The Rise of Popular Dragon Myths in Contemporary Fantasy

Dragons have been a staple of fantasy fiction for centuries, but what makes them so popular? Read on to find out why readers love dragon mythology!

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A large dragon bearing its fangs in what looks like a dust cloud.

The concept of dragons has been around for thousands of years, and they’re still ridiculously popular today. It may be because of dragons’ versatility in appearance, abilities, and even personality. Regardless, they’ve become a staple in modern fantasy, one that will likely stay for a long, long time.

A Brief Overview of Dragons

Dragons have been in Western stories for thousands of years, but often they were nameless or only served as obstacles for the hero, such as in Beowulf. Their popularity in modern fantasy stems from this, but also from celebrated authors such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. It was around this time that dragons became a major staple in fantasy.

'Dragon Weather' by Lawrence Watt-Evans book cover showing a large green dragon facing a young boy.

The two above authors used dragons as major antagonists, which lines up with how dragons are often seen in Western mythology. Since then, countless fantasy stories have included dragons, from the A Song of Ice and Fire series to The Obsidian Chronicles. Of course, not all Western fantasy books show dragons as evil or antagonists. Sometimes, they do live alongside humans.

Western vs. Eastern Dragon Myths

In Western societies, dragons are often seen as greedy and selfish. They hoard gold and other treasures, kidnap and eat humans, and cause destruction and mayhem everywhere they go. They are often slain by knights or heroes, and everyone celebrates their deaths.

But in Eastern societies, especially in China, Japan, and Korea, dragons are wise, strong, and kind. They are considered just, good omens, and often are symbols of divine power. Dragons are thought of as close to heaven and part of the four spirits and were among the purest of beings.

'The Priory of the Orange Tree' by Samantha Shannon book cover showing a dragon wrapped around a castle tower.

This is seen in the novel The Priory of the Orange Tree. The world is essentially divided into the East and the West, which don’t get along and are always fighting. Eastern dragons are sacred and seen as akin to gods. They are powerful and well-respected by much of society. Western dragons, also called wyrms, want chaos and destruction, and they have killed a lot of people.

It is important to show the differences, especially as there is more diversity in the publishing world. Because of this and how dragons are seen differently around the world, the rest of the article will focus on Western fantasy.

Dragon Riders

This trope has become incredibly popular recently. With books like How to Train Your Dragon and Fourth Wing, it’s more and more common to see humans and dragons live together and even help each other in Western fantasy. Sometimes it’s just a part of their culture, but there are sometimes more specific reasons such as fighting a war or engaging in a symbiotic relationship. It really just depends on the book.

'How to Train Your Dragon' by Cressida Cowell book cover showing Hiccup and Toothless.

Dragon riding may have its roots in early Chinese myths. There were legends about figures such as the dragon Ying Lung and his companion Yu and how they would go around and perform amazing deeds. Another source could be Solomonari, wizards from Romanian folklore who were believed to have ridden dragons and used them to control the weather.

Dragons Straight From Mythology

Another popular option is to pluck dragons directly from mythology, rather than using mythology as an inspiration. This can be seen in Percy Jackson and the Olympians with the Hydra and Ladon. While there are other dragons, these were taken directly from Greek mythology. This can work very well, though the author must do their research first.

'Percy Jackson The Lightning Thief' by Rick Riordan book cover showing Zeus's lightning bolt, a trident, and a helmet.

Renditions of different mythologies are fairly common in fantasy, even if the author only uses a few elements of said mythology. And since dragons are so common in mythologies around the world, it’s fairly easy to find a book that uses them.

Given how beloved they are, it’s safe to say dragons aren’t leaving fantasy literature anytime soon. Time to go read another book with dragons!

For another article on dragon myths, click here.

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