The Classification of Dragons

Dragons

Dragons are the most interesting animal that never existed. No other mythological creature has had such far reach across cultures and centuries nor so much lore behind it. They’re even mentioned in the Bible, albeit as a symbolic representation. 

But despite being so universal, they are also diverse. Although many cultures have dragons in their mythology, their designs vary widely, and some of that might have to do with translation issues. They are often lizard- or snake-like, can often fly, sport spines and horns, and have magical attacks like breathing fire. Many don’t follow these patterns, though. Even so, most dragons of legend fit into one of several categories. 

Dragons

Gold Dragon
The most common classification. People also know them as western dragons, because they mirror the designs in medieval Europe. They have four legs (some can stand up on the hind ones, others walk on all fours), a pair of bat wings for flying, and can breathe fire. Scales cover their bodies, like lizards. 

Summary: 4 legs, 2 wings

Wyvern

Smaug dragonThis is where things get controversial. Almost every recent film featuring dragons has what would more technically be called the wyvern design, or at least the updated version of wyverns. Originally, wyverns were smaller, didn’t breathe fire, and had a poisonous spine on their tails, like scorpions. Design-wise, their biggest difference was that they had no forearms, only two hind legs and two wings, which they used to walk on when grounded. Now, think back to every major dragon depicted in film in the last decade or two. Harry Potter dragons, Reign of Fire dragons, and Smaug in The Hobbit (despite Tolkien himself drawing him with four legs), plus the dragons in Game of Thrones and Skyrim, they all followed this design, even though people called them dragons. The only exception I can think of is How to Train Your Dragon, an animated film.

There are a few reasons for this. One is a sense of realism: excepting insects, there are no hexapods (animals with six limbs) that we know of. Bats, birds, and even pterodactyls all follow this design of the forearms being wings. Here is another reason. 

Personally, I dislike this trend. They seem less intelligent and more animalistic this way, in my opinion, and less true to their source material. Plus, it creates confusion, especially in the cinematic Lord of the Rings universe: if Smaug the dragon has only two legs, then what were the creatures the Naz’gul rode in the original trilogy? Smaller dragons? The wyverns might be more realistic, but come on, they’re dragons. The number of legs isn’t going to change the fact that they’re too big to fly, or even exist, and they wouldn’t be able to breathe fire. It seems silly to worry about them being hexapods without addressing that issue. 

Summary: 2 legs, 2 wings

Wyrms

Kirin DragonI’m going to lump several types of dragons in this category. This includes eastern dragons, associated with China and nearby areas. They are either serpentine with no legs or long with two to four legs. They don’t have wings, but can often fly using magic. These dragons are such a part of their cultures that they’re the only mythological beings in the Chinese zodiac. They are often more benevolent than the fire breathing dragons of the west.

Summary: 0-4 legs, no wings

Drakes

Drake DragonsNot so common, these are flightless dragons with four legs. They can stand upright or on all fours

Summary: 4 legs, 0 wings

 

There are some other versions and classifications, but there’s no need to go more specific. Some differences between dragons include what type of breath they have, whether they have scales or feathers, what colors they are, and many other things. 

Famous Dragons

Just for fun, here are some famous dragons to grace myth, book, and screen.

Smaug

Smaug

Smaug is the most famous dragon in LotR, although not the biggest. He is the enemy in The Hobbit who treasures his hoard of gold and dies from a well placed arrow by a character who comes out of nowhere. In the movies, Bard has a little more characterization and pulls a reverse William Tell, shooting a dragon using the head of his son. He is a dragon in the book, wyvern in the movies.

Jörmungandr

This dragon became famous for growing so big it wrapped around the world and bit its tail. When it lets go, Ragnarok will begin. Sounds like a wyrm.

Bowser

He has spikes, breathes fire, and kidnaps princesses, so he’s a dragon. Or a turtle. No, dragon sounds cooler. I’d classify him as a drake.

Mushu

The most famous Disney dragon, he’s also one of the smallest. But he’s got enough attitude to make up for it. He is a wyrm.

