I would comfortably wager that every soul reading this is familiar with at least one dragon in a work of modern pop culture they enjoy. Tolkien’s Smaug is merely the most famous of the fantasy great’s many wyrms. The Harry Potter series suffers no shortage of serpents. HBO went to great expensive to showcase CGI dragons in their adaptation of Game of Thrones and they feature even more prominently its new spin-off…well, it’s called House of the Dragon and that is not a figurative expression.
For myself, video games and tabletop games ensured frequent encounters with fire-breathing serpents and winged monstrosities. Skyrim is loaded down with the beasts, and Dungeons & Dragons prompts me to end this paragraph with the same witty flourish as the first.
The ubiquity of dragons in modern pop culture has a simple explanation; they’re cool. Incredibly so. They combine the scale of dinosaurs with the magic of Merlin. They’re majestic, powerful, awe-inspiring beings in every one of the above-named works. They offer as much scope to the speculative biologist hoping to weave realism into his fantasy as they do to the stargazing idealist who wishes to depict them as wise precursors to fickle mankind and guardians of ancient secrets.
These are, for the most part, positive traits. Even when depicted as menacing or villainous, dragons rarely fail to be impressive. They are grandiose beings the confrontation of which represent the hero’s shining moment or darkest peril. However, the further back we go the more likely it is that the dragon will be villainous or monstrous.
In a sense, the shifting depiction of dragons mirrors the depiction of large, dangerous animals over the 20th and early 21st centuries. Modern attitudes towards conservation and a higher degree of public education on matters of ecology have made a significant impact on how lions, tigers, and other apex carnivores are depicted. It no longer takes a degree in biology or first-hand experience to see these creatures not as vicious maneaters whose extermination and taxidermy should be celebrated as a pulse-pounding adventure, but as beautiful animals whose destruction is selfish and myopic.
So, with animals, so with dragons. An even-handed approach is more typical. Many modern works depict dragons as animals, as prone to bonding and affection as they are to burning down villages. The How to Train Your Dragon series has made them icons of children’s film, capping off a process at least as old as 1963’s “Puff the Magic Dragon.” Even in a work where dragons are intelligent and broadly malicious, such as Skyrim, we have a heroic dragon like Paarthunax to balance things out.
But if we cast our eye back, even as far as the Early Modern era, we find depictions of some truly terrifying wyrms. Hendrick Goltzius’s depiction of the Greek hero Cadmus encountering the dragon of Ares has none of the beneficence, intelligence, or even the grandeur of dragons as depicted in modern media. Instead, we are confronted with a baldly horrific beast, scrawny and hideous, its ravenous hunger not allowing it to pause in its feasting even to defend itself from the hero’s spear. There is no reading of the painting from which any positive view of the dragon might be gleaned; this is an unnatural thing, and its removal constitutes a heroic act of good for all of humanity.
I would urge that particular attention is paid to the dragon’s topmost head; the least prominent in the painting, it is nonetheless the most important to my purposes. The oblique angle Goltzius gives us of this head offers a more three-dimensional view of the monster’s anatomy. With its deep, rectangular muzzle and protruding tongue it suggests the lupine more than anything else. A scaled, wolf-like head atop a writing serpentine neck. This transposition of ‘undesirable’ animal traits onto dragons fascinates me, as does the reverse; when draconic or reptilian traits are ascribed to real animals, to highlight their ‘unnatural’ status as enemies of Christian humanity. As an example of this, I leave you with this truly bizarre depiction of an actual man-eating wolf that hunted the population of the town of Cinglais, France from 1632. Free from context, would you identify this as wolf or as a dragon? And if you were a French woodsman or washerwoman confronted by it on a misty morning, would such a distinction even matter?
References and image sources
Anonymous artist, “Bete de Cinglais 1632”, Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bete_de_Cinglais_1632.jpg, [Accessed 18th November 2022]
Goltzius, Hendrick, “Cadmus slays the dragon”, Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hendrick_Goltzius_Cadmus_Statens_Museum_for_Kunst_1183.jpg, [Accessed 18th November 2022]
Luros, Milton and Wil Hulsey, Man’s Life cover compilation, “The “killer creature” animal attack covers of MAN’S LIFE magazine…”, ed. Robert Deis, Men’s Pulp Mags, 2013, https://www.menspulpmags.com/the-killer-creature-animal-attack-covers-of-mans-life-magazine/, [Accessed 18th November 2022]
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