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More than a Fairytale: In defence of dragons

Artwork by Chen (Cornelia) Chen

Fairytales are all about the defensive. Something is always having to be protected, whether it’s a pretty princess, a colossal castle or just fragile and ever-fracturing masculinity. Yes, the actual defending is always the least exciting part of the story; often because these things don’t actually need protecting in the first place. I mean – if the dead white authors ever gave her a chance!! – the princess would do just fine without the knight in rusty armour; the royal family are generally too caught up in their own drama to care about their castles (which are often falling apart anyway); and don’t even get me started on performative masculinity: that’s for another week…

(Oh gosh, look what’s happened. I am sat here trying to write a column on the ever-relevance of fairytales for The Oxford Blue and have just spent the past fifty or so words showing how the entire genre is both ridiculous and contradictory… is this Oxford pretention setting in? probably.) 

Before my column suffers a grim(m) and grisly death, let’s get back on track: what is there in fairytale that is actually worth defending? I should probably clarify here that I am using ‘fairytale’ as a sort of umbrella term to represent not only children’s stories and Disney films but our folkloric tradition as a whole. This is partly owing to the fact that I really don’t want to have Taylor Swift’s ‘Folklore’ in my head every time I get to writing and partly because of a conversation I had with a friend when this column was in its embryonic stages. I was ranting, in typical me fashion, about how medieval stories are always oversimplified and should be given much more credit; their response was to question what it was I really had an issue with: ‘it’s just fairytales right? Fairytales are simple because they’re written for children’. I guess that answers my earlier question: the genre itself is what needs defending. Let’s see what happens if we, just for a while, wrench the fairytale genre from its vicious cycle of children, cringes, and cliches. 

What is more cliched than a dragon? Can a cliché be cool? Dragons are cool. I used to think they came from Wales because of their flag (and because the Welsh tourist industry really does ram dragons down your throat at every turn). I was five; if dragons were on the flag they were absolutely 100% undeniably real. I have since grown up, (mostly) learnt the difference between fact and fiction and no longer whisper in Welsh caves out of respect for a sleeping dragon… so please don’t think I’m strange and abandon my column. 

There are lots of things more cliched than a dragon, but I cannot think of many things more hackneyed than the phrase ‘mother of dragons’ (one of the many names given to miss Daenerys Targaryen): just typing it brings me out in metaphorical hives. It’s the suggestion that a dragon could and should be seen as a sort of gigantic scaly puppy. Maybe I am overthinking this– I study English, overthinking is hardwired into my brain- but I don’t think a dragon is anything like a dog. According to lore, these creatures are eons old and are more akin to Gods than mere mortals. They aren’t just big snakes that happen to breathe fire and lay nice pretty eggs that can be given away as wedding presents. Plus, I really hate how many people have, or want, ‘mother of dragons’ tattoos; it’s weird! 

So clearly dragons need defending from Game of Thrones. I think this can be achieved by acknowledging that Daenerys Targaryen did not in fact invent dragons; they have a cultural history which is infinitely wilder than anything written by George R. R. Martin…

Yet, for a mythical creature that appears in every single culture’s history – East and WestSouth and North (dive into the lives of my specially selected dragons at your leisure) is the subject of a John Lewis Christmas advert, an Oscar winning animated film franchise and a country’s flag; surprisingly little is actually known about their history. 

Where do they come from? The logical assumption would be that they are jazzed up fire-breathing versions of dinosaurs – I mean look at the resemblance. However, the earliest depictions we have of a dragon is from 4500 BCE Mongolia. It would be another 6342 years before (Oxford University professor I might add) Richard Owen would announce the discovery of dinosaurs. 

