DRAGON MAGIC: Gold, Curses, and Really Bad Breath

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What makes a magical creature magical? This question has often bugged me in my own writing. Take the griffin, for example. On the one hand, it’s a blatantly impossible creature, part lion and part eagle. At the same time, in most stories, the griffin is just a beast. It’s a strange beast, and it’s very fierce, but it is still a brute creature of flesh and blood, to be avoided or killed. Familiarity breeds contempt, and when a magical creature is reduced to a beast, it becomes much less interesting.

This brings me to dragons. I haven’t talked much about dragons on this blog so far, and that’s been on purpose. There’s so much literature out there about them already that I feel I should avoid the topic unless I have a relatively novel aspect to bring to the table. Today I think I do. You see, dragons often have the same problem as the griffin. It’s all too common to see them reduced to a big dinosaur with halitosis. They’re so popular, so frequently seen and written about, that it’s hard to find new things to do with them. If that issue is one that has plagued you in your creative attempts, this article is for you.

To start with, let’s talk about a classic aspect of dragons that tends to get played out as being sort of ordinary. By this I mean the dragon’s hoard, which while fantastical is often just treated as a great bloody pile of gold. The idea that dragons guard is quite old, going all the way back to ancient Greece and Rome. Now, sometimes the dragon guards magical treasures, like the Golden Fleece in Greek legend, or the helm of terror from Scandinavian, but more often then not it’s just presented as mundane wealth, with not much special about it other than that people want it.

However, in folklore and legend dragon hoards sometimes have a more metaphysical element. In northern legends, dragon hoards are often cursed. For example, in the epic poem Beowulf, a slave steals a golden cup from a dragon’s hoard, enraging the dragon and bringing ruin on the local populace, ultimately ending in the death of the hero Beowulf and the implied doom of his people. Even more obvious is the treasure of the dragon Fafnir, which is cursed outright, causing anyone who owns it to suffer misfortune after misfortune and eventually die unpleasantly. Fafnir is a particularly interesting case, as he was originally a dwarf or a giant (depending on the version of the legend) who stole the treasure, and slept on it. Sleeping on gold, thinking greedy thoughts, transformed him into a dragon, a plot element famously reused by CS Lewis in his Narnia books. So, “killing a dragon curses the treasure” and “sleeping on an ill-gotten dragon hoard turns you into a dragon” are two good options right there.

On the note of fate and misfortune, dragons in the medieval world were considered omens of disaster. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a historical record of events in Britain from around the time the Romans left to the end of the early Medieval period, mentions that in AD 793 fiery dragons were seen flying through the sky, and shortly thereafter famine followed. A similar account from German history relates that dragons were spotted over Sanctogoarin, just before mysterious fires started springing up all over the town. In the Welsh Mabinogion, there’s the legend of two battling dragons whose screeches echoed throughout the kingdom, causing women to miscarry if they heard it. Dragons were also blamed for floods, pestilence, and war. In your writing, this is a great way to get across that dragons are more than just big lizards. If when they appear, it is as the harbingers of destruction, only appearing before times of great crisis, then they may seem all the more mysterious and elemental.

Aside from curses, omens, and weird transformations, there is some interesting physical magic with dragons. The fact that they breathe fire is the most obvious, and it’s been around so long that people take it for granted. So what other options are there? One is the fact that not all dragons breathe fire. There’s a French dragon that could spray an endless torrent of water from its mouth, blasting away and drowning its victims. It was blamed for disastrous floods of the Seine River. In Celtic and British folktales dragons who breathe pestilence and poisonous vapors, which they use to blight the landscape or despoil sources of water, are far more common than fire-breathers.

There’s also the well known tendency towards invulnerability with dragons. Many a dragonslaying legend follows the same formula; the hero strikes one blow, fails, but then discerns the dragon’s weak spot and strikes true. The Beowulf dragon has armored scales that turns aside Beowulf’s sword twice, causing it to break on the second, before his companion Wiglaf stabs the dragon in its vulnerable underside. The exact location of a dragon’s weak spot varies from story to story and dragon to dragon. The belly is common, as is just under the wing, though the dragon of Castle Carlton was only vulnerable in a small patch on his thigh. The serpent dragons of British lore (often called “knuckers”) were less armored, but had the power of regeneration. One of the most famous, the Lambton Worm, could not be killed because each time somebody chopped it in half, the two halves would join back together and seal up. The hero can only defeat it by wearing a special suit of armor covered in blades and fighting in the middle of a river, so that the worm slices itself to pieces when it tries to constrict him, with each piece swiftly swept away by the current before any of them can rejoin.

That’s three general categories, but there are quite a variety of miscellaneous magical attributes given to dragons. Eating the heart of the dragon Fafnir allowed the hero Sigurd to understand the language of birds and beasts. In Greek myth, there are two instances where a hero sows dragon’s teeth like seeds, and the teeth instantly grow into full sized warriors. The dragon of Mount Pilatus had envenomed blood that, when it fell on the skin of the dragonslayer, killed him instantly. In Eastern Europe, dragons were associated with storms, which they supposedly caused, sometimes even spitting lightning instead of fire.  A local legend from the village of Norton Fitzwarren, in Somerset, tells how after a great battle many corpses were piled into a big heap, from which grew a dragon, seemingly coalesced from the carnage itself. It’s an eclectic gathering, and so don’t be afraid to try and come up with some attributes for dragons of your own that seem to fit into similar themes.

The famous Irish poet Seamus Heaney once said “Whether in medieval  art or in modern Disney cartoons, the dragon can strike us as far less horrific than he is meant to be, but in the final movement of Beowulf, he lodges himself in the imagination as wyrd rather than wyrm, more a destiny than a set of reptilian vertebrae.” Wyrd is the old Anglo-Saxon word for fate (and the root word of “weird”), and wyrm is one of their preferred terms for a dragon. And indeed the Beowulf dragon does seem to be Beowulf’s living fate. It has slumbered for hundreds of years, jealously guarding its pile of gold, until by pure chance an unlucky slave disturbs it. From that point on events are set in stone, Beowulf’s death has arrived, and he can only hope to make it a death worthy of song.

If you feel you are having trouble writing about dragons, and you really want to persevere, keep this in mind. The potency of the dragon is not just in the fact that it is a popular and interesting creature. In many creation myths, including some of the oldest known to man, dragons are primordial monsters, associated with the chaos that existed before the beginning of time and that amorphous element, water. They are fate, they are disaster, they are disorder that gnaws at the fabric of creation. If you can tap into that legacy, there is no reason they should ever seem commonplace or unremarkable.

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