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Tips & Advice

On the Meanings of Dragons

by Rachel Hartman

Illustration: Elizabeth Graeber

Dragons are my favorite mythical creatures. I’ve often wondered why this might be. It’s hard to pin down dragons, after all. They’re varied and versatile, coming in nearly as many types as there are stories about them.

On the one hand, dragons are notoriously violent and greedy. They hoard gold and crunch the bones of innocents and torch whole villages with their flaming breath. Such dragons are practically a force of nature, and they exist to be slain, or at the very least tricked. Smaug, from The Hobbit, is a well-known example of the hoarding, avaricious, bloodthirsty dragon, waiting for a hero to come along. As Neil Gaiman famously said, such stories are vital “…not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”

It’s an excellent point, but I think it sells dragons a bit short. Dragons aren’t merely obstacles to our heroism. Dragons are — to my great delight — far more complicated than that.

Sometimes, as in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels or Eragon by Christopher Paolini, dragons are loyal companions with a psychic bond to humans. In How to Train Your Dragon (which was a hilarious book before it was a movie), or My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett, dragons are more like pets or buddies. In Chinese mythology, they are transcendently wise, lucky, and benevolent. According to other sources, they like tacos (no, really, look it up). How can one creature endure so many interpretations and still retain its relevance and identity?

The first dragon I remember reading about as a child was in C. S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader. An unpleasant boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb found himself transformed into a dragon by his greed. Aslan the lion changed him back, but it was really the experience, seeing his worst qualities embodied so dramatically, that made the biggest impression on Eustace and made him want to be a better person, worthy of being human again.

His transformation made a big impression on me, too. Dragons were monsters, I began to realize, but in some crucial way, they were also people — and vice versa.

And I think this is the key to understanding dragons, both their variability and their enduring appeal: they’re a lot like ourselves, extrapolated to extremes. We humans are simultaneously capable of immense cruelty and breathtaking compassion. Dragons just take things a few degrees further. Anything we can be, they can be, and then some.

So when you read about a knight slaying a dragon, it may be as much metaphor as monster. Often the dragons we need to slay most urgently are the dragons inside ourselves — our greed, our selfishness, our cruelty. Similarly, when dragons soar, our hearts soar with them. All our best and worst potentials are there, waiting for us to imagine and explore.