Special: Of Dragons and Wyverns – Part 1

Here be Dragons.

When a dragon in a fantasy work — be it a novel, a film, or a videogame — is depicted as having just two wings (often also locomotory limbs) and two legs, the argument is often made that “it is not a dragon; it has two wings and two legs, therefore it is a wyvern, and should not be called a dragon“. This belief of an absolute dragon-wyvern dichotomy is held by surprisingly many as a sort of dogmatic truth — one that is radically false, in the face of actual data, history, literature and classical art saying otherwise. Of course, in no way a completely arbitrary classification reflects the plasticity of the word dragon, as well as the concept(s) of dragon.

Allow me thus to take you readers into a flying journey through the fantastic and languages, and explain why dragons can have as many limbs and wings as they please and still be called dragons.

WETA Digital’s Smaug.

The “two-winged, two-legged dragon must be a wyvern” debacle slithers in the modern age, and was likely born after the first release of the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop game in 1974. It underwent something of a boom around 2012-2013 with the pre-release material, and later actual theatrical release of The Desolation of Smaug — wherein the involved filmmakers made the creative decision to make the titular character a two-legged dragon with the upper limbs also acting as wings (which I will henceforth call “bat-walking dragon” for brevity).

Tolkien’s own impression of Smaug.

It does have to be said that such choice went against Tolkien’s vision of the character — with illustrations from the Professor clearly portraying Smaug as six-limbed. Superfluous to mention, but — of course — the film adaptation had the rights to take liberties with Smaug’s appearance, itself being an adaptation and not a translation; further discussion on merits and numerous flaws of those films shall be excised for brevity.

Vermithrax stalks Galen, seeking bat-walking revenge, in Dragonslayer (1981).

Making Smaug a bat-walking dragon was far from novel, and by the time Desolation was released in theaters, this template had become something of a standard for dragon designs in various media. The idea of a dragon using its front limbs as wings, in the fashion of bats and extinct pterosaurs, was first seen in the 1981 film Dragonslayer.
With the intention to make Vermithrax Pejorative a believable vertebrate, screenwriters Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins were adamant that it should have just four limbs, and yet have wings. The solution to this issue had its foundation in nature: the filmmakers were inspired by fossils of Rhamphorhynchus, a genus of pterosaur, to make Vermithrax’s front limbs its wings. When on the ground, the wings would fold up and the dragon could walk on all fours in a bat-like fashion.

Quinn faces the Bull Dragon in Reign of Fire (2002).

Since Dragonslayer, the bat-walking dragon template became extremely popular in films and videogames. Derivates of Vermithrax range from the dragons in Reign of Fire, to the Hungarian Horntail and the Ukrainian Ironbelly from the Harry Potter film series, to Drogon, Rhaegal and Viserion in Game of Thrones, to the aforementioned film version of Smaug, and many more. This has come to the point where it is actually more difficult to find a six-limbed dragon in mainstream media than a four-limbed one (examples being Dragonheart and Eragon, and Kilgharrah in the Merlin TV series).
Yet, interestingly, there is no set precedent to Vermithrax — with bat-walking dragons nowhere to be found in folklore, literature or art before Dragonslayer, despite the massive diversity of dragons and dragon-like creatures in myths throughout history.

Here is the first catch: dragon is an umbrella term that solidified over time and represents a conflation of traditions. It is used as a label for several different concepts of oftentimes independent origin, with no specific set standard that can universally apply.

Tales of dragons and their deeds — good or evil — are almost as old as civilization itself. Be they inspired by sights of animals met by man — snakes most importantly — or dinosaur fossils, or natural phenomena, dragons or dragon-like entities are found in the folklores of most cultures, coming in an incredibly vast array of different forms and narrative purposes.

Among the earliest dragon-like creatures is the Mušḫuššu from ancient Mesopotamian lore and art (as far as the 21st century BCE). The Mušḫuššu, a sacred creature to Mesopotamian god Marduk, is a chimaeric beast tat can be seen as a prototypical dragon, as it’s often endowed with both mammalian and reptilian traits (the talons of an eagle, the legs of a lion, and a horned serpent-head), as well as wings.

The god Atum faces Apophis in an illustration from the Book of Gates found in King Ramses I’s tomb, cca early 13th century BC.

Other dragon-like monsters from different mythologies all share common snake-like attributes. They include the great cosmic serpent Apophis (also Apopi or Apep) of Egyptian lore, the beast that the god Ra has to slay every day and whose blood tinges sunset; the Temtun serpent of Syrian lore and its Semitic derivates — Lotan, and the fabled Leviathan of the Bible, are also forefathers of the Western dragon.

William Blake’s impressions of the Behemoth and the Leviathan.

The Leviathan is of particular interest. In the book of Job, it is described as having a maw “ringed about with fearsome teeth”, and an armoured back with “rows of shields tightly sealed together”. This description seems to perfectly match a crocodile, until it mentions “flashes of light” caused by its snorting, and flames everted from its jaws. The Leviathan was also said to be an invincible creature, whose hide no weapon could penetrate.

This primeval monster, in turn, shares common elements with Jörmungandr (‘great beast’), the Midgard Serpent of Norse mythology. In Norse lore, several other snake-like entities are present, mentioned in such literary works like the poem Völuspá and the Völsung cycle, and used as bow and stern ornamentations on the famous longships, among other things.

Illustration of Níðhöggr, from a 17th century Icelandic manuscript.

