Breathing Life into Magic: Dragons

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The dragons in A Song of Ice and Fire may fuel the magic and one day extinguish the icy White Walkers. The fiery ASOIAF dragons may be the antidote to the icy white walkers and there are mythological ties between these creatures that extend beyond the A Song of Ice and Fire series into Tolkien, Beowulf, and Celtic Myth.

The Dragon’s Backstory

In Westeros and beyond, the origins of dragons is controversial among septons and others who have studied the topic. By the beginning of the series, dragons are extinct. But in recent history, they were the most dreaded weapon of war the world had seen.

The Valyrians tamed the dragons and used their great affinity with the winged lizards to shape them into a mediaeval-esque equivalent of a bomber plane. This fire power gave turned the once sheep-herding Valyrians into a people that dominated the Valyrian peninsula and let them enslave legions of people to toil in their ore mines in the volcanic Fourteen Flames mountain range.

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Dragons swoop around the City of Wonders in Old Valyria. © HBO

The reason the Valyrians had such a bond with dragons is not clear, although many believed they were descended from dragons. Some people believe that the Valyrian’s silver hair and purple eyes prove they are a slightly different species than other men. The Valyrians liked to claim that the dragons they controlled were their kin.1

Barth’s Unnatural History – a now-fragmentary tome referenced in recently-released A World of Ice and Fire — reveal differing accounts of the dragons origins.

The Valyrians believed that the dragons were born of the Fourteen Flames volcano. In Asshai, some exceptionally ancient texts state the dragons came from The Shadow and that men from the shadow taught the Valyrians how to tame the dragons2 .

According to Qarth legends, however, dragons hatched from the moon when it “wandered” too close to the sun’s heat and cracked open like an egg. When the other (remaining) moon “kisses the sun,” more dragons will hatch.3

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The conception of the mythical manticore varies significantly in fiction. The above is the Game of Thrones manticore. © HBO

Regardless of where they came from, the last dragons died 150 years before the series began. Many people accept that magic faded with them – if it ever existed at all. In the East, however, magical beasts like manticores and basilisks might still roam and shadowbinders and bloodmages may continue to cast dread spells.

The Dragons & Magic & Myth

Since Daenerys birthed the dragons, magic is creeping back into Westeros and beyond. The dragons strengthened the warlocks’ powers. Pyat Pree, one of the Warlocks of Qarth tried to trap Daenerys – and more importantly her dragons – in the House of the Undying so the warlocks’ magic would continue to flourish.

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Daenerys and Pyat Pree © HBO.

The dragons and the White Walkers, who GRRM has stated are inspired by the sidhe or barrow-wights, are connected to each other in a mystical relationship that extends far beyond ASOIAF. The sidhe are sort of like fairies that live in barrows, which are also known as burial mounds. This connection between dragons and sidhe appears in Tolkien, Beowulf, and Celtic Myth.

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The hills are three burial mounds (or barrows). Wikimedia.

Viserys’ catch phrase – “you’ll awaken the dragon” – is a subtle reference to this connection.

The legendary proscription against awakening dragons is not new. A dragon sleeping in a gold-filled cave is a fairy-tale trope. The slumbering dragon may be most familiar to use from Tolkien but it hearkens back to Beowulf.

The reason people make such a fuss about Beowulf is because it is the oldest surviving epic poem in Old English and possibly the first literary work in the English vernacular. Once you peel away, the distant language it is also a thumping good story.

The titular Beowulf is a heroic warrior who vanquishes a monster named Grendel and becomes king.

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An image of a page in Beowulf from an ancient manuscript of it. Scholars believe Beowulf dates back to 700 CE to 1000 CE.

Fifty years into Beowulf’s reign, Beowulf and his kingdom fall into a deadly conflict with a dragon after a slave awakens it.

High on a cliff by the sea coast, the dragon lay sleeping in a burial mound gleaming with gold, where it guarded the interred hoard. Years passed, but nobody disturbed the dragon’s slumber because they could not find their way into the burial mound.

A slave fleeing a flogging stumbles across the burial mound’s entrance. When the slave sees the snoozing dragon, it scares the crap out of him. Nevertheless he swipes a golden goblet and runs.

The theft did not go unnoticed. Come nightfall, the seething dragon, hellbent on revenge, roared out of its cave and incinerated the kingdom: nobody survived.

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Image from 2007 film “Beowulf” © Paramount.

Beowulf vowed to vanquish the dragon. He succeeded, but it cost him his life.

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Image from 2007 film “Beowulf” © Paramount.

The story of Beowulf isn’t just about a dragon; it is also about greed and the temptation to steal treasure associated with a dead dynasty (or king). Brian Bates writes, “The presence of the dragon pointed to the potency and consequences of negative, acquisitive, and selfish aspects of hoarding [the dragon’s gold] and breach of trust… gold itself seems to have been… charged with a power capable of killing”4 The dragon guards the last civilization’s gold for an age. Provided nobody awakens the dragon – which would violate the natural order – civilization goes on. If somebody tries to steal the treasure, it interrupts the natural order of things and brings about the destruction of the civilization.

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Before the middle ages, illustrators depicted dragons as serpents. Medieval illustrators added legs and the present-day incarnation was born. This image is an ancient Greek depiction of a dragon.

Dragons guarding a dead civilization’s gold for an epoch is intertwined with the natural order and the continuity of the next age. Natural cycles of rebirth and death link ages and dragons. In the ancient world, the dragon was a type of a serpent, and the skin-shedding snake is associated with rebirth. An interesting coincidence, perhaps, but the word for age comes from Aion which is the Greek word for “sap of life.”

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The blood-like sap flows through the weirwood and heart trees. In this image, the red sap oozes out of the heart tree’s eyes. © HBO.

