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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Beowulf vowed to vanquish the dragon. He succeeded, but it cost him his life.
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.
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.”
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 .
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 .”
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.
- A World of Ice and Fire p. 13 [↩]
- A World of Ice and Fire p. 13 [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- B. Bates The Real Middle Earth p. 95 [↩]
- The Real Middle Earth p. 97 [↩]
- The Real Middle Earth p. 97 [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- The Real Middle Earth p. 96 [↩]