Let Us Speak of Dragons

In which the author speaks of the splendor and dread majesty of dragons.

The Dragon in the stars.

Let Us Speak of Dragons

Dear Reader,

Things of myth provoke poetry. Here are some verses I’ve been working on concerning our subject to orient us:

It is a fear elemental, taken on form
And horror-shape. Long-sleeping, its stirrings volcanic,
Murmurs of earth-fire, violence dreaming,
Coiled deep amongst fissures abyssal,
Native to choking darkness, breaths of sulfuric fumes.
If eyelid should lift, membrane sliding,
That slit window into pit merciless –
Malice's mystery ensorcelling even hero's will –
Heart's tempo mounting to anvil's crash
And fury.
Cracks the earth –
Uprooting 'heaval, foundations splitting,
Crumbles our certain world.
And the stillness that follows...
The hurricane's promise.
Its rank stench, harbinger,
Carried on self-buffeted wind.
Flighted death-dark shadow, threatening storm-front
Vastly winged, horizon-spanning,
Thunder's foulsome voice.
Furrows the sea-waves by tidal bulk,
Sway-bends trees who plead before onslaught.
Blight-Bringer, Fiery Destroyer, Eater of Corpses –
Gapes wide fumarolic throat:
Erupting from gullet, out cavernous mouth,
Billowing all-ending fire.

The Monster in Our Story

Dragons are synonymous with fantasy because they are synonymous with the human story.

You will find them everywhere, going back age to age, from continent to continent, culture to culture. And the tales are as varied as they are ubiquitous:

The evil dragon, the good, the inscrutable spirit, the brute beast; small, immense, and shape-changing; breathing fire, ice, shadow, lightning, gas, death – there’s been countless configurations of this monstrous element.

But for me, dragons were defined early on by Tolkien and then, years later, by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman.

Tolkien because I had The Hobbit read to me as a child (“My armour is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!”).

Dragonlance – though dragons abound in the series – solely because of Cyan Bloodbane.

Tolkien’s Smaug is a proud power, a brute force that overwhelms by sheer might and leaves only desolation in his wake. Bloodbane is a corrupter, a poisoner, a cruel agent of sorrow who weaves ruin out of your own nightmares. (And for years I had a black t-shirt with him on it!)

We will touch on Tolkien and dragons further, later on. But for the moment let us consider these two core ideas:

  1. The Monster of terror, unrivaled might, and desolation.
  2. The Monster of deceit, corruption, and ruin.

Keeping our discussion within the fantasy genre (at least what I have read), what other significant additions to the field are available for us to consider?

Some sketches now follow:

Other Essays in the Craft

George R.R. Martin brings us dragons that are “fire made flesh.” These monsters serve as engines of war and terror for their masters. This is not a concept that originates with him but he handles it well (Michael Moorcock did the same in his Elric series, where an imperial race were masters of sorcery and dragons).

In Martin's books, dragons are also tied to magic. When the dragons return, the magicians find that the old spells begin to work again. So these creatures are not merely glorified war machines with an affinity for purple-eyed humans.

Still, dragons are ultimately subordinated to the storylines of the human characters: When they are hatchlings people want to take them for their own purposes. Once they grow bigger, they become threats to be contained, controlled, or killed.

Thus Martin’s dragons are not beings of independent will the way that Smaug and Bloodbane are. This is a fascinating approach.

Gene Wolfe writes of dragons in his Wizard Knight series. They are denizens of the sixth of the seven realms of his story, Muspel (yes, that invokes Norse mythology, but there’s a lot more going on here that I don’t want to spoil, if you haven’t read it).

Wolfe’s dragons in the series range from terrible monsters who must be slain, to creatures inappropriately worshiped (and sacrificed to), to sympathetic (yet Machiavellian) figures. And there’s shape-shifting.

He is largely interviewing the two core ideas that I established earlier, but he complicates matters with that element of sympathy. (This theme is significant in The Book of the Short Sun also)

Wizard Knight operates in a blend of the Perilous Realm of fairy, Medieval heroic quest, and the mythic. And dragons are significant players on the stage.

Steven Erikson in his Malazan Book of the Fallen (the world is co-created with Ian C. Esslemont who also writes in it) invokes a page out of Ancient Near Eastern mythology (T’iam is a clear reference to Tiamat). Like the ancient myth, breaking up the dragon’s body has creational purposes.

In Malazan, the dragons are the source of magic. But there are also those who can shapeshift into dragons, who were not themselves originally dragons.

There’s resonance here with Martin, but Erikson likes to write in a more realized mythological register (Malazan also looks to such epics as Gilgamesh and the Iliad as major inspirations). The gods walk around and take roles on the stage with the mere mortals – and there are dragons amongst them.

As a further note, Dragons are also subdivided into Light, Darkness, Shadow, and so on. It’s hard not to see the inspiration of Dungeons and Dragons at work here and Erikson is quite open about the influence of table-top RPGs on Malazan.

(A variant on the ‘gods amongst us’ approach comes from Daniel Abraham’s The Dagger and the Coin where the dragons are essentially practitioners of super science whose art is indistinguishable from magic. This is an interesting, fundamentally materialist, approach.)

There are other specimens to examine, but no major standouts that I can think of at the time of this writing. (I’m interested in looking again at Le Guin’s work in Earthsea, but that is beyond the scope of this newsletter. Perhaps in a blog. Yes, I think a blog.)

The Father of Dragons In Modern Fantasy

I promised to return to Tolkien and I do here with Glaurung.

For me, Glaurung is the most compelling of Tolkien’s dragons. Fandom likes to celebrate Ancalagon the Black for his power and potential – but he’s essentially just a gestural creation that vanishes as quickly as he appears. Smaug is, of course, the dragon most known and recognized.

But Glaurung is my draconic exemplar, even if we get little of him in the Legendarium.

For one, the story of Túrin (where Glaurung looms large) is set in a higher (and more tragic) register than The Hobbit. And Glaurung’s wickedness is more personal than Smaug’s (yes, I have sympathy for the plight of the dwarves), as we witness the cost of his terrible gaze with wrenching immediacy.

In Glaurung, Tolkien brings together the destructive power of the Monster of Desolation with the sorcerous power of the Monster of Ruin. Smaug and Bloodbane meet in a tale steeped in sorrow and heroism to create a Monster of Despair.

And even his death brings grief.

Here we will let the matter rest, Dear Reader, for we have spoken much of monsters and the destruction they bring.

Perhaps you have something to share of dragons that I did not mention here. You are welcome to reply to this newsletter and share your thoughts and experiences. I would be happy to hear from you.

Until we meet again,

Best regards,


P.S. This brief sketch doesn’t address dragons in short fiction. I am presently working slowly through an anthology that is weighted with them.

P.P.S. I do not discuss Michael Swanwick’s “post-industrial Faerie” dragons, not because they are unworthy, but simply because they remain unread on my shelves. (Swanwick is one of the few authors of speculative fiction to provoke me to tears of grief.)

Want more words, Traveller? Come visit my website at bryanerye.com, or take the direct route to the blog.

Want to throw me some coin to support me financially? I have a Busker's Hat to help buy coffee and used books.

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Perilous Realms

Well met, Traveller into Perilous Realms. I am your guide Bryan Rye, Game Master and Author. Stay awhile and let us speak of many things.

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