The Dragon Cliché

In case you were wondering, Will this ever end?  I’m here to assure that indeed, yes, it will.  In fact, today marks my last post in this series about dragons and their defining (or not-so-defining) characteristics.

To conclude this little affair, I’m providing a link to the Lit. Review I did for Senior Seminar last year, which talked extensively about dragons in different works of literature.  I picked out a few modern novels/series that prominently feature dragons and compared the dragons between the novels as well as juxtaposing them alongside older depictions of dragons.  There really is quite a difference!

At one time, dragons appeared in stories in two ways.  They were good, or they were evil, and in Western tales they were usually evil.  To find dragons capable of moral reasoning was rare.  One source I quote in the essay remarks on the fact that for a long time, dragons disappeared from literature, and it discusses several reasons for this.  In the paper, I didn’t really press the point, because I had a lot of other things to focus on.  However, I personally think that it is because, as the article “The Dragon” says, there was nothing new to add to the stories.  Dragons were evil.  The end.

However, once the image of the dragon changed to become a sort of distorted mirror for humanity—as they became capable of good and evil—dragons began to appear with greater frequency in works of literature.  Now, it seems like at least a third of all fantasy includes dragons, whether evil or good.

Is it possible that dragons will again become a cliché?  That we will run out of possibilities even with these newfound purposes for dragons in literature?  It is.  But I think it comes down to how we view literature.  Are we reading for the story, for the characters, and for the pure enjoyment of escaping into someone else’s world?  Or are we reading to criticize?

At the foundation of every story is a cliché.  This is because things become cliché when they have been a basic part of the human experience for time immemorial.  Some people make it their goal to “bust” every cliché and point out whenever they see one in anyone’s work.

I think there is a point at which you get too many clichés, and it definitely doesn’t take too many to reach that point, but I think we can be too liberal in our definition of cliché and too quick to discredit the cliché.  After all, how did it get to be cliché if it didn’t work?

A twist on a cliché is always important, which is why so many dragon stories still possess that freshness and originality that our inner critic loves, even though dragon-rider and dragon-killer stories are about as numerous as people in New York City.  If writers didn’t make sure to have their own spin, we’d sure get bored of dragons pretty quickly.

But if you boil them all down, you (pretty much) end up with two basic elements: the dragon-and-rider saving the world or the dragon-ravaging-that-must-be-killed.

And you can do this with any type of story.  Romances are particularly easy.  Guy meets girl.  They like each other.  One has a secret.  The other finds out.  They fight, break up, and start to head their separate ways until suddenly they realize that they can’t live without each other.  Then they get back together.  The end.

Here’s a pretty typical fantasy (or sci-fi, or even historical fiction) one: Independent woman and (often arrogant, though this isn’t a requirement) man must somehow figure out a way to work together to save the world/their town/their country/their families from some diabolical conspiracy or dark power.

Actually, that last one is really starting to appear across genres.

My point is, we all have read and enjoyed stories that can be boiled down to that point.  If you don’t even have to boil it down, there’s probably a problem, but a story needs a cliché, whether it be a theme, a trope, or just a single scene.  Otherwise, how would you relate to it?

I picked up Dragon Jousters the first time and I wondered: What makes this book different from other dragon-rider books?  And I found out.  It’s the only book that I’ve ever read that combines an ancient Egyptian sort of society with Atlantis and dragons.

Dragons are a cliché—a cliché sort of transportation and a cliché villain.  It’s how we use them that changes that.



Here’s the Lit Review.  You’d think it would have more to do with clichés from the rest of this post, but it illustrates the point of different ways dragons can be used from one another, while still being dragons and while still presenting a new and interesting story.

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