Dragons are the blood splatter of fantasy. By which I mean: dragons are a key, and visible, clue to the nature of the fantasy that’s been committed.
Dragons show what an author thinks vital about the fantasy world she’s built. There’s no inner fantasy novelist conspiracy to treat dragons this way — or, if there is, I’m not part of it, though I suppose given the nature of a conspiracy I wouldn’t tell you if I was so you’ll have to take this on faith — but the trend’s clear over time.
I might as well start with Godfather Tolkien. Smaug the Terrible (what an epithet!) is a dragon on the St.-George-and-the- model, a fire-lizard of the Beowulf school, a grand incarnation of disdain and strength in battle. But Tolkien’s dragons depart from their traditional European models in cleverness and pride. Smaug can speak, and speaks well. A massive intellect lies coiled inside that coiled mass.
Though Smaug appears at first glance to be defeated by destiny, in fact his own arrogance undoes him, when he shows off to Bilbo. Smaug’s real weakness, whatever the holes in his diamond armor, is his own pride. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings both fit this pattern: Old English and Norse myth wrapped around a modern (and subtly Christian) character drama of the failings of pride, the value of humility, and the passing of ancient things.
Dragons in Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea series, meanwhile, spin in a different way. LeGuin’s dragons are an intermediate stage between the Chinese and European models: winged and fire-breathing and dangerous, but also wise. LeGuin’s dragons speak the language of magic—it was their tongue before human wizards stole it to work their spells. Dragons are beautiful, dangerous, mighty, and, to those who know their true names, heartbreakingly vulnerable—they represent in miniature (maxiature? Miniature doesn’t quite apply to lizards the size of an island …) the emotional range of the Earthsea books.
Patrick Rothfuss’s books The Name of the Wind and A Wise Man’s Fear also use the dragon as microcosm, though it’s easy to miss how. Rothfuss’s story is narrated by a hypercompetent retired adventurer named Kvothe, providing the “behind the music” version of his life, embellishment-free (he claims), to counter the mushrooming legends of his exploits. In the first book, Kvothe encounters a dragon. In fact, though, Kvothe points out, this beast isn’t really a storybook dragon: the ‘common draccus‘ is a mute, flightless dinosaurian beast without magical powers.
Yet for all it lacks, the draccus remains a giant, horrifying lizard that can breathe fire — it is, in fact, at least as much of a dragon as Beowulf’s! And the same is true of Rothfuss’s books: while Kvothe protests over and over again that his life is not an epic fantasy hero story, in fact it is, in the sense both that Kvothe’s exploits are legendary within his own universe, and that his story literally is an epic fantasy series in ours.
This principle applies even to Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, the subtitle of which could be “Magic and the American Undergrad.” At one point, debating what they’ll do after graduation from Brakebills Magic Academy, Grossman’s characters mention roadtripping to the UK to meet the wise Dragon of the Thames. The Magicians doesn’t supply any more details about the Dragon of the Thames, which works perfectly, as The Magicians revolves around the observation that magic doesn’t help. Magic doesn’t answer any questions about our lives and what we should do with them. And yet it’s there nonetheless, as is the dragon.
I don’t know if the authors I’ve mentioned designed their dragons as holographs of their fantasies, or if this happened naturally. I suspect the latter. Either way, it seems to me that when stuck with a fantasy you can’t figure out, follow the dragons first. What you find may surprise you.