An Old Norse saga describes a Viking longship:
“On the bow was a serpent’s head and on the stern a hook shaped like the tail of a fish, and the tail, neck and stem were gilded. The king called the ship Serpent, for when the sails were unfurled they became the wings of a dragon.”
Imagine the horror this dragon caused as it appeared through the fog.
Dragons come to us from nearly everywhere in the world, from Great Britain and Asia to Africa, Australia, and the Americas. Depictions of dragons date from the neolithic period throughout China. Dragon-slaying stories from Sumerian mythology survive from the fourth millennium B.C. In world mythology and literature this spectacular creature is prominent among the monsters.
Traditionally, dragons represent untameable power and terrible grandeur. In European culture dragons are malicious and full of trickery, and need to be slain, but they are also admired for their strength and are used to represent nobility in heraldry. In early times they were hunted by gods, and after Christianity appeared they became symbols of pure evil to be brought down by heros.
In Asia, dragons are spirits of nature, benevolent, lucky and wise. Often they are creatures of the air, associated with rain and water, and although usually airborne they lack wings. In Chinese folklore, dragons are related to horses and the gods use them for transportation through the heavens. Deities are shown in Buddhist imagery standing upright upon dragons, mastering them in their flight.
But modern author Anne McCaffrey gentled the dragons. She gave us dragon riders who have telepathic communication with their charges. The bond between the pairs is so strong that the dragon commits suicide upon the rider's death. McCaffrey’s dragons of Pern are full of human morality and virtue. Just a year later, in 1968, Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea introduced us to a world where dragonlords can communicate with dragons. As in Pern, Earthsea dragons are not evil. Demonstrating Le Guin’s familiarity with Taoism, her dragons are forces of nature: unknowable, fearsome, and destructive, and yet they possess ancient wisdom.
Following the Pern convention of modern fantasy, dragons have become amiable, even domesticated. The Earthsea stories have given rise to a separate literary legacy of dragons who are neither good nor evil, who are both feared and beloved. Dragons continue to represent power, but they are more human, involved with promises such as truces and subject to mastery. What does all this mean for us? Has our relationship to nature’s volatility changed so much?