Editor’s Note: Elisabeth Anne Leonard has degrees from St. John’s College, the University of Pittsburgh, Kent State University, and the University of California – Hastings College of Law. She lives in Northern California. Here, Anne drops by to talk about dragons as well as her new novel, Moth and Spark.
When the request for a Unbound Worlds post came in, the editors asked for something about dragonlore. My first thought was, Crap, I don’t know anything more about dragonlore than anyone else. My second was, OK, I can go research it. My third was, Duh, just make it up. So that’s what I’m doing. All the dragonlore that follows in this post is about the dragons in Moth and Spark and should not be interpreted as authoritative about anyone else’s dragons.
It does read a little like an encyclopedia entry – pretend that instead of looking at a computer screen you are in the archives of a centuries-old library. You smell leather and paper. The pages of the bestiary on the table in front of you were sewn into the binding with a thick red thread, and the corners of the book cover are darkened and rounded with so many years of people touching them. The facing page is a woodcut engraving of a dragon. Everything is quiet and peaceful.
“In the Long Night, the first creatures to emerge were the dragons. They crept out of the cracks in the yellow rock and stretched their wings as the blue flames flared around them. When they leaped skyward, they were so numerous they blocked out the stars. They flew in a twisting gyre of fiery darkness and then dispersed across the earth.”
The above mythical account of the dragons’ origins is common in the creation stories about the dragons. Dragons have been important to humans perhaps as long as both have existed. The first known record of dragons is found in the cave paintings of northern Illyria, along with paintings of other animals that are now extinct. The dragons are never shown being hunted or killed; they look down on the scenes with wings spread, sometimes breathing fire. A few paintings are of the dragons alone, but none have been found that show the dragons in company with human beings.
The dragon was a common theme in decorative painting on pots and jars, and jewelry found in the barrows of tribal chieftains is occasionally wrought to depict dragons. Dragons are mentioned in the oldest extant written records, frequently in the context of loss to herds. Dragons were known to kill and eat as much as fifty percent of a herd of cattle, and quite routinely devoured entire small herds of goats. At that point they hunted in small groups, known as dooms, rather than as the solitary hunters we know today. The need to protect livestock from marauding dragons led to the early development of long-range bows, covered pens, and fire suppression techniques.
By the time of the earliest written literature, the dragons had assumed a cultural position similar to that of forces of nature. Like flood and drought, they could be blamed upon the gods and were not prayed to, even in cultures that continued to revere animals as divine. In the heroic epics they are occasionally ridden by the gods, who also use dragons to rescue mortal favorites or punish the humans who dared compare themselves to gods.
For most of written history, dragons and humans have been set apart, not so much as enemies as things not of the same kind. It is not until as recently as a thousand years ago, at the end of the First Contraction, that people and dragons begin to interact with each other in literature. (The First Contraction began approximately two millennia ago, when dragon populations declined until no dragons were left in the lands east of the Black Peaks and were much reduced in numbers in the southern part of what is now the Mycenean Empire.) Often the story is a fable about human greediness for power and ends in the unfortunate rider plunging thousands of feet to certain death, but sometimes the rider is a hero who works with the dragon to accomplish some task. Even in these stories, the dragons rarely display any human qualities or emotions, and their motives for allowing themselves to be ridden are unexplained.
The first documented instance of a person riding a dragon occurs seven hundred years ago, when one Everath of Cantes landed in front of three hundred people at the doors of the Caithenian king’s palace. He was unable to duplicate his feat and died twenty years later, poor and embittered, but by then several other people had also been observed to ride dragons. The number increased slowly but steadily over the next century.
Then came the Second Contraction, when the remaining dragons abruptly vanished from everywhere but the mountains of northern Caithen. The dragons still flew across Caithen and the westernmost parts of Argondy, but they no longer acted as anything other than predators. This state of things continued until the Mycenean Empire invaded Caithen and brought dragon eggs out of the mountains and back to Mycene. The only dragons seen anywhere north of the Narrow Sea for the next five centuries were those ridden by the servants of the Mycenean Emperor.
Prior to the Mycenean conquest, the dragon had been taken as the emblem of the Caithenian royal house. Mycene did away with this, its soldiers melting down jewelry and destroying representations of dragons throughout the palace and the capital city. Display of the dragon emblem was considered treason and resulted in beheading. For the first several generations after the conquest, dragonriders used the dragons to set fires to houses, barns, pastures, and anything else they wished in order to suppress potential revolution. As a result, dragons began to drop out of stories, paintings, and even history, and by the time of Sarian war, there was little left to be known about the origins or history of dragons. There were few artistic or other cultural representations of dragons. Dragons were viewed almost entirely as Mycenean weapons.
Not much of the above is in the novel, because this is the first time I’ve put down the history of dragons in this much detail, but there are hints. It’s fun for me as a writer to be working with something I don’t entirely know myself – there’s room for surprises. So thanks to Tabitha for giving me the opportunity to dig more into the history of dragons.