Why we love dragons

Dragons! Mythical, magical, scaled, horned and winged; they frighten and thrill us. Dragons cast an enduring glamour on young readers and adults alike. A tiny bit of our minds rationalises that they might have once existed: after all, there is hardly a culture on the planet that does not have them embedded in mythology and legend. Also, dragons are dinosaurs with wings, and we know dinosaurs existed. But where does our fascination for this fearsome creature come from, and why is a new generation of readers becoming addicted?

Traditionally in western culture, dragons were treacherous, dangerous creatures imbued with magical qualities that laid waste to the countryside and carried off damsels in distress, ensuring that heroes such as Lancelot, Beowulf, and St George were never out of a job. Some fantasy authors –- Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin and J.K. Rowling – built upon this tradition, with hobbits, heroes and Harry alike being confronted by fearsome dragons that usually had to be outwitted or overcome. Other fantasy writers, such as Anne McCaffrey, explored human kinship with dragons, an alliance of man and winged beast, heralding a trend in children’s and young adult literature that has transformed our relationship with these marvellous, magical creatures.

While retaining their aura of danger and power, today’s dragons have become our childhood friends, guides and companions, who speak to us and share their magic and wisdom with us, a symbiosis more in keeping with traditional Native American beliefs. Contemporary heroes like Eragon, Septimus and Hiccup are now triumphing only with the help of Saphira, Spit Fyre and Toothless. Together they explore their worlds and learn, inviting readers to share their many mishaps and adventures along the way, paralleling the difficult and challenging rite of passage from childhood into adulthood, yet allowing us to hold on to that magical spark that so many of us lose when we enter the mundane world of adulthood.

The modern theme of raising a dragon from the egg resonates with children and young adult readers alike, even when the action takes place in real-world settings. In The Egg by M.P. Robertson, in a delightful parody of traditional dragon lore that young children cannot resist, George teaches his dragon “How to distress a damsel” and “How to duff a knight”. This reversal of the child/teacher role is also mirrored in Raising Dragons by Bryan Davis, an equally enchanting blend of fantasy and reality in which a young farm girl discovers a natural flair for teaching Hank, a newly hatched dragon.

But it is not only the storytellers who have reinvented the dragon. According to illustrator Uri Shulevitz, “a picture book says in words only what the pictures cannot show,” and it is the paint brush and pencil in the hands of illustrators such as Axel Scheffler (Zog) and John Jude Palencar (The Inheritance Cycle) that have modernised traditional dragon imagery to capture the imagination of a new generation of children and young adults. In Tell Me a Dragon, Jackie Morris portrays breathtakingly beautiful dragons of all colours and kinds, before inviting young readers to imagine what their own special dragon might be like. Zog, created by Julia Donaldson and illustrated (below right) by Scheffler, follows the antics of a disaster-prone hatchling at dragon school.

The colourful and quirky Zog is a thoroughly modern dragon. “I don’t like my dragons to frighten,” Scheffler explains. Zog crashes while learning to fly, sets his own wings on fire and suffers a sore throat practising roaring, before failing the ultimate test of capturing a princess. His dragons “have teeth, scales and claws” like any self-respecting dragons should, but there the similarity ends. Zog and his endearing friends are not only rendered in all the colours of the rainbow including pink), but they sport an inventive assortment of horns, tiger stripes, antlers and chicken legs.

Dragons old and new

However, the passive role of cute and cuddly dragons in picture books has little to teach slightly older children. Instead, satirical stories like the How to Train Your Dragon series by Cressida Cowell parody history, legend and dragon lore to capture burgeoning imaginations. These clever, funny tales of the nerdy hero Hiccup who teams up with lazy, greedy dragon Toothless have become firm favourites with generations of young readers and their parents. Presented as a blotched textbook full of jokes, riddles, scrawls and illustrations, it mirrors the aspirations of pre-teens hovering between the magic of childhood and the realities of adolescence. Toothless is cool!

