Thursday, April 12, 2012

Dragonslaying for Fame and Profit

When you get right down to it, there's one surefire way to become a hero. It's better than saving a king. It's more impressive than marrying a princess (although that often comes with the territory). It's basically guaranteed to cement you in our imagination forever.

Because only a true hero can slay a dragon.

Shadow over Mystara, Capcom

We could all recite this story in our sleep. Dragon terrorizes kingdom, king promises his daughter to whoever kills dragon, only the hero succeeds. It's a winning scenario for everyone: the king's subjects get to live without fear of being devoured, the king has his kingdom back plus a worthy successor, the princess gets to marry a hero, and said hero gets his courage and skill handsomely rewarded. But the weird thing is, that's only part of the story.

Heroes, like all the rest of us, have to work up to glory. Very few charge off the homestead and slay a dragon on their first try. Despite its position as the best way to become a hero, dragonslaying more often actually comes later in a hero's career, cementing his heroism rather than being the first proof of it.

Perseus and Andromeda, Drakenza Kimpel
Take Perseus, my personal favorite of all the Greek heroes for his combination of asskicking and being a decent human. By the time he meets his dragon, he's already accomplished the heroic feat for which he's famous: he's killed Medusa, and has her head in a bag at his side when he meets cute with Andromeda. Undaunted by the battle he literally just won (and probably psyched at the thought of rescuing a gorgeous naked princess), Perseus promptly dispatches the sea serpent sent to eat Andromeda. Some versions have him slice the monster up with his sword; others have him cleverly use the killer trophy from his last fight in a very dramatic display of his already-established heroism. And while Andromeda chained to the rock is the iconic image of a damsel in distress, Perseus' killing of the sea serpent is very much secondary, even in the story, to his killing of Medusa. It's the head of Medusa, not of the serpent, that he brandishes when he returns home.

There's also Rama, an unquestioned hero long before he runs into his dragon. Like Perseus, he doesn't even need one. He's endured baseless exile and a life of hardship with incredible grace and goodwill. He's also clearly a great person, because both his wife and his younger brother accompany him into exile of their own will, despite Rama's pleading with them to protect themselves and stay in their cushy palace. Not enough yet? Well, there's also the matter of his entire kingdom mourning his loss because they know he'd be a fantastic king, or his other younger brother Bharata (whose jealous mother orchestrated the whole wrongful-exile thing) refusing to claim the rights due to a crown prince. Bharata actually tracks Rama down in exile just to apologize in person for his mother, and to assure Rama that he himself is just keeping Rama's place open for when he returns. The Ramayana is chock-full of awesome people being awesome. And even in this land of paragons, they all respect Rama most. Dude is a hero. No question.

So although the capture and rescue of his wife Sita forms one of the great set-pieces of the whole epic, it's never necessary for proving Rama's heroism. It's certainly moving that he follows Sita's trail all the way to a demon kingdom, and it's very impressive that he fights a demon king (whose ten heads push the same dragon-alert buttons as, say, the Hydra, or the Yamata no Orochi) to reclaim the woman who's been faithful to him all this time. But it's not by any means the first hint we get that Rama is a hero. At this point - near the end of the Ramayana, just before Rama gets called back home to become king - it's icing on the cake. It's actually made even better by the fact that we know very well that Rama rocks. We're not wondering in the slightest who will win this fight; we're munching popcorn and cheering Rama on.

Susano-o Fighting the Yamata no Orochi, superspacemonkey
Whether in legend or in Spenser, Saint George's dragon-slaying follows a slew of other heroic acts (and isn't even the final capper in The Faerie Queene, which has him still questing after he defeats the dragon and marries Una). Susano-o beats the Yamata no Orochi, a monstrous eight-headed dragon, by a combination of trickery and swordplay, but Susano-o is a storm god who previously made his sister's necklace give birth to five men; he has no desperate need to prove his power. And for Siegfried, killing a dragon is just one of many stepping-stones (although not the first) to his most famous deed: the wooing of Brunnhild, a formidable warrior regardless of whether she's a Valkyrie or just an incredibly strong mortal. We remember them because they killed dragons, but that's hardly all they did.

