I love a good monster. To clarify, I don’t mean a sympathetic or misunderstood monster. Give me an unstoppable force of nature, a creature whose very nature embodies destruction. Give me rage, give me hunger, but most of all, give me bizarre.

Of all the strange monsters humanity has latched onto, the most unusual is the dragon. How can this be, you might ask. Dragons are the original gangster of fantasy creatures. The ancient Sumerians were the first to leave records of flying, scaly beasts. They were far from the last. Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, India, Greece, Persia, South America, North America, the Artic Circle, and many other far-flung lands have incorporated dragons into their mythology, religion, and history. As the cultural legacy of so many dissimilar groups, the character and description of dragons has been almost as varied as the people who dreamed of them. With that being said, it seems ridiculous to call dragons strange, but I believe its universality is what makes dragons so unique.

Why do so many cultures dream of dragons? Dragons must’ve existed at some point. Obviously, the Illuminati, the Knights Templar, and the Smithsonian Museum have made a pact to hide their existence from the world. They destroy evidence as fast as they can, and when some lucky farmer finds a fossil, they snatch it up and call it a dinosaur. I mean, seriously, triceratops? That’s obviously a fake name created to distract civilization from the fire-breathing lizards that once inhabited the sky.

Alright. There’s probably a more likely explanation, but it isn’t nearly as fun.

I love a good monster. I don’t mean a sympathetic or misunderstood monster. Give me an unstoppable force of nature, a creature whose very nature embodies destruction. Give me rage, give me hunger, but most of all, give me bizarre. Click To Tweet

Imagine you’re sitting by a campfire, one, two, or even five thousand years ago. It’s a sweltering summer’s evening, and there is a cricket hiding near your seat that you would dearly like to squash. It makes another piercing chirp. That’s it! You’re going to find that annoying menace. You lurch to your feet. All eyes turn to you. Oh, no. You just volunteered to tell the first story of the night.

A gaggle of children wait with bated breath for a new tale. Your friends sit off to the side, ready to mock your feeble efforts. Your mind races as you try to think of something. “There was a snake,” you start, but that isn’t nearly cool enough. Snakes are dangerous, but everyone tells stories about snakes. Maybe you should have started with a hawk instead. Wait. “It could fly like a bird!”

The crowd gasps. A flying snake? How could a hero prevail against such a dastardly menace? You have successfully gained their attention and earned the respect of your judgmental friends. Life is good.

Humans tell stories. It’s a quirk of our species as endemic as our lust for sweets. The moment language became capable of expressing complex thought, our oral tradition began. Our ancestors told stories to entertain, of course, but also to deliver important lessons and explain the world around them. Thousands of years later, we’re still telling stories for these reasons. Who we are and how we live is still inextricably linked with the monsters we imagine.

I try not to think about what that says about me.

Much of humanity’s relationship with nature is adversarial. If the predators don’t eat us, then the plants might poison us. Sometimes fire drops from the sky when it’s storming. Even the things we hunt try to kill us. We need the land, but the land doesn’t need us.

Our ancestors told stories to entertain, of course, but also to deliver important lessons and explain the world around them. Who we are and how we live is still inextricably linked with the monsters we imagine. Click To Tweet

This never-ending battle with the nature is reflected in the stories we tell. In societies where this struggle is acknowledged, we see ferocious, animalistic dragons. Like snakes, wolves, bears, and all the other animals out to kill us, these dragons can leave devastation in their wake. They steal countless resources and hoard them on a distant mountain, mimicking the actions of foreign raiders from the eyes of the ravaged. They represent the worst of the world, until a hero takes it upon himself to slay the monster.

On the other hand, dragons are often regarded as mystical sages in cultures that historically believe that humans are part of nature’s harmony. These dragons are often wise or have otherworldly intelligence.

Otherworldly being the key word. Intelligent dragons, like all intelligent monsters, don’t think in the same way humans do. We can no more understand them than an alien from the planet Xupra. I believe that’s what makes them so fascinating.

Of course, we can’t talk about intelligent dragons without mentioning the behemoth in the room. Sexy dragons. Admittedly, they’re better understood as human-like dragons. These scaly reptiles can take the form of a human. In my absolutely-correct opinion, these dragons came into being due to the popular mediums available to modern storytelling. On screen, the transformation from femme fatale to fire-breathing monster can be visually stunning. In writing, it can add a new dimension to the story. Authors hoard their words. Every scene in a book is carefully budgeted for maximum impact. When there is only so much space to illustrate your vision, characters are often combined or given deeper motivations, so they aren’t just a name on a page.

And it’s a really cool idea. My debut novel, Benevolent Keepers, features a multitude of human-like dragons.

The problem with intelligent dragons is in their descriptor. Intelligent beings have motivations and complex lives. A monster isn’t a monster if it can be sympathized with. Storytellers who try to straddle the line by treating them simultaneously like characters and like monsters are doomed to failure. The solution, in my mind, is to pick a side. Intelligent dragons can be spectacular characters or astounding monsters.

Most people don’t agree with me about the peculiarity of dragon. In the past month alone, I’ve read about slime people, tentacle creatures, and spider women, and I can agree that all of them are very strange. In a world where every other fantasy story features some form of dragon, how could any dragon stand out? To me, the answer is clear. Dragons are our gateway to exploring the impossible. As the first and most enduring fantasy creature, their versatility and universality is what makes them the strangest monster.

Author: Louise Rainey

Louise Rainey is an author and apocalypse enthusiast. Although she primarily writes in the fantasy and science fiction genres, she’s been preparing for a myriad of untimely disasters since childhood. It’s possible she might’ve read a few too many survivalist books at an impressionable age. Regardless, she’s ready to rock n’ roll at the first sign of zombies, and a Yellowstone eruption will never take her by surprise. When she’s not preparing for the demise of her Texas home, she’s baking, listening to the same song on repeat, or playing with her gorgeous cat, Robin and her monster-dog Percy.

Louise has a degree in psychology and neuroscience and an unofficial doctorate in Random Ridiculous Knowledge. As a child, she won several writing contests, and she’s been trying to top her blue ribbon at the state fair ever since. Her latest published books include Benevolent Keepers and The Frog Eater.

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