My upcoming novel BURN ME DEADLY involves, in part, a group who worship fire-breathing dragons. Because really, if you're writing fantasy, eventually you have to deal with dragons in some fashion. They're a trope, like swords and/or sorcery. Ignoring them would be like leaving the horses out of a western.
Not that I mind. Dragons continue to fascinate us because, much like vampires, they can symbolize practically anything a writer wants them to represent. Just look at the cultural differences between Asian dragons and their European counterparts, and the richness of the creatures as metaphors becomes apparent.
Still, everyone has a "first dragon," the one that awoke their sense of wonder about the creatures. For many it's Anne McCaffery's elaborate world of Pern, where genetically-engineered intelligent dragons bond with their riders; for others it's Smaug in The Hobbit, guarding his hoarde deep in a cave. But for me, it was the awesome Vermithrax from the 1981 film, Dragonslayer.
At the time of its release, Dragonslayer got a bum wrap for "ripping off" Star Wars. There's a naive young hero (Galen, played by Peter MacNicol) who is mentored by an old wizard portrayed by a distinguished British "Sir" actor (Ralph Richardson). There's a semi-magical weapon (a special lance, the "Dragonslayer" of the title) and a big, black-clad villain (Tyrian, played by John Hallam). Even Emperor Palpatine himself, Ian McDiarmid, has a small role as a village priest.
Of course, in the hindsight of twenty-plus years we can see these as simply standard fantasy elements that Lucas borrowed as well, and it's more interesting what the film does differently. Yes, there's a noble and strong-willed princess, but she's not the heroine. There's a Twelfth Night element in one bit of masquerading (the sole part of the film that simply doesn't work). And the medieval setting is vividly realized, helped by the suitably ponderous Alex North score.
Then there's the dragon.
First and foremost for me, Vermithrax maintains the integrity of basic biology. She's clearly a reptile, and so has only four limbs: her wings are modified front legs, similar to a bat's, or fossil pterosaurs. I'm endlessly annoyed by the six-limbed dragons (four legs plus wings) depicted in standard fantasy. No vertebrate has more than four limbs, and that counts wings. Saying, "it's a fantasy story," is a dodge, not an acceptable explanation.
Second, Vermithrax is scary. She eats human sacrifices, breathes fire and leaves a path of destruction. When she first appears, emerging from a literal lake of fire to tower over the hero, she's awe-inspiring.
Third, she doesn't talk. The dragons of Pern communicate telepathically, which is justified since they're genetically engineered to do that. But the chatty Draco in the inanely hokey Dragonheart has started a trend of talkative dragons that would embarrass even Walt Disney. Dragons are reptiles: they have no lips, and no mammalian voice boxes. Again, saying, "it's fantasy so it's okay," is an evasion, not a justification.
All subsequent dragons have been measured against this considerable standard. In fact, in the twenty-plus years since Dragonslayer, I've only encountered one other dragon that came close to equalling its impression on me (more on that in a later post). When it came time to create my own dragons, Vermithrax was my starting point.
The dragons worshipped in BURN ME DEADLY are folkloric, ancient creatures that, if they really existed, lived long before the dawn of man. They flew, and breathed fire, and laid waste to everything in their paths. They have qualities (intelligence, a compulsion to vengeance) that don't quite mesh with reality, but much of this is caused by the way stories change over time. Were there real dragons in the story, they would be much more in line with what I describe above: plausible, genuine, and terrifying.
But there are no real dragons...are there?
Leave a comment about your own "first dragon" before the end of this week and be entered to win one of three signed copies of The Sword-Edged Blonde paperback. One lucky winner will also receive an advance reader copy of Burn Me Deadly.
BURN ME DEADLY hits stores on November 10, 2009.
(There's a perceptive review of Dragonslayer here.)