The Classification of 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.

One Reply to “The Classification of Dragons”

  1. “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”

    Source material?? You mean mythology in general? Because if that’s the case if you look back into history you’ll see dragons depicted with all manner of limbs and forms. I don’t understand how limb count and posture translate to intelligence, such a contention really doesn’t make sense to me at all. That’s like saying a crow “seems” more animalistic than a capuchin and less intelligent because it’s bipedal (corvids are extremely intelligent mind you) The creatures the Naz’gul ride in the trilogy are called fell-beasts not dragons or Wyverns in LOTR lore. Not sure why would lump Asian dragons into the category of wyrm instead of acknowledging their traditional Eastern name of Lōng or Lūng but eh doesn’t matter much.

    Wyverns in medieval heraldry didn’t walk on their wings like modern versions of dragons they were primarily bipedal and held their wings off the ground. In game of thrones the dragons are NOT Wyverns they have almost nothing in common with them save for how many legs they have. In fact within the world of ASOIF Wyverns actually exist and are kin to dragons despite sharing the same number of limbs. They’re generally smaller , more aggressive on the whole but cannot breathe fire and have a jaw structure that sort of resembles a beak if you ask me that’s much more true to the traditional form of a “Wyvern” than the bulk of 2 legged dragons in pop culture. it doesn’t matter what readers/viewers attempt to impose, in the canon of that universe Wyverns and dragons are related but separate entities regardless of limb count https://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/Wyvern. It seems The mistake most people are making here is thinking that a dragon must have 4 legs and 2 wings to be a dragon thus meaning modern pop culture dragons with 2 wings and 2 legs are not dragons this is simply not true, although it is generally a distinction made in British heraldry it’s not necessarily constant throughout all of Europe. Even if we hold to the rules of such heraldry in regards to the fantasy genre Wyverns are merely a type of dragon , just not of the “typical” western/occidental kind.

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