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.

Biology of Orcs

Orcs

Have you seen the Warcraft movie? Me neither. I don’t even play World of Warcraft. But I did play Warcraft 2 and 3. And the series as a whole has been concerned mostly about the conflict between humans and orcs. But what are orcs? In this series, they’re green. In Tolkien, they’re different. The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy had them as black. The Hobbit trilogy had them as white, even with the same director. Other series have borrowed from the concept of orcs and have their own versions. So let’s try to define orcs, inasmuch as possible. 

Origin of Orcs

Orcs were created by Tolkien as an alternative name to goblins. They share linguistic roots with the word Ogre. Orcus was latin for the underworld and then came to mean demon. So while Tolkien created what we know as orcs, they have been floating around in our mythology for a long time, just under different names. Some works even have them at the side of smaller goblins and larger ogres and trolls. But Tolkien unwittingly solidified them into their own separate race, since the Uruk’hai did not appear like the goblins of Myth.

Role of Traditional Orcs

In the majority of traditional works using orcs or other creatures of a similar vein, they fulfill the trope of Dark Lord’s armies. Basically, they are the faceless, evil, stupid, or all three. And while they might be physically intimidating, their only real strength is in numbers. If not threatening, then they are at least comic relief.. They are nothing more than an obstacle. And not even the main obstacle. They are the underlings of the true antagonist, like Sauron. They have no culture, no morals, no worth.

These orcs are that way so that the protagonists can have enemies they can kill without remorse. If Gimli and Legolas had to kill humans instead of orcs, they wouldn’t be boasting about how many they killed. Seeing your enemy as human makes them appear less like your enemy. That is why leaders go to such lengths to portray enemies as subhuman, as ‘Others.’ And attempts to make your own army more frightening by deemphasizing their humanity just backfires. See Stormtroopers, the orcs of a galaxy far, far away.

With these orcs, the hero is shown as awesome for defeating them, without the moral stains of spilling blood. Because orc blood is green goo. It’s not a sin to slay them.

Role of Revisionist Orcs

Modern revisionist orcs have taken on a different tone. Where in the first few Warcraft games, they resembled Tolkien orcs in purpose, by Warcraft 3 they were given culture and turned into another trope: the noble savage. They are a mishmash of different tribal cultures, not less intelligent than humans but not as advanced technologically as the humans they fight against. The conflict is more a conflict of cultures than good versus evil, and they are sometimes even portrayed as more righteous than humans, especially when it comes to ecological concerns. They are more connected to the earth. In essence, they are more green than humans, in every sense of the word. 

As a side note, I’ve never liked the Noble Savage trope. It always seemed too patronizing and simplified. Native Americans, for example, were just as complex as the Europeans that invaded their lands, having both good and bad things about them. They may have respected the earth a bit more, but that would have probably changed if they had discovered metal forging on their own. They were humans, just like everyone else.

Biology of Orcs

Generally portrayed as humanity’s enemy, they may be humanized or monsturized, but they are not human. Or are they? That depends.

First of all, are orcs mammals? Most accounts point to the answer being yes. We generally don’t see them laying eggs. They often have hair. When there are females, they are shown with breasts. Seems like mammals to me.

The only thing against them being mammals is the color of their skin, when it is green (which probably only exists because people painted their Warhammer orc models green to distinguish them from other armies). That makes them look more reptilian, since there is no mammal we know of that has green skin or hair. But everything else points to them being mammals. See the video below as to why it’s hard to have green skin as a mammal, but not necessarily impossible:

Aside from their coloring, the biggest difference between orcs and humans are their faces. Orcs generally have upturned noses and sometimes tusks. What does that remind you of? Pigs. Warthogs. The Welsh word for pig is Orc. Orc rhymes with pork. The thing that seems to unite all versions is this: they’re pig men (as if men weren’t already pigs). Just like it’s hard to create something completely original, so people have just been combining animals and humans to create their monsters, orcs are basically human pig hybrids. Pigs are disgusting. Orcs are meant to be disgusting, so you don’t feel sympathy for them.

So orcs don’t appear to be human, but some sort of distant cousin to them, not only because they are portrayed as a hybrid, but because they can often interbreed with humans. Any two species that can interbreed can’t be too far apart. Maybe they are green neanderthals.

Super Powered

The Warcraft orcs are bigger than humans, wielding massive weapons. It’s interesting that they are built so blocky (because of the original overhead view on the computer screen) as they would need to be more blocky to survive at that size. Even at 7 feet tall, with their bulk, they would weigh several hundred pounds, looking more like gorillas than humans. Could something that big survive? Maybe. They would have to eat a lot to sustain that weight, which would be hard as carnivores. But it would make them a lot more powerful than a human. So powerful any fight between them would be unfair. Yet for some reason the human hero always wins.

Future

So were do they go from here? Will they no longer be used as much, because audiences no longer want such simple enemies? Will the noble orcs be replaced by human noble savages? Is there a new branch of storytelling for them to follow, something different than what came before? Will they ever get a chance to be taken seriously, as a real threat to humanity in and of themselves, and not guided by a dark lord? I think that if they do continue on, it will be in a reinvented form that rejects the two mentioned above. Maybe they will be truly alien instead of pig men. There’s the potential for more, or the potential for them to disappear. Only time will tell.

More info about Orc tropes

What Makes a Good Monster

Roc Monster
Monsters don’t exist, just in case you were wondering. You’re free to look under your bed now.
But why don’t they exist? What makes something a monster?
In old India, surely they thought of tigers as monsters who would take down anyone that wandered out of the safety of the village. Sailors seeing whales for the first time probably thought them monsters. But are tigers and whales monsters? No. They are animals, more specifically mammals. No matter how fierce, dangerous, or powerful they are, they can’t be monsters. Why?
Because they’ve been classified.
They’re no longer a mystery. They’ve been studied. They’ve been placed into zoos and aquariums. We kill many more of them than they of us. And they present absolutely zero threat to human civilization at large.
So again, what makes a monster? The mystery.
In some fantasy worlds, there are fantastic creatures, powerful, scary, and even threats to humanity. But many of them wouldn’t be monsters, because they’re too well known. So orcs and dragons may or may not be monsters, depending on how well they’re understood. On the other hand, in a sci-fi story, if aliens come to invade and we have little knowledge of them, they would be monsters. Frankenstein and Dracula are monsters because no one really understands them, and they’re not a species of animal.
There’s the old cliche that we fear what we don’t understand. While not really true in all cases, in some things, our lack of understanding gives it power over us. The best horror movies leave whatever paranormal creatures in the shadows, not fully understood. Their motives are alien, their biology uncertain.
But what happens when we create monsters out of each other? When we talk about serial rapists as monsters, it’s not just about the heinous acts they commit, although that is a big part of it, but because most people don’t quite understand what drives someone to do those acts, to bypass all moral constraints we’ve had in place since our childhood.
Sometimes we make a whole people we don’t understand into monsters. Muslims, Communists, Nazis, Native Americans. All these groups had both good and bad people (even the Nazis, who were mostly convinced that everyone else, and especially groups like Jews and homosexuals, were the monsters).
Many of the grand scale atrocities in history came because one group dehumanized another, making them ‘others,’ or a monster, and pitting us against them. George R. R. Martin even calls his monsters the Others in the Game of Thrones books.
So ignorance isn’t bliss. Naivety might be, but ignorance is just fear. Fortunately, we have so many resources with the internet that ignorance is willful as well. If you’re ignorant, it’s your own fault. So get out there and try to understand other people, customs, religions, and politics.
And if you’re writing horror, keep us guessing, don’t reveal too much about your monsters.