Friday, August 24, 2012

Dragonslayers by Stephen G. Walsh
By John D. Rateliff
“They all began discussing dragon-slayings historical, dubious, and mythical, and the various sorts of stabs and jabs and undercuts, and the different arts devices and stratagems by which they had been accomplished. The general opinion was that catching a dragon napping was not as easy as it sounded, and the attempt to stick one or prod one asleep was more likely to end in disaster than a bold frontal attack.” — J. R. R. Tolkien The Hobbit

For those of a practical turn of mind who expect that their next encounter with a dragon is likely to be in a roleplaying game, with said dragon charging down upon their characters bent on death and destruction, a final word about dragon-slaying. Fantasy fiction is full of epic battles between hero or heroine and dragon, but there’s considerable disagreement over how best to go about it. The classic “St. George” approach is to get the beast so mad that it rushes blindly at you, obligingly exposing its only vulnerable part, the inside of the throat, and letting you stick your lance down it. Tolkien maintained that it wasn’t as easy as all that, and that killing a dragon required learning its most vulnerable spot (usually underneath): Glorund, like Fafnir, was slain by a hero lying in ambush who stabbed the dragon from below as it passed over his hiding place. Kenneth Morris, in the wonderful Welsh fantasy The Book of Three Dragons (1930), includes a scene where the hero and a dragon go at it with such gusto that they rip up boulders and whale on each other with them, tossing them back and forth. Le Guin’s Ged simply cast a spell that caused the dragons to drop helpless into the sea and drown — an effective method, but one lacking drama and a certain sense of fair-play. We’ve already discussed Dunsany’s ingenious approach (starve the creature, if only you can stay alive long enough). The less scrupulous will find a foolproof scheme in Will Shetterly’s Cats Have No Lord (1985), but one that requires an expendable fool to implement (can you say “NPC”?) Perhaps the best approach of all is that followed by Tolkien’s common- sense Farmer Giles: don’t fight if you can possibly avoid it, and break off to negotiate at the first reasonable opportunity.

After all, with a lifespan of several centuries, why shouldn’t a dragon be willing to give up its treasure now and hunt down the thief a half-century or so later?


One of the most universal monster myths is that of the dragon. The awesome, reptile-like beasts appear in the folklore of nearly every country. And the fact that the creature was truly regarded as an actual monster rather than a myth can be demonstrated in several writings of the day. Edward Topsell, writing in his Historie of Serpents (1608), commented that among all the kinds of serpents, there is none comparable to the Dragon, or that afforded and yielded “so much plentiful matter in history for the ample discovery of the nature thereof.”

While examining the “true accounts” of dragons in the folklore and records of several cultures, one cannot help wondering if there really were dragon-like monsters prowling the earth, devouring hapless villagers, receiving periodic sacrifices of young maidens, spreading terror into the hearts of all, and being thwarted only by courageous knights. For years, children have been read tales, seen motion pictures, and heard songs of reluctant dragons, kindly dragons, affectionate dragons, magic dragons, and timid dragons.

Behind every myth smolders some spark of truth and reality. A few scientists hold the theory that a number of dinosaurs might have survived into the Age of Man. Pick up any book on dinosaurs and it is apparent that a Tyrannosaurus Rex would have made a terrific dragon in anyone’s legend. Such a huge reptile thudding about the countryside of early Europe or Asia could certainly fit even the most dramatic descriptions of a dragon.

No theorist favoring the surviving dinosaur solution to dragons claims that the great reptiles existed in anything approaching abundance. But even a handful of such ancient monsters existing in isolated lakes and forested valleys would not have gone unnoticed, even in the sparsely populated Europe of the Dark Ages. The discovery of even just a few of these great reptiles would have given rise to a far-reaching legend.

A more palatable theory is that the ancient historians were actually describing huge snakes such as the python, which often reaches a length of more than 30 feet. A number of dragon stories from the Middle Ages tell how the dragon wound itself about its prey and slowly crushed it.

The giant snake theory does not account for descriptions of the dragon’s feet or its ability to walk on all fours, but some species of giant lizard, such as the Komodo dragon, attains a length of 10–12 feet. The Komodo presently resides in the East Indies, but in ancient times, it is possible that St. George and his fellow dragon-killers might have fought some unknown species of monster lizard in Europe and Asia.

A third, more believable theory has an adventurer of the Middle Ages coming upon a cave filled with the bones of a giant cave bear and mistaking them for the skeletal remains of a dragon. Workmen excavating earth for a cathedral might even have unearthed the fossil remains of a dinosaur. It was not until the nineteenth century that scientists realized that the age of fossil bones often ran into millions of years. Previously, the skeletons were considered to have been the remains of some giant creature only recently dead. If, at the time the dragon legend was flourishing in Europe, a discovery of fossil remains was unearthed or sighted in a cave, the find would seem to offer conclusive proof for the existence of dragons. It is likely that the bones of the mammoth, the woolly rhinoceros, and the giant cave bear were not that uncommon in early Europe. The tusk of the mammoth was often called for in the recipes of medieval love potions.

In the marketplace of the Austrian city of Klagenfurt, there is a statue of a giant killing a dragon. The dragon’s head has quite obviously been modeled on the skull of a woolly rhinoceros. The connection can be proven by the fact that old records note the discovery of a “dragon’s skull” in Klagenfurt in the sixteenth century, 30 years before the statue was constructed. The skull has been preserved all these years by the city fathers and can be identified today as that of the Ice Age rhinoceros.

Delving Deeper
Carrington, Richard. Mermaids and Mastodons. London: Arrow Books, 1960.
Heuvelmans, Bernard. On the Track of Unknown Animals. New York: Hill and Wang, 1958.
Mackal, Roy P. A Living Dinosaur? In Search of Mokele-Mbembe. New York: E. J. Brill, 1987.