I love dragons. They are wild and wonderful, dangerous and mysterious; to have a dragon call you ‘friend’ is to achieve immortality, for they do not call just any human being ‘friend’. The wisdom of the dragon is legendary, as is their touchy temperament. In my childhood, the tales that captured my attention most often were tales that concerned the great winged beasts.
Historically, the Chinese were the first to weave dragons into their mythology and beliefs. This may be due to the high number of fossilized dinosaur bones that are regularly found all over China. For the Chinese culture the dragon brings good fortune and prosperity. The dragon is the symbol of their Emperors, and is interwoven into their culture so strongly that when you think of dragons, chances are you are thinking of a Chinese style of beast.
The dragon is very important in the myths and legends of Europe, and especially in Great Britain. The dragon is the symbol of Wales and is featured on the Welsh flag. It is also the symbol of the county of Somerset. The dragon also figures largely in the mythology of continental Europe – turning up on the coats of arms for many countries and duchies all over Europe. The legend of dragons and their appearance in the histories of Europe follows the spice trade and the caravan roads to China. But in Europe, the dragon is less snake-like and more beast-like, with a large body and powerful legs and arms. Still, the wisdom of the dragon is legendary, as is his capricious temper and his appetite for the occasional human. One must be very careful when bargaining with the dragon, as he is known to snack upon those unwary souls whose conversations bore him.
Arthurian legend says that Merlin had a vision where he saw the red dragon of the Britons fighting the white dragon of the Saxons beneath Dinas Emrys; and to this day the dragon is the symbol of the legend of Arthur Pendragon, the mythical high king who united all Britain under his rule and ushered in a golden era. Arthur lives in mythology despite the fact that not one written text has survived from his actual time, although historians agree that the Historia Brittonum which is traditionally ascribed to Nennius, a Welsh monk of the 9th century is the earliest reference to this incident. Excavations of the fort atop Dinas Emrys give evidence that it was a fort long before the Romans came to Britain.
Quote from Wikipedia’s article on Historia Brittonum, “The Historia contains a story of the king Vortigern, who allowed the Saxons to settle in the island of Britain in return for the hand of Hengist‘s daughter. One legend recorded of Vortigern concerns his attempt to build a stronghold near Snowdon, called Dinas Emrys, only to have his building materials disappear each time he tries. His advisers tell him to sprinkle the blood of a boy born without a father on the site to lift the curse. Vortigern finds such a youth in Ambrosius, who rebukes the wise men and reveals that the cause of the disturbance is two serpents buried under the ground.” So even in the ninth century Merlin (who is in many tales also called Ambrosius) and his vision of the dragons was a vision whose representation of the dragons was rooted in the Chinese style of a serpentine dragon.
My own dragons tend to be more western in appearance, with large bodies, strong legs and large wings. In my mind, my image of dragons were formed by the great Anne McCaffrey in her ‘Dragons of Pern’ series of books. Physically they are like Anne’s dragons, but my dragons are crafty creatures, who will cheat to win in any sort of a discussion. You can dance words with a dragon, but he may end up by dancing on your bones.