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Monday, 24 October 2011

A Dragon By Any Other Name

Are you a draconic purist? Do you firmly believe that a dragon has certain qualities and if it doesn't it's not a dragon? Or do you subscribe to close enough is good enough? If it has scales, wings and breathes fire (or not) it's a dragon, no matter what you call it?

I admit to being a purist. And a pretty rabid one at that. When I first saw the 'dragon' in the Harry Potter movies, I waxed lyrical about the fact that it was not in fact a dragon at all but a wyvern. My friends still remember it to this day. I was disappointed that such a big budget movie couldn't get the detail right. It made no difference to the story which depiction was used, but apart from being a purist, I am also a perfectionist with an eye for detail. How much more effort would it have taken to get it right? None, I am sure. It was just ignorance or laziness. And if it was ignorance, then someone (whoever was responsible for that particular piece of imagery) needs to learn more about the genre they are working in.

Some of the 'dragons' in 'How To Train Your Dragon' were also wyverns (of the variety modelled after pterosaurs - that is, they use their wings to substitute for front limbs). The movie was hilarious enough for me to overlook it, particularly as the main dragon was a proper dragon with four legs.  

A pterosaur-type wyvern 'dragon' from 'How to Train Your Dragon'
So are you nodding your agreement? Or are you thinking 'This chick is a bit of a nutjob'.

If it's the latter, you're probably also thinking 'Doesn't she realise dragons aren't real? It's made up! It can look like whatever we want it to look like!'

Well yes... and no.

Dragons are not real and if this comes as news to you, then you're a little more whacked than I am. But the body of mythology from which they originate and the body of literature that has grown up around them is very real.

In fact, if you search Wikipedia, you will find this reference:

"Dragons are usually shown in modern times with a body like a huge lizard, or a snake with two pairs of lizard-type legs, and able to emit fire from their mouths. The European dragon has bat-type wings growing from its back. A dragon-like creature with no front legs is known as a wyvern."
Ah, yes, the wyvern. That's what we see in Harry Potter. A wyvern. Thank you, Wikipedia, for being as much a purist as I am.

You'll also notice the Wikipedia reference talks about European dragons. That is the typical type of dragon we find in the fantasy genre. I am not here discussing Chinese dragons, which are an entirely different type of beast.

So now we have dragons and wyverns. What about the multiple-headed dragon? Can't we just call it a two-headed dragon? Or a seven-headed dragon?

No, actually, that also has a name! We call it a 'hydra', although typically a hydra has three, seven or nine heads. Typically, severing one of its heads causes two more to grow. Nasty! The hydra originates from the Greek legend of Heracles. In that tale, Heracles defeated the hydra by severing the hydra's one mortal head, thus killing it. Of course, finding that one vulnerable head in a writhing nest of poison-spitting, fanged mouths would be no easy task. Presumably Heracles thought so too. He solved this problem by severing each head in turn and burning the stump of each neck (with fire, or the beast's own poisonous blood - there are two versions) to prevent them growing back. Process of elimination! Brilliant...

If you're a purist, you probably already know this. If you don't, maybe it's news for you. Here's some pictures to help you out!
A typical dragon. It has four legs, bat-like wings and is scaled. It probably breathes fire.This picture helpfully has a person drawn in to give us scale
A wyvern. Notice it has only two legs? This mythological reptile is more bird-shaped than a dragon.Typically they are much smaller than dragons (being an inferior cousin). It isn't usually much more than twice a man's height, or a quarter the size of the dragon (above)
A hydra. Less commonly depicted than dragons or wyverns. This one has seven heads, one of the 'typical' numbers associated with hydras. They are sometimes but not always depicted with wings.
So, do you believe a dragon by any other name is still a dragon?

Or are you a purist who will cite the various qualities of the different species at the slightest hint of a debate?

Put another way, are you with me or against me?

Share your thoughts!

You can find other posts in mythical creatures series here - Fantastical Horses, Creatures of the Sky, Mythical creatures of the Sea - Part 1 and Part 2, and Spirits of Inland Waterways

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35 comments:

Helen Howell said...

A dragon to me has to have four legs, but I don't mind seeing the other types - your post has been a real education!  I enjoyed every moment of it. ^__^

Mireille Chester said...

