like nuclear weapons or the weather.
  • Our humility before Sisudatu or Toothless is to learn that our sense of self and culture is not perfect, and must be open to the fringes, the stranger, and the misunderstood.

The ancient world often held that strangers might be angels in disguise. Today we hold that every person is Christ in disguise too. And everything we don’t understand might be a dragon, either a dangerous one that can harm us, or a numinous one we can learn from.

  • Not all dragons are equal. Some demand a St George response; free the ‘princess’ from the beast.
  • Some are like St Simon Stylites who pulled a beam from a dragon’s eye, cured it of its rage, and tamed it.
  • Some are like St Francis who is protected by a mysterious angelic wolf.

Humility and wonder is the appropriate response to a dragon.

Because at any moment, whatever the kind, a dragon has the power to kill you.

The real question is: who are you?

Founder of LegendFiction. Geeks over epics, mystics, science, the angelic, & Netflix. Got an idea for a guest post? Send me a note! | Visit my website

4 Comments

  1. Katy

    If you talk to zoo keepers, or anyone who works with large wild animals, they all say the same thing- this are beautiful amazing animals but they are also extremely dangerous and must be respected. This is true for elephants and gorillas and tigers. Just because something is big and scary and dangerous doesn’t mean it’s bad. It just means it needs to be respected. In stories sometimes wild animals are cute and friendly, sometimes they even talk. Thats totally fine (although I always remind my kids that they shouldn’t pet a wild animal in real life.) All large animals are God’s amazing creatures that deserve respect and usually a safe distance unless you are a trained professional. This is how I choose to write dragons usually. Big, dangerous wild animals that are neither good nor bad. Some people take the cute pet approach, some people take the demon approach, since they aren’t real there’s lots of ways to do it.

    Reply
  2. Dominic de Souza

    Also interesting: Jurassic Park is a flightless dragon, and it’s a metaphor of encountering a grounded dragon-an angelic being that over identifies with the physical world. Reign of Fire is a crossover to airborne dragons, a materialist reflection on western iconography. Dragonheart teaches us about a realm of numinous being that we have mislabelled.

    Reply
  3. Dominic de Souza

    Interesting follow up thoughts: We have become fascinated with gelded dragons today, angelic symbols uprooted from their proper realm. We try to fit them into a role that is inferior to humanity. Because of that, they become all the more Lovecraftian – because the angelic demands our respect.

    Reply

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