Slifer the Sky Dragon

Yu-Gi-Oh’s first Egyptian God, this dragon is of indeterminate length. Probably a wyrm.

Dragonite

Of the original Pokemon, this one is the only one classified as a dragon, even though Charizard looks quite similar. Western Dragon.

Science

And if you want to see more on the science of dragons, look at this video.

Where are all the good fantasy films?

Fantasy films

A Dearth of Films

Quick! Choose your favorite fantasy film. Or films.

It was Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, right? Both?

Let’s be honest. There’s not much more than these two franchises that have graced the silver screen when it comes to representing fantasy. At least traditional fantasy.

So let’s define fantasy for this article’s purposes. When I talk about fantasy, I’m not talking about Pixar where toys and cars come alive and rats can control people by pulling on hair. Nor am I talking about fairy tales where true love’s kiss cures all ailments (or doesn’t), although this is closer. I’m not talking about dystopian futures where kids kill each other for entertainment. Nor am I talking about space operas about space knights and space wizards that are supposedly classified as science fiction but have nothing based in science at all. And I’m not talking about people with superpowers who fight crime and other people with superpowers. No, if you count those, then fantasy in films is making more money than all the rest of the genres combined.

Which is why it’s so baffling that Hollywood doesn’t do more of the traditional fantasies, and that when they do, they mess them up. Lord of the Rings was a huge success, both commercially and critically. But while there’s a wealth of book and video game material to choose from, Hollywood has shied away from what you traditionally think of in fantasy, with magic and dragons and swords.

TV has had some moderate success, with Game of Thrones topping it, as well as shows like The Magicians, Supernatural, Once Upon a Time (although this is more fairy tale), and The Shannara Chronicles. If you look into animation, you can find Avatar: The Last Airbender and several anime series. Perhaps the longer format is better for telling the epic stories of fantasy, instead of cramming a large book into one movie (each of the Lord of the Rings) or one small book into several movies (The Hobbit). But putting something on television, unless it’s network television, limits the audience. How many people have HBO? Nickelodeon? SyFy? Yes, you can buy discs on DVD, who buys DVDs nowadays?

There have been attempts at establishing other franchises, but many have fizzled out. Narnia, Percy Jackson, Warcraft (probably), Alice in Wonderland, etc.

So what’s in the making, or what has been done?

Notable series

Game of Thrones has already surpassed the timeline of the books and is doing quite well. It is the poster child of fantasy fiction on TV. But that means we won’t see any movies.

The Magicians also seems to do pretty well for a SyFy show. But this anti-Narnia/Harry Potter is almost parody, not real fantasy, so I don’t know if it counts.

The Shannara Chronicles is a series on MTV, entering the second season. I actually watched it on Netflix, but like its source material, I found it pretty shallow. 

So where are series like The Wheel of Time? Well, that might be coming to TV. Eventually. Maybe? There was an announcement nearly a year ago, but it didn’t give any details. So I’m kind of skeptical on that. And even if it does happen, would it be any good? Would it have the same budget as Game of Thrones, or would it be more like Shannara Chronicles? That is a big issue for TV shows delving into sci fi and fantasy.

http://geekandsundry.com/the-wheel-of-time-is-officially-coming-to-television/

What about The Sword of Truth series? Well, that was made into a TV show called Legend of the Seeker. Most accounts say it’s not very good.

What about Brandon Sanderson’s books? Well, there’s hope for this. He recently had his Cosmere Universe movie rights sold to DMG. So all his books in the Cosmere could become films. But there are a few issues that concern me. First, would they fit into two and a half hours? Second, who’s DMG? Would they actually be able to pull it off? We’ll have to see.

http://www.tor.com/2016/10/27/brandon-sandersons-cosmere-universe-movie-rights-sold-to-dmg-entertainment/

Finally, King Aurthur, which tends to be more psuedohistorical and not magical in film, is getting another movie this summer. Will it be fantasy? More importantly, will it be good? Who knows?

