From Legend to Myth: Dragons of the West

For millennia, dragons have inspired tales of adventure, valor, and flame. The shapes and personalities of dragons have changed many times over the centuries, but their massive size and fiery breath remain a part of many tales from Western culture. Dragons remain popular in modern children’s and young adult literature, and recent books are as likely to cast dragons as allies and heroes as monsters to be slain. Our collection is full of dragon, opens a new window books! Lets track the path of these mighty beasts from legend to myth.

Fiery Origins

The image of the Western dragon evolved from tales in Greek, opens a new window and Norse, opens a new window mythology. Some early dragons, such as the Norse Midgard Serpent, opens a new window, take the form of a large snake, with no legs or wings. The Midgard Serpent was the mortal enemy of Thor, the Norse god of thunder, and battled him over the course of several tales until the end of the world. Most early dragons weren’t so lucky and exist only as a one-time challenge for a hero to vanquish during a quest. Dragons such as the Lernean Hydra, opens a new window, the Colchian Dragon, opens a new window that guarded the Golden Fleece, and the sea serpent Cetus, opens a new window were killed by the heroes Herakles, Jason, and Perseus, respectively, during their adventures, and no tears were shed over their deaths. Eastern dragons, opens a new window also have a snakelike form but are otherwise the opposite of Western dragons. While traditional Western dragons try to harm humans and are associated with caves in the earth, Eastern dragons are associated with luck, harmony, and water (especially rivers and rain). 

In the Middle Ages, the culture of Western Europe was dominated by the Roman Catholic Church, and the connection to classical Greek sources became more remote.  Dragons from antiquity, such as the many-headed Hydra, were associated with powerful poison for its blood and breath; in the Middle Ages; this changed to fire breath. The old Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, opens a new window (set down c. 975–1010 AD) features an early depiction of a fire-breathing dragon with a treasure hoard. The earliest image of a winged dragon with legs is found in the medieval bestiary MS Harley 3244,, opens a new window dated to 1260 AD.

As the Middle Ages progressed, images and legends of dragons spread across the continent. The story of Saint George and the Dragon, opens a new window became popular all over Europe, and local cultures gave distinct shapes to their concept of the dragon. Italian dragons typically took the form of wyverns, opens a new window; two-legged creatures with large batlike wings and barbed, poisonous tails. British and Welsh heraldry often represented the dragon as a four-legged creature with two large wings; the flag of Wales has featured a red heraldic dragon, opens a new window for centuries. Dragons also became very important across Spain, especially Catalonia, where George is their patron saint. Statues of dragons can be seen all over Barcelona, opens a new window, the capital of Catalonia. Dragons are also important in Polish legend, particularly the Wawel Dragon, opens a new window, which was said to live in a cave beneath a castle. After devouring many animals, as well as farmers and warriors sent to slay it, the Wawel Dragon was finally defeated by a sheepskin filled with hay and sulfur that made it so thirsty it drank until it exploded. Fossilized bones, opens a new window from whales or mammoths were hung from a chain at Wawel Cathedral in medieval times, believed to be from the dragon, and a metal statue, opens a new window was built and placed at the entrance to the dragon’s cave in 1972. 

Flying Into Modern Times

As the centuries passed, tales of knights and dragons began to fade from the popular imagination during the Renaissance. It would take one of the greatest medievalist writers of modern times to begin making dragons relevant once more. J.R.R. Tolkien, opens a new window was a professor at the University of Oxford who taught Old and Middle English and is today remembered as the creator of the Middle-Earth saga, which includes The Hobbit, Or, There and Back Again, opens a new window. The first Middle-Earth book Tolkien published, The Hobbit tells the story of Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit recruited by the wizard Gandalf to join a group of dwarves seeking the treasure of a powerful dragon, Smaug, opens a new window. Huge, ancient, greedy and armed with fiery breath and a thirst for revenge, Smaug made for a memorable villain. Smaug was very influential in portrayals of modern dragons, so much so that the Dungeons & Dragons Red Dragon, opens a new window is largely based on his character traits. 

Tolkien and his fellow writer C.S. Lewis were both members of the Inklings, opens a new window, a literary circle at Oxford that discussed books and writing. Lewis would create his own dragon, equally memorable but quite different from Tolkien’s, in the third Narnia book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, opens a new window. Introduced as “a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it,” Eustace is arrogant, spiteful, and very whiny at the beginning of the book. On the course of his voyage through Narnia with his cousins Lucy and Edmund, he falls asleep on top of a dragon’s hoard thinking wicked, greedy thoughts and wakes up to find himself a dragon! Eustace’s story is one of personal discovery; of his attempts to reach out to his cousins and become a better person while realizing he had been bad enough to have been “a dragon all along.” 

In more recent times,there has been a trend towards stories where dragons are friendly to people. The first of these “good dragon” stories was Kenneth Grahame’s The Reluctant Dragon, opens a new window. In this story, the dragon is kind, clever, enjoys poetry, and is open to finding human friends. And it’s a good thing, too, since a young boy is the only one who can save him from the fearful townspeople and St. George! How will he be able to save his dragon friend? The Reluctant Dragon is a story of discovery and friendship, and it would inspire many other tales of good dragons.  

The How to Train Your Dragon series has become one of the most popular of these. These books tell the story of Hiccup, a young Viking who becomes a legend through his friendship with the small dragon Toothless. Together they venture forth from the island of Berk to battle barbarian tribes, seek out strange dragons, and find magical treasures. Along the way, Hiccup, Toothless, and their friends become heroes many times over and make the world a better place for humans and dragons alike.

Another popular children’s series about dragons is the ongoing Wings of Fire. Beginning with The Dragonet Prophecy, opens a new window, Wings of Fire tells of the adventures of several young dragonets in a world full of danger and mystery. In seeking peace for the continent of Pyrrhia, they battle cruel overlords armed with magic and mind control, explore primal jungles and vast deserts, and encounter those creatures that dragons find most strange–humans. The series is divided into “Prophecies, opens a new window” that span five books each, and the third Prophecy recently ended with The Flames of Hope, opens a new window in 2022.

The How to Train Your Dragon series proved popular enough for DreamWorks to release its own film version in 2010. The movie has several differences from the book; all the characters are older, the tone of the story is more serious, and Toothless is larger and is now a “Night Fury,” a sleek black dragon big enough for Hiccup to ride. Although changes from source material can be frustrating for book fans, the exciting flying sequences, vibrant animation, and unique dragons made the film popular beyond the audience of the original books. Two more movies were produced in the series, How to Train Your Dragon 2, opens a new window and How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, opens a new window. With continued advances in computer graphics, it has now become possible to have CGI dragons interact with live action actors, and DreamWorks has begun production on a live-action remake, opens a new window of the story, due for release in 2025. Perhaps then the myth will become more real than ever before!