Here be dragons
Fearsome and often depicted as bringers of dread, dragons have played a big part in bringing fantasy worlds to life. From Tolkien’s Smaug to Dungeons & Dragons's chromatic and coloured species, they can be at the heart of an adventure or be used as looming threat that never comes into the limelight.
But for many - myself included -, dragons have been, literally, the stuff of legends for much longer than fantasy has officially existed as a genre. They have been part of myth and folklore the world over, for centuries. Before concentrating on the European varieties and how they have been depicted in books, films and games, I would like to take a quick tour around the world to appreciate the creative interpretations of these mythical creatures.
Where are the dragons?
The phrase "Here be Dragons" was supposedly found on ancient maps to indicate unexplored places. It sounds perfectly adequate except that this was never the case. It is a good example of how elusive dragon myths are and that one should never assume anything regarding them. There’s always a detail that might have eluded you or something that is a little different this time around.
Ever so often, I find that contemporary fans of fantasy get caught up in discussions about the accuracy and correctness of a specific draconic creature. While I understand that everyone is entitled to their preference, the motivation, purpose, look and anatomy of a dragon need only make sense in the context of the world and story they are living in. As with all mythical creatures, it is up for interpretation and in the end it is the beast’s personality what tends to be of primordial essence, whether it transpires through its physicality or not.
The first record there seems to be of a dragon-like creature is The Mušḫuššu. It is depicted as a “scaly dragon with hind legs resembling the talons of an eagle, feline fore legs, a long neck and tail, a horned head, a snake-like tongue, and a crest”. It appears on the eighth gate to the inner city of Babylon, dating back to the sixth century BC.
Other early representations of dragons can be found in Egyptian mythology, the Indian Rigveda, the Hebrew Bible (pictured here as The Destruction of Leviathan (1865) by Gustave Doré), Greek mythology and of course, Norse mythology. Despite having all distinctive reptilian traits, they are far from identical: a hybrid creature, giant snake, leviathan, hydra or winged, four-legged and fire breathing. In eastern cultures, dragons are wingless, serpentine creatures with four legs and a high intelligence. Instead of bringing destruction and conflict, they are associated with good fortune. Japanese and Chinese dragons are very similar, and only differ slightly, physically speaking, in the number of their claws and toes. Slavic mythology also has its fair share of dragons. Although they are more akin to their Western European cousins, they offer distinct flavours such as a three-headed beast from Russian and Ukrainian folklore.
Regardless of their origin or their intent, they always make for powerful storytelling devices, first in popular belief and folklore, later in fantasy literature and film.
How does your dragon compare to mine?
As you can see, depending on your cultural background, your idea of a dragon isn’t necessarily someone else’s. For a lot of high fantasy fans, the modern western image of this creature is based on one that developed in Europe during the Middle Ages. The earliest illustration of a clearly recognizable European dragon dates back to about 1260 AD. Around that time, there is also the story of Saint George and the Dragon which was written a number of centuries earlier but depictions were not created until the 13th century.
In medieval heraldry, dragons found their rightful place alongside wyverns, lions, eagles, griffons and more. In the late medieval period, variants on the dragon started appearing, such as the cockatrice and the basilisk. Fast forward a few centuries and all these mythical beasts serve as some inspiration or another to a multitude of modern day fantasy novels.
Dragons often have a place of honour in the games we play, the role-playing adventures we live or the video games we indulge in. As lovers of the fantasy genre, we have all had certain experiences that have stayed with us, defining our tastes and preferences. As a visual storyteller, I gravitate towards the design of things: how something is shaped and how it fulfils its purpose, if any. When it comes to fantasy literature, I enjoy books that leave room for the imagination so that I can add a part of myself to form the complete picture in my head.
Sometimes you see a painting or a physical representation of a creature, character or place that is in tune with your own sensibilities. You identify with it and in a strange way, it becomes a part of who you are. In the case of dragons specifically, I have found some that constitute more successful efforts to bring them to life than others, and thus have contributed to my own interpretations. Let’s have a look at a few that are some of my very favourites.
