Dragons have been around for a very long time.
They are one of the very few mythological creatures that have become absolutely central to popular culture; everyoneknows what a dragon is. There are other important and well-known mythological creatures, but none are as ubiquitous as dragons, which can be found in Europe and the Americas, in classical and biblical traditions, in ancient Indian tales and across Asian mythology.
So where do dragons come from? Why are they so common across cultures, and what do they mean to us today?
I chat to Professor Scott Bruce, author of the recently published Penguin Book of Dragons
Professor Scott Bruce
Scott G. Bruce is a historian of religion and culture in the early and central Middle Ages (c. 400-1200 CE). His research interests include monasticism, hagiography, and the reception of classical and patristic traditions in medieval Europe. He has edited three historical anthologies for Penguin Classics, most recently, The Penguin Book of Dragons (Penguin Books, 2021). You can read his full bio here
You can pick up a copy of The Penguin Book of Dragons here
Works Mentioned & Referenced
JRR Tolkien: The Hobbit
Ursula K LeGuin: The Wizard of Earthsea
How To Train Your Dragon (Film & TV show, based on book by Cressida Cowell)
Silius Italicus: The Punica
Pliny the Elder: Natural History
Game of Thrones (TV show)
Kenneth Grahame: The Reluctant Dragon
Edith Nesbit: “The Last of the Dragons”
Anonymous: Dragon King of the Lake
Julia Donaldson & Axel Sheffler: Zog
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Transcripts: A History of Dragons
S6 E1: Dragons – Final Script[Sting]
I’m Conor Reid, with Words To That Effect
Stories of the fiction that shapes popular culture
silva vetus stabat nulla violata securi,
et specus in media virgis ac vimine densus
efficiens humilem lapidum conpagibus arcum
uberibus fecundus aquis;
There was an ancient forest which no axe had ever touched,
and in the heart of it a cave, overgrown with branches and osiers, forming a low arch with its rock walls, rich in bubbling springs.
Hidden in this cave dwelt the serpent of Mars, a creature with a wonderful golden crest;
fire flashed from its eyes, its body was all puffed up with poison, and from its mouth, set with a triple row of teeth, flickered a three-forked tongue.
The Phoenician travellers entered the grove on their ill-omened errand and dipped their pitchers in the waters.
At the sound, the dark gleaming serpent put forth its head from the depths of the cave, hissing horribly.
The blood drained from the men’s limbs, the jugs fell from their grasp, and they shuddered with sudden dread.
As for the snake, it coiled its scaly loops in writhing circles, then with a spring shot up in a huge arc, raising more than half its length into the insubstantial air, till it looked down upon the whole expanse of the forest.
It was as huge as the Serpent that twines between the two Bears in the sky, if its full length were seen uncoiled.
Without a moment’s pause the monster seized upon the Phoenicians, while some of them were getting their weapons ready, and some were preparing to flee. Others were too terrified to do either.
With its fangs, its constricting coils, and tainted poisonous breath, it slew them all.
hos morsu, longis conplexibus illos,
hos necat adflati funesta tabe veneni.
This account of a very early type of dragon is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, written in Latin in 8 CE. It’s the story of the legendary hero Cadmus, who is instructed by the Oracle at Delphi to follow a wild cow and found a new city at the point where the cow stops. Unfortunately for Cadmus, this happens to be at a sacred spring, protected by a dragon.
Cadmus ultimately kills the dragon, but not before his attendants stumble across the terrifying monster and, well, you just heard how that went.
The story has lots of the features of a typical dragon tale – a huge, terrifying, reptilian creature, foolishly disturbed by men, that rears up and attacks the intruders with its terrifying fangs and poisonous breath, only to be overcome by the daring hero.
Now in this case, it’s more snake-like than the typical of dragon you may have in mind – which I will come back to – but it’s still very recognisably a dragon.
And this story is over 2000 years old.
Dragons, you may have noticed, are everywhere. Their popularity has risen and fallen over the centuries but they are one of the very few mythological creatures that have become absolutely central to popular culture. Everyone knows what a dragon is, even if some of the features may vary. There are other important and well-known mythological creatures – unicorns have certainly cornered the female under 10s market. You’ve got your classical creatures, often animal/human hybrids – from centaurs and satyrs, to sirens and sphinxes, and then every culture across the world has its own unique mythological creatures.
None, however, are as ubiquitous as dragons, which can be found in Europe and the Americas, in classical and biblical traditions, in ancient Indian tales and across Asian mythology.
In western popular culture dragons are more popular than ever. Recently, they formed a central part of 8 years of Game of Thrones episodes – their portrayal and symbolism widely discussed and debated on and offline.
