19 February 2017

How I wrote about Dragons

In every boy's life (and girls' lives, too, I suppose) there comes a time for writing about dragons. Whether this comes as the afterglow of some dire encounter or merely reading about such encounters in selected books of the age, he/she will find the need to reconcile the beast with the myth and come to some balance in understanding. This happened to me, although it was not until later in life...in fact, not until last year.

Having been a scientist-wannabe for the longest time,
I simply could not find it within myself to give dragons a pass as mythological creatures. When I was challenged by my author "frenemies" to write an epic fantasy and further challenged to include dragons, I decided right from the start that the dragons would be fully biological. In other words, they would not speak in British accent, they would not horde gold, they would care not a whit for virgins, they would not be cute, cuddly pets. They would look and behave as any animal does, including the more unsavory aspects of being a beast.

So I set out on a quest to find information about what we now know about dragons in their many forms.
First some official definitions:
1a mythical monster like a giant reptile. In European tradition the dragon is typically fire-breathing and tends to symbolize chaos or evil, whereas in East Asia it is usually a beneficent symbol of fertility, associated with water and the heavens.

2another term for flying dragonAlso: Komodo dragon, a large monitor lizard of Indonesia.
There you have it: a reptilian creature that may project fire and may have the capability of flight. 

We all know what a dragon is, I suspect, for they have been depicted in popular imagination for most of human existence, according to history books. Whether the work of literature calls the creature dragon or some other name, they are major players in many well-known stories, from the deadly serious of the Bible to the playful in children's animation. Here is a handy list of dragons in literature and a list of famous dragons you may have encountered via film and television. 
My purpose here is not so much to offer you a complete dragonology, information which you can easily find from your local scribe perusing the archives, or to enumerate endlessly on dragons, but, rather, to explain my rationale for how I depicted dragons in my forthcoming novel EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS.

From a childhood filled with theories of aliens and alternate histories, I came to understand that the dragons ancient people may have seen were possibly alien spacecraft zipping around the sky - from the Native American thunderbird to the European wyvern to the Asian flying serpents. It seemed more plausible to me that the phenomena was based on technology rather than biology. For my novel, however, it would be all-too-easy and perhaps in the realm of cheating to simply have "my" dragons be flying saucers.

So, as well-described as dragons have been in literature, I knew I must accept them as real, flesh-and-blood beings. Thus, I studied the physiology of dragons. Most importantly are two fundamental features: 
1) the ability to fly, and 
2) their "fire-breathing" aspect.

The ability to fly is a simple matter of aerodynamics. How does a huge Boeing 747 lift into the air? Engine power. And the curve of its stationary wings. What kind of engine power can a reptile of, say, 50 ft. or more bring to lift-off? Only the beating of bat-like wings can provide its lift and thrust mechanisms. Observation of bats show them to drop from a perch down into the air and soar on the buoyancy of their outstretched wings. The wings can support the small bodies they have. I once read an article, perhaps in a volume of the World Book Encyclopedia I was always perusing as a child, that the maximum size of a bird is limited to how big its wingspan could be. The California condor is the largest bird on Earth today, with a wingspan of 8 to 10 ft., almost as long as the family car. Condors do not flap their wings so much as glide on them. The body weight supported by these wings is still only 15 to 30 lbs.

Our next model might be prehistoric flying reptiles, most recently featured to great effect in the Jurassic Park film. According to PlanetDinosaur.com, these creatures were prominent in the Triassic period and died out before the Jurassic. Their wingspan varied from 2.5 to 3.5 ft., hardly monsters. However, there were a couple of them that could qualify as dragon-like: the Pteranodon's wingspan was 23 ft. and the Quetzalcoatlus measured up to 43 ft. Their long wings were, like the condor's, more for gliding than flapping. They still supported rather small bodies. I can accept a fairly large creature with appropriately large wings, large enough to raise it off the ground, certainly. The practical side of me wants to limit their size to what is known to be aerodynamically plausible. However, pesky little dragons, somewhat akin to hummingbirds, do not seem very satisfying in literature.

