Here Be Dragons

by Nancy

“Here be dragons,” read the margins of old maps, warning of dangers in the seas beyond the known (flat) world. Today, however, we know what’s in those spaces, or think we do, and dragons are consigned to the realms of myth and magic.

A book I’ve been using for research on the current wip says dragons are part of almost every culture on the planet, that they’re associated with the Great Goddess and are symbols of power and royalty. Pretty cool.

The book also mentions an herb called dragon blood that’s used for a variety of magical purposes, such as those involving love, purification and protection. Some sources say it can add power to particular spells.

Helping carry a long paper dragon is part of Chinese New Year celebrations. King Arthur’s surname has come down to us in legend as Pendragon, and Wales historically used a red dragon on its flag. Beowulf fought his last battle against a firedrake, a winged serpent that breathed fire.

The Vikings, as I imagine we all know, carved dragon heads onto the prows of their ships. In Norse mythology, the dragon Fafnir guarded a treasure hoard until Sigurd, or Siegfried, slew him. Jormungand, the Midgard Serpent, coiled around the world with his tail in his mouth and created the oceans.

One of my favorite children’s songs is “Puff the Magic Dragon” by Peter, Paul and Mary. If you’re too young to know who they are, click on the link. I think “Puff” is probably available from iTunes or from their website. It’s a sad song about what happens to our childhood’s imaginary friends when we move on, but it has an upbeat ending. And no, I never made the counter-culture associations with it until someone pointed them out to me.

The boy has led us to many fictional and fabulous dragons. Playmobil makes wonderful, if pricey, knights and dragons. One of the boy’s favorite Pokemon was the orange dragon, Charizard, who had a very obstinate and independent personality. From Pokemon, our son moved to Yu-Gi-Oh, which featured the Blue Eyes White dragon and several others.

If you like dragons, you should check out the beautiful, detailed children’s book Dragonology, which I would never have seen if the boy hadn’t been the right age to care when it came out.

Much as Sherlock Holmes’s adventures are presented as John Watson’s chronicles, the material here is supposedly the result of extensive research by a Victorian dragonologist into types of dragons, preferred foods, ability to fly, ability to speak, and pretty much anything else a person might ponder about dragons.

The boy also had a gorgeous picture book about why dragons left the world, but I can’t remember the title. One of his favorite picture books was Saint George and the Dragon (original cover pictured at left), with text by Margaret Hodges and illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman, who won the Caldecott Award for it.

The tale of St. George and the dragon, of course, is an old one. This version comes from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen, but it’s beautifully retold. When the boy weeded his childhood books, we refused to let him discard this one or Dragonology.

Our search for adventure books to share with our young son, who had no bias against stories starring girls, led us to Patricia C. Wrede’s wonderful series about Cimorene, a princess who hates court life so much that she runs away to cook for a dragon. When knights come to her aid, she finds creative ways to discourage them because she has no desire to be rescued, thank you very much.

The first book, Dealing with Dragons, is pictured at right. The books are rich in story and humor, and the princess has major but endearing attitude and quick wits. She eventually finds true love. The last book in the series, actually the first published, features her son.

Now the boy is into Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, an alternate history of the Napoleonic Wars in which the armies have air forces mounted on dragons. In the first book, His Majesty’s Dragon, a Royal Navy captain captures a rare dragon egg, only to have it hatch on his ship. The dragon, Temeraire, chooses the captain as his rider, changing his life forever.

Novik won SFWA’s John W. Campbell Award for the most promising newcomer with this book. The series is now up to six and still going strong. They’re on the “must read” list for me, but I’m putting them off until the first of the year, when I’m not teaching, lest I be swept up and unable to stop until I reach the end. The Aerial Corps, as England’s dragonriders are known, seems like the Napoleonic equivalent of World War II’s RAF, and I’m a real sucker for Battle of Britain stories. And dragons.

As an adult reading Tolkien for the first time, I met Smaug, the greedy creature who has a riddle match with Bilbo Baggins in his cave outside the town of Dale. Given my weakness for archers and Smaug’s sly malevolence, it’s no wonder I loved the scene where Bard the Bowman’s expert shot brought down the dragon. I didn’t love the Bakshi version, so I’ll be interested to see how this comes across in the forthcoming movie.

The first dragons I remember finding really cool were in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight (pictured at right with the beautiful Michael Whelan cover that graces my copy), the book that launched her epic Dragonriders of Pern series. The planet Pern suffers from periodic invasions by something called thread–long filament spores that fall from the sky, starting fires and eating through anything they touch. To combat them, the Pernese bond with dragons when they hatch. As pairs, they take to the sky to fight thread before it reaches the ground. The riders feed the dragons stones that help generate fire breath, and the dragons destroy thread before it reaches the ground.

F’lar, the dragonriders’ leader, knows a queen egg is about to hatch. Because dragons choose their riders, not the other way around, he needs a selection of girls available to greet the hatchling. When he rescues Lessa, an abused servant, and takes her back to the weyr for the hatching, he doesn’t realize she and the golden queen, Ramoth, will win not only the planet’s future but his heart.

I also loved Melanie Rawn’s Dragon series, which starts with Dragon Prince. In a land threatened constantly by war, a new ruler and his wife struggle to protect the dragons tradition demands he slay. Doing so may be their best hope of avoiding war. There are six of these, shelved in fantasy but including a lot of romance. Another wonderful book is Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane, which kicks off her Winterlands series.

There are plenty of other dragons out there. Allyson James’s Stormwalker features a shapeshifter dragon as a hero, and Deborah Cooke has a series about shapeshifter dragons, just to name two. One of my favorite guilty pleasures movies is Reign of Fire, starring Christian Bale and Matthew McConnaughey, an alternate future tale about humans trying to destroy the dragons that have decimated them. Dragonheart, with Dennis Quaid and Sean Connery, has lots of fans, and How to Train Your Dragon has done well in theaters this summer.

So what are your favorite stories about dragons or other mythical creatures? A package of books I picked up from RWA National, including a signed copy of Jessica Andersen’s wonderful Demonkeeper, will go to one commenter today.

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