Pop Culture Rewind: Dragons!

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Words || Cameron Colwell

The basic dichotomy in depictions of dragons is between the West and the East. Known as wyrms in Germany and Scandinavian, Western dragons tend to be fire-breathing, six-legged beasts who burn down villages, eat livestock, and generally ruin the day of whatever medieval peasantry has the bad luck to be situated near one. They’re maybe best-typified in the story of St. George and the Dragon, where a saint fights and kills a monstrous, fire-breathing beast after it is regularly given cows, and then children, and then the virginal daughter daughter of the king as tribute. In order to stop the death of the virgin princess (she goes to the dragon in bridal gown), George slays the dragon after prayer, giving us one of our culture’s basic narrative archetypes, the entire fantasy genre one of its most-recognisable staples, and the Australian Football League’s St. George Illawarra their mascot.

On the other side is the Eastern dragon. While Asia has its own ‘divine hero defeats dragon’ narrative in the form of the Japanese story of Susanoo battling the eight-headed Yamato no Orochi, there are a few key differences. Rather than having wings and six legs, Eastern dragons tended four-legged, wingless but flying nature spirits who are often benevolent. For instance, there’s Qīnglóng, the Chinese Azure Guardian who is used as a door god, which is a sort of defensive spirit. Pop culture since World War II has often had some kind of combination of the two, but with tendencies to depicting lizard-shaped dragons as evil, beastly, and hellish in nature and serpentine dragons as wise, good, and of nature.

However, dragons are one of those concepts that are so recurrent in our collective consciousness despite the complete lack of consensus as to what one should look like. What I’m going to do here is have a stab at exploring why certain pop culture dragons are depicted the way they are.

Slipping Into Something Scalier (Sleeping Beauty, 1959)

“Now you shall deal with me, O prince, and all the powers of Hell!”

Sleeping Beauty’s dragon appears at the climax, where the witch Maleficent faces off with Prince Philip, over Aurora, the sleeping beauty — you understand how well it fits the mould of the tale of St. George. As the climactic battle plays out, Maleficent invokes hell and morphs into an enormous black dragon, breathing green fire. She and Philip try to kill one another for a while, before the dragon leads Philip to a cliff and, with some divine assistance in the form of fairies, Philip’s sword is enchanted before he throws it, killing Maleficent and allowing him to go off to wake the titular character.

There’s a lot going on here: The dragon is depicted as demonic, and a threat to a virgin bride. Also interesting is that the witch needs to transform at all. Perhaps it was ill-advised to depict a woman being physically fought – it’s interesting that there’s no dragon transformation in 2014’s Maleficent. Instead, Angelina Jolie transforms her crow familiar Diaval (References to Satan: check) into a dragon. Maybe the classic Sleeping Beauty needed a bestial symbol of evil, impossible to sympathise with and receptive only to masculine violence, whereas Maleficent needed to keep her human – and therefore more sympathetic – appearance, I guess in order to be more ‘complex’ and ‘edgy’.

Everyone’s Favourite Puppy-Lion-Dragon-Thing (The Neverending Story, 1984)

“Never give up, and good luck will find you.”

Oh man, even writing down his name and watching clips of Falkor made me wanna nostalgia-watch The Neverending Story. The Neverending Story is based on one of those books that I always reread in the many sick days of my frail little childhood, and it’s about a bullied kid called Bastian who escapes his troubled life through reading books. He eventually comes to enter a fantasy world he’s reading about, where he meets Atreyu, a kid adventurer on a quest to stop the world from being enveloped by the Nothing, a mysterious, fog-shaped entity. Falkor is an example of a very Eastern dragon appearing in a Western movie — Falkor is a long, puppy-faced ‘luck dragon’ who is very wise. Lacking much fighting ability, Falkor has the power to bring good fortune to whoever meets him, including Atreyu, who has almost lost all hope of completing his quest before he comes across Falkor.

It’s hard to place Falkor mythologically: no amount of narrative theory will explain why he looks a bit like a dachshund. Anyone who’s read the book or seen the movie will recall The Neverending Story being unusually dark for a children’s story: scientists say that anyone who can watch the scene where Atreyu’s horse dies in the Swamp of Sadness without descending into tears is empirically dead inside, probably. Falkor, though, is always good, always pure. My guess is that he’s a representation of what troubled kids come to fantasy for: he’s a miraculous escape, a friend who is always there to help, and a being who is like a dream you can hold on to. More than that, though, he’s hope — what’s more important than that to a lonely child?

You Can’t Hug Your Children With Draconian Arms (Game of Thrones, 2011-)

(SPOILERS EVERYWHERE)

“When my dragons are grown, we will take back what was stolen from me and destroy those who wronged me! We will lay waste to armies and burn cities to the ground!”

