Writing about fantasy books almost certainly means I’ve been writing about dragons. They seem almost intrinsic to the genre, and while a dragon is by no means necessary for a fantasy novel, they do seem to inspire a certain fascination in us.
So while there are plenty to choose from, here are my five favourite dragons. Judge me if you will.
The Stone Elderlings
Robin Hobb’s later novels did feature “proper” dragons, but Assassin’s Quest featured dragons made of living stone. When the heros first stumble upon them they are dead and silent. But when they are quickened by magic and death, the stone roars into life.
The heroes sculpt their own dragon, too. Magic users can pour their memories, emotions and finally their very lives into the special stone. By doing so they create the powerful ally they need to save their people. It’s a wonderfully original idea and is in complete service to the story; rather than forcing the narrative around traditional dragons, she created something that fit her theme of sacrifice just perfectly.
Can a list of dragons be completed without Smaug? The real villain of The Hobbit, perhaps no dragon has influenced fantasy literature more than Smaug. Tolkien took a lot of inspiration from Beowulf so Smaug shares many characteristics with the creature of that work: his hoard of treasure, his appropriated underground dwelling, his penchant for vengeance. But where the monster of Beowulf was mute, Tolkien gave Smaug a voice and therein elevated the dragon from mute monster to delightful villain. He’s vain and greedy and his love of riddles and language make him a pleasure to read.
Dragon Quest was a role playing game that got bought and rebranded by the company that owned Dungeons & Dragons. The dragons owe nearly all of their character to Smaug (evil, hoarding, clever, love riddles, etc.) and they have no depth. They’re simply big monsters for players to defeat. But in trying to create enough variety for dungeon masters and repeated playthroughs, they created different types and breeds of dragon that fascinated my young mind. And there was some truly beautiful art in the rulebooks too.
If you played this game you already know what I’m thinking of: those damn baby dragons!
In order to rescue a child in this BBC Micro adventure, you need to tame four baby dragons. Each dragon either loves, likes or hates each of the four items of food you have. You have to figure out what order to toss them the food so you can isolate and tame each one.
Replaying this at the wise old age of thirty resulted in two game overs and a handmade chart to keep track of the dragons’ likes and dislikes. Playing at the tender age of five resulted in two dozen game overs, tears, bitterness and possibly minor acts of temper tantrum. So whilst these dragons should barely register on a list of the greats, you can see why they had such an impact on me nonetheless.
George and the Dragon
With St George being the patron saint of England, it’s hard not to come across this story as a child. The way I was told it was a terrible, fire-breathing dragon was terrifying a local village, stealing and eating their sheep. Good St George comes along and slays the mighty beast and the village is safe once more.
Turns out, it’s a bit more interesting than that. The earliest form of the legend has the dragon bearing plague, not fire, that sickened the land. The people tried to appease it with sheep and, when that did not work, their children, chosen by lottery. It’s only when the lottery picks the king’s daughter that St George happens along. And even then he promises to slay it only if the land promises to convert to Christianity, the swine.
So from a humdrum, fire-breathing monster to a plague-carrying instrument of religious blackmail. Doesn’t get more interesting than that.
Are these the best dragons around? Or have I missed some out? Tell me about your favourite fantasy dragons!