Here (And There, And Really Everywhere) Be Dragons

Mar 10, 2012
Originally published on March 31, 2012 4:43 pm

As the supernatural enjoys a pop culture resurgence — from vampires to fairy tales — there's also been a firestorm of fascination with dragons. Fire-breathing dragons are central to the much-anticipated second season of the HBO series Game of Thrones, which opens April 1. And this year alone the mystical creatures are being featured in two movies, a new book, video games and a museum exhibit.

But then wasn't it always that way? Dragons are deeply entwined in the mythology of nations ranging from Egypt to South America, and in many Asian cultures, this is the year of the dragon.

At the Washington, D.C., parade marking the auspicious occasion, Jalen Ahmad is among the crowd of grinning people standing along the route. Watching the multihued dragons prance sinuously down the street, Ahmad says the year of the dragon is exciting — and significant in the Chinese zodiac.

"I feel like, for the dragon," Ahmad says, "it is very powerful, strong, courageous."

Six-year-old Micora DuBos, attending with her mom, thinks dragons are pretty but not very smart. But in fact, pop culture dragons run the gamut of personalities, which may be how they've wormed their way so deeply into our hearts.

While Peter, Paul and Mary's song describes the friendly, playful "Puff the Magic Dragon," top-selling video game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim features terrifying apparitions ruling the skies.

As for a dragon's intelligence, none could be more cunning than the murderous, thieving Smaug from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.

Actor John Hurt, who just won a lifetime achievement award at the BAFTAS, plays The Great Dragon on the BBC-TV series Merlin. His character, also called Kilgharrah, is a sly wyrm who's both friend and sometimes foe to King Arthur's magician-protector.

"I thought it would be great fun to play a dragon," Hurt says. He explains that Kilgharrah is an interesting character — who just happens to be a dragon — and an individual who cares for both Merlin and Camelot.

"He cares about the country ... in his own way, but he is a dragon, so therefore he can't be completely relied upon."

Hurt echoes scholars who believe one of the reasons dragons permeate cultures around the world is the presence of dinosaur fossils found all over the globe — fossils that, in the eras before paleontology, might have suggested what we think of as dragons.

At the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., Eastern Hemisphere Collections curator Lee Talbot notes that people around the world have told stories of these mythological creatures with supernatural powers for thousands of years.

The museum is currently running an exhibition called "Dragons, Nagas and Creatures of the Deep," in which the oldest piece is a tunic panel from fifth-century Egypt. On it is an ancestor of the modern dragon called a hippocamp — "a cross between a horse and a fish," Talbot says.

Talbot says that at around the same time, on the other side of the world, there was another legend about a dragon resembling a cross between a fish and a horse.

The exhibition includes an elaborate navy-blue gauze jacket from early 18th-century China adorned with fearsome-looking golden dragons with open mouths and four outstretched claws. Talbot says a fifth claw has been painstakingly removed from this garment — meaning it was adapted, at some point, for wear by someone outside the royal family.

"Only the emperor of China, his wife and immediate family were allowed to wear five-clawed dragons," Talbot says.

In East Asia, dragons are symbols of power and protection, and are closely related to water and rainfall. By contrast, in Europe dragons were traditionally seen as dangerous. And in the Christian tradition, they're worse than that: Talbot says that in the stories of St. George and the dragon, the dragon symbolized evil and Satan, and the saint's combat with him symbolized Christianity battling paganism.

But that just covers the dragons on this planet. The extraterrestrial dragons in author Todd McCaffrey's world are beyond friendly. McCaffrey has another book coming out this year in the series his mother Anne began in 1967 — the iconic Dragonriders of Pern. He explains that the dragons in those books have a symbiotic relationship with humans. They bond, telepathically and intimately, with their riders.

"You didn't want something that big and that powerful," says McCaffrey, "not united with humans in a way that would allow [the humans] to survive."

And by big, McCaffrey means the size of a wide-bodied jet plane. But only the golden queen dragons on Pern, a planet colonized by humans, grow to be that size. Pern's dragons have head knobs like giraffes, multifaceted eyes, and skin rather like the hide of a horse.

But McCaffrey says he thinks the reason people are so fascinated by dragons goes way beyond their looks.

"I think dragons are a really fundamental embodiment of our wishes and dreams," McCaffrey says. They are incredibly powerful, he adds, and they embody the best of humans and their aspirations.

It's "kind of like the love of dinosaurs that little kids have — but now they can fly," McCaffrey marvels. "They breathe fire too. How much better can it get?"