OMG! I'm not the only crazy dragon lady out there! (though I must admit that the water dragons in Quelondain are tiny) but physicaly, they are dragons. :D I loved this post!

Christina Majaski said...

I had no idea, but now that I know, I would rather call a dragon a dragon when it is a dragon. Very interesting, even for those of us who normally would never think twice about it. 

Shannon Mayer said...

Love the post!

FuroreScribindi said...

Enjoyed your analysis. I've been hugging an idea of storyline based on a dragon who has evolved into a human form (they are very adaptive creatures, after all) but still seeks the skys in his private aircraft, only subliminally aware of his ancient heritage. What will he look like and who will he be. 

Kelly Gamble said...

I cannot wait to use my new dragon/wyvern/hydra knowledge on someone! Silly me, I had no idea, and just called everything a dragon. Never again. Great post, Ciara!

Ciara Ballintyne said...

LOL, no, you are not alone... I freely admit to being a crazy dragon lady

Ciara Ballintyne said...

I have no objections to wyverns and hydra either - they just aren't dragons! I believe I have featured a wyvern in one of my WIPs.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

New party trick?

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Thanks and good luck with your story!

Trish said...

Awesome post! One of the pictures looks like a McCaffery dragon, though I could be mistaken.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Thanks! There are two kinds of McCaffrey dragons (crazy dragon lady, remember?). None of these pictures is a McCaffrey dragon, but the dragon and the wyvern both do bear some resemblance to the more practical McCaffrey dragons. The other kind are a bit more fantastical and terribly impractical, featuring wings with holes and long trailing bits on the head, wings and tails which would surely take a beating during flight, never mind while fighting Thread.

Louise Sorensen said...

I believe a dragon by any other name is a dragon. Species draconis, variety wyvern, hydra etc. Like orchids, written, Draconis var. draco or var. wyvern.  : )))

Louise Sorensen said...

PS Thank you for this lovely post. I love dragons; the beautiful pictures and your piece has kicked my creative juices. : )

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Thank you!

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Gald to have helped getting your creativity going!

Paul Weimer said...

Wyrms, Dragons and Wyverns are all very different beasties...and you didn't even touch on Eastern Dragons.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

 No I didn't touch on Eastern Dragons. I'm not much of a fan of them (where on earth are their wings???) and you don't see them as much in fantasy, but I will probably come back to them in a future post.

Forman and Leamon said...

I can relate, I have always just called a dragon a dragon. I have had my eyes openned. Thankyou for the great post. I am a writer and have dragons as a character. I just published it on Smashwords and am waiting for it to be reviewed for submission. It is called Bloodlines Chronicles: The Beginning. This information is going to help out a great deal in the next sequal. Thankyou. Michele

Michele Leamon said...

I just realized how this submission looks like a advert for my book. I promise you that was not what I was doing here. I do appreciate your post and will be back in the future. Thank you again, Michele Leamon

Ciara Ballintyne said...

 That's one way of looking at it!

Ciara Ballintyne said...

 My pleasure, I'm glad this will be helpful in your future writing endeavours.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

 Not at all, I understood what you were trying to say, it's all good.

Emilia said...

I had a debate with my boyfriend after the Harry Potter movie with the wyvern. I said wyvern, it had no front legs. He said dragon and the lack of front legs makes it more realistic. It's still a wyvern....

I need to reread The White Hart by Nancy Springer, if I remember correctly it had wyverns underground.

guywholikespie said...

wouldn't the wings of a wyvern count as legs if it is a harry potter type dragon? i mean, i always thought of a wyvern as standing on its hind legs

Ciara Ballintyne said...

If you count the wings as legs, then has a dragon with four legs and two wings got six legs?

Traditionally, a wyvern was a creature with two wings and two legs, and a dragon with four legs and two wings. No matter how you count the limbs, there is a clear difference between the two.

And yes, wyverns generally stand upright on their legs.

Freybo13 said...

The dragon or wyvern in Harry Potter 4 has two back legs, no front legs but on it's wings has claws which function as hands... like bats.

QuietTiger said...

also a wyvern usualy does not breath fire and instead has a poisen sting on its tail

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