Video Games

Video games are notorious for failing to translate to films. Just watch Super Mario Bros. Fantasy outings share the same fate. Here a a couple of examples:

Final Fantasy created a movie called The Spirits Within, completely CGI. While advanced for its time, the characters entered the uncanny valley and the plot revolved around some mumbo jumbo philosophy, so it bombed. Other films, like FF7 Advent Children and FFXV Kingsglaive were pure fan service. 

Warcraft became a movie, but wasn’t very successful here in the USA. We’ll see if there’s a sequel. 

Conclusion

So in the end, if you look hard enough, you can find some fantasy fare outside of books and video games, of different levels of quality. And there is hope for the horizon, but they aren’t necessarily good. Still, I believe Hollywood as a whole is missing out on fulfilling audience desires of escapism, and nothing does it better than fantasy. What books or stories would you like to see on film or TV?

Why Fantasy Worlds Suck if You’re Not the Chosen One

Chosen One
At the heart of many fantasies is the idea of the Chosen One, one who is prophesied to destroy evil, bring balance, etc, etc. Harry Potter, the boy who lived, is one famous example. Anakin Skywalker is another, albeit with a twist. Then there’s Aladdin, Neo from the Matrix, Katniss, Rand al’Thor, Garion, the Pevensies, Richard Rahl, Eragon, Thomas Covenant, Percy Jackson, Emma Swan, King Arthur, Link, Sora, and others who fulfill (or sometimes subvert) this trope. Even Kung Fu Panda does it. Here’s a more complete list: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TheChosenOne
There’s also another trope in fantasy: you’re either born with magic or not. Not every story does it, but a lot do, which is strange in a way. What abilities in real life are people born with that other people can’t do? Sure, some people seem to be more talented, but practically anyone can learn any ability (just not all of them). Yet in fantasy worlds, that’s not the case. Maybe because it would be hard to imagine a society full of magic users. Either way, it makes a tough life for the characters who are neither the chosen one nor have magic.
But then again, we never think of these characters, because we are meant to identify with the chosen one. Because the biggest fantasy in the fantasy genre is that we are somehow special. That’s one of the main motivators in reading/viewing fantasy. The idea of magic, at its heart, is of being special. In science fiction, there can be technology that’s so advanced it appears magic. But it’s available to everyone (might need some training, though). Magic takes you to an exclusive club, you might even be the only one with it, even if it takes training to master. It is much more about the individual than a society.
This is true even without magic, per se. Superpowers are the exact same thing, just usually in a more modern context. And then there are the people who get sucked into a new world *cough* Narnia *cough* that they have to save, even though they have no expertise, no knowledge of the area, no magic, nothing qualifying them for the task at hand, but they have to do it, just because. And of course they’re successful, even if they didn’t really do anything. Frodo had to sneak into Mordor because…for some reason, only he could resist the ring’s lure? Not some super stealthy ninja, just a hobbit.
So how do you think that makes the Chosen One’s friends feel? Suddenly Mr. Nobody is Mr. Hero because…no real reason. Either he was born with some power and is just now manifesting it, or he got chosen by…prophecy? Who exactly is in charge of these prophecies in the first place? It’s not very fair. They didn’t actually do anything to earn their place. And even if they go on a big, scary adventure, they’re the chosen one, they can’t die (or if they do, they come back to life).
Now you may argue that they’re like Christ figures, if you’re a Christian. He was chosen before birth, given a special destiny. But the characters in these books aren’t perfect (or if they are, they’re boring) and Christ earned his chosen status through his perfection. The Chosen Ones in stories are doofuses.
Either way, the Chosen One is usually not very qualified (Harry vs Hermoine), not the most powerful (Frodo vs Gandalf (or anyone)), and is usually pretty boring, aside from occasionally being able to provide snarky commentary or gallows humor. Yet they are chosen, while the rest of the world languishes without magic or destiny, serving only as orc fodder when the dark lord tries to hurt the hero by striking at their home.
So to all those non-Chosen Ones out there, who are stuck in dead end jobs, bad relationships, poverty, and bad health, and who don’t get a magical break from their sad lives:
It sucks to be us.