A Brief History of Dragons

Being right there in the name Dungeons & Dragons, it seemed an obvious choice to begin this series of monster-focused essays with everyone’s favorite reptilian terrors.

Going back to the earliest parts of human history, nearly every culture in the world has tales of creatures we can broadly call dragons – serpentine in some aspect, often with many heads, usually opposed and slain by a lone hero or storm god.

As a child growing up in the 80s dinosaur boom, I feel like I have always naturally assumed that dragons were inspired by dinosaur bones (there is pretty good evidence that this sort of ancient misinterpretation is behind the genesis of griffins, which I’ll tackle in another essay). In 2000, two books came out with opposing views. Adrienne Mayor’s The First Fossil Hunters argues just this: fossil beds in China, India and other places possibly inspired tales of dragons (traditional Chinese medicine makes regular use of “dragon bones”). The second, An Instinct for Dragons by David E. Jones, puts forth another theory that attempts to account for the lack of fossil beds in regions that produced cultures rich in dragon lore like Scandinavia. Jones posits that, using vervet monkeys as a model, humans have evolved with an instinctive aversion to snakes, big cats and raptors which, over time, manifested in the human imagination as dragons.

Whatever the truth (I like both theories, and also the much simpler idea that humans like to tell, and spread stories. Perhaps the truth is some combination of all three?), dragons have been with us for a very, very long time. Tiamat, the primordial chaos and mother of dragons, appears in the Enuma Elis, stone tablets detailing the Babylonian creation myth that date to 883 BCE. One of the first artistic depiction of dragons appears on the Ishtar Gate, erected in 575 BCE by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar.

Like their queen, the most ancient dragons were seen as chaos embodied in a variety of forms, ravening appetites gnawing at the foundations of creation, perhaps best illustrated by the Egyptian symbol of the ouroboros, or Niddhog chewing the roots of the World Tree. Many were also paradoxically associated with the life-giving element of water – there was little distinction made between earthbound dragons and sea serpents like Leviathan. Herakles killed two dragons – the Hydra of Lerna and Ladon, the guardian of the garden of the Hesperides – while Jason was eaten briefly by the Colchian dragon and Cadmus’ great heroic act was slaying Ares’ pet dragon.

In most cases, dragons weren’t seen as natural creatures with breeding habits and migration patterns, but as singular forces of destruction surrounded by wasteland domain and unconcerned with typical biological drives. They are often created, rather than born, and impervious to time.

Northern Europeans introduced the idea of dragons hoarding treasure (a subtle way of diminishing human potential). The unnamed “old night-scather” dragon that eventually proves to be the end of Beowulf is sent into a fury after discovering a thief had absconded with a chalice from its hoard. Fafnir, slain by Sigurd, explained to his killer that his hoard was cursed to be the cause of its possessor’s death, a fact that didn’t phase the pessimistic Norseman.

Meanwhile, Christians built upon the pagan myths of chaos. In Revelations, we find the Great Red Dragon with seven heads, each bearing a crown. This dragon is Satan himself, embodying all of man’s carnality and our foolish pursuit of temporal power. Already embodying wrath, sloth, glutton, greed and pride in pagan folklore, dragons were an obvious choice to symbolize sin in all its forms for Christians.

In the medieval period, dragons as we understand them begin to emerge. This is partially thanks to the authors of bestiaries that sorted the fantastical creatures into species and partially due to the adoption of dragons and dragon-like creatures into heraldry, which required rigorous taxonomies. Worth noting: a crest bearing a dragon doesn’t mark its owner as a sinner, but rather as one who does battle against the tyranny of Satan. (Well, usually: Vlad the Impaler, a historical inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula – which means “son of the dragon” in Romanian – was a member of the chivalric Order of the Dragon and the blood countess Elizabeth Bathory’s coat of arms used the Order’s iconography, and they were great sinners both.)

Thus, we separate the dragon – four legs and wings – from the wyvern – two legs and wings – and the wyrm – no legs or wings. During this time, we also see the emergence of draconic cousins, like the cockatrice and the basilisk. In eastern Europe, dragons now generally had to make due with just one head. In Russia, though, the three-headed Gorynych was responsible for swallowing the sun during eclipses.

As the Age of Reason took hold and maps no longer held great swaths of unexplored lands labeled “Here be dragons,” these once terrifying heralds of chaos found themselves firmly relegated to the realm of allegory. It would be a little while before they found new life in literature and, eventually, roleplaying games.

The legend of the Lambton Worm is an excellent way to mark that transition. Part of the oral tradition of medieval North East England, the story is no doubt familiar to monster-philes. Nobleman John Lambton misses church to go fishing and catches a strange worm (ahem: SIN!) and pitches it in a well. He then goes Crusading.

When he returns, he finds the well has poisoned the fields and a creature that lives in the shoals of the River Wear is terrorizing the region. Men have battled the worm only to find it can rapidly regenerate its wounds (HYDRA!). John consults a witch for advice and she tells him to stud his armor with spearheads and battle the creature in the river, so its parts will flow downstream before they can re-knit. She also mentions that after dispatching the worm, John will have to kill the first living thing he sees or suffer a curse. John fashions his armor, which does its work when the worm constricts him. Triumphant, he forgets to blow the horn to alert his father to release a hound to slay and winds up seeing his father first, who he naturally can not murder, ensuring that nine generations of Lambtons would not die peacefully in their beds (Shades of Theseus, though that story has nothing to do with dragons). The end.

