The Dragon Tropes

Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones

Whether they’re the giant serpents of antiquity or the fire-breathing variety first depicted in Beowulf, dragons have definitely had their fair share of world-ravaging in fantasy stories. Some are magical, treasure-hoarding enemies that coast like bats across the sky, looking for living meals. Other times, they’re benevolent, hoarding wisdom rather than gold. Either way, many can speak.

My favorite dragons are the ones that are rare in their worlds. They may be revered as ancient gods or aid in battle, and their scarcity makes them feel sacred somehow. For instance, I love the way they’re depicted in A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones; there’s even a sense of wonder and trepidation surrounding the dragon eggs before they hatch. Besides the awe factor, dragons being rare or even extinct makes more sense than having them overrun a fictional world, as it must be difficult for humans (and similar races) to coexist with powerful dragons threatening to wipe them out. At least that’s my theory.

When dragons are scarce, they’re game-changers. But even when they’re just one of many monsters (such as in the Witcher series), they are typically the greatest threats, the ultimate bosses… and one of the most predictable sights, whether they breathe fire or surprise you with some variation on that.

All of this makes me wonder whether dragons’ luster is wearing thin and how world-builders can revive them in our tired imaginations.

Skyrim’s Free-Roaming Dragons

Dragonborn!
Dragonborn!

When Skyrim came out in 2011, many people were excited at the prospect of dragons flying across the in-game world and attacking at will for the first time. It gave the game a sense of spontaneity and danger. This is much different than how video games typically utilize dragons, which is as bosses to take down at specific points in the story. (My favorite example is the archdemon in Dragon Age: Origins, the ultimate boss — though the DA series has other, optional dragon bosses to take down at different points, too.)

But the novelty of free-roaming dragons wore off for me in time. After playing Skyrim for awhile, I found the dragon fights tedious, and when I saw that shadow in the sky or heard a far-off screech, I typically started running in the other direction to avoid the fight — not because I was afraid the dragon would kill me, but because I didn’t want to shoot arrows at the thing for five minutes straight just to move on with my in-game life. (Of course, if I needed the dragon bones for money, I reacted much differently…)

Fortunately, Skyrim’s main questline adds some originality to the dragons — and that goes beyond just absorbing dragon souls and learning shouts. The Dragonborn DLC (which I haven’t played myself yet, even though I’ve seen hours of it online) takes the dragon trope in a new direction to make it even fresher. To be fair, my problems with the prevalence of dragons in Skyrim may be out of the ordinary, as it’s clear that dragons are a major draw for the game… yet even among my biggest Skyrim-loving friends, I notice excitement over a dragon fight wane about halfway through — as the dragon takes flight yet again — and that dull fatigue flares at having to shoot the beast back onto the ground already.

Dragons, Dragons Everywhere!

For me, dragons are simply much too common in Skyrim — and the same could be said for dragons in fantasy fiction in general. They’re so ubiquitous, they may just be a tad overused. When I researched this, I found an interesting Escapist forum thread posing this exact question when Skyrim was first released. For the most part, the initial reaction was that dragons are awesome… and saying otherwise kind of makes you a downer.

But Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind, thinks otherwise in an interview with L.A. Times. Though he agrees that dragons are totally cool and archetypal, poor storytelling can make them seem trite. As he puts it:

“The problem with dragons is that everyone uses them. All the time. When that happens, they become commonplace. A lot of people think you can just throw them into a story and suddenly whatever you’re writing is 28% cooler. But all that does is make dragons into some boring cliche.”

He even talks about playing a game that he played in which he fought many dragons. The first fight was intense, but after awhile, all that drama wore off, leaving him bored with the fights. “When that happens,” he says, “someone has really dropped the ball in terms of storytelling.”

In Dragon Age: Origins, dragons take a lot of strategy to beat.
In Dragon Age: Origins, dragons are rare and deadly.

Dragons That Matter

It all comes down to fresh storytelling. When I start reading a fantasy novel or turn on a video game that has dragons, my mind is already packed with the cliches. I expect a big reptilian creature with scales and wings that flies across the sky, breathes fire on people, and possibly talks. Whether he’s in chains or a wild animal, he’s probably considered to be a dangerous beast. (Even in BBC One’s Merlin, the relatively benevolent dragon still sort of wants to destroy Camelot.)

