2022-07-25

Dragon Inflation Through the Ages

In the Wandering DMs aftershow chat last Sunday, several of our patrons started swapping classical illustrations of dragons with us. The moral: Dragons have undergone a radical inflation in recent years with the rise of the mass-market fantasy game. Here's a quick perusal over the last few centuries (everything to 1914 being depictions of the same scene, Saint George and the Dragon):

Anonymous, Ms. of Legenda aurea, 1382 

Bernat Martorell, 1434

Albrecht Dürer, 1501

Johann König, 1630

Unknown, early 1700's

Gustave Moreau, 1889

Briton Rivière, 1914

J.R.R Tolkien, 1936 (Bilbo the Hobbit on right)

1st Edition cover to Anne McCaffrey's Dragonflight, 1968

Clyde Caldwell, Dragons of Despair, 1984

Jaime Jons, 2014 (5E D&D Starter Kit cover)

My, how quickly they grow up!


18 comments:

  1. I expect that's because, as we have grown to be more urban as a culture and people lose touch with the capabilities of wild and domestic animals, we have also forgotten just how dangerous a smaller creature can be. Also, IIRC, in medieval art size was a symbol of status, so a dragon might be depicted as smaller because of it's foulness and the saint's holiness.

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  2. You seem to have skipped straight from 1914 to 1984. I wonder how much later works may have been influenced by Tolkien's 1937 painting, "Conversation with Smaug." Especially given that Tolkien later made comments to the effect that Smaug should be even larger relative to a hobbit, but he painted off-scale to ensure that Bilbo was prominently visible - also noticeable by how small the shields and weaponry are compared to the figure of Bilbo.

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    1. Yeah, I definitely considered that but decided to skip it because of (a) Bilbo not being human-sized, and (b) Tolkien's comments on it being off-scale, which make it a much less clear example, I think.

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    2. I have to agree that Smaug is a good example and a major missing link on the evolution of dragon sizes. Sure, he's off scale, but he's also described quite clearly in the book as being huge, which surely had an impact on later portrayals as the fantasy genre developed. It may not be precisely accurate, but it definitely is stylistically!

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    3. Okay, by popular demand I added the Tolkien piece and the cover to the first Pern novel. Actually: interesting to note how wormy they were kept through mid-20th century.

      I didn't put them here, but the covers to the Analog magazines with McCaffrey's initial Pern novellas are really interesting -- like winged Apatosaurs, really creepy looking.

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    4. I thought of another good one with a somewhat larger dragon, this one pre-1900 to boot - Siegfried Slaying the Dragon Fafnir, by Konrad Wilhelm Dielitz (1880). Of course, there are plenty of other takes on the Siegfried scene, as famous as that story is, so just Googling it and seeing the wide variety of interpretations can be a fun and interesting exercise all by itself!

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    5. Awesome, thanks for that!

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  3. What about the Dragonriders of Pern series? It predates D&D by at least seven years, and has some pretty big dragons on its covers. More generally, what about the concept of riding dragons: I admittedly don't know that much about the history of portrayals of dragons, but I could only find a few images of Chinese art of people riding dragons online, and no western ones before the 20th century. Nowadays it seems almost a given in fantasy, which necessitates a dragon which is large enough to be ridden, something medieval artists didn't have to worry about - in fact, they had to make sure the dragon wasn't *too* big, so it you weren't left wondering how one knight could possibly have killed it.

    Honestly, the whole thing feels like an evolutionary arms race to me. Dragons are scary monsters, and big things are scary, so let's make our dragon big. Only now, if we want the dragon on our fantasy book cover to be impressive, it can't be any smaller than the other covers which have already been published, and ideally a little bigger; so the next book needs a bigger one, then an even bigger one, etc.

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    1. Pern's a good example, actually... looking at the early art, the dragons are actually not as big as I'd expect; about the size of a horse, maybe.

      Totally agreed about the evolutionary arms race in the art (like so many things). Admittedly I almost titled this post "... in Western Art" because I wasn't looking at Chinese depictions.

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  4. Makes sense to me. If we kill off the smaller varieties, it's the larger ones that are left to breed the next generation.

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  5. The thing is, once you get to the 20th century, art has to include film. If you look at Mad Madam Mim in dragon form in the Disney adaptation of the Sword in the Stone (1963), she's the size of a house. If you look at Maleficent in dragon form in Sleeping Beauty (1959), she's even bigger.

    (Also, it occurs to me that D&D starting off in 1974 actually makes a lot of questions of inspiration pretty easy. Everything was mass market, but at the same time there were not that many comics. There were not that many movies, especially genre films. There were not that many genre TV shows. Everybody in what we would today call the nerd community read and watched the same material, to a degree that's just not true anymore. If you ever find yourself wondering if some element of D&D was inspired by an oddly similar element from one of those, the answer is probably "yes".)

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  6. A fair few medieval dragons are elephant-sized, specifically because of myths involving them being enemies. (https://flashbak.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/middle-ages-elephants1-640x345.jpg, https://d3vjn2zm46gms2.cloudfront.net/blogs/2018/05/01152840/dragonwide-768x746.jpg, https://flashbak.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/middle-ages-elephants13-640x627.jpg, https://2.bp.blogspot.com/-qXxgv5yzsC4/UB2ndgtVtOI/AAAAAAAAKpM/w02AHu7RM8M/s1600/elpahn1.jpg, https://2.bp.blogspot.com/-tVmIhD4fzfc/UB2nbBsIMYI/AAAAAAAAKo8/rvDMNQzGdD0/s1600/elephant5.jpg)

    This guy even massively dwarfs an elephant! https://4.bp.blogspot.com/-TkwQSREHIkE/UB2nZnhiIKI/AAAAAAAAKo0/d-2pAtlATCY/s1600/elephant3.jpg,

    Admittedly I'm not sure how large the illustrators would have actually thought an elephant was! If anything, it might be bigger than elephants actually are - after all, these are legendary monsters so large that they can carry small buildings on their backs in battle and can only be slain by dragons. But in some illustrations the elephants seem barely larger than horses, so IDK. (https://flashbak.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/middle-ages-elephants6-640x960.jpg, https://flashbak.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/middle-ages-elephants3-640x484.jpg, https://flashbak.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/middle-ages-elephants4-640x454.jpg)

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    1. Now that I think about it, dragons and dragon-adjacent Chaoskampf monsters seem to scale to their adversaries a lot. You've got the little medieval dragons above sized to be defeated by St George in a horse, other medieval dragons scaled to match the elephant or panther they're fighting; while the Hydra is big enough it takes a demigod to defeat, Typhon is big enough it takes dropping a mountain on it, and then you've got the Norse dragon-serpents so large they encircle the Earth or threaten the world-tree... perhaps all this means is that fantasy heroes have graduated from "human warriors" to "demigods".

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  7. I think if you go back as far as the Nibelungenlied/Volsunga saga, Fafnir the dragon is huge. So that Sigmund/Sigurd can dig a hole, hide in it, and wait till the dragon passes by to strike it from underneath.

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