Special: Of Dragons and Wyverns – Part 2


The Hungarian Horntail in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

The overall idea we now have of the so-called “Western” dragon is the result of a stratified conflation of different traditions, and this process culminated in the Middle Ages, wherein traditional dragons, due to their innate serpentine quality, as well as common traits with the Leviathan of the Book of Job, began to be associated with the Biblical serpent — the one that tempted Eve to engage in the Original Sin.

Lo and Behold, dragons acquired some traits we now recognize them for, all associated with the iconography of the Devil: horns and bat-like wings, as well as the infamous dragon-fire, which is both an association to hell itself and an inheritance from the Biblical Leviathan.

Detail of a miniature of an elephant and a dragon from a bestiary, England, cca 1236-1250.

Dragons crawled their way not only in people’s fears, but also in literature and art, and were actually treated as real, existing animals — to the point where they were included in contemporary bestiaries. Dragons were animals, but evil, deadly ones, often symbolizing bad omens. Throughout the Middle Ages and the European Renaissance, these beasts took a wide variety of forms, from limbless ones, to four-legged ones, to two-winged, two-legged ones, to two-winged, four-legged ones.

St. George slays the Dragon, by Paolo Uccello, cca. 1456.

A popular example of dragon from the Middle Ages is the one slain by Saint George — in what is one of the most popular dragonslayer myths of all time. A warrior, George, came to the town of Selene in Libya, wherein a dragon demanded human sacrifices to quench its hunger. Just before the monster could devour the king’s daughter, George decapitated it with a single blow.
The Saint George narrative, born around the 11th century, was since depicted several times throughout the ages, and every single artist had their own interpretation of what the Libyan Dragon looked like. Famous examples include Paolo Uccello’s versions, portraying the devilish beast as two-winged and two-legged.

So far, certain key concepts should be understood:

  • Myths of dragons, or dragon-like monsters have several, oftentimes independent origins;
  • Different ideas of dragons have merged together to create new concepts;
  • The word dragon is a derivate of the ancient Greek word δράκων, originally used to address snakes, and is only one of several terms from different languages used by different cultures to describe legendary, serpentine entities;
  • Over time, dragon became a commonplace translation for mythical beings which had not been called such before cultural contact with the Latin language or the English language;
  • There is no singular set of attributes a dragon must have to be called such, with dragons being depicted in a moltitude of forms throughout history.

You may have noticed that wyverns have not even been given a mention yet. Why?
Here is the second catch: the word wyvern is not attested before the end of the 15th century, and was born within Heraldry — with no attested literature mentioning wyverns beyond that field.

Such claim is backed by any English etymology dictionary, wherein one may find the following:

Wyvern (n.)
c. 1600, formed (with unetymological -n) from Middle English wyver (c. 1300), from Anglo-French wivre, from Old North French form of Old French guivre “snake,” from Latin vipera “viper” (see viper). In heraldry, a winged dragon with eagle’s feet and a serpent’s barbed tail.

Wyvern, once again, addresses a snake, and specifically a viper, since its ascendant wyver was the term used to refer to vipers. While wyvern does in fact refer to a dragon — a descriptive term highlighting the beast’s serpentine qualities — it does not constitute a specific type of dragon. As such, a four-legged, two-winged dragon could be referred to as wyvern as much as a two-legged, two-winged one, as long as it had serpentine qualities.

As this Italian article suggests, wyvern was born in a period of literary innovation wherein many neologysms came to be, making it a sort of epithet or appellative for a dragon. Wyvern is also unrelated to the previously mentioned Old English wyrm — rather being an entirely new term congealed from Franc pollution infiltrated in the English language throughout the centuries.

By the time wyvern came to be, bipedal and winged dragons already existed in art and literature with no set rules as to what constituted a specific type of dragon. A dragon was a dragon, regardless of the number of limbs it may have had, which did not influence its core nature of dragon.

