Ah, dragons. One of the three fantasy races generating the most talk among the literature purists today. The other two races are vampires and witches. I hope I don’t offend anyone. On second thought, I hope I do, because that’s the oldest and greatest Reformed tradition.
Most people in the world of fantasy and fiction have, for the most part, viewed dragons as an evil beast, endowed with intelligence, and active in its pursuit of man-flesh and gold. The dragon is usually the one holding the princess captive or terrorizing the village, until the knight in shining armor comes and kills him and saves the day.
In the West, heart of Christendom, dragons are evil. In the East, centered in Chinese mythology, the dragon is a bringer of good fortune, not quite a god but as good as. Children born in the Year of the Dragon are supposedly blessed for life with good luck, and we’ve all seen the fire-breathing horned serpents represented on every Chinese restaurant.
There are two questions to consider when evaluating any subject: what is it, and what does it represent.
A dragon, all malicious or good natures aside, is an animal created by God. We have references in the Creation account of “great beasts,” and it is this word that is in the famous Job 49 passage, where a dragon is described quite clearly.
Some would say that the Job 49 passage is referring to a dinosaur. Really, there is no practical difference. That’s what God calls a dragon. Therefore, it’s a dragon. God says it breathed fire. Therefore, it breathed fire. (We do have good reason, other than God’s Word obviously, to suspect that some dinosaurs did in fact breathe fire.) We know that some dinosaurs flew.
Now, the four-legged, flying, fire-breathing reptile is, admittedly, not exactly what we find described in the Scriptures. But we are allowed to take artistic license, something that local legends have taken advantage of from Day One (or Six, actually.)
But now we come to the heart of the matter: what dragons represent. This is subjective according to culture, as explained above, but we have to take into account that, in the West, the dominant seat and heart of Christianity, dragons are bad, wild animals sometimes, evil intelligences other times. Why is this?
The answer, of course, lies in Scripture. Satan is called the Dragon more than once, the Dragon who lies ready to eat up the Promised Child. We find references to the Serpent in the Garden being not just a lowly snake, but a fully fledged dinosaur or dragon. (Some scholars have suggested that this is where the curse God placed on the Serpent falls, that he would no longer be a “beast of the field” but a “creeping thing,” suggesting the loss of honor, dignity, and, possibly, legs, forcing the once-noble beast to crawl upon his belly with his face in the dust.)
This is as good an explanation as any as to why so many people today fear snakes and other “creeping things,” in a Christ-haunted culture. Odd to consider, yet it may be true. And this is possibly why the West has a fear and hatred of dragons.
Dragons also embody greed in Western culture. The most obvious reference to this is in C. S. Lewis’ The Dawn Treader, in which Eustace Scrubb is transformed into a dragon by “thinking dragonish thoughts while lying on a dragon’s hoard.” This evil nature must be stripped off of him before he can be returned into a new man.
But yet there’s another side. Although Satan is represented by a Dragon, that does not mean that the symbol itself, in other forms, is evil. Remember that Satan is also called a Lion, and also that he is beautiful like the angels. Satan does not appear ugly, nor is he stupid, and therein lies his power. A dragon, however you cut it, is raw elemental power, nobility, and beauty. Evil is indeed ugly, but it can cover itself so that it is beautiful, in the form of a dragon, for instance.
We all agree that the Dragon who is Satan is evil. But what of dragons who are not Satan? Do all dragons embody sin and Satan? No. They are created beings, and they embody truth and the beauty and glory of God. Satan cannot make anything of his own to represent himself. He must rely on images that he has stolen and twisted. Evil is not merely an absence of good. It is a perversion of good, a rebellion. Therefore, we must assume that dragons, however twisted they may have become, were good and God-honoring creatures at some point. Can we not make fantasies about that?
Tolkien treats dragons as evil, but there are two theories as to the origin of these beasts in Middle Earth. The first is that they are Maiar who were once under the service of Melkor. The second is that they were good in the beginning, created from the Great Theme of Ilúvatar, and twisted to evil by Melkor’s cunning. This is how Melkor made the Orcs, from Elves, and this is how he has bent every creature and demon in his service. This is the theory I think most likely in Tolkien, given Tolkien’s understanding of evil and its relationship to good. This theory is the one I propose as well.
Now I must mention the elephant in the room, Paolini. America is now officially awake to dragons in fantasy. There have been other fantasies about dragons, and some of them quite good (Cornelia Funke’s Dragon Rider among them), but none have had the success that Paolini has had.
Paolini’s view is that there are good dragons, with above human intelligence and magical powers. What many dragons-are-evil diehards fail to get is that there are in fact evil dragons. There are (or used to be) wild dragons that had none of the intelligence of the dragons with Riders. These wild dragons are essentially beasts, although still cunning, and certainly powerful.
The evil dragons are called the Nameless Ones, because they turned against their fellow dragons. Their names cannot be written, spoken, or remembered, because of their treachery.
What’s interesting here is that the dragons in their wild state killed each other indiscriminately. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems as if the contact with mankind (elves included) has given them a capacity for goodness and reason that they lacked before. Interesting concept.
I’m certainly not saying Paolini’s perfect. Saphira seems awfully full of herself at times. She does humble herself occasionally, but not often. I’m working on a whole article devoted to Paolini: I’ll pick him apart there.
I don’t think that Paolini is wrong to portray dragons in this manner. As I said before, they have been corrupted. I can’t undo six thousand years of anti-dragon conditioning, but there are other, wiser ways to understand them than blinding fear and hate.
After all, a dragon is a creature of God. Satan is the Perverter, the Deceiver. Don’t be deceived.