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?


Post a Comment