Dragon figures in English Heraldry have a rich history, starting from the fabled Roman origin of King Arthur. The Historia Brittonum, written in the late 1st century (around 820 DC) tells of two fighting dragons under the foundations of King Vortigern’s fortress — a white one (symbolizing the Saxons) and a red one (symbolizing the Britons) that would in the end prevail.
This is, of course, the reason for King Uther’s last name — Pendragon — and for a scarlet-golden dragon being the Heraldic symbol of King Arthur. Over time, this led to the Wessex Dragon symbol — a golden, bipedal dragon over a red background, which would be later known as wyvern.

Further blurring the lines, the 1909 Complete Guide to Heraldry by A.C. Fox-Davies states: “whilst we have separate and distinct names for many varieties of dragon-like creatures, other countries in their use of the word “dragon” include the wyvern, basilisk, cockatrice, and other similar creatures”.

A helardric symbol depicting a dragon, also named wyvern.

Thus, wyvern was not born as a specific designation for a creature, but rather as an adjective for something that already is a dragon — without any value of classification. So, where does that belief come from?

Modern fantasy works owe a massive debt to the rich imaginarium of J.R.R. Tolkien, who gave literary life to several memorable monsters. While the Professor never even made use of wyvern, he did introduce a system of classification for the dragons in his stories: the dragons that could breathe fire, such as Glaurung, the Father of Dragons or Ancalagon the Black, the first and mightiest of the winged dragons, were labeled as Urulóki (singular Urulokë) or fire-drakes, whereas the dragons that could not breathe fire were known as cold-drakes.

Glaurung and Nienor in an illustration by John Howe, based on The Children of Hurin.

This definite set of rules may have been in the backbrain of Gary Gygax and David Arneson when they created their tabletop role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons (DnD for short). Of course, one may see the story of The Lord of the Rings (or even The Hobbit) as a DnD campaign ante-litteram, with the tabletop game taking several cues from Tolkien.
DnD was first published by Tactical Studies Rules, Inc. in 1974, and went on to become one of the most successful tabletop games of all time, with thousands upon thousands of player parties enjoying adventures over the course of decades.

The Wyvern from the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual, 3.5 Edition, 2003.

Among the manuals to play the game, the Monster Manuals acts a sort of modern day bestiary, with a number of beasts that can be encountered during a campaign. It is here that dragons are distinguished from wyverns as two separate kinds of entities, distinguished by the number of legs: dragons are four-legged and two-winged, whereas wyverns are two-legged and two-winged.

Much like Tolkien before it, DnD became highly influential on fantasy works that followed, with the arbitrary dragon-wyvern dichotomy finding large use in films and videogames. One example of this is the popular videogame series Monster Hunter, where elder dragons are distinguished from wyverns. The latter kind, in turn, is divided in several types, some of which even lack wings: the aptly-named snake wyverns (like the Najarala) have snake-like anatomy with limbs, and the brute wyverns (like the infamous Deviljho) have a dinosaur-like appearance.

A promotional picture for the 2007 game Monster Hunter Freedom 2, depicting the Tigrex, a wyvern and the game’s flagship monster.

Over the years, the progressively higher number of fantasy works employing the dragon-wyvern dichotomy, introduced by DnD, helped cementing it as something of a fact, of course aided by a general lack of knowledge in the history of mythology, art and literature. This, in turn, led many to think that the bat-walking dragons that have become so popular in films and videogames alike, discussed at the beginning of the essay, should not be called such.

Here is the third — and final — catch: following Tolkien’s footsteps, the fantasy works of today represent the modern world’s way of creating new mythology, and are thus free to confer different names to different concepts according to their creators’ will.

In short, there are no universal rules or dogmas: if a two-legged, two-winged reptilian monster is called dragon by a content creator, it is a dragon, and if it is called wyvern, it is a wyvern.

As a closing word…

Anyone still making the claim that “two-winged, two-legged dragon technically must be a wyvern and should not be called a dragon” shall be henceforth sentenced to Death by Dragonfire.

Previous: Part 1

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. 2 Comments.

  1. Thank you for this interesting essay about the history of the terms and concepts associated with dragons. While I knew most of it, it was somehow enlightening to see it all together in such a coherent form. Really helps with understanding, I think I shall post a link to part 1 under every WAND (Wyverns are not dragons) comment I find on social media.

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