And there are dragons, too, in some of the biggest cultural phenomena of this century, in everything from Harry Potter to Marvel films, from Ursula K LeGuin’s classic Earthsea novels (currently being made into a TV series), to the works of JRR Tolkien, with Smaug /au/ the dragon, most recently seen in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy.
So where do dragons come from? Why are they so common across cultures, and what do they mean to us today?
Well, if there’s one person to talk to about all this, it’s Professor Scott Bruce.
The extract from Ovid you just heard, is one of the many extracts from the newly published Penguin Book of Dragons:
So I’m Scott Bruce. I’m a professor of mediaeval history at Fordham University in the Bronx, New York. I’m a specialist in the history of mediaeval Christianity, with an interest particularly in religion and culture.
My interest in dragons predated my becoming a historian. As a child, I was fascinated with stories about them. I got to see them on television through great films like The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and other wonderful fantasy films animated by Ray Harryhausen. And as a child, I was a great player of Dungeons and Dragons. So, my imagination was steeped with large reptilian monsters. But then when I started studying the Middle Ages, I came to it from a very different angle, I studied the cultural production of mediaeval monks. And as it turns out, much to my surprise and delight, monks were also interested in dragons. And so I found my academic work and my childhood interests converged
Which is always the best way for your academic research to go, really.
And so the Penguin Book of Dragons is a fantastic, and incredibly wide-ranging, anthology of dragon stories from antiquity right up to the 20th century. And it turns out that people have been interested in dragons for a very long time – one of the earliest dragon stories we have is about 3,500 years old, in a Sanskrit hymn called the Rigveda, a sacred Hindu text. This features a battle between a dragon, Vrtra, who was a symbol of drought, and the storm deity, Indra, who must defeat the dragon to release the waters and help humanity.
Now ancient dragons were a lot more serpent-like than how we might imagine a dragon today, and we get our modern word from the Greek drakon, or serpent.
So Ancient Dragons are almost always monstrous serpents. They have no wings, they do not breathe fire. They don’t accord with the expectations of modern Western readers. They are venomous. They are wild animals. For the most part, they don’t have speech, they don’t have intelligence
What is established in these early tales, and what will remain a crucial feature of dragons, is that they present a fearsome enemy, something for a hero to bravely defeat in battle.
In the classical world there are mythological dragons, and they feature alongside of gods and legendary heroes. But they are also real creatures, just not ones you are likely to encounter. They are always just beyond the borders of the known.
So they absolutely believed that they were real, as did many mediaeval and early modern people, but the phenomenon is that they’re never real in your backyard. They’re always real, and somewhere else.
And that somewhere else is almost always at the border of what you consider to be the civilised world. So, for the Romans, the civilised world was the extent of Roman influence. So dragons lived just beyond that. And, in fact, the defeat of dragons often went hand-in-hand with the, you know, Roman military conquest. So stories, for instance, like, there’s a story told by Silius Italicus, his poem, The Punica, which relates the stories of the Punic War between Rome, when Romans were fighting in North Africa, and one of the stories there involves a Roman legion that encounters a dragon in the wilds of Africa, as it were, and they fight it and they defeat it. But what Silius Italicus is doing here is he’s telling a story that’s exciting to read about Roman soldiers defeating a monster. But
[he’s also,] the dragon is also a metaphor for the wilds of a non-Roman place that are now coming under Roman control
In this way, dragons are like any number of monstrous Others, and I’ve talked about plenty of them on this podcast. They live both at the borders of geography and the imagination, they embody our fear of the unknown and the elsewhere.
and this is one of the things that we see in the long history of dragons, again, from the Roman period, all the way up to the present, is the gradual retreat of dragons with the advance of knowledge, with the advance of, you know, human understanding of the world, the dragons have to go underground
So dragons in the classical world do many things: they are worthy foes for a hero to defeat; strange and exotic monsters to be overcome in the expansion of the civilised world, real creatures out there to be discovered at a time of growing global trade and travel.
With the rise of Christianity, dragons soon became an important part of Christian tales too. Serpents, of course, do not come out well in the bible.
So Satan taking the form of a serpent in the Garden of Eden and the book of Genesis and deceiving Adam and Eve and causing the fall of humankind. On the one side is, you know, bookended on the other end of the Bible, by the late first-century Book of Revelations, where, you know, the massive seven headed dragon is, you know, one of Satan’s instruments and has to be, you know, defeated by the archangels, and cast into the pit of fire. So dragons really are synonymous with the devil and his minions in the Bible, from the Hebrew Scriptures all the way up to the Christian New Testament.