One thing I remember from when I was very young is my parents taking us to the movies. Even though tastes and interests between my brothers, my parents and I differ a lot, cinema has always been something we shared. In my teenage years, I got dragged to see films I had no interest in that I often ended up enjoying, a lot. But before that period, we got to see mostly movies for us kids. Back then, theatres were the only place you could view Disney films and they were re-released regularly. That way, I got to see Sleeping Beauty in all its magnificence. The painted backdrops are still, to this day, the most inspired and beautiful ones I have seen in a US animated film. My favourite part? Well, when Prince Philip fights Maleficent and turns into a dragon, of course! The dynamic of the scene, the quality of the art, the use of colours and sound make for a thrilling cinematic moment. The dragon embodies all the terrifying qualities of the classic monsters that were born from European folklore.
Back in the 70s and 80s, American movies didn’t get released in Europe or even Canada until many months later. In France and Switzerland, it could easily take over a year for a film to make it across the Atlantic. In the case of 1981’s Dragonslayer, it took 16 months! I remember seeing specials on the news about it, and the anticipation was high. If Superman made you believe a man could fly, this movie made you believe dragons were real. It is sometimes difficult to put technical achievements back into their context because we have come such a long way since. Yet, having watched Dragonslayer many times since its release - my last viewing was this week - I can attest that it holds up surprisingly well. My 10 year old son who often will comment on how fake a special effect looks was baffled by how the filmmakers brought Vermithrax Pejorative to life. If you are, like myself, fascinated by movie making magic, do check out this fantastic article about how they pulled it off, it’s well worth a read.
In the case of Dragonslayer, the beast is portrayed in the most effective way possible. The terror it exerts on Casiodorius Rex’s kingdom is felt throughout the tale. The dragon is the guiding thread even when it is absent. Many people will tell you that the reason you see only parts of the dragon during the first half of the movie, such as the end of its tail or a claw, is because of technical limitations. While this is partly true, having restrictions made for better storytelling choices. The filmmakers kept the big effects for the most opportune moment and used the power of suggestion for dramatic tension. It made for a build up that doesn’t feel forced and, like a good fantasy book, it asks something from the viewer. It’s up to your imagination to visualize what this creature could look like. In the case of Vermithrax Pejorative, it does not disappoint when it finally makes a formidable entrance.
Dragonslayer was an exception to the rule of 80s sword and sorcery movie posters. The promotional material did look just as amazing and fantastical as the film did. In fact, the movie looked even better!
The D&D Red Box dragon
Many role players have a favourite visual reference, one that ignited that spark and made them want to set off on fantastical adventures with their friends. I cannot recall if this was one of my favourites, but I’ve certainly been admiring it ever since I bought the basic rules set for Dungeons & Dragons in the mid eighties.
Close-ups of my Basic and Expert rule books for D&D - Art by Larry Elmore
Larry Elmore is definitely one of those artists who can capture the essence of a character in an illustration that looks like a frame freeze of a movie. This one in particular sums up perfectly what a red dragon represents in the D&D universe.
All the dragons in Skyrim
The Elder’s Scroll V - Skyrim offers one of the most extensive fantasy world seen in a video game. Its lore is deep and dragons play a big part in it. They are as fearsome as they are varied, each with a distinct look and storytelling purpose.
Probably the most famous dragon in both literature and pop culture, Tolkien’s creation is a bit of an odd one because we all have our own version of him. For me, J.R.R. Tolkien was able to draw me into Middle Earth and its mythology and lore because I was invited. So much of how I picture that world comes from the author’s beautiful descriptions AND from my own imagination and experiences. Having lived 25 years in the Alps made my inner visualization of the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit all the more vivid. My image of Mirkwood, the Shire or Erebor will not be exactly the same as yours. In terms of personality, our perception of characters is much more likely to be in tune but they might look very different.
The same goes for Smaug and all the depictions I have seen of him. Peter Jackson’s version is maybe very different to yours or that of artists such as Carol Emery Phenix or Michael Hague whose interpretations already stray from how Tolkien envisioned him. Under the scales, though, we always find the same greedy and utterly clever dragon that is Smaug.
