Dragons are no joke! Just ask heroes from Beowulf to Bilbo Baggins. Dragons are that defiant shadow lurking within every culture’s dream. In the West, they’re a fierce, unspeakable force, rising with hideous strength and beguiling craft. They find delicious the desire to subvert our journey and blind our hearts. In the East, while generally more benign, they still thunder with supernatural power, causing folk to tremble at their dark wisdom and chaotic prowess.
But then there’s the modern dragon. Somewhere along the way storytellers started dosing dragons with a rationalistic vaccine. Examples like J. K. Rowling’s Norbert, George Martin’s thee siblings, and Cressida Cowell’s Toothless (and many others), all reduce dragons to dinosaur-like pets. Sure, they’re still dangerous, but only in the category of a huge winged Rottweiler chained in the back yard. Such depictions lack the ancient otherness and numinous shadow the older beast possessed. But the worst examples involve huggable and kissable dragons. Don’t hate me, but both Falkor from The Neverending Story and old Puff (at least both were magical) entirely miss the point . Dragons are supposed to be terrible.
So why this desire to tame dragons? Who knows. Maybe it’s a straight forward attempt to disenchant our world, so that even fantasy shrinks under the microscope to the explainable, the controllable. Or perhaps it’s a subconscious attempt to set our mind at ease when our subtler intuitions sniff real sulfur behind the old archetype. Whatever the case, domesticating dragons is bad storytelling. The terrible Smaug types just make better sense. How else could Adolf-rabble-rouser seduce a nation to destroy a generation of Jews and Poles unless he spoke with a Dragon’s Wormtongue? Every time I think of Jeffrey Epstein, I see huge coils entangling all those young girls, as if they were his own cursed horde. Despite what the tamers of dragons offer, the terrible old Western symbol still possesses more explanatory power.
So am I defending the enemy? Hardly. If you attempt to make the Darkness your pet, the opposite is likely to be true. People once objected to fairytales because they didn’t want children to believe in dragons. Now our fairytales simply turn dragons into adventurous friends. But G. K. Chesterton reminds us that fairytales never taught children dragons existed, for kids already knew dragons existed. True fairytales showed us that dragons could be defeated (Tremendous Trifles, chap XVII). Smirking wryly, Chesterton’s ghost would probably add, “that is, only if the bards sing the whole terrible truth!”
My hunch is that the trend to tame dragons is an attempt to ignore the deeper issue. For if the Worm symbol points to a mystical and truly terrible Archetype, then it can only be defeated by a Magic more terrible still. It’s this Triune Magic, according to the West, that empowered St. Michael to cast down the old serpent and his thanes (Rev 12:7-12). And it’s in this Power that every successful dragon slayer fights. But dragons are still dangerous. Just ask Beowulf! The Arch Serpent still comes with great wrath (vs. 12). Facing dragons under the King’s banner doesn’t mean we won’t die, only that we won’t be defeated. There is high beauty and light beyond death in a dragon’s cave- as long as we don’t enter that cave under the delusion that dragons are just dogs.