“I think children keenly appreciate satire,” Cowell observes. “There’s something inherently rebellious about satire, and children are natural rebels. Even though the setting is pseudo-historical, the characters speak in a very everyday, modern kind of way, which I hope makes them feel very real. Because Toothless can ‘talk’, the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless is more like that of parent and a slightly difficult two-year-old child than a boy with his pet.”

In the latest instalment, How to Steal a Dragon’s Sword, Hiccup and Toothless have to find the ‘King’s Things’ and win a sword-fighting contest to stop Alvin the Treacherous from becoming King of the Wilderwest. That is not to say that wonderful old-fashioned adventures like Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke do not rightfully retain a place in children’s hearts. “We want the world and our lives to be like stories,” Funke says, “with proper beginnings and endings, with a task we have to get done, love and friendship to be found (and sometimes lost). I think Firedrake fulfils the very human wish to have an incredibly strong, free and gentle friend. He can give us both freedom and protection just by allowing us to ride on his back!”

Dragonology, the brainchild of Dugald Steer, scientifically details every aspect of the study of dragons as if they do exist (you mean they don’t?). “The idea,” he explains, “was to create a book using fabulous artwork and interactive elements – samples of skin, pull-out diagrams and booklets, and magical ‘gems’ set into the cover among other things – that would look like reprints of real old books.” The result “captures them as really living things”, as one enthusiastic fan said. Magical illustrations of these beautiful, fierce dragons, including diagrams of skeletal and muscular structures created by the immensely talented Helen Ward, Wayne Anderson (The Dragon Machine and The Flight of Dragons) and others, makes Dragonology a tactile book to treasure for children of all ages.

Imagination takes flight

Set within the classical fantasy world of Alagaësia, The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini introduces young adult readers to a young farm boy who discovers a blue stone that turns out to be a dragon egg. “Part of what makes her [the dragon] so appealing,” Paolini explains, “is that Eragon becomes linked to her when she hatches. The relationship is very different than if he had joined up with an age-old dragon. This way, they are both young and exploring the world for the first time.”

Once the egg hatches, Eragon becomes a dragon rider and together with his young dragon Saphira they take on the evil Empire ruled by King Galbatorix. This adventure of mutual discovery and growth is mirrored in Paolini’s real-life relationship with his young adult readers: he penned Eragon as a 15-year-old, the same age as his protagonist and readership: “I think some older authors forget that young people can be thoughtful, moral and make good decisions,” he contends.

It is clear to any adventurous child growing up in today’s society that distressed damsels, enchanted swords and hoards of gold are
in woefully short supply, but rules and regulations are not. Dragons in children’s literature inject a much needed shot of adrenaline and magic into young lives; the particular appeal of relationships with unpredictable and potentially dangerous newly hatched dragons is that maybe they mirror the frustrations, failures, challenges and achievements of real-life relationships in a truly exciting and unique way. Dragons break all the rules!

Today, dragons are our constant companions in novels, movies and computer games, the most recognisable and loved creature from fantasy and legend. Are dragons that magical ingredient that ensures success in children’s literature, irrespective of age? “Yes,” says Angie Sage, author of the immensely popular Septimus Heap series, which features a host of fantastical creatures alongside Spit Fyre the baby dragon. “A dragon is a wonderful ingredient, it has a real emotional pull to it. They offer a winning combination of faithful friendship and the chance to fly. Plus, virtual invincibility. Not a bad package.”

And dragons are appealing for authors too. “A dragon is pretty good to write about,” Sage adds. “For a start it looks pretty amazing – shiny scales, spiky bits, claws, wings, comes in all colours and it breathes fire.” Authors love dragons for the very same reasons as their readers – because they open up our imaginations. And perhaps that is the key to why dragons are such an enduring feature of children’s literature. Dragons let us hold on to the magic of childhood when other dreams are left behind. Dragons allow our imaginations to take flight. Dragons give us all wings.


Lucinda Hare is the author of The Dragon Whisperer and Flight to Dragon Isle, published by Corgi Children's. Dragon Lords Rising will be published in 2012.