John Howe’s Saint George and the Green Dragon
I could have picked quite a few from John Howe’s portfolio but this one is inspiring because it draws from a medieval myth and has a sense of realism that makes the monster even more dreadful.
Its savagery and dynamism heighten the sense of danger, putting the majesty of the dragon aside and bringing its frantic bestial nature to the foreground.
The How to Train your Dragon trilogy of films has truly made the most of its setting and context to create some of the best and most imaginative representations of dragons in modern day cinema. The one that really stands out for me is Toothless the Night Fury. While a lot of four legged dragons have a tendency to look a little too much like giant dogs with wings, the Dreamworks artists were unapologetic in making Toothless feel and look more like a cat.
The result is a very charismatic creature that can be friendly and funny but also fearsome and lethal. It’s a celebration of outstanding character design and a testament to thinking outside the box and how it can lead to some interesting design choices.
What about this dragon?
There are of course other excellent examples of dragons on the small or big screen, such as the ones in Game of Thrones, Reign of Fire or the Harry Potter films. There are also some very terrible yet likeable ones like Draco in Dragonheart or some just plain awful ones, like every single dragon in the unfortunate Dungeons & Dragons movie. Getting it right is not as easy as it could seem, it isn’t a given.
Dragons of my own
When approaching the design of a creature for a specific illustration, I try to explore early on as much as I can. Lately, I have been creating a few pieces that came as a direct result from launching the brand new Dicing Dragons line of shirts. This design was made for all lovers of fantasy RPGs. To be as encompassing as possible, I went back to the basics of suggestive visual storytelling.
Rather than depicting the whole dragon, I only drew its tail, wrapping itself around a jewel-like D20, encompassed in a large precious metal ring. After finalizing the design as a black and white digital painting, I proceeded to make three colour versions: a red dragon with blue d20 and golden ring, a green dragon with red d20 and silver ring, and a blue dragon with a green d20 and bronze ring.
I also wanted to create posters based on this vibrant design. They would include a full body illustration of a dragon. I started doodling ideas until I came up with a design that corresponded to my vision. When designing such a character, context is a defining factor because you have to think about how to best convey the emotions you’re looking for in a specific setting. Should it have four legs, or only two and use its folded wings to crawl? It’s a bit like when you design anthropomorphic animals, you have to make design choices based on what the character will be doing.
Let’s take this charming dragon lady here. Right away we can see a number of things that either need addressing or explaining. Should she have a tail? Even though she’s a dragon and therefore she should really have one, it makes moving around more complicated. How will she sit, or drive a car?
How about the wings? It isn’t exactly practical to have her make holes in her shirts just so that she can wear a top. And how come she’s naked from the top down? I know, it has never bothered Donald Duck either but these are all things to consider and making a more realistic illustration brings along the same kind of hard choices.
And often, design choices should be driven by storytelling goals. In this case, I wanted to showcase a creature that, while not gigantic in size, embodied everything that can be feared from it. With distinctive reptilian features, the focus was to be put on its predatory nature. Thus it became a slick, fierce and intimidating dragon. The choice of having it crawl on its two hind legs and wings was a deliberate one to accentuate the lethal capabilities of the monster. It is fast and stealthy, not massive and powerful.
Red Dragon Illustration © 2019 Wouter F. Goedkoop
More dragon illustrations
My next effort will be geared towards a completely different take on the subject. I’m not sure if it will end up being as large as this initial sketch makes it. Maybe it will end up exactly like this and I will keep my explorations of a more feline inspiration for another dragon illustration.
As you can see, the possibilities are limitless. Even though the creator might be tempted to go for the wildest design right away, the defining criteria always have their origin in the essential question: “What story are you looking to tell?”. With this in mind, it makes it a little easier to understand why certain dragons have had more impact than others, in mythology or in more recent epic stories of fantasy.
I hope you enjoyed this little diversion into the world of dragons and into my creative process. Until next time, have fun playing games, telling stories and spending time with people whose company you enjoy.
Or go slay some dragons!