In most Mediterranean and European Mythologies, Serpents are associated with evil, and dragons, a sort of super-serpent, are more evil still. Centuries before St George slew his dragon, Apollo and Hercules were disposing of giant reptiles of various kinds and being celebrated for it. The dragons of Chinese mythology, by contrast, are usually benevolent. This tradition has facilitated Revisionist Fantasy about dragons of the Western sort.
In the Christian tradition, dragons occur in religious texts as a metaphor for the Devil and as a result in secular works they are the ultimate antagonist which a hero faces at the culmination of his career: Beowulf, for example, in old age dies killing one. To kill a dragon is often to become a king – the archer slayer of the dragon Smaug in J R R Tolkien's The Hobbit (1937) is later, in The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955), said to have founded a line of kings. In Tad Williams's Memory, Sorrow and Thorn (1988-1993) it is Prester John's supposed slaying of the dragon of the Hayholt which gives him the right to rule there, from a throne made of its bones; when the Hidden Monarch Simon almost accidentally tackles a dragon during his journeys, it is one of the first things that signals to us that he is more than a kitchen boy.
In Melanie Rawn's Dynastic Fantasies and in Michael Moorcock's Elric stories dragons are essentially no more than useful semi-sapient fighting beasts; in Samuel R Delany's Nèverÿon books (1979-1987) they are little more than totemic animals rarely viewed. In the Pern Planetary Romances by Anne McCaffrey (from 1968) they are again semi-sapient, capable of an emotional bonding to their selected riders that is quasi-sexual. Terry Pratchett's Guards! Guards! (1989) contrasts a large traditional dragon of great malevolence with a bunch of little pet dragons prone to auto-destructive bouts of hiccups. Another comic dragon is the fish-eating specimen in Avram Davidson's Peregrine: Secundus (1981).
As often as not, whether intelligent or bestial, dragons are the hunter, not the hunted. Standing as they do as a gate between life and death and as flesh-and-blood beings that are nonetheless magical in their essence, they are Liminal Beings often connected with the getting of wisdom rather than merely enemies to be confronted. A conversation with a dragon is always a kind of duel, a struggle to refuse hypnotism or mastery. Even a moribund and largely petrified dragon like the one in Lucius Shepard's Dragon Griaule sequence of novellas (1984-1988) has the power to influence events, thinking slow dragonish thoughts that compel human action to the same pattern. The blood of a dead dragon makes Richard Wagner's Siegfried in the Ring sequence of Operas (1853-1874) a liminal being, at once able to understand the language of birds yet still unable to comprehend the trickery of human beings, invulnerable and yet susceptible to a draught that brings forgetfulness and a spear in the part of his back that the blood never reached – a variant of the Achilles' Heel motif.
Dragons are emblems of covetousness – when, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952) C S Lewis's Eustace is turned into one, it is by thinking covetous thoughts about the hoard he has come across. Wagner's Fafner has similarly opted to change into a dragon in order better to guard the Curse-ridden hoard for which he has already sacrificed his brother. Though dragons like Tolkien's Smaug are typologically related to the Satanic dragon of Christianity, their endless pursuit of anyone who has stolen from their hoard derives from the Norse version of dragonishness. This is at once one of their defining characteristics and their Achilles' Heel; it is because he has suffered a theft from his hoard that Smaug emerges, and is thus killed.
Dragons' legendary habit of devouring maidens (> Virginity) is something many fantasists have tried to rationalize (> Rationalized Fantasy). Because dragons are seen as solitary, they have to have some sort of sexuality, and eating virgins fits the bill. The best movie portrayal of this theme is in Dragonslayer (1981).
Ursula K Le Guin's dragons, in A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Farthest Shore (1963) and Tehanu (1992), are perhaps the most high-minded and superior, and maybe the most beautiful, embodying as they do physical perfection, wisdom and a sense of danger that has little to do with the fear they might eat you. She establishes them so totally that when, in The Farthest Shore, they prove vulnerable to the malignity of an evil Wizard, the effect is one of the most tragic moments in modern fantasy.
What Le Guin's dragons never for a moment become is cosy. There is a long tradition in children's fantasy of misunderstood and cosy dragons, starting perhaps with Kenneth Grahame's The Reluctant Dragon (1938 chap). The oddest combination of this cuteness with a traditional morality stance comes perhaps in Gordon R Dickson's Dragon and the George sequence (from 1976) where dragons and human beings (georges) live together in intermittent disharmony but as allies against the forces of real evil.
In many respects the most terrifying dragon of recent years – aside from, perhaps, Disney's metamorphosed (> Metamorphosis) Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty (1959) and the Monster in Terry Gilliam's Jabberwocky (1977) – is the one in Michael Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter (1993 UK) – a dragon that is also a machine (> Technofantasy) and a Trickster. Swanwick shows us a Universe that is a trap from which his heroine may awaken but never escape; the dragon is terrifying for both his malice and his manipulations, and because, in this Universe, he is ultimately a minor pest, powerless and flicked away. [RK]
see also: Worm.