Battling a dragon is an ancient storytelling motif, particularly in Western traditions. The Old English poem Beowulf is among the earliest versions of this story(though it was possibly influenced in turn by Norse mythology), yet it is also a quasi-anamoly to the subsequent tradition. Yes, the hero dies in battle with a fire-breathing dragon, but the dragon has no malice; the other monsters in the poem, Grendel and his mother, are described in much more spiritually negative terms than the dragon. The dragon is an awesome force of nature, powerful and deadly, but not evil. The later medieval tradition, taking its lead from the Biblical Book of Revelation, cast the dragon as a personification of the forces of darkness, vanquished by the power of Christian faith, personified by the dragon-slaying knight. St. George, the patron saint of England, is a standard prototype, as in Book I of Edmund Spenser's The Fairie Queene(technically a Renaissance poem paying homage to a medieval tradition, but never mind).
|"St George Fighting the Dragon", by Raphael|
|The third book in LeGuin's Earthsea Cycle|
|First edition of Tolkien's massively influential fantasy story|
|Detail from Chen Rong's 1244 scroll painting "Nine Dragons"|
|Spirited Away: The dragon as river god|
But one of the most piquant aspects of the cinematic depiction of dragons is how, almost inexorably, the characteristics of the Western dragon and the Eastern dragon seem to blend into one another.
To be certain, there are examples of the battle-with-an-evil-dragon prototype in films, from Prince Philip’s showdown with Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty(1959), to Dragonslayer(1981), to the fight with the three-headed fire breather in Willow(1988). But just as often in cinema, the ethos of the Asian dragon manifests itself, often in the mode of a friendly dragon. More often than not, such dragons are used to comic, cuddly effect, as in Disney’s 1941 short The Reluctant Dragon or Pete’s Dragon(1977). The Neverending Story(1984) features a dragon who owes much to Asian aesthetics in his design, though I’ve always found Falkor more canine than draconian.
|The Reluctant Dragon(1941), adapted from a Kenneth Grahame story|
One of my personal favorite dragon movies—really one of my favorite movies period—is Dragonheart(1996), which is noteworthy for its achievement in merging the Western and Eastern dragon aesthetics into a single movie. Draco(voiced by Sean Connery, who has about the best dragon-voice one is likely to find) is wise and noble like the beasts of Japan or China, and is often situated near rivers and waterfalls, but he also carries the fire-breathing prowess of a medieval dragon. There is a protracted battle between a dragon and a knight, though it is used to very different ends here than traditionally. For anyone familiar with dragons and the mythology surrounding them, it is an especially rich achievement.
|Draco(Sean Connery) in full view|
|Original poster for the film|
Hargreaves, Joyce. A Little History of Dragons. Walker&Company: New York. 2009. Print.