by Grant Smuts
“So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their endings.”
Sometimes, between one caffeine-induced seizure and the next I wonder at the particular character in fantasy – prevalent in video-games but curiously sparse (moreso than one might think) in literature – known as the Dragonslayer.
Yes, they’re skilled, and profoundly capable – they’d have to be, to take down what is by and large the most powerful creature in most fantasy settings, but I cannot help but think… ‘Good Lord, what an absolute git.’
What? No, I don’t have anything personal against dragonslayers.
I think they’re badass.
But there’s something about taking up a sword and riding suicidally into a firestorm like some maddened syphilitic moth swearing vengeance for its lover that makes me think:
‘What the hell is wrong with you?’
In-universe, there’s a lot of reasons to like dragonslayers, of course. They tend to be cool, calm, collected warriors, chosen, specially trained, or in rare instances, self-trained, to hunt down magical fire-breathing creatures that are often the size of your house.
There’s a lot of gear involved. Fire-resistant things are usually the requirement, though in settings where dragons can breathe more than just fire (Forgotten Realms, the Elder Scrolls), things with an all-encompassing elemental resistance are usually needed. Weapons specially enchanted to hurt dragons and pierce their legendary hides are another requirement – it is rare to see a bare-fisted monk go up against a dragon and come out as anything other than bacon – axes, spears, swords (both great and small) and the old trusty bow and arrow(s) are the usual fare.
That and being strong enough to use them, for:
“A sword by itself rules nothing. It only comes alive in skilled hands.”
-Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
(Has nothing to do with actual dragons. Still an awesome movie, and I made my point. No one’s here to stop me. So I ramble. Shut up.)
But even being decked out with the best gear that money can buy (or the best stuff an enterprising thief could lay their hands on) isn’t quite enough.
What separates the true dragonslayer from the typical run-of-the-mill, by-the-seat-of-their-pants, oh-my-god-I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-butter, garden-variety adventurer is their knowledge.
I mean we’re talking about people who go up against these things with the required secondary ability of NOT DYING INSTANTLY. That’s already something more than most people could ever do.
They’re familiar with the attack patterns of dragons, how they deliver their warnings, and how they attack, which they glean from special tomes of knowledge written by previous badasses, or through first-hand experience (and a little dumb luck in that instance). Beyond that, they’re aware of the weaknesses of dragons which vary from one setting to the next.
In some, the scales of the dragon’s belly is the weakness. In others, the dragon is completely armored except for one small spot (usually over the heart). In still others the dragon must be attacked in tandem with a wizard, who weakens or distracts it with elemental magic to which the dragon is opposed (summoning a blizzard against a fire dragon, calling up pillars of flame against an ice-dragon). In still others the dragon is completely immune to absolutely everything except for A Very Special Weapon – which you cannot use unless you go through a very specific ritual. Failing to do so can have any number of effects. First, and most benignly, the weapon will be no different from any other and will have no effect on dragons. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, you pick up the sword, thinking “bah, them dragon-rituals are for little pig-tailed girls” and promptly explode into a fine red mist, while the little pig-tailed girls laugh their asses off.
Knowledge, people, is what separates the BADASS from the NOOB. Quite literally, in Role-Playing video-games – how else would one define Experience Points??? But I digress.
The point is, dragonslayers are usually the biggest example of a badass you can find in any setting. Unless said setting also contains someone who has killed a god, but that’s a different skill-set entirely.
Dragonslayers are usually cool and aloof and give off an aura of unmitigated asskickery. Having faced the biggest and baddest things in the world and lived to tell the tale, they tend to be patient with the collection of two-legged assholes they deal with more regularly.
An important thing to note is that the title of Dragonslayer is a rather loose one. In settings where there is only one or very few dragons left, whosoever kills a dragon becomes a Dragonslayer.
However, in those settings where dragons are pretty much as regular as a sunrise, the title is given to those who have slain a certain number of them and has developed a reputation for doing so with a certain ridiculous regularity. Sometimes, even in the latter scenario, (especially in video-games) just slaying one nets you the title. I mean it’s a frickin’ dragon, and you did slay it. You died several times doing it, but you did do it.
(That’s the problem with video-games. The dragon kills you again and again. Then you finally get a couple of lucky critical hits, and suddenly you’re a dragonslayer. How fair is that to the dragon? It roasted you fifty times before you lucked out. Averted in Skyrim, though, where it almost becomes trivially easy to kill them.)
Without a doubt, in in-universe, dragonslayers are usually the coolest and strongest warriors around.
On a meta-level, though, (which brings me to my original point) I think they’re jackasses. I mean, I’m trying to think of the most definitive picture of fantasy as a genre. Veering away from the specific instances like the One Ring and the Sword in the Stone, a general idea of a work of fantasy is gleaned from the existence, whether outright shown or merely alluded to, of dragons.
Dragons are fantasy, and they encompass the enormity of the genre by representing it. Magnificence, Terror, Pride, and yes, Beauty along with a certain inscrutable knowledge are bound up in these beasts. And I’ll go so far as to say it – just about every fantasy writer wants a dragon in their story, whether it plays a role in the plot or not. Sometimes dragons might even be extinct in some fantasy settings – but even there, the writer has a made a point of mentioning them, even in passing. Every writer wants a dragon in their works, and the symbolism associated with them makes them an easy choice for evil or as an obstacle, which is why many of the older fantasies had dragonslayings (which also proved the mettle of the heroes beyond anything).
To kill a dragon in-universe is considered an act of heroism, whereby a character becomes larger than life. But I applaud those moments too when a dragon lives on, terrifies the hero, or, even better, terrifies the villains. Such instances are far too rare.
What can I say?
Sometimes, I root for the monster.
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