What do dragons look like? ‘Broadly serpentine’, Daniel Ogden writes in The Dragon in the West, but with ‘animalian heads, thick central bodies, wings and clawed legs’. They are armoured with scales, live in caves, love to hoard treasure and, of course, breathe fire. George R.R. Martin found a neat solution to an old problem with dragons. The now standard layout is a cumbersome four legs and two wings – after all, dragons need six limbs to walk as well as fly, don’t they? Not necessarily. As one can see in some episodes of Game of Thrones, Martin’s dragons have only four limbs – two legs, two wings – but can crawl along using the elbow-joints of their folded wings.
Ogden is concerned mostly with the question of where this unlikely concept came from. The author of two books on the dragon in antiquity, he is particularly good on ancient Greece and Rome. Drakontes figure widely in Greek myth. Cadmus of Thebes sowed dragon’s teeth, which sprouted as armoured warriors. The Golden Fleece was guarded by the Colchian dragon. According to Hesiod, the apples of youth were guarded by the dragon Ladon, until he was killed by Hercules.
Most classical dragons are more serpentine than the modern version – even their fire-breathing, Ogden suggests, is connected to the burning effect produced by viper venom. There are several variants on human-snake hybrids, such as ‘Typhon huge, ending in snaky twine’, as Milton puts it, or Lamia, who attracts men with her beautiful upper body, before revealing the snake beneath. Ancient Greeks and Romans seem to have been more tolerant of snakes, and therefore of dracones, than their successors. Ogden suggests this may have been because they kept rat-snakes, or house-snakes, in order to kill the rodents attracted by grain stores. In Roman mythology, snakes were sometimes thought to be genii locorum, protective deities, and the base-form of Asclepius, the god of healing, was a giant drakon. Rather more crocodilian was the draco of the River Bagrada in Libya, which appears in Silius Italicus’s epic poem Punica. It defied the javelins of the Roman army, so – with true Roman obstinacy – the soldiers shot it with ballista catapults.
In the Middle Ages the dragon underwent a transformation. One influence was the ketos, or sea monster, like the one Poseidon sends to devour Andromeda. The other was biblical, taking in Satan, Leviathan and the seven-headed beast of Revelation. Satan seems to have made dragons a bit more humanoid, leading to the figure of the wyvern: serpentine, but with two legs and two wings. The image was still far from uniform. Some of Ogden’s illustrations from the period show coils and wings. One dragon has wings but only two legs; another has a straight body, four legs and four wings. His analysis of some seventy images of St Margaret of Antioch produced between 900 and 1500 shows that her dragon-enemies remained two-legged until the late 14th century, when the four-legged version appeared; it soon became dominant. There was further uncertainty about where to put the wings: on the neck, for instance?
It’s at this point that Ogden’s survey approach starts to get out of hand. Dragons abound in medieval lives of the saints, and Ogden catalogues some two hundred ‘hagiographical dragon fights’ (he expresses his regret that so many more remain uncatalogued and unpublished). Hagiographers made a number of claims: that dragons control or poison springs; that their victims are revived by prayer and the power of the saint. In some accounts they threaten to ravish virgins rather than just eat them (Umiliana dei Cerchi tied her legs together for safety); elsewhere they are subdued by force or virtue. But the authors were more interested in saints than in dragons, which remained rather indistinct.
The hagiographical tradition did, however, popularise two enduring tropes. One is the dragon’s taste for the flesh of virgins. The other is the image of St George as a knight on a rearing horse, trampling a dragon and spearing it with his lance. In the Miracula Sancti Georgii, a twelfth-century Latin version of a lost Greek text, George finds a maiden tied up as a sacrifice for a dragon; he defeats the dragon, tames it and leashes it with the maiden’s girdle before executing it in public with a sword (rather unsportingly). Images of him riding the dragon down, however, date from as early as 850, probably influenced by late-antique images of Bellerophon riding Pegasus to slay the Chimaera.
The most important development in Ogden’s account of the Middle Ages, however, is the emergence of the ‘Germanic dragon’, as seen in the final part of Beowulf, and the story of Fáfnir in The Elder Edda (later incorporated into the Nibelung legend). The roots of the Germanic concept were probably not very different from those of the Greco-Roman. The word in Old Norse is dreki, most likely borrowed from Latin draco, but ormr (‘worm’ or ‘snake’) is also used. The Miðgarðsormr, or Midgard Serpent, so long that it coils around the world, is not recorded as being winged, and Fáfnir is crawling down to the water when Sigurd stabs him from below. Nevertheless dragons were associated with flight in the Germanic tradition. In the Old English Finnsburg Fragment, a watchman who sees a bright light is told that it’s not fire ‘nor a dragon flying’.