To the Anglo-Saxons, a dragon formed part of the wyrd – irresistible destiny – linked to an ending age5. In 793 CE, the year of the seminal Viking raid on the Lindisfarne monastery, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records dragons trailing fire through the sky – and foreshadowing terrible events:

The year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds and fiery dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after…. heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter6 .

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A page from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle c. 871 describing the Viking raids.

Perhaps, George RR Martin took a queue from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: when Daenerys gives birth to her dragons, a comet proclaims their arrival. Old timers like Nan instantly recognize that the comet means dragons. But, this isn’t necessarily a good thing. When the direwolves howl at the comet, Osha says they do so because they recognize what it portends: “Blood and fire, boy, and nothing sweet7 .”

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The red comet over Winterfell. © HBO.

J.R.R. Tolkien also associates the end of an age with the death of a dragon. In The Hobbit, the slayer of Smaug is named Bard. Psychologist Daniel Noel points out that Bard is like a shaman or spiritual warrior carrying out an act sacred to Middle Earth: Bard had the gift of prophecy, an understanding of birds, and an “unfailing” arrow8 . When this shaman kills Smaug, it marks a new age.

In the real world, spitting cobras, Mediterranean-swimming crocodiles, and dinosaur bones may have sparked a belief in dragons. Regardless of their origins, dragons have ignited our imaginations so much their legend has lasted a millennium and been passed down from poets at mead halls to the modern fantasy novel.

  1. A World of Ice and Fire p. 13 []
  2. A World of Ice and Fire p. 13 []
  3. Martin, George R.R. (2003-01-01). A Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book One (p. 228). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. []
  4. B. Bates The Real Middle Earth p. 95 []
  5. The Real Middle Earth p. 97 []
  6. The Real Middle Earth p. 97 []
  7. Martin, George R.R. (2003-01-01). A Clash of Kings: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book Two (p. 53). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. []
  8. The Real Middle Earth p. 96 []

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

7 Comments

  • Reply October 30, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    The New York Times article I mention in my most recent comment under the earlier magic feature cited Chinese dragons also I think (oh, when I forget to bookmark a link). The legend of St George and the Dragon used to be told in the UK – not so sure about now when it’s held to be apocryphal. I’m sure everyone knows that there is a giant lizard found in parts of Indonesia called a komodo dragon (no wings of course and Wikipedia says it’s the bacteria in their mouths that can be deadly).

    A little while ago a guest poster mentioned the (old) UK children’s cartoon “Noggin the Nog”. I had never thought about it being inspired by Beowolf but in one story Noggin’s wicked uncle, Nogbad steals some treasure while the (kindly) ice dragon is sleeping and Noggin and co have to put things right (I mentioned something about Noggin in a comment on Olga’s site some while ago [different name there].

    Your remark concerning the “Anglo Saxon Chronicle” and the mention of the comet perhaps having inspired GRRM is of interest – he must have one heck of a good memory.

    • Reply November 1, 2014

      Jun Yan

      Chinese dragons may be an entirely different creature than European dragons. Because they look somewhat similar, this “Chinese mythical creature” was translated into the word “dragon.” The Chinese dragon looks pretty scary but is considered a benevolent god of some sort. Some pre-historic myths suggest that the first king of the tribes in the Yellow River region had a man’s head and a dragon’s body. Also the Chinese dragon has a long snake-like body, which suggests the origin is snakes.

  • Reply October 30, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    I don’t want to post too many comments on this site because I am sure others can bring a fresh eye to thoughts about the various articles but I have found the article where I read about theories for the origin of the dragon myth. It was actually in the Wall Street Journal rather than the New York Times so my memory was askew there online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052970203880704578089210833124732?mg=reno64-wsj&url=http%3A%2F%2Fonline.wsj.com%2Farticle%2FSB10001424052970203880704578089210833124732.html It’s a very long link so I just hope it works.

    • Reply October 30, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      That’s a huge link, but yep, it works! Thanks! Also, never feel bad about commenting (or being the only one to comment). Strangely, it works the opposite of what you might think: commenting encourages other people to comment. And, it is great to keep the conversation going. Watcher, I really appreciate all your comments and contributions to this site. It helps make it a really fun community. Seriously, thanks!

  • Reply November 1, 2014

    Grant

    One annoying thing with seeing how far back the tales of giant reptiles with wings go is that you’ll occasionally find modern tellings of the stories putting down “dragon” even if the original story-tellers probably called it something else. Found one in the story of Perseus once even though the art looked nothing like it.

    As for the origins, maybe it was a case of real story tellers making their story bigger by saying that the hero fought a serpent, but the serpent was the size of a house, and it was popular enough for others to use and refine. Or maybe it has something to do with the distinctive appearance and common association with poison.

    • Reply November 1, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Well, one thing I read was that originally the dragon looked like a serpent pre-middle ages. Then the dragon /serpent thing in the medieval drawings slowly started little legs. Then the legs got bigger…

      I think I read, I’d need to 2x check this, that the word for dragon and serpent were originally the same.

      I’m not sure, but I wonder if the mythical enormous, instantly fatal Basilisk (sp?) serpent — made famous in Harry Potter novels but born in mythology far earlier — may be a close relative of the dragon/serpent creature. There are other similar legends to the dragon myths that involve giant worms and enormous white worms that live in dark underground, cavernous cellar, sewer, dungeon-type areas. I’m not that familiar with these legends but the title “The Lair of the White Worm” comes to mind. Not sure if that is Bram Stoker? I haven’t read it.

  • […] in Old English, Beowulf has long been recognized as the predecessor for Lord of the Rings and has recently been connected with Game of Thrones as […]

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