The following is an essay included in the episode “In Full Fire: Pageau and the Dragons” from the Amon Sûl podcast. Be sure to listen and subscribe.
In his landmark 1939 essay “On Fairy Stories,” J. R. R. Tolkien wrote:
I never imagined that the dragon was of the same order as the horse. And that was not solely because I saw horses daily, but never even the footprint of a worm. The dragon had the trade-mark Of Faerie written plain upon him. In whatever world he had his being it was an Other-world. Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was the heart of the desire of Faërie. I desired dragons with a profound desire. Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighbourhood, intruding into my relatively safe world, in which it was, for instance, possible to read stories in peace of mind, free from fear. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fáfnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever cost of peril.
Dragons pervade ancient myth and religion. In most traditions, they represent chaos, the uncontrollable, the savage and overwhelming. In certain East Asian traditions, they are a symbol of power and good luck, while in Indo-European traditions, they are generally an embodiment of evil. In both cases they are figures of power and of mythic, untameable immensity.
In the modern age, however, we have introduced the tameable dragon. Whether one makes the dragon something cute and needing human protection as in the animated series “How to Train Your Dragon” or a respected partner in fighting against natural threats as in Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragonriders of Pern” series or as a weapon to be commanded as in “Game of Thrones” (at least from the excerpts I have seen), there is something about the modern mind that wishes to put a collar around the dragon’s neck and have him for a companion or even a pet.
But does this do damage to the ancient, mythic image of the dragon? Tolkien’s dragons — whether the familiar and flatterable Smaug or the malevolent and manipulative Glaurung or the titanic and destructive Anacalagon — are not to be tamed. And they are certainly not good in any sense, to say nothing of cute. They are wickedness in various forms, wickedness that cannot be tamed. Only Morgoth, Arda’s own Satan, can command dragons. Even Morgoth’s demonic scion Sauron seems to regard Smaug in the Lonely Mountain as an untameable ally at best.
Tolkien said that he “desired dragons with a profound desire,” and these were the dragons whom he wrote. He did not write dragons that one could put into a dragon-house and who wore saddles or came when you call. So in what sense did he desire them? Surely he cannot have meant that he desired destructive, deceptive, avaricious evil?
Indeed, no, the deeply Christian professor had no admiration for that kind of darkness, even while he depicted it memorably. He even described himself as too timid to want dragons in his neighborhood. Rather, it is that trademark “Of Faerie” that drew him to dragons, that sense of encountering the Other-world, the place where all that is legend and myth is actually proven to be real, and in many ways, more real than what we usually take as being “reality” in our flattened, materialistic view of the universe.
The encounter with a dragon is a signal to man that he is not in control of his world. The dragon is never a pet. But the dragon is also a signal to man that the world he thinks is the world is not actually the world, that there is something Else that intrudes upon it and with which he must reckon.
And the dragon, while symbolic of chaos especially, is not merely symbol in the sense of being an empty sign meant to convey something intellectual. The Bible has dragons, such as Leviathan, and they are not empty images for contemplation without combat. They are fundamentally demons — fallen angelic beings who threaten man and send him into rebellion and despair.
So does that mean that we ought to reject all these “tamed” dragons of more modern literature and entertainment?
The dragon in the sense of a demon is of course not tameable except perhaps in a deceptive sense. You may think that you can tame and control a demon through strength of will through magic — whether the demon is personal and the magic is the literal occult, or whether the demon is an impersonal passion of the will and the magic is defining our sinful passions as essential to our identity — but demons are by definition power that is apart from us and whose purpose is to lead us to destruction.
But McCaffrey’s Pern dragons, for instance, are more natural than demonic, animals which (if you read enough of the books you’ll discover) are actually over time bred by mankind to go from cat-size to monster-size yet are not intrinsically monstrous by character. Should we reject her dragons because they are not simply wicked and demonic?
I would say that we can regard the Dragons of Pern as being in a sense like tamed human passions. In one Patristic reading of human passions, the sin comes not from the basic desire itself but from misdirected desire. For instance, hunger is a blameless desire, but gluttony is that desire misdirected. Anger is to be used to purge our sins, but we misdirect it to burn others. And so on. So Pern’s dragons are indeed that raw power — which in human passion can often be experienced as a kind of Other-ness which even seems as though it is from the world of Faërie — but they are directed to confront evil and destruction, to use fire to consume the burning Thread that falls from the skies.
McCaffrey’s dragons are certainly not Tolkien’s. I do not think he would ever have written of dragons that would be ridden by any but a Balrog — a demon riding a demon. But I don’t think that she violates his sense of the dragon carrying that “Of Faerie” trademark, even if the dragons are made familiar to the reader, even with a kind of relatable personality. Even when we encounter the dragons in their naturally diminutive form as fire lizards, they are still creatures of wonder and myth.
But what about the “cute” dragons? Or dragons as weapons of terror? I think that really does go too far, reducing dragons too much to be extensions of human emotion without that sense of encounter with the Other-world.
That is not to say that even the dragons of “How to Train Your Dragon” or even “Pete’s Dragon” never brush up against the Other-worldly sense — they do. But they are fundamentally a different kind of dragon, a dragon brought into the de-spiritualized material world and made subject to man, who is finally the master. In some cases, the possibility of dragons actually becoming extinct is presented in these stories, victims of manmade domination of nature.
That is also not to say that such dragons are completely useless as devices in stories or that these stories can have no value to them — they can. But I would submit that they are not really dragons in the classic sense any more. Even Far Eastern dragons, which are not necessarily wicked, are still Other-worldly and not from the flattened, secular space we now assume is where we “really” live.
Tolkien himself does have a “tamed” dragon in one of his stories, though it is not within the Middle-earth legendarium. Chrysophylax in Farmer Giles of Ham is a dragon who is bound by lesser beings in an almost comic fashion (the story itself is quite comical), but he is still quite dangerous and indeed Other in the tale, remaining apart in both his dwelling and behavior even after he is brought into submission. So he retains the Of Faerie trademark and is not the “reduced” dragon of popular depiction in our day which is essentially a material and often sentimental extension of mankind. He is also certainly not cute.
Western and Christian traditions have more friendly other-worldly creatures of this type, by the way, even if they are not dragons — gryphons and the phoenix, for instance, are beings of this sort that are not associated so closely with chaos and wickedness. And perhaps we might think of them as angelic beings in some sense, rather like Tolkien’s Eagles of Manwe.
And that brings us back to the “profound” Tolkienian desire for dragons. The true, ancient, mythic dragon — which is not just a story device, by the way — is an indicator that there are multiple levels of reality that intersect. Angels and demons and giants and dragons are all real. They are not “real” in the sense that we usually think of “real” things — things that can be measured and observed with a microscope or telescope — nor are they real only in the sense of being metaphors for some otherwise unnameable feeling or concept.
But they are real indeed. And we must reckon with them. And despite the professor’s fears, they do sometimes get into the neighborhood.