When Germanic dragons aren’t flying, they lie on their gold. The Old English poem Maxims II puts it concisely: ‘dragon must be in mound, old, proud of treasures,’ and that’s what the Beowulf dragon was doing until disturbed and robbed. The connection with mounds and treasures is unsettling, because both are closely associated with the dead. Are dragons in fact men transformed by the gold with which they’ve been buried? Two Old Norse sagas of times past insist that men can turn into flugdrekar, ‘flying dragons’, in the caves where they keep their gold, and when in his own saga Gold-Thorir succeeds in robbing them, ‘he becomes a dragon himself and lies down on his treasure chests’. This idea was taken up by C.S. Lewis in the third of his Narnia novels, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in which eleven-year-old Eustace turns into a dragon under the influence not only of the dragon’s gold, but also his own dragonish and miserly thoughts. The Saga of the Jomsvikings likewise claims that Broad-Búi, the hero defeated in battle at Hjörungavágr, tucked a treasure chest under each arm and jumped overboard, after which he was believed to have ‘turned into a worm [ormr] and lay on his gold’. Lying on your gold is dangerous, as Tolkien understood. His poem ‘The Hoard’ follows successive owners from elf to dwarf to dragon to young warrior to old miser, all poisoned by their greed. In The Hobbit he calls avarice ‘dragon-sickness’: you catch it from the gold itself.
Ogden’s book is a splendid guide to the development of the dragon over more than two millennia, and it’s almost churlish to point out the deliberate limitation of its title, ‘in the West’. Nevertheless there is an Asian tradition as well, and its existence raises interesting questions. Chinese dragons are similar in shape to Western ones, but are viewed as wise and benevolent, emblems of dynastic power and authority. This might be explained by the association of dragons with control of the water supply (they ‘rule’ the waters): in a hydraulic civilisation like China, where survival depends on giant irrigation schemes, it would be quite out of place to challenge a dragon.
The concept of the dragon is so widespread that it can hardly be the result of cultural contact. Might it instead, as Martin Arnold has suggested, be a relic from the time when humans were prey animals, combining ‘the winged raptor, the venomous snake, the sharp-clawed cat’? Or could dragons be – this is Carl Sagan’s view – a projection of dinosaur memories that lurk somewhere in our DNA? Perhaps dragons represent the id, and knights in shining armour the superego? Or are they, as Tolkien said, ‘a product of men’s imagination’? Think of the many stories of fathers sacrificing their daughters, or of relationships between women and dragons or serpents, usually as the root of all evil. In Norse saga, Thora, the future bride of Ragnar Lodbrok, made a pet of a lindworm until it grew so big that her father became concerned. It doesn’t take Freud to see what might be going on there.
It’s striking, too, that the gender of dragons is rarely specified (although Ogden has a chapter on the drakaina or female dragon). The threat they pose to young women’s virginity might lead us to assume they are male, but some authors have thought otherwise. In Ursula Le Guin’s novel The Beginning Place, set in a parallel world, humankind is terrorised by a female dragon – a clear analogue of the boy-hero’s possessive suburban mother. In the logic of the story he has to kill her in order to break away and form a relationship with the girl-heroine; only after this can they both begin their lives back in our world. By contrast, the female dragon Querig in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant is a peacemaker, if only by generating amnesia: killing her is at best ambiguous.
No easy conclusions, then. Perhaps it is better to ask why dragons have had such a hold on the modern imagination. In the last few decades they have become associated not with avarice, but with overwhelming power. Daenerys in Game of Thrones has to resist the temptation to just say ‘dracarys’ and turn her dragons on her opponents – to become ‘draconian’. In Robert Zemeckis’s film adaptation of Beowulf, the dragon is the result of Beowulf’s seduction by the mother of the monster Grendel – the latest iteration of the curse cycle that also produced Grendel. There are exceptions, of course: in recent children’s books such as Julia Donaldson’s Zog and Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon series the dragons are cuddly, loyal pets. But this might just be another way in which they seduce us. Who wouldn’t want a friend that could hoard treasure, breathe fire and fly?