Aside from physical characteristics, dragons have had a host of other differences throughout literature. In particular (today), I would like to look at the differences in behavioral portrayal.
One of dragons’ biggest habits that they just can’t seem to kick is their hoarding problem. Most of them hoard gold or jewels, which usually indicates greed. Others have a particular fondness for certain objects, like shoes. Really, that’s a thing. Read Dragon Slippers. There’s also a dragon that collects stained glass. Or, if you want to go weirder, read the Deltora books, where a dragon might collect hair. In Dealing with Dragons by Patricia Wrede, dragons collect all sorts of things, with one dragon having everything from a battered suit of armor to a stuffed bird.
Capturing maidens is another draconic habit, one that kind of falls under hoarding (but maybe not quite). Sometimes, such as in Dealing with Dragons, the women are captured in order to keep house (since most of the dragons are pretty messy), although having a princess is also something of a status symbol among them. Of course, in a previous post, I mentioned that occasionally the women are offered as a sacrifice to a dragon as well. If you’re wondering why men weren’t offered, check out Dudes in Distress.
Another big difference between dragons of different books is whether and how they communicate. Most dragons talk. Smaug’s exchange with Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit is probably one of the most famous instances in modern literature of a dragon communicating with someone. Patricia Wrede’s dragons in Dealing with Dragons also talk—sometimes too much for their own good. Sometimes, however, dragons only speak telepathically, as in Anne McCaffrey’s Pernese dragons, which seem to be capable of reading their riders’ minds without any sort of privacy at all. (I’m not so familiar with Eragon, but I seem to recall those dragons being telepathic as well.) This has always struck me as being a little inconvenient. After all, to all appearances, the dragon has to be capable of seeing everything that its human (it seems like telepathic dragons are usually more intimately connected with one particular person than anyone else) is thinking so that it can respond. And especially the Pernese dragons always seem to have the perfect timing for their responses to their riders’ thoughts or emotions, which does lead me to think that the dragons probably know pretty much everything that goes on in their riders’ heads. It sounds like a recipe for a lot of arguing. (You know: “I can’t believe you think that.” “Well, I can think whatever I want. Those are my thoughts…” Etc.)
I know, I know. I’m being over-picky. I do love those books, but sometimes I’ve got to imagine how something like that would really play out. And now we return to our regularly scheduled program.
Some dragons don’t speak at all. The only example I can come up with on a moment’s notice is the Dragon Jousters series by Mercedes Lackey, but it seems probable there would be others. I actually have more to say about her dragons (and McCaffrey’s) but if I said everything we’d be here all day.
Not to mention, the rest would be a digression.
It seems to me that the ability in dragons to speak seems proportionate to how independently they are able to think. Wrede’s dragons (who speak) have their own society, have friendships and enemies, and are intellectually equal to humans. McCaffrey’s (who are telepathic) are more dependent upon their riders. Though they seem to have a greater ability to reason at times than their riders, they also fall prey to primal urges and instincts that they can’t control. Finally, Lackey’s have no ability to speak and at the same time are portrayed as animals—useful animals but without any sort of reasoning capacity beyond what you’d expect in a smart horse.
There’s a little hint toward what we’ll be getting into next week. If you’ve noticed any interesting characterizations of dragons or if you want to debate any of my theories or musings, leave a comment below!