One of my favorite favorite fantasy critters is the dragon. Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern gripped my imagination at the age of 13 and inspired me to write my first novel, unfinished opus that it was. I still spent 10 years with the dragon archetype, dreaming about it and writing. The dragon is still something I adore. I have numerous lego dragons, glass dragons, carved dragons, and painted dragons within my dragon collection. I consider it one of my totem animals, even though technically it’s not “real”. Archetypally speaking, however, it’s very real. It is a very real construct of our collective imagination, common to all of humanity – though each culture has its own spin and version and what it means.
Being a Westerner, I can really only comment with any degree of authority on the dragon’s evolution within my own culture. I was musing while driving, as often is the case, when a visual montage suddenly cascaded through my brain.
It starts off with medieval versions of the story, where dragons hold women hostage and need to be “rescued” by knights. For some reason, these dragons apparently coveted virgins and demanded them in sacrifice. I suppose non-virgins taste gamey? *lol* Culturally speaking, at the time, women had no power of their own. They couldn’t own land, they couldn’t inherit anything, they had no say in governance, educating them was considered a waste of time, and they were bought and sold with dowries and bride prices from owner to owner. In short, they were essentially slaves – though that concept generally gets strongly objected to. In this culture at the time, the dragon was a beast which must be slayed by the righteous man in order to “free” the woman from its dastardly, dangerous, greedy, murderous claws.
This was the prevailing archetype for the dragon for centuries, in this culture at least. Until roughly this century, when it rather abruptly changed – or rather, expanded to included something more.
Enter the Dragonriders of Pern, Puff the Magic Dragon, Dragonsbane, How to Train Your Dragon, the SunRunner series, the Dragon Heart movies, and most recently Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons from Games of Thrones. The archetype has changed dramatically … most notably with respect to its relationship with women. *LOL* Indeed, Maleficient, the dragon shape-shifting Disney witch, went from the ultimate villain to the antihero! A woman of power on two fronts – dragon (physical) and witch (metaphysical). But I think Daenerys is perhaps the highest example of this, where the dragon is the wild, dangerous, human-killing machine but is willingly wielded by the hand and voice of a woman. Virginity has nothing to do with it, unless it means “untouched by man”. I think the dragon is an archetype representing the power of women.
In the old myths, the un-owned-by-man (virgin) woman was dangerous so a man had to kill that part of her in order to lay claim to her. Her power-self had to die in order to be bought and sold without any real say, to be the biddable woman who bought the lie as “the way things are”. Her fire-breathing beastly self, the one part that refused to lie meekly, had to be vanquished. Destroyed. The myths served to help convince women that her own power was dangerous to herself as well as society at large. Indeed, if not slain then the dragon would rain fire down on the entire world and destroy it (Reign of Fire).
But in this century and culture, women are reclaiming their dragons, their power – and by doing so we’re showing the rest of the world that it’s ok to do it too. The dragons are our allies. Dangerous still, but allies. Interestingly, it’s the entire kingdom which benefits when this happens. Daenarys is a nice metaphor for the struggle of the feminine and her claiming of her own power. True she wants her throne back and will go through hell to get it, but not on the backs of slaves. Not at the expense of the helpless who cannot otherwise defend or care for themselves (read “children”). She is courageous, strong, prideful and stubborn, but she is also fair-minded, principled, and tries to be wise. In the Dragonrider’s series, both men and women ride dragons to save the world from an otherwordly threat – but it’s the women riders of the gold dragons who are the matriarchs of the dens. Granted in the story it’s still a male-dominated society and world, but that changes as the story unfolds and the dragons continue to grow in size and power.
Of course this is not universal. There are still dragons which are the bad guys, such as the movie Reign of Fire with Christian Bale. Interestingly, that movie doesn’t really feature an active feminine principle – though we do learn that the first victim of the resurrected dragons is the hero’s own mother. In this case, the dragon is so dangerous and so out-of-control that the first to fall is indeed the feminine principle, and it is up to the masculine principle to then slay the resulting creature and thus save the world.
I will say that a woman’s dragon, her power self, is definitely dangerous … if repressed. If beaten. If maligned and villified. If given no other alternative. When the masculine and feminine are left no recourse but to battle each other to gain any degree of emotional and physical safety, some form of legacy, then yes, the dragon is beyond deadly. It cannot be “tamed” like the old-school cowboy would emotionally break a horse and call that taming. But it can be worked with, allied with – provided its power is respected. Daenarys, again, is the one I look to as the archetypal example of this. Her dragons don’t wear a harness, don’t come when called, aren’t “heeled” by anything except their own choices. When Daenarys attempts to chain them because they begin to prey on humans, that is when her own power begins to slip. The slave-masters regain a foothold, and it is only when the dragons are once again freed to be themselves that her power fully returns.
Oh yes, and I am reminded that the serpent is an ancient and longstanding metaphor for the feminine principle! Dragons are often lumped in with this – the serpent/dragon. This just lends weight to my take on this interpretation of a meaning for dragon. Granted, it is not the only take – being a great symbol, it has many interpretations. Truly though, this is a fascinating example of an archetypal evolution! This could be a folklore thesis, I think.
Featured Image: The browser crashed after I saved this image and other than the file name of “woman-dragon” I don’t recall where this came from or who it was by. There was no signature that I could see on the original uncropped version either or I would have saved it and moved into the field of view. 😦 Attempts to relocate it have been futile. Let me know and I’ll link to it.