When my expectations are met, I’m not exactly disappointed… but I personally don’t grab stories just for these dragon cliches. I’m probably reading/watching/playing for some other reason, and the stereotypical dragons don’t sway my opinion of the story one way or the other.

His Majesty's Dragon
His Majesty’s Dragon

On the other hand, when a book (or game, etc.) surprises me with a new way of presenting dragons, I fall in love with that story. Sometimes I even pick up a story because it deals with dragons differently. My favorite example is Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, beginning with His Majesty’s Dragon, which weaves history with magic in a retelling of the Napoleonic Wars — only in this world, dragons are used for aerial warfare.

To be fair, I believe elves, dwarves, and zombies are more overused in fantasy and science fiction than dragons, but the dragon has more flexibility. No strict definition limits the dragon; in fact, “Eastern dragons” differ from the ones we know best in the west, often having a more serpentine appearance sans wings. There’s so much more we could explore. And even though taking down a mean-spirited dragon in a video game makes me feel like a badass, I’d love to see dragons given fresh traits and roles in fictional worlds.

Ashley

11 thoughts on “The Dragon Tropes”

  1. You said it perfectly well : in Skyrim, dragon fights are more of a chore than the epic battle I was looking for (and personnally, I felt the same thing of the entire game). But at the same time that I tried Skyrim, I gave a try to Dark Souls.

    Well, that is a game where dragons are not only beautifully designed (and re-imagined), but also incredibly deadly. The whole game is epic, and the dragon fights really impressed me.

    And when I say re-imagined, here are 2 pictures of some of the dragons you can meet in the game.

    The gaping dragon : http://games.cnews.ru/trophy/screens/dark_souls/aaw.sized.jpg
    A more “classic” dragon : http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-a3T7ELq_0kE/TqFcCntkqOI/AAAAAAAAAXQ/9dTONRntRSc/s1600/Dragon.jpg

    Sure, Dark Souls is a hard game, but even more than it’s hard, it is rewarding. But I wouldn’t suggest renting it : before even thinking of fighting a dragon, you’ll need hours of gameplay. All worh it, though.

    1. Just looked at the pictures you linked here and many more on the Internet, and they look amazing! I should play Dark Souls. I’ve always been a little intimidated by the difficulty (same with Ninja Gaiden), like you said, but that won’t stop me forever. I didn’t know about the dragons in the game, so thanks for pointing that out… Definitely a push I needed to feel inspired enough to finally give it a go!

      It’s interesting you feel the same way about the dragon fights in Skyrim. The main quest line made them more interesting, I think… It was the battles themselves that I found really unengaging. Your “more of a chore than an epic battle” is a great way to put it!

  2. Yes, exactly! That’s how I feel about dragons in fantasy games/books,etc… I like dragons, I do. Of course they’re awesome, but it’s just been done so many times in pretty much the same way. I actually groan whenever dragons turn up in fantasy, because it’s so expected and they’re usually portrayed in such predictable ways. To be honest, that’s probably my main problem with fantasy in general and why I’m more of a sci-fi fan. I have nothing against the genre at all, in fact, there are some fantasy books and shows and movies that I love, but it’s the lack of imagination that bugs me! I have nothing against elves or dwarves, but do they have to fulfill exactly the same stereotypes pretty much all of the time? Anyways, went off on a bit of a tangent there, but yes I completely agree with you about dragons!

    1. I totally agree! Having a dragon in a story doesn’t make me feel any more engaged or riveted than not having one… which maybe says something about dragons losing their “epicness” a little bit.