The legend was set to song in the late 1800s and served as the basis for the novel The Lair of the White Worm in 1911 (Stoker again!). From there, bits and pieces of the Lambton Worm story flowed into the currents of literature…

Perhaps the most important legacy of the Lambton Worm is the effect it had on one Lewis Carroll, who often visited Sunderland, near the River Wear and the Lambton estate. It, along with the legend of the Sockburn Worm (actually a wyvern) likely inspired “The Jabberwocky,” the 1871 nonsense poem that introduced the world to this lamp-eyed dragon and the decapitating power of the vorpal blade.

To this point, stories about dragons were drawn from myths and folklore, meaning that people at least nominally believed there was a possibility they were real. The Jabberwocky is the first dragon to exist entirely inside a piece of authored fiction as a character, paving the way for the one true dragon of the modern cultural landscape: Smaug the Golden.

Smaug, the creation of J.R.R. Tolkien and the primary antagonist of his 1937 novel The Hobbit, is iconic in the truest sense of the word. Every dragon to come since, from Ashardalon to Drogon to the Hungarian Horntails, is merely a shadow cast by that “most specially greedy, strong and wicked worm.”

In some way, Smaug embodies all the different aspects of dragons laid out in the folklore that preceded him. In Tolkein’s mythology, dragons were created by the first dark lord, Morgoth, as forces of chaos. Like Fafnir, he speaks. Like the Jabberwocky, his countenance is both mesmerizing and terrifying, while his general shape matches the heraldic definition. As with the Christian conception of dragons, Smaug is a collection of Deadly Sins. He sleeps on a hoard of treasure, like the northern European dragons, and his story mirrors that of Beowulf’s bane: ancient, living in a stolen home, enraged by the theft of a cup and delivering his fiery vengeance on the wing.

And, because of Tolkien’s influence on Gary Gygax (and the larger world of fantasy enthusiasts in the 70s), the dragons of Dungeons & Dragons are as much Smaug’s offspring as they are Tiamat’s.

There are three broad periods of draconic history in Dungeons & Dragons: Weirdly Absent (1974-1984), Everywhere (1984-1999) and Modern Balance (2000-Present).

While Gygax introduced the five chromatic dragons (red, green, blue, black and white, all chaotic alignment) in the original Dungeons & Dragons box set in 1974 and the Greyhawk campaign supplement in 1975 added the metallic dragons (silver, gold, copper, brass and bronze, all not chaotic – boring), and all of these appeared, accompanied by the classic David C. Sutherland illustrations in the Monsters Manual in 1977, early Dungeons & Dragons didn’t make much use of dragons in their published adventures. There are a couple of white dragons in G2 – The Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl, but they are rather beside the point (the point being giants, obviously?). I can’t think of a noteworthy appearance of a personality-driven dragon in Dungeons & Dragons’ first decade (weird, considering it is in the name). They were there, and they were designed to reflect aspects of Smaug, but were never used like Smaug (thinking of Strahd’s red dragons here) and had a far lower power level than one might expect.

This started to change in 1984 (fueled in part, I suspect, by the 1981 film Dragonslayer) with the release of the Dragonlance series of modules. Dragons suddenly find themselves at the center of the action, though I can’t imagine Smaug suffering the role of mount. Still, dragons like Khisanth and Cyan Bloodbane start to show the potential of dragons as cunning villains rather than mindless beasts.

The use of dragons in Dragonlance proved popular and suddenly, dragons were everywhere. As D&D transitioned to its second edition in 1989, new types of dragons were plentiful. Nearly every Monstrous Compendium added at least one or two variants and every new campaign setting tried its own approach to the monster, with Dark Sun’s corrupted sorcerer-kings perhaps the most wildly inventive example. It was a bit much, honestly – dragons of folklore had always been singular threats, but now they were thick on the ground, in dozens of species. As second edition D&D ended, dragonmania was at its height, even offering players the Council of Wyrms campaign setting in which they played the dragons.

While dragon oversaturation was a bit of cynical marketing in terms of game design, it opened the door for fantastic art – every artist in the TSR pool was cranking out their own unique takes on dragons. There were fat dragons and skinny dragons and dragons that seemed like dinosaurs or like cats or like snakes. While the rules were constantly codifying new dragons, the artists were working to keep them unidentifiable, strange and terrifying.

With the third edition, D&D moved to a kind of dragon conservativism. Draconomicon (2003) deconstructed dragons, formally encoding their Smaug-iness into game terms, establishing them as rare, powerful, brilliant and unique personalities. More importantly, the book saw artist Todd Lockwood establish a set of design norms for dragons. Based on the original Sutherland drawings, Lockwood introduced a basic, realistic physiognomy for each of the ten core dragons, while ensuring they all had unique silhouettes and wing treatments (I should note that Lockwood’s dragons combine aspects of snake, cat and raptor in a way that resonates with David E. Jones’ evolutionary theory). It was a massive job and Lockwood accomplished it beautifully. Draconomicon is a defining moment for dragons in D&D – they haven’t changed appreciably in 15 years and across two additional editions of the game.

If I am being honest, I suspect we may have entered a fourth period, one of dragon stagnation. As impressive Draconomicon is, such a thorough deconstruction of a thing can’t help but also demystify – to understand a thing thoroughly is to no longer fear it. Looking back at the thousands of years of dragons, I see creatures strange and terrifying that have culminated into a form that is aesthetically pleasing but hardly panic-inducing. Dragons as they stand presently in D&D seem too tidy and well-defined considering their history as forces of entropy and pandemonium.

I suspect, and hope, that it is only a matter of time before the chaos bubbles to the surface and dragons once again lay waste to our expectations.

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