So because the devil is so central to Christian teaching and mythmaking in the middle ages, dragons pop up in all sorts of places, especially in stories about saints, the most well known perhaps being St George and the dragon, which I’ll come back to in a moment. But Christians at this time are also reading classical Roman texts, and they are reading Christian allegories into them, where dragons are representative of Satan.
You may have heard of Pliny the Elder, the Roman naturalist who wrote this huge, all-encompassing work called the Naturalis Historia, the Natural History, that kind of became the basis for encyclopaedias. It was his final work before he died in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE.
Pliny covers everything in the Natural History, and so of course that includes dragons:
So one of the most fascinating parts of Pliny’s history is that when he depicts dragons in India, he frames his narrative almost exclusively around the enmity between dragons and elephants. Dragons and elephants are at war with one another:
Africa produces elephants, but it is India that produces the largest, as well as the dragon, which is perpetually at war with the elephant.
The dragon has much difficulty in climbing up to so great a height and therefore, watching the road, which bears the marks of the elephant’s footsteps, when going to feed, it darts down upon it from a lofty tree. The elephant knows that it is quite unable to struggle against the coils of the serpent, and so seeks for trees or rocks against which to rub itself.
The dragon is on guard against this, and tries to prevent it, first of all by confining the legs of the elephant with the coils of its tail; while the elephant, on the other hand, tries to disengage itself with its trunk. The dragon, however thrusts its head into the elephant’s nostrils and thus, at the same moment, stops its breath and wounds its most tender parts. When it is met unexpectedly, the dragon raises itself up, faces its opponent, and flies more especially at the eyes; this is the reason why elephants are so often found blind, and worn to a skeleton with hunger and misery.
I love how matter of fact, and incredibly detailed this entirely imagined encounter is! It’s got a great King Kong v Godzilla type of feeling to it.
So anyway, medieval readers of Pliny were fully in agreement that Dragons versus Elephants was amazing. But it needed a Christian angle
When mediaeval readers read this
, they, their worldview was so steeped with the idea that dragons were allegorical for the devil, that in their minds, the elephants of Pliny’s narrative became human souls. So that battle, that massive combat between elephants and dragons was really an allegory for the battle for the human soul that took place as the devil tried to corrupt people. And some of the most wonderful illuminations that we have of dragons in the Middle Ages show these kind of sinuous, reptilian creatures wrapping around and fighting elephants. Mediaeval Christians were really taken with this image.
And you can’t blame them
Dragons were also a major part of the stories of saints. This mainly, although not entirely, took the form of evil dragons being defeated by saintly….well, saints. The story of St George and the dragon was hugely popular in this period. It’s mainly seen now as a story connected to England – George is the country’s patron saint, the English flag is St George’s cross and so on, but there are actually loads of variations on this story in other countries and time periods and with other heroes.
Anyway, the story goes that there is a Pagan kingdom is plagued by a dragon, and the people are forced to draw lots for someone to be sacrificed to the dragon to be eaten. When the King’s daughter draws the lot, she insists on going and is waiting for her terrible fate when St George arrives, battles the dragon, rescues the girl, and everyone converts to Christianity in gratitude and wonder.
This story is a major part of where the “damsels in distress” narrative gets associated with dragons as well. But women don’t always play the role of victim, or prize for the hero.
In the Christian tradition, we have two saints to saintly women who encounter dragons. One of them is Saint Martha. Her story is particularly strange, because she is devoured by a dragon while in prison. And she prays while she’s in its stomach and bursts out of the dragon, the dragon explodes. And due to the power of her prayer, she then becomes the patron saint of childbirth. I don’t want to contemplate that too long.
But anyway, she presents a different model, she slays the dragon from within through prayer. And then there’s other female saints like who tame the dragon, wraps her kind of belt around its neck and leads it away. And then other people kill it for her.
So women are largely absent because so much about the dragon, and fighting the dragon all has to do with male martial attributes, women have largely been written out of the story. Until some wonderfully subversive writers at the end of the 19th century, add them in again. And now you can’t think of dragons without thinking of you know, any of the women of fantasy literature who control them or defeat them. Dinerys Targarian I think being the best example. But she would have been largely unrecognisable to pre modern readers
But what about dragons as most westerners imagine them. I mean personally, when I think of a dragon there are a few key features: it has to be huge and terrifying, fine, it most likely lives in a cave somewhere, but it also has to fly, and it has to breath fire. Where do those dragons come from? Because they are not quite what we’ve seen in the various traditions so far
We’ll get to the bottom of that, and more, in just a minute.
First, I wanted to take a quick break to catch you up on a few things
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Back to dragons, the fire-breathing dragons.
