Since the beginning, humankind has had to contend with dragons. These ancient serpents represent the culmination of all our deepest fears. They are ubiquitous – born in some form across all the cultures and geographies of our planet.
Any dragon is impressive in its own right. But there are those who have risen to the heights of notoriety. These are the dragons whose names echo across the ages. These are the dragons whose reputations inspire fear long after they have left this earthly realm.
Table of Contents
- Beowulf's Bane
- Smaug, Thorin's Bane
- Saint George's Bane
- Fáfnir, Sigurd's Bane
- Respecting Draconic Tropes
After many trials, and combat with other terrible monsters (stories for another day), Beowulf rose to become the wise king of the Geats. But a threat to his kingdom arises in the form of a fire-breathing dragon. When a slave steals a gold cup from the dragon's lair, the dragon feels that the total destruction of Beowulf's kingdom is fair retribution. Beowulf gathers his thanes and goes to the dragon's lair. When the beast appears, the men flee from it in terror, leaving only Beowulf and his companion Wiglaf. During the battle, the dragon fatally wounds Beowulf but is ultimately slayed by Wiglaf.
This dragon represents the origin of the distinctive fire-breathing dragons of European mythology. In fact, Beowulf is the first piece of English literature that presents a dragon slayer. This tale went on to influence all modern fantasy in the West. Notably, the dragon of Beowulf provided a template for Smaug in J.R.R. Tolkien's book The Hobbit.
Mythical origin: 7th century
Smaug, Thorin's Bane
Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away, ere break of day,
To claim our long-forgotten gold.
- Song of the Lonely Mountain
The last great dragon of the third age of Middle Earth, Smaug coveted the wealth amassed by the dwarves of the Lonely Mountain. He laid waste to the city of Dale and drove the dwarves from their mountain kingdom. For two centuries he sat upon his hoard of stolen treasure, surrounded by a wasteland known as "The Desolation of Smaug", until a company of dwarves lead by the exiled king Thorin Oakenshield returned to the mountain with a thief named Bilbo Baggins. Bilbo learned of a weakness in Smaug's armored scale underbelly. The information was carried via thrush to Bard the Bowman, heir to the kingdom of Dale. In a climactic battle over Esgaroth, Bard pierces the great dragon with a massive arrow and kills him, marking the end of the dragons of Middle Earth.
Mythical origin: 20th century
Saint George's Bane
In a land called Silene there lived a poisonous dragon who threatened to corrupt the water supply of a nearby kingdom. To appease the beast, the kingdom offered human sacrifices chosen by lottery. One fateful day, the king's own daughter is chosen. He pleads with his people to spare her, offering treasure to any who will save her, but they refuse. She is dressed as a bride and sent to the lake to feed the dragon.
Saint George arrives by chance at the lake and meets the princess. When the dragon emerges he chooses to protect her and does battle with the beast, critically wounding it with his lance. He asks for her girdle to leash the dragon, which magically cows it. The two of them lead the dragon back to the city where it terrifies the people with its monstrous appearance. Saint George offers to slay the dragon if they will all convert to Christianity. The people agree and so he beheads the dragon. The king goes on to build a church to the Virgin Mary and Saint George on the site where the dragon died. From its altar flows water that can cure all disease.
Mythical origin: 11th century
Fáfnir, Sigurd's Bane
Fáfnir was originally a dwarf with two brothers Regin and Ótr. They were the sons of Hreidmar, a sorcerer who owned a house of glittering gold. One day, the famous trickster god Loki was travelling and came across Ótr in the form of an otter. He killed him and skinned him and then arrived at the house of Hreidmar. When he showed off the otter skin, Loki was seized and a ransom was demanded. For ransom, he gave Hreidmar cursed gold that was said to bring death and destruction to any who possessed it.
Fáfnir killed his father Hreidmar to claim the gold for himself and went out into the wilderness to guard his treasure. Over time, his greed and corrupt deeds transformed him into a hideous dragon that breathed poison into the air around him.
Regin plots revenge against Fáfnir and sends his foster son Sigurd to kill the dragon. Sigurd ultimately succeeds and claims the cursed treasure for himself. He returns to Regin and cooks the dragon's heart. When he tastes the blood, he suddenly gains the ability to understand the speech of birds. This power saves him from treachery as he overhears some nearby ravens speak of Regin's intentions to murder him for the treasure. Sigurd cuts off Regin's head with Gram - the same sword he used to slay Fáfnir.
Mythical origin: 13th century
Deep under the ocean, at the heart of the world, lived a primordial goddess. Tiamat most often appeared as a great dragon. Some modern interpretations depict her with multiple heads. She was an elder god and created the first generation of Babylonian dieties together with her husband Abzû, the god of fresh water.
Eventually, Abzû suspects his children of plotting to usurp him. The gods go to war and during the conflict Tiamat brings forth the very first dragons, filling their bodies with poison instead of blood. In the end, she is slain by the storm god Marduk, son of the god Enki who represents knowledge and creation.
Mythical origin: 16th century BCE
Respecting Draconic Tropes
By studying the tales of these legendary dragons, there are certain truths we can identify and weave into our own stories. These dragons are ancient and powerful. You place yourself in grave peril when you disregard these underlying themes. These patterns will help you recognize when you may be facing a dragon of your own.
- The dragon embodies The Hero's Journey. Adventure will beckon a hero who will journey out to find the dragon, slay it, and recover something precious to bring back home. After facing the dragon, the hero will be transformed in some way.
- Dragons are mirrored by the dragon slayer. The presence of one suggests the presence of the other.
- Dragons breath poison or fire or any elemental badness. In this way, they corrupt the landscape around their home.
- Dragons are greedy. They desire valuable things and are possessive of them. They do not stray far from their lair where the treasure is hoarded unless radically provoked.
- The death of a dragon will often somehow reverse its ill effects. In the case of Saint George, poisoned water became purifying water. In the case of Sigurd, the dragon's blood helped him prevent the malicious brother Regin from continuing the corrupt legacy of Fáfnir.
- Dragons take on different shapes, forms, and sizes, and yet they remain recognizable. A dragon will ultimately be some kind of serpent. The serpent is the truest representation of human fear itself. The serpent is the enemy of the Christian god, the liar, the symbol of chaos.