With Peter Jackson’s second Hobbit film coming out this week, Smaug is flying right toward us with flames billowing from his maw. J.R.R. Tolkien put years of thought and research in his dragon, shaping the idea of what that “Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities” should be, and setting a standard of intelligence and charisma that all dragons since have had to reckon with.
Thinking about Smaug made us want to look back at some of our other favorite fire-breathers. If there was a fantasy-animal Olympics (and there really, really should be) they would stand uncomfortably close to unicorns on the top of the podium, edging over a few inches at a time to try to claim the whole spot. They can fly, they can breathe fire, they are often hyper-intelligent, sometimes telepathic, and even the cute ones could probably kill us all in a second. But we desperately want them all to be real. (And they totally could be! Look, look at these facts!)
What would The Hobbit be without Smaug the Terrible lurking at the end of the quest? A mean-spirited story about a hobbit helping a group of dwarves to loot an abandoned home. What would a Dungeons and Dragons campaign be? Just dungeons, that’s what, and it would suck. In the Potterverse, when Rowling wants to show us just how serious the Triwizard Tournament is, she brings dragons in for the first challenge. (Plus, isn’t Charlie the coolest Weasley, showing up covered in scars and burns, hinting at a reckless and amazing world beyond the scope of Rowling’s books?) In Dragonlance, the story is driven by the quest to become Heroes of the Lance, in order to defeat evil dragons. And with all due respect to both Tyrion and The Red Wedding, is there a greater moment in Game of Thrones than Daenerys rising from the ashes of her husband’s corpse, her dragon children on her shoulders?
Of the more traditional “man vs. dragon” films, there is only one that achieves the level of insanity we like in our movies, and all of us here agreed that we couldn’t make it through this post without mentioning the napalm-breathing, shirtless-Christian-Bale, dragon-tooth-collecting-and-shirtless-Matthew McConaughey grade-A cheese miracle that is: Reign of Fire.
As we wait patiently (or not) for Smaug to appear on the big screen this Friday, the Tor.com staff wants to share our own favorite dragons from literature and film!
Kazul, Patricia Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles
Kazul is mostly awesome because she is the King of the Dragons despite being a girl (and a grandmother!) and has excellent taste in princesses, which extends to teaching them Latin, permitting them to catalog the treasure, and getting involved in their magical and cooking experimentation (even when it involves soufflés and hens teeth).
Haku, Spirited Away
Dragons are, as author Max Gladstone says, “The blood-splatter of fantasy.” And flying scenes, I think, are the blood splatter of a good Miyazaki movie. Combining those two makes for something special, and I’m going to end this analogy now because I’m creeping myself out. Anyway. While Spirited Away is an extraordinary movie from beginning to end, for me it is the scenes of Haku’s flight that achieve the greatest beauty. The asame care that Ghibli puts into all of it’s plane scenes is evident here in Haku’s fluidity, flashing scales, and the breaths that shows both the effort and exhilaration of flight. and the And naturally, it’s during one of the flying scenes that Chihiro tells Haku his true name, and frees him from Yubaba, transforming his illusory freedom into real freedom.
Figment, Epcot’s Imagination! pavillion
Okay, so Figment may not really be a dragon (he is instead an amalgamation of various animal and human traits, crafted by the Dreamfinder), and is definitely a rather transparent merchandising ploy on the part of Disney, but what does it matter? His journey through Art, Literature, the Performing Arts, and Science is by turns hilarious, exhilirating, and terrifying—and isn’t that everything a dragon should be? And as a bonus, he looks adorable in a tuxedo jacket.
Fans affectionately call good old Kilgharrah the “Slash Dragon,” and for good reason—no one ships Merlin and Arthur and their epic destiny the way he does. He’s also John Hurt, so that’s an added layer of fabulous. While the Great Dragon started out as a prisoner of King Uther, and something of a tenuous teacher, once he is freed (and lays siege to Camelot for a while to let them know they were super wrong to keep him locked up), he becomes Merlin’s true guide. A lot of times the answers that he offers are not the ones that Merlin wants, but that’s how that wise guide gig works, right?
Ran and Shaw, The Firebending Masters, Avatar: The Last Airbender
If you could learn firebending from anyone, you would obviously pick them. Because they are dragons and also because they understand the true source of fire’s power on a level that the rest of us common folk aren’t really privy to. Without Ran and Shaw there’s no way that Zuko could have made a full turn-around and let go of his rage. There’s also no way that Aang could have finally gotten over his firebending block. And they taught those boys what was what by making them dance! Be right back, I’m off to join the Sun Warriors.
This dragon is Sean Connery. I’m pretty sure that’s a game, set, and match? Actually, this movie had quite the impact on me as a kid: when people died on film I was typically unmoved, but when mythical creatures, robots or aliens bit the dust, Tiny Emily was in tears. Draco’s friendship with Bowen—after Bowen stops being an entitled jerk, that is—warms the heart, and he just looked gorgeous. Particularly when you consider how CGI wasn’t quite so advanced back in the day. I believed every second of his computer-generated performance. I also may or may not have coerced friends into playing Dragonheart with me because I wanted a dragon to hang out with so badly.
To the stars, Bowen. To the stars.
Falkor, The Neverending Story
Luckdragons, in general, are pretty awesome. They’re basically giant slacker-y optimists made of air and fire who let their exceptional good luck guide them in any situation, which makes them incredibly mellow for a creature who can fly and breath fire. Luckdragons won’t sink on you in the Swamps of Despair (sorry, Artax), and they’re intensely loyal—even when Bastian Balthazar Bux starts drinking his own Kool-Aid and behaving like a full tilt diva in the second half of the novel, Falkor returns from banishment to save him and allow Bastian to return home. And in the 1984 movie version, of course, he helps Bastian gleefully terrorize a bunch of bullies: a truly seminal moment in magically delicious revenge fantasies for an entire generation of nerdy, book-loving kids. Let’s face it: vengeance-by-luckdragon is still the most fun brand of justice there is.
Toothless!!! How To Train Your Dragon
Combining the majesty of dragons with the hilarious self-seriousness of cats results in possibly the most adorable creature ever committed to film.
Leah Withers already wrote about her favorite dragons—you can read all about Laurence Yep’s Dragon Quartet here!
You know there’s only one way this can end, right? We have to pay homage to the mightiest dragon of all, whose legend can be spoken in just one awe-inspiring word. Cower before TROGDOR.