Dragon-like monsters of Norse tales include Níðhöggr (‘malice striker’ or ‘malicious striker’), the limbed serpent that gnaws at the roots of Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life, and Fáfnir, a dwarf turned into a crawling serpentine monster by his own greed.
Interestingly, the Old Norse word for dragon, dreki (derived from the Latin draco; see below) was never used in reference to any of these creatures, which instead were labeled either by their specific given names or with the term wurm (later transliterated to wyrm in Old English), a term for a reptile, a serpent, or, generally, a crawling or slithering animal. Wurm, being Old Norse, is derived from Proto-Germanic roots. Several derivations of this word exist, and in certain traditions used to specify types of wurm: the transformed Fáfnir is often referred to as a lindwurm, a term that would later be used in Norwegian and British heraldry alike.

Chen Rong, Nine Dragons handscroll (portion), cca 1244.

Eastern tradition, of course, abounds with what we now call dragons, some of them even pre-dating the Sumerian Mušḫuššu — with artifacts depicting dragon-like figures dating as far back as the late 5th millennium or early 4th millennium BC. This stratified, multi-faceted folklore concept originated and evolved independently of European cultures.
Dragons of Chinese (龙, long, strictly meaning “serpent”, or 虬, qiu) lore established a set of common attributes that would be shared by the dragons of Japanese (竜, ryu) and Korean (용/룡 (미르), yong/ryong (mireu)) tradition. They are described or depicted as having a long, serpentine body, short taloned limbs, and an elongated head with prominently mammalian features (such as a dog’s nose and ears, whiskers, a mane of hair, and deer-like antlers). Usually, dragons are depicted as heavenly, benevolent and wise creatures, with power over the weather and the elements. Winged dragons (often addressed as 应龙, yinglong) are also sporadically present.

D-War (2007)’s Imoogi are actually based on real Korean folklore.

Korean dragons are particularly interesting: according to certain traditions, they are the final stage in the life cycle of gigantic serpents, called Imoogi (이무기, “Imugi”), which become dragons either by age or by proving their worth.

Ladon, the Hesperian Dragon, as depicted in an illustration dated circa 500 BC.

It is with Greek culture that the root of the word dragon itself comes about. The ancient Greek word δράκων (drakon) etymologically means ‘he who scowls’, and was first used to describe snakes, referring to their stare. Of course, the snake is the forefather of the dragon through human imagination, and most folklores that incorporate dragons — as you can read above — describe them with words and adjectives used for snakes, or derivates of those.
Such is the case of the Greek folklore: creatures described as δράκοντες (plural of δράκων) were always serpentine entities, with the narrative purpose of an overwhelming obstacle that a hero must face, and were often depicted as the guardians of sacred items or places.

Jason faces the Colchian Dragon in in an illustration dated cca 450-500 BC.

Examples of δράκοντες in Greek mythology include the Colchian Dragon, the serpent guardian of the Golden Fleece, slain by Jason; Ladon, the Hesperian Dragon, a hundred-headed serpent that guarded the Hesperides’ garden, slain by Heracles and later immortalized in the Draco constellation; the Ismenian Dragon, the serpent guardian of Ares’ sacred spring, slain by Cadmus to found the city of Thebes, and whose teeth when planted in dirt gave rise to fully-armoured warriors; and many, many more.

Interestingly, the endless array of mythical creatures of Greek lore also includes creatures that partially or fully match the above descriptions, and yet are never once called δράκων. An example of that is the monstrous Typhon, often described as a spitting viper or a giant with thousands of snake heads and necks in place of its head (or on its shoulders); the Lernaean Hydra — a multi-headed water serpent slain by Heracles in his second labour — is another case, since it is mostly addressed by its specific name Ὑδρα Λερναια (Idra Lernaia).

So far, the common tropes here do not quite match the traditional mental image that is commonly recognized as a dragon — that is, a four-legged, two-winged fire-breathing reptilian monster. For that, time’s arrow would have to wait until the Middle Ages.
Before that, the Roman Conquest had widespread cultural effects, including language pollution: over the course of centuries, ‘borrowed’ words and sayings from Greek made their way into the Latin language, transliterated and assimilated into it. Such is the case of δράκων, which in Latin became draco.

Sounds familiar?

Vulgar Latin, between the third and eighth centuries, became the forefather of the so-called Romance languages (which include, for example, French, Spanish, and Italian), and not only that: the widespread influence of the Romans and their descendants caused Latin itself to spread and “pollute” languages, including Germanic languages — thus Old Norse, and later on, English.

In this illustration from the Middle Ages, Alexander the Great leads a battle against bizarre-looking, perhaps Evangelion-like dragons.

It should thus be only apparent that dragon — as said in the beginning — became an umbrella term for several different concepts of independent origin, all through matters of translation. In trying to use a label easy to understand, with no set precedent available, translators often used dragon to label mythical serpentine monsters from other cultures: and so the Norse wurms became dragons, the Chinese long became dragons, and so on and so forth. This went both ways, with non-English tongues accepting dragon as a label for their mythical creatures, and often adopting their own versions of dragon: the Japanese language, for example, began to distinguish the traditional ryu from the Western dragon — transliterated as doragon (ドラゴン) in Katakana symbols, only after interactions with the Europeans — the earliest of which date back to the mid-16th century.

Draco faces Bowen, in Dragonheart (1996).

Next: Part 2

About the monster philologist

I'm always bored and monsters were the first thing to entertain me

Posted on 01/04/2020, in Essays, Monster Legacy, Monster Legacy Specials and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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