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And if you're just tuning in, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

If you're a fan of the HBO series, "Game of Thrones," which begins again tomorrow, you may also like dragons which feature prominently in the series. And it just so happens that dragons are also featured in two new movies, a new book, new video games and a museum exhibit.

Why now? NPR's Allison Keyes investigates.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: In many Asian cultures, this is the year of the dragon. At Washington, D.C.'s parade marking the auspicious occasion, Jalen Ahmad was among the grinning people standing along the route, watching the multihued dragons prance sinuously down the street. He says the year of the dragon is exciting and significant in the Chinese zodiac.

JALEN AHMAD: I feel like for the dragon, it's very powerful, strong, courageous.

KEYES: Six-year-old Micora DuBos, here with her mom, likes dragons for their looks, not their brains.

So, do you think they're pretty?

MICORA DUBOS: Yes.

KEYES: Do you think they're smart?

DUBOS: No.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KEYES: But, Micora, they are cunning. That must be how they've wormed their way so deeply into our hearts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUFF, THE MAGIC DRAGON")

PETER, PAUL AND MARY: (Singing) Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea...

KEYES: From Peter, Paul and Mary's friendly, playful dragon to the terrifying dragons of the top-selling video game "The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim" to "Game of Thrones," where three baby dragons are about to cause all sorts of drama.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GAME OF THRONES")

EMILIA CLARKE: (as Daenerys Targaryen) When my dragons are grown, we will take back what was stolen from me and destroy those who wronged me.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MERLIN")

JOHN HURT: (as The Dragon) None of us can choose our destiny, Merlin.

KEYES: Then there's Kilgharrah, the sly dragon who is both friend and sometime foe to King Arthur's protector Merlin in the BBC TV series.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MERLIN")

HURT: (As the Dragon) And none of us can escape it.

I thought it would be quite fun to play a dragon.

KEYES: Actor John Hurt just received two British lifetime achievement awards and plays the great dragon on the show. He says Kilgharrah is an interesting character who just happens to be a dragon, and that dragon cares for both Merlin and Camelot.

HURT: He cares about the country, you know? He cares in his own way. But, I mean, he is a dragon, so therefore, he can't be completely relied upon.

KEYES: Hurt echoes scholars who believe one of the reasons dragons permeate cultures around the world is because fossils that somewhat resemble dragons have been found all over the planet, some before there had been any study of paleontology.

HURT: It's very early findings of dinosaurs and so on. And I think that's where the mythology of the dragon came from.

LEE TALBOT: For thousands of years, people around the world have told stories of these mythical creatures with supernatural powers.

KEYES: Lee Talbot is a curator at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. The museum is currently running an exhibition called Dragons, Nagas and Creatures of the Deep. The oldest piece in it is a tunic panel from fifth century Egypt featuring an ancestor of the modern dragon.

TALBOT: Technically, the name of the creature is a hypocamp. And it is a cross between a horse and a fish.

KEYES: Talbot says at the same time on the other side of the world in china there was a legend about a dragon that was also a cross between a fish and a horse. He points at an elaborate navy blue gauze jacket from early 18th century China adorned with fearsome looking golden dragons with open mouth and outstretched claws.

TALBOT: Only the emperor of China, his wife and immediate family were allowed to wear five-clawed dragons.

KEYES: In East Asia, dragons are symbols of power and protection and are closely related to water and rainfall. But in Europe, dragons are seen as dangerous. The curator says they're worse than that in the Christian tradition.

TALBOT: The stories of, for example, St. George and the Dragon, the dragon started to symbolize evil and Satan, and then the saint symbolizing Christianity battling paganism.

KEYES: But that just covers the dragons on this planet. The extraterrestrial dragons in author Todd McCaffrey's world are beyond friendly. He says these dragons, from the iconic "Dragonriders of Pern" series, bonds telepathically with their riders.

TODD MCCAFFREY: So you really didn't want something that big and that powerful not united with a human in a way that would allow us to survive.

KEYES: By big, McCaffrey means the size of a wide-bodied jet plane. Pern's dragons have head knobs like giraffes, multifaceted eyes and skin rather like the hide of a horse. But McCaffrey says he thinks the reason people are so fascinated by dragons goes way beyond their looks.

MCCAFFREY: I think dragons are a really fundamental embodiment of our wishes and dreams.

KEYES: On top of that, McCaffrey says they're incredibly powerful and they embody the best of humans and their aspirations.

MCCAFFREY: Dragons are sort of like the love of dinosaurs that little kids have but now they can fly. And they breathe fire too. How much better can it get?

KEYES: Allison Keyes, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.