Our idea of the traditional wing and large fire breathing dragon comes out of Northern European mythology, and is best characterised by the dragon in the Beowulf poem, which was probably composed around 700 CE and only survives in one manuscript from about the year 1000.
And here we have a dragon that fits, you know, this is, this is our dragon. This is the dragon that Western readers recognise. It doesn’t do any speaking. But it has a fight with a hero Beowulf, which closes the poem and leads to Beowulf death, sorry to spoil it for anyone.
So there, the dragon is a very, very potent cultural symbol in that society of northern Europe in the early Middle Ages.
Another key aspect of this story, something that is common in so much contemporary dragon mythology, is that the dragon hoards gold. And this is a crucial:
One of the things that held that warrior society together was the capture of plunder, through combat and war, and then the redistribution of that plunder to the followers of the war leader. So wealth was particularly important in that society, movable wealth like gold and gems and precious items, because it allows you to create the bonds that held your war band together. The dragon in that story is monsterous not just because he’s a large fire breathing reptile, but because he hoards wealth, he holds all this wealth in his lair. He’s only awoken when somebody steals something from the lair. But he’s monstrous, because he takes away that precious commodity that allows the society to create cohesion. And so, dragons are always loaded with some kind of cultural symbolism in this regard.
So, this Northern European tradition is a very important part of our contemporary conception of the dragon, and a huge influence on dragons in fantasy literature.
But if you ask your average kid about dragons these days, they may not only mention fire-breathing dragons[insert here ]
Think of a dragon and you may also think of something quite different – a long, wingless, serpentine Chinese dragon paraded at lunar new year festival for example. Dragons are a huge part of Asian mythology, art, and culture, but utterly different to the western dragon. They are typically associated with water, not fire, they don’t usually fight mythological heroes and, crucially, they can speak:
they speak and so just the fact that they have speech makes them much more textured, nuanced, multi-dimensional characters. Because with speech comes empathy. They don’t just utter threats or anything like that. They actually articulate and they want to talk to human beings. And often they want to talk to human beings because they need the help of human beings. And this to me was so fascinating after reading so many texts about warriors and bravery, you know, warriors who are brave and they’re skilled in arms and whatnot, and then they go and fight dragons. The dragons in the end become kind of paper tigers, you know the dragon is going to be defeated. You know how the story is gonna go.
It was so refreshing for me to find stories in which dragons actually looked to heroes to help them escape or overcome even worse monsters. And therefore, the heroism of these heroes didn’t just have to do with their ability to fight and slay monsters, it had to do with their empathy and their generosity, that they would recognise dragons as being intelligent, articulate creatures that needed their help.
Dragons also often change shape, and can take human form.
They live in palaces; they enjoy the accoutrements of aristocratic culture. So, they eat well, they dine at big banquet halls, they have servants, often fish and other sea creatures that come and serve them.
In an anonymous story from 17th century Japan, the hero Fujiwara Hidesato, visits the Dragon King of the Lake:
“Hidesato was conducted to the palace of the Dragon King, under the bridge. Strange to say, as he followed his host downward the waters parted to let them pass, and his clothes did not even feel damp as he passed through the flood. Never had Hidesato seen anything so beautiful as this palace built of white marble beneath the lake.
He had often heard of the Sea King’s Palace at the bottom of the sea, where all the servants and retainers were saltwater fishes, but here was a magnificent building in the heart of Lake Biwa”
And so there’s just much more affinity between human beings and dragons in that culture. And some of the stories bear this out and makes them more interesting. There’s even love, there’s because they can take human form, human beings and dragons can fall in love, and then you get many different elements of stories there that, you know, kind of the conflicts that arise when a mortal human falls in love with a kind of not mortal dragon and the problems that ensue. So, the stories become much more rich and complicated. And to me, frankly, much more interesting.
It’s hard to trace how much influence western and eastern dragons may have had on each other. However this may have played out, though, what certainly happened to dragons in the west, something that completely changed how they were viewed, is that they began to speak. Just as with Asian dragons, giving the dragon a voice allows for characterisation and empathy a whole array of new stories.
One of the reasons that this happened was that dragons were simply becoming boring. By the 18th and 19th centuries the dragon story was extremely predictable. Fearsome dragon, princess in danger, hero arrives, slays dragon. It had been done so many times.[trumpet]
And so a change came about in children’s literature in particular, where authors began to domesticate the dragon, and to see the story from the dragon’s point of view (and, again, the story of St George pops up).
what’s fascinating is that right at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century, authors of children’s literature began to subvert the paradigm. And we see this, there’s two stories that that conclude the Penguin Book of Dragons, both of which I love.