David E Jones blames it all on evolution. In his book An Instinct For Dragons, (yes it’s real, yes the fact that it is real is quite sad) he suggested that human beings are instinctively scared of large cats, birds of prey and snakes because these were the greatest threat to our monkey ancestors when they first swung down from the trees. What do you get when you cross a snake, a cat and a falcon… a dragon (apparently)??? I would like to think we have moved past monkeys but I’m no anthropologist. It would also probably be more convincing if he ditched the cat aspect. I’ve certainly never felt instinctively scared of my cat and I’ve equally never looked at a drawing of a dragon and thought, ‘Oh gosh it really does look like a cat doesn’t it…’

The snakes idea I can get behind. Mainly because dragons and snakes have always been pretty interchangeable in mythology. Like so many words in our language (because the English language is basically one big swag bag) the word dragon is not an English word, it is based on the Latin ‘draco’ which comes from a Greek word meaning ‘to see clearly’. Nobody really knows how this came to mean ‘gigantic mythical fire breathing snake dinosaur thing’. Perhaps it because of their ol’ blue eyes, perhaps it was because people saw themselves reflected in the reptiles- although that may be getting a bit deep. The English word for dragon, before we nicked the Latin alternative because it sounded more exotic, is ‘wyrm’ which basically means ‘wormy thing’ a.k.a. a snake. But it’s so much cooler if a hero is fighting a fire-breathing serpent serving as a foil to their own heroic ambition than a puny little python. Hence why scholars will choose to translate ‘wyrm’ as dragon, a decision which could have some interesting consequences when working with Old English versions of Biblical Book of Genesis which contains a famous interaction with a ‘wyrm’. Personally, I would feel much more inclined to defy God’s law and eat the forbidden apple if being told to do so by a giant fire-breathing winged reptile; I would be less convinced if a little baby snake was bossing me around – Devil-incarnate or not – but that’s just personal…

I cheekily added in some pretentious analysis in the last paragraph – did you spot it? I’m going to spend a minute building on it (I feel I need to justify to myself why I am spending 3 years doing a degree structured around made-up stories!). A foil is something that is designed to contrast with a narrative’s primary character. So when a dragon acts as a foil to the hero, their role is to reflect back all the qualities a hero must hide in order to be, well, a ‘hero’. A dragon is the sort of ‘person’ they would love to be but just can’t because of the endless pressure to look permanently pure and picture perfect. To be fair this is probably why everyone likes dragons more than heroes – ironically, they are extremely relatable. Dragons represent total freedom. If they want to hoard, they can hoard. If they want to be hangry, they can be hangry. If they want to be stroppy after being woken up from their nap, they have every right to be so. Oh gosh, I seem to be describing the attitude of an Oxford Humanities Student. See, I told you dragons were awesome. 

Okay, so the moment you’ve all been waiting for, the question that must be on the tips of each of your tongues – do I have a favourite dragon? I feel like it should be the dragon in Beowulf. I’ve certainly caused many a digression (digressions… me?) in my tutorials complaining about how the poet does the dragon so very dirty by giving it the villain edit – unpopular opinion; Beowulf is an egomaniacal loser; he completely deserves to be obliterated by a dragon who was just trying to get his beauty sleep! However, as dragons go, the Beowulf dragon is boringly ordinary, it breathes fire, it hoards gold, it wipes out civilisations; standard behaviour really. 

There is nothing standard about Zahhak the dragon that defines Ancient Persian Mythology. Yes, this boy is probably my favourite. Perhaps it’s because of his three heads, kinda greedy yet kinda great, especially considering one of them was allegedly human. He symbolises the intersection between humanity and the divine, even going by the name Azhi Dahaka which, in Sanskritt, probably meant ‘manlike serpent’ (it seems people saw themselves reflected in dragons before I claimed they were similar to Oxford Humanities Students; I guess I am not as much of a creative genius as I first thought… shame). Zahhak’s mythology has many a spellbinding story, I really encourage you to explore further – looking up facts about dragons can be a very welcome distraction from tutorial essays, trust me on that! – points for anyone who can draw a parallel between Zahhak and Marvel’s Avengers’ Endgame… 

I suppose I should end where I started: 

Why do dragons need defending? Well to be brutally honest they don’t – their awesomeness speaks for itself; but I liked the alliteration in my title. Earlier I asked myself ‘what is more cliched than a dragon?’; I actually think this is a silly question because dragons seem to evade any sense of cliché. They are everywhere, in every culture, in every fairy story and yet we never seem to get sick of seeing them. I hope we never do, although if I see one more ‘mother of dragons’ tattoo or t-shirt… 

Jess Steadman