So let's agree that an aerial beast whose body is approximately the size of a Nile crocodile (the largest currently existing reptile on Earth) but having wings can exist on the world I create. The gravity and atmosphere make it so. Such a creature would be 16 to 20 ft. in length, its weight 500 to 1700 lbs, making it a very decent size for a monster. Now add wings. Because feathery wings are seldom seen in literature involving dragons, we must go with the bat-like membrane wings with which they are typically depicted. How large must the wings be to lift a "Nile crocodile"? 

Now we come to "simple math" - the subject which doomed me to be a writer rather than a scientist. If a condor weighing 30 lbs is lifted by wings measuring 10 ft., then a body weighing 300 lbs should have wings measuring 100 ft., and so on: 600 lbs = 200 ft., 900 lbs = 300 ft. Seriously? Wingspan the length of a football field? I would call this beast a "mountain-master"! (Scientists: check my math!)
All right, it's just a story. I can do anything I want. However, I like to keep it real, as real as possible for a fantasy tale - until I write myself into a corner, that is. If we look at dragon artwork we see that the wings depicted are not nearly as large as we would think they should be to lift such a heavy creature. Let's play with that. I liked the appearance of the dragons in the film Avatar: biologically plausible and of a size such that a human or even the 10-ft. tall Na'vi could ride them. To my eyes, that makes the dragons' wingspan 20 to 30 ft, bodies weighing 500 to 700 lbs - a good-sized Bengal tiger but stretched out longer and thinner. 

I sense, dear reader, that you may be saying to yourself about now: "He is really thinking too much!" To that, I must agree. This is because I must get things right, meaning biologically accurate, or at the very least plausible. Maybe there are environmental factors which aid the beast in flying. Who knows? One theory I've read is that the gaseous nature of their bellies helps keep them afloat in the air. Ah hah! Then the gas would also serve as the source of fire, ignited by some fluid from glands in the throat! 
When you've been a bad city and the gods send a dragon to punish you....
Dragons have been depicted in literature mostly as solitary creatures. We encounter them in caves, mountain tops, or attacking sinful humans. Just the one - as though one is enough for each realm on a map. In Avatar they live in family clans, it seems. That follows the model of bats and other flying animals. Some birds live in small nests in widespread communities yet other kinds of birds fly in large flocks that blacken the sky. Imagine a flock similarly darkening the sky yet they were dragons - that is, reptiles of 500 lbs each, their wings stretching 100 ft, across! That would be a truly frightening scene to humans! Hence the need for "gamekeepers" to cull the herds...in my fantasy story.

Temperament? Well, they do have that nasty fire-breathing capability. Better to be friends with them. In European dragon lore, they are harbingers of doom and gloom, something to be feared. In Chinese culture, they are revered as symbols of good fortune, fertility, and a happy new year. I chose to walk a fine line between these two extremes. One society in the novel dreads and fears dragons while another society accepts them as welcome pets at best or pesky nuisances at worst. If we consider dragons as the animals they are, separate from all moral associations, we might treat them as we would any animal we encounter regularly. Take birds, for example. They alight on the fence around your backyard, spot your automobile, cry out in the early morning hours, are prey for cats, and sometimes color the whole sky with their flock's density. Imagine dragons doing all that. 

So I chose to treat dragons as ordinary creatures inhabiting a world more-or-less ruled by humans. The dragons live out their daily lives keeping to themselves but necessarily search for food every so often, food which may perhaps include humans, especially small humans under, say, age five. Just dragons being dragons. So children need to be warned and protected from dragons circling the neighborhood. One might even decide to employ a specialist in dragon control, a "gamekeeper", making the skies safer. And then there is the most disagreeable aspect of having dragons flying around the neighborhood all the time: the droppings! That alone should be enough to compel you to pay someone to take care of the problem.

And so I have! The opening scene of EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS depicts our protagonist in his element: set in the Valley of Death, shooting down dragons from the back of his mount....

(C) Copyright 2010-2017 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

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