The Fall of Beowulf, Devin Maupin
And then there's Beowulf. His fight with a dragon, far from making his name, is the fight that kills him. When he meets his dragon, he's old but still powerful. He killed Grendel and his mother long ago. He's ruled his people for years, largely because of the fame and prestige he won in those two battles. But he takes on the dragon anyway, partly because he's the king and knows how these things work, but also partly because he knows very well that he's a hero. And heroes fight dragons. It's inevitable that he will die in this fight - you didn't really think an asskicker like Beowulf would go in his sleep, did you? - but it's also his final act of heroism to face the dragon himself, taking very literally the king's task to defend his people. When he and the dragon kill each other (with Beowulf getting a much-needed assist from his one loyal warrior, Wiglaf), it's a truly fitting death: the monster and the monster-slayer destroying each other. The fight with the dragon provides the final affirmation of Beowulf's heroism in risking (and losing) his life to protect his subjects.

Saint George and the Dragon, Trina Schart Hyman
So nowhere, really, is the slaying of a dragon the ultimate proof of heroism. But in each case, it is a watershed moment in each hero's career. Perseus wins a wife; Rama claims his crown; Beowulf goes out in a blaze of glory. Maybe the reason it's become so obvious a path to heroism is because slaying a dragon marks a change in a hero's life. Nothing is the same after a fight with a dragon. There's always an upgrade of some kind.

Killing a dragon isn't usually the first time the hero proves his heroism. But it is usually the first moment he gets the trappings and rewards of a hero. And that speaks very eloquently to a culture searching for a deed that defines heroism.


  1. lol for a minute there I was worried you weren't going to mention Beowulf! But then you did, so it's cool. lol :D Seriously though, like you said, it's not like the dude could go quietly.

    You know what dragon you didn't mention?? Smaug! Who also, if I remember correctly, appears in the story rather late, after Bilbo has accomplished many heroic tasks, including the one he is most famous for - getting the Ring. (and, although Bilbo does not personally slay the dragon, he is responsible for Smaug's eventual defeat).

    When I was a kid I totally loved the movie Braveheart. Partly because Sean Connery is awesome, but also because it inverts this narrative in such fun ways. You have seen it, yes?

    1. Honestly, I'm a little shocked at myself that it's taken lo these many moons to get to Beowulf. Clearly I'll have to remedy that. He's one of my favorites.

      And thank you for pointing out Smaug! Who does indeed cleave to the pattern of latter-day heroism in his dealings with Bilbo. It's especially fun to compare Smaug to Gollum, come to think of it; they're both supernatural foes who present a very real danger to our adorable hero, but for all Gollum's menace (and even though you're right, that getting the Ring is what makes Bilbo truly famous), Gollum is clearly a stepping-stone in Bilbo's training as a hero. He needs to get past Gollum before he's in any way ready to take on Smaug. And that's the story he takes back to the Shire, not the getting of the Ring, which is vastly more important. Dragon equals automatic hero moment.

      ...I should really just do a post on Tolkien. I've been avoiding him because he's 20th-century and a bit after the fact for most of these stories, but GODDAMMIT HE'S SO AWESOME.

      Dragonheart? Which I haven't seen, but have heard has Sean Connery as a dragon? Netflix will remedy my error!

    2. >.< yes Dragonheart, which was what I was thinking but somehow did not type. erg. And Sean Connery IS the dragon, which is great. lol. I mean, it's a movie for like, 8-13 year olds, and I haven't seen it since I was about that old, but you might still like it?

    3. Typos are universal. ;) And I'll look for the movie! (Seriously, Sean Connery as a dragon is pretty much all I needed to hear.)