As if I wasn’t going to mention the children of my Game of Thrones problematic fave, Daenerys Targaryen. The dragons who return to the Known Worlds in the season one finale could tempt the analysis that they’re exactly as they seem: medieval monsters designed to allow the Khaleesi to very eventually conquer the Seven Kingdoms.

They’re certainly bestial, but also, there’s interesting gender politics here: Daenerys is often allowed to transgress the strictures of her gender because of her dragons, but at the apparent cost of her own fertility. They’re also what starts to bring the magic back into the world — only once they appear do most of the more fantastical elements of the show, like the murderous shadow baby that kills Renly, start showing up.

While George R.R. Martin loves to subvert fantasy tropes, his dragons are fairly standard, except in the sheer complexity of their depiction. The dragons of GAME OF THRONES allow us to have deep insights into their mother’s character: the two-sided coin of madness and glory the show often presents power as being given a form in the three beasts of the show, yet, at the same time, some of the most intimate moments of the series involve Dany and her dragons. There’s also the appeal of their modern parallel, which is generally agreed to be tactical nuclear armaments: Fitting with their deadly strength and history of being associated with enormous disasters like Summerhall and the long-ruined, once-glorious city of Valyria, it’ll be interesting to see how well the parallel holds in the short time the show has left.

Note: Recent developments, which happened after time of writing and are way too spicy to spoil, really bring home the Cold War era vibes of the dragons-as-nuclear-weapon symbolism.


Smaug (The Hobbit, 1937)

Benedict Cumberbatch Is A Shameless Scalie

“There were lots of dragons in the North in those days, and gold was probably getting scarce up there, with the dwarves flying south or getting killed, and all the general waste and destruction that dragons make going from bad to worse. There was a most specially greedy, strong and wicked worm called Smaug.”

Whereas Maleficent represents the ultimate evil as being infernal and female, gold-hoarding Smaug’s evil comes from his greed and his temptation. In this, he’s a very Christian idea of what a villain should be, constantly tempting the protagonist with an enthralling voice and a magnetism that stems from his size. He’s also a semantic predecessor to one of the main struggles of the later Lord of the Rings trilogy, the conflict between industry and the environment — one of those shitty Hobbit adaptations is called The Desolation of Smaug, after all. As a character, he is the most modern in dialogue, using expressions of the time in a way that suggests the pastoral conservatism that underlies much of Tolkien’s work.

Most people would remember Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the character, maybe even seen him looking like an ass while he’s covered in motion-capture equipment. Though I don’t like the actor, he does do a good job at really nailing the smug-nobility aspect of the character.

Haku (Spirited Away, 2001)

Pro-Sustainability, Eco-Friendly Dragons

“You still haven’t noticed that something precious to you has been replaced.”

Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is one of the best animated films of all time: Nostalgic and elegiac, it depicts the coming-of-age of Chihiro, a young girl who finds herself caught in a spirit world where her parents are turned into pigs, and she must work at a bathhouse in order to claim her freedom. She befriends the nature spirit Haku, who, while appearing as a boy, can also turn into a dragon. Partway through the film, we discover that Haku and Chihiro had met before: He was once the spirit of a river in which Chihiro had almost drowned in, and saved her. However, now he is stuck and can’t remember his past due to his river being destroyed to make room for development.

I made the decision to write about Haku right after Smaug because symbolically, they’re opposites: Smaug represents the dangers of industrialisation, while Haku represents the disrespected ecosphere, adrift due to human actions. Serpentine and white in colour, he’s an ancient and benevolent creature thrust into an unfriendly modern age, forming part of Miyazaki’s environmental criticism that comes up again and again in his work.

Charizard, Gyarados, Kingdra, and Dragonite (Pokemon, 1995—)

A Pocket Monster Is Not A Slave

“You know that dragons are mythical Pokémon! They’re hard to catch and raise, but their powers are superior! They’re virtually indestructible! Well, are you ready to lose? Your League challenge ends with me.”

Rather than just one example, Pokemon has a whole category of monsters who are ‘Dragon-type,’ and a bunch of others who look like dragons, running the gamut of dragon tropes, in keeping with the franchise’s general aesthetic of mixing cosmopolitan elements into a Japanese backdrop. In the classic generations, there’s Charizard, who evolves from a lizard in the anime to become a great, powerful beast, who memorably doesn’t listen to his trainer, Ash, and burns him as a running joke. Gyarados, while technically not a Dragon-type , is a serpentine beast who evolves from the lowly carp Pokemon Magikarp, mirroring the Japanese myth of the carp who jumped over the Dragon Gate and became a dragon. Dragonite and its predecessors are pretty Eastern-inspired: Dragonair and Dratini are two sea-dwelling worm-shaped creatures whose abilities include controlling the weather, whereas Dragonite is incredibly powerful, but docile and wise. Also dwelling in the deep seas of the Pokemon world is Kingdra, introduced in Generation II, who is based on the Japanese Ryujin: Dragon gods of the sea who were prayed to in agricultural rituals, rain prayers, and the success of fishermen.