      Like you, I’m also more of a sci-fi fan. I never pinned down exactly why — other than being in awe of future technology, etc — but you nailed it: every science fiction world is unique, imo, whereas fantasy uses (or reuses) the same elf/dwarf/dragon tropes over and over. I suppose science fiction has its own overrused themes and cliches… but that would be a whole other post! =)

  3. How about a fantasy world where dragons are not some magical creature, but rather another part of the wildlife and natural history of the world? What if they were taken back a notch from the mystical, fire-breathing, knowledge-wielding beings, to something more like what was portrayed in the Animal Planet special back in 2004 (http://dvd.netflix.com/Movie/Dragon-s-World-A-Fantasy-Made-Real/70025589?strkid=1061943550_0_0&strackid=2fc2009ab34613ac_0_srl&trkid=222336). My ideal dragon would be a perfect blend between dinosaurs, classic dragons, and real life “dragons” today (komodo dragons, agamidae draco, water dragons, etc).

    Dragons once ruled the world before man existed, but no longer. All that is left are their fossilized remains, leaving man to piece together what the realm was like when their race was at their prime. Now, all of their species resides on a large island in the Northern Sea. The majority have lost their ability to fly, its evolutionary advantage rendered useless when they migrated to the island and began feasting on the pygmy fauna which had no natural defense against such capable predators (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Island_rule).
    The myth of dragons breathing fire is simply not true. Rather, they have an extremely potent venom which they can spit at their enemies, causing paralysis. If bitten, death occurs in a matter of minutes. When interacting with man’s torches and flame-based weaponry, this chemical mixture combusts, creating the illusion that the dragons possess the ability to breath fire. Dragons are highly territorial, but do not attack on sight. Etc, etc. Basically, this becomes a fantasy version of the “land that time forgot” locale. This universe’s Lost World.

    Far more interesting to me than the typical dragons. Although I do think Skyrim managed to deal with the issue of talking dragons much more appropriately than a lot of other fantasy stories I’ve read/seen. And I think any game system can become boring and repetitive after you’d figured out how to appropriately engage with it. Think back to your first couple random dragon encounters in Skyrim. Before you knew to get them on the ground as quickly as possible, then take them out, the encounters were likely much more emotional and engaging. You had to figure things out on the fly. Any game with similar systems loses its appeal once you figure out the ideal method for getting through them, because then it’s just a matter of thoughtless repetition. The same is true of Halo. Once you figure out that you can take out the toughest enemies with a maximum of two shots from the correct weapons, they become far less of a threat. But it doesn’t mean those systems are flawed.

    1. Definitely, the initial dragon fights in Skyrim were really engaging — and I suppose it makes sense that our heroes learn how to deal with dragons rather quickly, making subsequent fights more a test of patience than a test of nerve or quick-thinking. I agree there’s nothing wrong with that, and the same is true of other battle systems and enemies… it just made that novel idea of free-roaming dragons — epic battles at any time! — less interesting than it initially seemed. And I think that realization shook off some of Skyrim’s “epicness.” Not that Skyrim doesn’t have sooo many other things to keep us entertained, of course!

      Thanks for the link to the Dragons World special! I’ve never heard of it before, so I’m excited to watch it. Love the idea of dragons being “studied” as just another animal species. It’s funny you mention dinosaurs, because that’s how I like to picture dragons — as these powerful animals that could never coexist with humans or allow the human species to evolve, so they must have been wiped out in the past. That’s part of why I like fantasy stories that have extinct dragons.

  4. I love this post. There’s a webcomic through Comixology called Dual that I thought featured a cool non-traditional dragon figure. The guy looked perfectly normal, but called himself a dragon. He had magical powers, lived for a long time, and could transform into a beastly dragon-like creature. :)

  5. I actually never thought about how cliche dragons in either video games or fantasy novels can be. I guess for me they are just a common feature in fantasy stories that I don’t think about how the use of dragons can feel unoriginal. Still, I really do enjoy having dragons be part of the story, whether they are malevolent or benevolent creatures. As a side note, I kind of ran away from most of the dragon fights in Dragon Age unless it can’t be avoided. I know I didn’t kill the dragon in the part of the game where it was optional to kill it? Though I think you get good loot if you did try and take it down.

    1. The first time I played Dragon Age I also didn’t go after the optional dragons! I tried the one in the mountains but died and quickly moved on, because I was too impatient and felt under-leveled at the time. One of the quests is with Morrigan, but since she did NOT like me on my first playthrough, I didn’t get the side quest then… But they are fun fights when you find them!

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