Few, if any, of the many figures of myth and literature seem to match dragons as the most prolific and mighty beasts of imagination. A brief look into various cultures can show the never-ending fascination that these creatures impress upon the human mind. Variations of dragons can be observed in myths from both East and West and a simple account of literature in which these monsters can be found, or at the very least referenced is simply astounding. It ranges from ancient Chinese myth and folk tale to the Bible and its satanic wyrm. Their endurance through time as powerful imaginary forces is demonstrated by their persistent presence in contemporary Western fiction, particularly in the so called fantasy genre.
Good examples come from different forms of media, such as the HBO’s TV series Game of Thrones and latest video game from Bethesda Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, not to mention the fantasy novel The Hobbit, written by the man who is considered by some as the father of high fantasy, J. R. R. Tolkien. The book was first published in 1937 and is currently being adapted to the cinema by director Peter Jackson. It could be said our current idea of dragons, such as those present in the works above, have evolved from the dragon in Beowulf and Fafnir from the Poetic Edda poems concerning Sigurd and The Saga of the Volsungs.
Dragons, with their giant monstrous reptilian bodies, sharp teeth, poison and or fire breathing and vicious destructive nature, mostly represent an antagonistic force or power of great magnitude. A dragon is a great adversary for the hero, who upon defeating these creatures, gains the prestigious title of dragon slayer and becomes an evil dispenser and champion of his people. Dragons, by their very imaginary nature, are symbolic creatures. Symbolic meaning, however, always comes from the socio-historical context (Foucault, 2002) and the various elements in the narrative itself (Scholes et al, 2006). For example, a red rose may represent love or passion in Western culture, yet a single rose ephemerally displayed in full bloom in a newlywed’s room brings a different nuance in meaning from, say, an ancient and gnarled rose bush constantly renewing its bloom in an elderly couple’s garden. A crimson rose presented to a mortal enemy, however, can have an altogether different symbolism. Dragons then, as any other symbol, have an overriding meaning that can fluctuate vastly depending of their context. Therefore, it is necessary to take an in-depth look into the respective tales in which Fafnir and Beowulf’s bane present themselves. Also essential is to give special consideration for the dragon slayer figures as their antagonistic nature with the dragons create a symbiotic aspect to their symbolic functions. ‘Light’ does not mean good if ‘dark’ does not mean evil.
Then we come to the tales themselves. On the one hand, we have the Old English poem Beowulf (Heaney, XXX, with its eponymous hero that ‘In his day, he was the mightiest man on earth, / high-born and powerful’ (lines 197–8). On the other hand, we have the old Norse Sigurd, of whom it is foretold in ‘Lay of Regin’ that ‘he will be the most powerful prince under the sun, / the web of his fate spreads through every land’ (Larrington, xxxx, p. 154 verse 14 lines 3–4) . In both we have characters that are considered the foremost of all men, a rather common trait for a Germanic hero. Both are destined to greatness and are described similarly as tall and possessing great strength, courage, decorum and wisdom (Heaney, p. 149, lines 2177–83).
In sum, dragons are the representation of the best values of their culture gaining an ‘all men but no man’ dimension to their symbolism. It is through them that their draconic enemies gain a semi allegorical dimension as the heroes’ antithesis, becoming amalgamations of the values that are despised by their society. In simpler terms, they are ‘evil’ personified. That is a very shallow reading of the symbolic significance that, nonetheless, applies to most heroes and monsters, especially in folk tales. In more elaborate narratives, however, it is the specifics that create the difference between a ‘good’ dragon and a ‘bad’ dragon.
- Foucault, M. (2002) The Order of Things. London. Routledge.
- Heaney, S. (1999) Beowulf. Bilingual edition.London: Faber and Faber.
- Larrington, C. (Ed) (1996) The Poetic Edda. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Scholes, R., Phelan, P. and Kellogg, R. L. (2006) The Nature of Narrative. Oxford: Oxford University Press.