The first is by the author who would later go on to write the children’s classic The Wind in the Willows
One is Kenneth Graham’s The Reluctant Dragon which was published in 1898, which is set in the mediaeval period, in which a dragon who’s living in the countryside befriends a small boy. And as it turns out, this dragon is not vicious, he’s not antagonistic. He simply wants to write poetry and have intelligent conversation. And the boy loves the dragon, but he’s
but he’s very afraid, because when the local people find out about him, they’re going to summon St. George to slay him. And this is indeed what happens, except that the boy and the dragon are able to win over St. George convince him that the dragon is not a threat, they stage a mock battle, and the dragon pretends to be slain, so that everybody will leave him alone.
Then there is Edith Nesbit, the very influential early 20th century English children’s author. She wrote Five Children and It, The Railway Children, and dozens of other children’s stories.
Her story, “The Last of the Dragons” was published posthumously in 1925.
In which a young princess who is supposed to go and and be the victim of a dragon and then be rescued by a young prince says I’m having none of this, like this is ridiculous. The whole tradition is nonsense. And why is this guy even rescuing me when I’m a better sword fighter than he is, anyway?
So there’s a really plucky young woman and she goes and convinces the dragon through kindness that we have to do away with this tradition. The dragon very famously says in the story, ‘your kindness quite undragons me’, and he agrees to be her pet, allows her to strap seats on his back and he flies her friends all over the place and he becomes eventually the first aeroplane as it were.
So it’s this wonderful subversion of a young woman taking a feminist stance saying, I’m not going to be victimised anymore. And in fact, we don’t need these silly conflicts, and let’s all be friends. And there we have the roots, this domestication of the dragon is in my mind so much, it paves the way for the stories we have about cooperation between humans and dragons that are just so popular in, in modern literature.
And from this point onwards the dragon becomes a mainstay of children’s literature.
Zog, by the wonderful author/illustrator combination of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler owes a huge amount to Nesbit’s story and is a standout example of any number of similar children’s dragon stories. How To Train Your Dragon is a favourite of my kids, set in a world in which dragons are feared and despised until a child befriends one, and realises they are completely misunderstood.
And it would be remiss of me not to mention Tolkien, who did more than anyone to spread the image of the Northern European, Beowulf-type dragon.
Smaug in The Hobbit is almost an exact carbon copy of Beowulf dragon with the exception of the fact that he speaks, that’s a novelty that Tolkien added to the tradition. But nonetheless, every aspect of Tolkien’s dragon in The Hobbit is a carbon copy of the Beowulf, Dragon when, of course, Tolkien being a scholar of Old English literature knew this dragon very, very well and very purposefully appropriated its attributes.
So by the late 20th and into the 21st century, dragons have emerged as a staple of popular culture, in fiction and film, but also in gaming – from Dungeons and Dragons to World of Warcraft.
Dragons can be cute and cuddly, or fearsome monstrous others;
they can be domesticated and harmless, or harnessed for their sheer power and destructive ability; they can be a terrifying, voiceless enemy for the hero to defeat, but more often these days they have agency and a voice, they have desires and fears, just like we do.
They are adaptable and can be endowed with cultural meaning; and as storytellers we can draw on a long, diverse, and fascinating history going back thousands of years.
That’s it for another episode of Words To That Effect, and the beginning of a brand new season.
Thanks for sticking around if you’re a regular listener, I’m so excited to get this new season going and to be putting out regular episodes again.
Lots of people to thank on this one. First and foremost Professor Scott Bruce. The Penguin Book of Dragons is fantastic. It’s available as an ebook now and in print in the US, with the print version coming soon in Europe and elsewhere. I’ll put links to the book and Prof Bruce on the website.
That website is wttepodcast.com, where you can find full transcripts, links, episodes and everything you would ever need to know about the show. Wttepodcast.com
You can follow me on twitter, I’m @cedreid, and the show is on Instagram and facebook @wordstothateffect
Thanks to James for being the brilliant voice of Ovid you heard at the beginning of the episode.
Thanks to Margot for the representing the under 4s views on dragons
Words To That Effect is a part of the HeadStuff Podcast Network, recorded in The Podcast Studios, Dublin
Production assistance from Marisa Brown
Fabulous new artwork by Matt Mahon
For more on all things HeadStuff and to support the show pop on over to HeadStuffPodcasts.com. I would really appreciate it.
Thanks, see you next time.[Sting]
One thought on “Ep 55: A History of Dragons”
Just shoehorning in ‘Reign of Fire’, a quality show that fell into a crack in dragon time where they seemed to ebb in popularity -keep up the good work.