HERE, THERE BE DRAGONS
by Matthew Cheney
In Siegfried’s Death, the first part of Fritz Lang’s 1924 epic Die Nibelungen, Siegfried slays a dragon and bathes in its blood, making himself invincible (except for a spot of skin that was covered by a leaf). The dragon is a lizard-like creature, more dinosaur than mythic god. Siegfried’s triumph is the triumph of a human over the ancient, bestial powers of Nature; it is a short-lived triumph, though, for as the title of the episode states, Lang’s film is a story of death.
In confronting dragons, humans confront an ancient, alien Nature. Unlike the other popular fantasy figures these days—vampires and zombies—dragons are not transmuted humans, but rather something beyond us, other than us. Often, they are represented as deeply greedy, and this is their fatal flaw (e.g. Smaug in The Hobbit). They guard, hoard, and covet. Within most fantasy stories, they’re part of a medieval environment and their greed stands in contrast to the commons. The triumph of the little human against the dragon is a heroic reappropriation of resources and a signal of the human ability to triumph over the hoard of Nature—the dragon must die for civilization to advance. Sometimes, as with Die Nibelungen, that triumph and advancement is questioned, but most stories of good little warriors triumphing over inherently unknowable, evil dragons are stories of hard-won triumph, with nary a glance to the dark satanic mills ahead. The unspoken truth is that such dragons never die, but instead finds their revenge in human progress, their fire diffused through factory furnaces, their smoke blotting out the sky, as the smog of Smaug chokes and cancers the descendants of the triumphant hero.
And yet there is beauty and wonder in the figure of the dragon, particularly when the dragon flies. This is another dragon story, the story of the improbably lithe creature casting off gravity. Cinema loves to soar, and it is no surprise to see so many cinematic dragons shooting through the sky. In flight, the dragon gains a kind of freedom from the greed that holds it to a single place or particular hoard. Often, humans then can become not the enemies of dragons, but their riders—not equals, perhaps, but partners, a new force greater than either individual. As common as the story of the hero who defeats the dragon is the story of the rider who either tames it or is chosen. The elemental, alien forces of Nature can be turned into a tool and even, perhaps, a friend. The dragon’s power can be harnessed.
Power, indeed. There’s a certain industrial-warriorness to most dragons—flying, armor-scaled, fire-breathing dragons suggest the terror of early aerial warfare. (What is the Blitz but an attack of dragons?) In the sky, dragons move from being Nature to being Gods: the loving, helpful, or at least vaguely friendly God that is the dragon and its rider; the inscrutable, punishing God that is the fire-breather descending from the night. Unless tamed, this power must be destroyed. Controlled, it can be wielded.
As terrifying, elemental, and alien as they are, dragons are not always represented as nightmares. There are countless dragons for children, whether Puff or Pete’s. We seem to have a roughly equal number of scary/archetypal dragons as cute/cuddly dragons. There’s more than one way to tame, and train, your dragon. Taming nature, after all, sometimes just requires a kid to wield a lawn mower.
Because the dragon is so obviously Not Human, it can easily be misunderstood as evil, but sometimes dragons are, as Hagrid tells Harry Potter, just misunderstood. Sometimes, as Disney offered in 1941, they’re a Reluctant Dragon. And then there’s 1996’s Dragonheart, in which a dragonslayer and the last remaining dragon join forces. These are parables of tolerance, of overcoming animosities, of looking beyond the myths. We can learn to love and cherish dragons. We can come to see them as human. But the relationship is never equal. Taming them into our humanity, we dominate them, and, once again, win. (We must trick the scary dragons and tame the cute dragons. If we join forces, it is the dragon that must die, not the human hero.)
In cinema, the dragon must be an effect, its otherness unavoidable because it is a machine or an animation or a computer program rather than a person in a costume. Fritz Lang’s dragon was a giant puppet requiring a dozen operators to push and pull and twist and turn its mechanisms. The result only adds to the alien effect. The same is true of the stop-motion dragons of the mid-20th century films—no matter how careful and accomplished the motion, it is still clearly somehow off, and thus the dragon of ancient Nature is rendered unnatural, odd, scary, funny, wrong. The cute dragons get created in drawn animation so that their colors can be bright, their movement fluid. Their absolute otherness is made obvious, though, when, as in Pete’s Dragon, the dragon is drawn and the humans are live.
Regardless of the level of technical achievement—whether the primitive puppet-machine of Die Nibelungen or the advanced CGI of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire—the dragon is always clearly not a human actor. The alien must stay alien. Even today, when the dragons have achieved unprecedented realism on the screen, their only human quality is their voice. Whatever the result of our encounter with the dragon, what we know is that it will not, it cannot, ever be us. No matter how close, the dragon will always be at a distance. No matter the here, the dragon must always be there.
Leigh studied Film and Literature at Warwick University, where he
directed and adapted the world stage premiere of Steven Soderbergh’s
‘sex, lies and videotape’. He has written or made video essays on fllm for The Guardian, The Independent, BBCi, Dazed & Confused, Total Film, RogerEbert.com
and others, has appeared on TV and radio as a film critic and is a
programmer with the London Film Festival. You can reach him on Twitter
Matthew Cheney’s work has been published by English Journal, One Story, Web Conjunctions, Strange Horizons, Failbetter.com, Ideomancer, Pindeldyboz, Rain Taxi, Locus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Site, among other places, and he is the former series editor for Best American Fantasy. He is currently a student in the Ph.D. in Literature program at the University of New Hampshire.