Dragons may be a trope of the epic fantasy genre, but they are a trope I suspect I will never tire of. My new book, Dragon Hunters, might just have one or two of the creatures lurking within its pages.
Whenever you encounter a dragon, it’s usually the apex predator of its world. But invincible? Certainly not. There’s a quote I recall from Neil Gaiman’s Coraline (paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton) that goes: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
In Dragon Hunters, the sea dragons are hunted for sport by a fellowship of water-mages known as the Storm Lords. That got me thinking about other fantasy books where dragons are put in their place. Here are five for your consideration. (Warning: spoilers abound!)
The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien
The Hobbit is top of my list, and I imagine it will be top of a lot of other people’s, too. The scene where Bilbo talks to Smaug in the Lonely Mountain is probably my favorite in the book. Bilbo plays on Smaug’s arrogance to make the dragon roll over and reveal his chest armor. “What do you say to that?” Smaug asks. “Dazzlingly marvelous!” Bilbo replies, while at the same time noticing a large patch in the hollow of Smaug’s left breast “as bare as a snail out of its shell.”
That information will prove useful to the bowman Bard later, when Smaug attacks Lake-town. Bard is carrying with him a black arrow—an arrow that originated in the Lonely Mountain, and has been passed down to him from his ancestors. “Black arrow!” he says. “I have saved you to the last. You have never failed me and always I have recovered you.” We all know what happens next, when he shoots it at Smaug.
One thing always puzzled me, though. If Bard never missed with the black arrow, why didn’t he use it first, rather than last?
The Farthest Shore by Ursula Le Guin
The Farthest Shore is the final book in the Earthsea Quartet. This novel more than any other inspired my love of dragons. Le Guin describes the creatures beautifully and really captures their spirit—that elusive blend of wonder and danger. Near the start of the book, the main character, Ged, is described as the only living dragonlord, and he is asked what a dragonlord is. In reply he says: “Dragons have no masters. The question is always the same, with a dragon: will he talk with you or will he eat you? If you can count on his doing the former, and not doing the latter, why then you’re a dragonlord.”
The dragons, though, are about to meet their match. There is a striking moment in The Farthest Shore when Ged sails the Dragons’ Run, and finds that the creatures have been robbed of speech and thus “driven to the dumb terror of the beasts”. Previously, Orm Embar, the strongest of the dragons, had come to Ged to ask him for help, and admitted that the sorcerer Cob—their shared enemy—is more powerful than him. When Orm Embar finally clashes with Cob…
Well, I’ll leave you to find out what happens yourself.
House of Chains by Steven Erikson
House of Chains is the fourth book in the Malazan series. The series features dragons galore, including one notable moment, as I recall, when it actually rains dragons. It also has my favorite dragon quote from any book: “He was not a modest man. Contemplating suicide, he summoned a dragon.”
Such is the array of powerful individuals in the Malazan world that dragons have to tread (fly?) as carefully as everyone else. As proof, in House of Chains, two characters are travelling through the Imperial Warren (think other dimension) when they take a tumble into a steeply sloped pit. They slide deep into darkness, then one of the characters summons up a magical light to reveal … a dragon crucified to an X-shaped cross as tall as a four-story building.
It’s yet another of those pick-your-jaw-off-the-floor moments that one encounters every few pages in Erikson’s books.
The Darkest Road by Guy Gavriel Kay
The Darkest Road is the third book in the Fionavar Tapestry series. In the battle at the end, the Unraveller unleashes his dragon on the heroes, and the creature makes an impressive entrance. “The sun was bloated out, and half the sky… The armies of Light and Dark, both of them, were driven to their knees by the pounding force of the wind of the Dragon’s wings.”
It’s a great moment in the book, because one of the characters had an opportunity earlier to bind a different dragon to her service, but she refused for reasons of “her own imposed morality.” Now she understands that her decision will have a cost, because someone else on her side will have to fight the Unraveller’s dragon in its place. The sacrifice by another character that follows is one of the most poignant moments in a series that is filled with them.
Dragons of Winter Night by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
I read Dragons of Winter Night twenty-five years ago. As I understand it, the Dragonlance Chronicles were based on an actual campaign of the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game, and those books got me into role-playing myself.
Towards the end of Dragons of Winter Night the protagonists are faced by three blue dragons at the vanguard of an approaching army. The dragons are demolishing the walls of the defenders’ fortress when one of the characters activates a magical dragon orb. The orb sends forth an irresistible call, drawing the dragons into a tower, where a trap awaits them similar to that used in the video RPG Skyrim. As the first dragon put its head through an arch, a modified portcullis slams down, pinning the creature in place. Then knights emerge from hiding places, armed with dragonlances.
What are your favorite books in which dragons have the tables turned on them? Feel free to leave a comment below.
Top image from the cover of Dragon Hunters, illustrated by Gregory Manchess.
Marc Turner was born in Toronto, Canada, but grew up in England. He graduated from Lincoln College, Oxford University, in 1996 with a BA (Hons) in Law, and subsequently worked at a top-ten law firm in London. After more than ten years in the legal profession he gave in to his lifelong writing addiction and now works full time as a writer. Dragon Hunters, the second novel in his Chronicles of the Exile series, is out tomorrow, February 9th.