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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Year of the Dragon: Part 3 - What Happened?

This is it. This is when this blog finally gets to the nitty gritty of what happened to the dragon over time. Hoo boy, this took a long time, but getting to the bottom of this shit was worth it.

Dragons, as my Japanese teacher put it, have been "cutified." We started thinking that they might not be so bad as creatures. The idea of a 'pet' dragon was particularly popular. Dragon-riding became all but a sport in several fantasy worlds. When one looks back on the stories of dragon-slaying and burninating the countryside, it's hard to see exactly why riding a dragon would be a good idea on any level.

So, what the hell happened? While I would like to blame the radical shift on the occasional "Androcles and the Lion" situation, that is not what happened. A colleague of mine actually thinks it started with a certain episode of The Addams Family; while she may have had a point, it would have been a very small trickle before a torrent. What actually happened to cause this shift was the rough equivalent of Twilight for dragons:

Dragonriders of Pern, a series of novels and short stories by Anne McCaffrey, is about humans who have created tame dragons to combat a strange foe on Mars. As one might expect, it was originally written in the 60's. The series is more science-fiction than fantasy, despite involving dragons, and continues to be written by Anne McCaffrey's son, Todd. Apparently the series actually has some literary merit; the first few books have won Hugo and Nebula Awards. This is not about how good the books are; rather, it is about the undeniable dent that the Dragonriders series made in the nature of dragons as a whole.

One thing has to get out of the gate right now: the trope "Our Dragons Are Different" is subtly in effect. Genetically-engineered dragons are still somewhat creative, and are totally foreseeable in the near future. There is indeed creativity around these dragons that McCaffrey cooked up, even if it's subtle how she's twisting them. Whether it merits legacy authorship or not is another can of worms.

Dragonriders of Pern left a mark, for sure. Symbiotic, empathetic, telepathic dragons that can teleport? Who wouldn't want that as a friend? Despite this relative awesomeness, nobody else re-used any of those characteristics except for telepathy. Oh, and getting along with humans.

On one level, I will admit that McCaffrey was onto something. If the dragon is indeed nature's fury and power incarnate, then this descent into an engineered weapon almost makes sense. Over the ages, humans have gotten better and better at harnessing the strange, bewildering powers of nature - things that would otherwise make excellent monsters in any other era. Not only are the forces of nature, well, harnessed, but they're also augmented solely for human use. Although probably not intentional, the correlation between dragons as a force of nature, tamed and the rise of mankind's control of nature suddenly makes sense. It's a logical, yet sad way to go.

So, to recap: the dragon went from being a mythical creature symbolic of a natural nemesis (and, by extension, the slaughtering of that nemesis) or power to a genetically-engineered, intelligent living weapon designed for human use. That's a pretty big change. This is as bad as sparkling vampires, but it was so long ago that nobody of this generation remembers. Fear for the vampires next, guys. Fear for the vampires next.


D&D took the idea of multicolored dragons from Dragonriders and the intelligence of Tolkein's (still otherwise traditional) Smaug and ran with it. Suddenly, dragons could wield any element, live anywhere, and be any character that a RPG setting wanted. There are good and bad dragons, even though the great majority of them are Western-style, 6-limbed, hyperintelligent, scaly behemoths. This unfortunately reached the peak of its stupidity in the frost dragon.

Again, some peace must be said. It's a good thing that people are doing new things with dragons. Ice was the only element not really embodied by a giant serpent. One could almost call it creativity if it wasn't vomited out by a marketing team on a constant basis.

The idea of a frost dragon is designed to sell. Its sole purpose in life is so that fire can fight water, because apparently tsunami-size waves just aren't as impressive as cliche Ice Beam attacks and fire VS fire is boring. I can point to a canon dragon for every element and climate except ice. Water, yes; ice, no. If anyone knows of one, please point it out to me. I would like to know if Brionac and Kyurem have any reason for being except money.

It hurts to liiiivee...

Oh, and then there's "dragon element" or "Dragon-Type." Pokemon in particular has this idea that dragons are supposed to be nigh-invincible save another dragon or being frozen solid. Dragon-Type attacks are usually not resisted. A type that started as being exactly one evolution line ballooned to 9 (Altaria, Bagon, Shelgon, Salamence, Vibrava, Flygon, Rayquaza, Latios and Latias) in Generation III. (I may accuse Gen III of ruining Pokemon later on this or another blog.) One could almost say that they parallel the Almighty element from the Shin Megami Tensei series.

There have also been a lot of recent dragon hybrids. Sunburn (dragon x phoenix) and Whirlwind (dragon x unicorn) from Skylanders come to mind. There are a number in Yu-Gi-Oh! as well, including the dreaded Rabidragon. It's almost as if regular dragons got so inbred they had to turn to other species just to make them interesting. Given that dragons are supposed to be inherently other, that says something. Creative? Yes, but it will get old fast. Showing stagnation in a concept that should be eternally terrifying and awe-inspiring? Yes.

Dragons just aren't different enough anymore. If something that used to symbolize other-ness loses that meaning, then it has no further purpose in life. After that, it's just a shameless whore masquerading as something that was once symbolic. The symbol has died, or at the very least is on its last legs.

Need proof of this? Look no further than the recent rash of highly anthropomorphized dragons. YGO's Stardust Dragon is an excellent example: It's bipedal, has 5 digits on its hands, and is actually a sacred being. It's not that anthropomorphism never existed in dragons - oh, far from that - but it's been taken to such an extreme that the human has become the dragon, and the dragon has become human. When the symbol of the 'other' has effectively lost all 'other-ness,' what remains except its shadow?

I am immediately reminded of a certain scene from Crichton's Jurassic Park. While plotting the park, there is a conversation about the nature of dinosaurs. One of the very smart scientists on the team points out that people do not want to see real dinosaurs. After the manager wonders what this guy is talking about, the scientist points out that this is an amusement park, so people are expecting to be amused, not eaten. Seeing real, live, 100% wild and vicious dinosaurs would dash a few expectations to the floor. I cannot help but wonder if there is a similar case with dragons; if dragons once existed and someone today found one, would they like what they saw?

This concludes these unbearably long and horribly procrastinated articles. Now enjoy the Year of the Snake, which should totally have its own article as well. Thank you for sticking with this piece!

I am open to comments, but do avoid the following:

"According to my D&D manual..."
Gaming companies invent their own stuff all the time. The same goes for art books and Dragonology. Cool ideas, but still designed to sell. Selling usually means obscuring the root in this instance.

Dragons are dinosaurs - I'm actually totally open to this idea, but you have to admit that they share a ton of symbology with snakes.  In this case, one can simply say that the ancient people who thought up dragons didn't know any better and fused dinosaurs and snakes into dragons.

"You're wrong, I AM a dragon and I'm no snake!"
- Bullshit. There was a time I bought into Otherkinism, but so many of the 'dragons' are fakes that anyone who behaves like this will be instantly branded a liar. Sorry if you're part of the rare 1%.