Dragons of Science, Dragons of Fantasy

At 1PM Sunday in Embassy AB, a panel of publishing industry professionals discussed the magical aspects of dragons and the efforts to explain them in fiction. The room was full, with some attendees standing throughout the panel. Moderator Jody Lynn Nye opened the program by asking Mark H. Wandrey, Robert E. Hampson, Jeffrey A. Carver, Patricia Briggs, and Steve Saffel why they think people are fascinated by dragons. The panelists suggested that it might be because we like to think there’s still something mysterious and powerful out there, like the Loch Ness Monster or the abominable snowman. The “absolute adoration” of flying also plays a role, with the idea of riding a flying dragon very appealing. Turning such a powerful creature into something mystical and empathic or sharing in its power also draws people. Saffel noted that there are dragons in many different cultures, which also have gryphons and other impressive creatures, yet gryphons and winged horses like Pegasus aren’t nearly as popular as dragons. He suggested it might be because the diversity of dragons is part of the appeal.

The panel also discussed when dragons shifted from being seen as evil analogues of Satan to being considered friends of man. Asian dragons were always seen as benevolent and wise. The Vietnamese believe they are descended from dragons. In science fiction and fantasy (SFF), having a powerful predator relate to a human is an attractive concept. The popularity of dinosaurs may have helped the shift in image, as dragons are dinosaurs with wings.

Early favorable views of dragons included The Dragon and the George by Gordon R. Dickson and the movie Pete’s Dragon. The movie raised the question of whether the dragon was real or existed only in Pete’s imagination. The dragon was childish because it came from a child’s need. H.R. Pufnstuff was a cross between a dragon and a dinosaur, and no one on the panel was sure which he was intended to be. The dragon in Dragonslayer wasn’t depicted as evil, although villagers were sacrificed to it. It was seen as just being a dragon, much the same as a tiger would’ve been viewed. Then came Dragonheart and its benevolent, sympathetic dragon.

The panel then turned to discussion of Walt Disney’s Maleficent, who takes dragon form at the end of Sleeping Beauty, and which form was her true one. We don’t know. Tea With the Black Dragon by R. A. MacAvoy features a dragon challenged to move among humans as one of them.

An audience member asked when the image of dragons as kidnappers of maidens became common. Briggs noted that Western folklore is filtered through the lens of Christianity’s goal of keeping people docile and severing their connections to the old religions. Christianity co-opted pagan beliefs by such means as having Christmas take place at the winter solstice instead of the spring or summer, when Christ was probably born. Dragons represented power and myth, and the Church wanted to destroy people’s faith in those. The knight who killed the dragon was a Christian hero.

Beauty and the Beast, a fairy tale originally written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villenueve, features a woman who sees the large, powerful creature as a seducer. The monster isn’t a monster to her, a perception that has long been associated with women though it’s not exclusively a feminine trait. By facing her fear, Beauty gains power. The dragon was a bludgeon, like the serpent in the Bible, to push people away from paganism. Nye commented that before the Council of Nicaea in the tenth century, women had power in the Church and served as priests. She suggested that reptiles were used to repel people because most people didn’t find them appealing.

Many current portrayals of dragons and other creatures come from Dungeons and Dragons. Gaming manuals include creatures that never appear together in the source myths. They’re a mashup, not culturally connected.

There are also twists on dragons in fiction. In Patricia Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles, a princess seeks out a dragon and offers to be its housekeeper because she’s tired of the whole princess business. In Robert Lynn Asprin’s MythAdventures, the magician Skeeve has a pet minidragon named Gleep, who seems harmless. In fact, Gleep is a “stone killer” who sees Skeeve as his pet, someone he would kill to protect.

Hampson pointed out that TSR’s dragons have different abilities, but all of them come from the idea of dragon breath as a chemical factory. Either they’re pure magic, or they’re synthesizing chemicals. If you can synthesize chemicals, why not make a variety of things? There are a number of creatures that fly, including bumblebees and robins, that shouldn’t be able to because they aren’t aerodynamic. If they can, why can’t dragons?

Nye commented that Anne McCaffrey may have been the first writer to try to explain how dragons breathed fire. She also tried to be sure her dragons had wing-spans that could support their bodies, giving them hollow bones like birds’ wings so they would be light. Nye said McCaffrey paid attention to the “problem of lift,” which also affects many steampunk airships.

Carver noted that explaining dragons scientifically takes away from their magic. In “The Game of Rat and Dragon,” Cordwainer Smith used dragons in a story about interstellar flight and explained nothing. He let dragons be dragons. Briggs added that there’s nothing a writer can’t do so long as it works. McCaffrey used science, but the dragons behaved like dragons, giving Pern a fantasy feel. In Timothy Zahn’s Dragonback series, the dragon is a tattoo.

An audience member asked if the panelists had read about or done any research about dragon legends on the African continent. Briggs said finding good sources is tough, but Africa is an untapped area with a lot of potential. She also pointed out the fine line authors tread between appreciation and appropriation of cultures not their own.

Favorite dragon stories the panelists mentioned included Carol Berg’s Song of the Beast, Spirited Away and its dragon Haku, Patricia Wrede’s Kazul in the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and Eragon. The panel concluded on Saffel’s observation that dragons touch an emotional nerve that makes for great stories.

Author of the article

Nancy Northcott is the Comics Track Director for ConTinual. She's also a lifelong fan of comics, science fiction, fantasy, and history. Her published works include the Boar King's Honor historical fantasy trilogy and the Arachnid Files romantic suspense series. Collaborating with Jeanne Adams, she also writes the Outcast Station science fiction mystery series.