Friday, 25 April 2014

Dragons! Part One

Well, being that St George's day has happened this week, I thought I'd visit the relevant member of the fantasy community.

The word Dragon originates from the Latin word drak┼Źn, meaning serpent. Historically in the West Dragons were evil, harbingers of doom and/or really bad neighbours. The legend of St George centres on slaying a Dragon and even the virtuous King Arthur and his mob of heavily armed sociopaths would have got in on the lizard squashing if they could have found one.

They are portrayed as being big, scaly, mean and usually both firebreathing and airborne. There have been a smouldering cartload of films featuring or starring, heroic, comedic and good old fashioned evil Dragons with little thought about how they fit into the world, what their purpose is or where they come from.

Over the years their general appearance has changed from amazingly horrendous animation through to eye wateringly good and fittingly expensive CGI incarnations with some cartoons and everything else in between popping up a bit more in recent years.

They have been voiced (where they are intelligible) by famous actors and usually have some seriously witty dialogue, or some seriously cringe-worthy monologues.

There are an equally huge number of authors who have created fantasy worlds which contain, use and
abuse Dragons as a core element of their plot and they have taken a wide variety of stances on how to characterize their creations and what sort of fallout they have on the world, where such things have been considered. Most writers tend to settle with the idea that Dragons are evil and must be stamped out with little thought about the effects such an action might have on the region.

There are many, many, many varieties of Dragon. They have a lot of different characteristics which meld in their fiery bowels to produce the archetypal creatures that are known and feared wherever peasants huddle under thatched roofs.

So, before I get to the bones of this post I have prepared a loose list of common characteristics found in Dragons:

1) Intelligent. Above and before all others. 70-80% of Dragons in fantasy are usually highly articulate, intelligent and able/willing to converse with smaller forms of non-scaly life.

2) Evil. Pretty much what it says on the tin. They are evil for no other reason than they can be. There is no angst ridden past, no injustice against which they are rebelling. They kill, they burn, they eat - and they enjoy it. They also crap, but that never gets into the books or the films.

3) Apathetic. When they put in an appearance, they are quite often utterly self absorbed and only constitute a problem for the Hero if they can't be persuaded to move/give the advice/key item.

4) Hoarders. Hoarding large quantities of glittery things seems to be a fairly common activity for Dragons of most if not all types. I have read a number of different books with Dragons of every style and a large quantity of them can be relied on to build, maintain and guard or at least lazily dissuade theft from, a pile of riches.

5) Good. Again, what it says on the tin, obviously the polar opposite to the Evil. One or two authors have made a point of creating Dragons who are pure of intent, strong of will and interested in the welfare and progress of the Hero. It's interesting to note that they will still crop a sheep or a cow from a field with no thoughts about the farmer they are bankrupting.

6) Bestial. Several authors have created Dragons who have no communication skills with people. They are just another form of animal with common/everyday drives that the average beast in a field would identify with. These poor sods are often the victims of questing knights etc and tend to make me sad when they die for doing nothing more than being who/what they are.

Rarely, a Dragon is found in fantasy whose complexity and characterisation defy any single category. These tend to be my favorite forms of Dragons but like excellent plot and characters occurring in the same book they have been something of an endangered species which is only just now beginning to become more numerous.

The biggest problem is that until recently the average author has not thought Dragons through to the bitter, burnt and crispy end.

To be specific, most of the writers in question haven't decided if the Dragon they are putting into their world a) has the right to be there, rather than being parachuted in for the sake of it, or b) the ability to survive there. Is it an apex predator or is it anomaly with no means of survival?

A lot of these writers, sadly, seem to be happy with the idea that simply including a Dragon makes a story/plot better with bugger-all justification for why the thing exists or why it hasn't been killed/deified before now. Quite often their involvement in the plot is ropey at best and usually has little or no real bearing on the outcome. I can't tell you the amount of fantasy I have read, and subsequently thrown across the room, in which the Dragon imparts some ultimate wisdom that the Hero actually didn't need, or worse still...well, read on:

The wizard Gudguff smiled approvingly as his latest, witless and borderline brain-dead Prophesied-Hero picked up the bow he had never fired before and managed to hit the one loose scale on the underside of the evil Dragon that was engaged in a minor border skirmish in the village of Pisspot because the Dark Lord had been making military decisions that day by picking suggestions out of a hat.

If you re-read or watch the Hobbit books/films again with a slightly different eye, or possibly have a look at the appendixes at the rear of LoTR as well, what you will see is not a wizard gulling stupid individuals into a pointless adventure or gold hungry Dwarves going after...well, gold. Instead what you will see is a fantasy arms race. With <SPOILER!!> Sauron trying to get one of the last and certainly one of the largest Dragons left in Middle Earth on his side for the last war, while Gandalf et al try to stop him from acquiring the fantasy equivalent of a nuke.

Imagine the Siege of Gondor with Smaug knocking around and burning the arse out of the White City. The arrival of the Riders of Rohan is suddenly not such an issue. Smaug can just fly along and incinerate a large portion of the 6000 and odd host, assuming there's that many left since he has probably been blow-torching them for days before on their journey to the city.

But this is just entertaining "what if"-ing.

My problem with poorly realised Dragons can be boiled down to one question that never seems to occur to 80% of authors or if it does, is never really thought through to its full conclusion.

The question then:
Is the Dragon "realistic" or "magic/k"?

To be continued tomorrow...