Is there something inherently dragon-like about people, or people-like about dragons?
The reason I ask this is because dragons are unarguably becoming more popular, and with this rise in popularity our interpretations of them are evolving. Let’s talk about Skyrim. The human-as-dragon connotation could not be more obvious as you, the principle character, are literally ‘Dragonborn’. True, though dragons in the world of Skyrim are traditionally brutal and violent, and very much look the part of a typical dragon with their epic wings, fire-breathing qualities and long tails, as a result of their connection to you they are inevitably also a bit human – no matter how far apart from humanity they might appear. This is only exemplified further by the fact that you take their “soul” when you kill them, “souls” being very commonly perceived to be a “human” thing as opposed to strictly “animal” (though there is also a lot of lore to suggest that all living creatures have souls, which I far prefer to believe.) Regardless as to whether “souls” are human or animal, then, the idea that these “dragons” have “souls” detracts from the idea that they are demonic or simply “evil” creatures – more that they are to be interpreted as deeper, more spiritual creatures, with unquestionable human ties.
Let me tell you a bit about dragon history. The first recorded dragon stories date back to 5000 B.C. (if Jesus were to exist I bet he was born surrounded by Shepherd’s with loads of cool baby dragons. The government just lied to us about the nativity story to make it more PC for children.) Historians believe that the first “imaginings” (pah) of dragons were by those who came across dinosaur fossils and bones – the invention of dragons helping to explain the immensity and bizarreness of these objects.
Many cultures have had their own interpretations of dragons over time. Ancient Rome believed that dragons knew all of the mysteries of the Earth but were neither great nor heinous. Oppositely the popular Chinese dragon – which you may recognize from Chinese artifacts, calendars and festivals – had very different implications, symbolising ‘royalty, nobility and good fortune’, also thought to govern rainfall and do other cool things. Dragons were you friends, in Chinese myth – unlike much of Norweigan and British lore, who told of dragons being princess-stealing, gold-whoring rapscallions (dragons were not believed by these areas to be particularly feminist or modest.)
So there was never really one clear image. But one thing was clear – dragons were nothing like humans.
What about Smaug, for instance?
Smaug can speak English. On one hand, the fact that he can do this does relate to the mythological idea that dragons are all-knowing, intelligent creatures. But it struck me – in the 2013 film in particular – that Smaug was very vocal in a distinctly human strain. You’re probably thinking “Of course he was. He was voiced by a human. Idiot.” Nevertheless, despite all of Cumberbatch’s efforts to make his character definitively dragon-like, Smaug’s scripted personality itself came across as pretty peopleish. Ego-filled, full of complex language, engaging almost in a battle of wits with Bilbo. More than this, the very fact that Smaug was fallible, in the end, as he was shot and killed (sorry if that was a spoiler – but come on, if you haven’t seen The Desolation of Smaug yet, where have you been?) questions his godlike-ness, brings him to question – How human was he?
And what about Donkey’s wife from Shrek, uniquely named “Dragon”!? I know that the point of this film was to turn fairytales up on their head, but bear with me for a second. Dragon is perceived to be a terrifying force at the beginning of the film, as the townsfolk all fear her and she is stereotypically holding Fiona hostage (“ugh, that was so like, 7000 centuries ago”), befitting the traditional tropes of a dragon (according largely to Western and European cultures, anyway.) When Shrek and Donkey eventually seize the castle and face her, she is, at first, simply curious about Donkey. In fact, she only flies into a fit of frenzy when she thinks that Donkey (whom it is pretty clear that she wants to ravish) has run away – not because she is animalistically brutal by her nature, as myth would dictate. Dragon is led by her emotions. Her arguably “human” emotions. Interestingly, too, Donkey presumes that Dragon is a man before he sees her lovely, pruned eyelashes. Dragon, then, symbolises difference in her personal character – in her practicing feelings of love, feeling the bite of rejection and in being a female to boot. She is her own “person”. And eventually she has her own, typically “nuclear family” when she pops out Donkey’s babies – a human structure.
Falkor the Luckdragon also springs to mind as a dragon of difference within a mask of tradition. The etymology of Falkor might help to expand on this – it’s descended from the original name Fuchur, which is taken from the Japanese Fukuryuu. Japanese dragons, further, were “typically depicted as large, wingless, serpentine creatures with clawed feet” – much like Falkor in Neverending Story. We can reasonably assume, then, that Falkor is based on this Japanese interpretation. But he is not solely this interpretation. In the German book (which the film was adapted from) Falkor did have very oriental features, yet in the film he also has a big furry beard and dog-like attributes, making him more aesthetically “human-friendly” and connotating him to love and playfulness, not original attributes of a Japanese dragon. Luckdragon’s also have no particular strength, which Japanese dragons were thought to – the only strong trait a Luckdragon has is the ability to bring luck with them wherever they go. As a result, Falkor seems to be both dragon and human – he is not “all-powerful”, though he does have powers, and he feels compassion.
The list goes on.
Toothless from How To Train Your Dragon. Cute, puppy-like – “human-friendly”. Harry Potter – though the dragon is supposed to be the antagonist in The Goblet of Fire, you’ve got to remember that Harry was stealing her kid (her egg.) I’m pretty sure all animals react similarly to such an intrusion on their family – making this particular dragon, though an antagonist, “accessible” and open to human/animal comparison. It is not aloof and separate. There are connections.
More recently, George R.R. Martin’s series Game of Thrones has sprung to the forefront of TV fantasy dramas, bringing dragons to the limelight with it through the character Khaleesi, alleged “Mother of Dragons.” Dragons-as-human becomes ever more obvious in this setting as Khaleesi, a human, is coined as their literal mother. Dragons and human become family. As such, they obey her commands and follow her – pet-like or child-like, it’s hard to discern. But their dual role of protagonist and antagonist is very clear because of it, adopting either role dependent only on your personal allegiances to Khaleesi as a viewer. You are not instructed as to how to feel about them. They are as open to interpretation as Khaleesi, or any of the other human characters, are, because they support one of the human factions going for the throne and are an implicit subgroup of her following.
It is hard to argue with it – dragons are adapting to modern media, and in adapting, they are changing. They are no longer perceived to be the fiercest forces in mythology. They have become accessible. They have become relatable. They have become, in a way, human.
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