Long before there were Web sites touting out-of-focus photographs -- and occasional eyewitness accounts -- of legendary monsters, people in isolated geographic locations around the world were molding, casting and carving dragonlike images.
The dragons depicted in Native American petroglyphs, Egyptian burial shrouds and Asian pottery had many common features, such as scales, wings and elongated reptilian bodies. But these disparate people couldn't share their dragon stories in chat rooms or text dragon pictures to each other. So how did these very different -- and distant -- cultures create representations of the same creature? For many, the answer is clear: Dragons were real, and perhaps still exist today.
Whether dragons are flesh-and-blood beings or the well-crafted work of active imaginations, we owe them their due. Especially these 10 dragons, who make us want to run screaming for the hills -- or buy some dragon kibble and lead them home. It all depends on their personalities.
Smaug is a clever, gold-hoarding dragon -- who also plays the part of the main antagonist -- in J.R.R. Tolkien's classic, "The Hobbit." Smaug is outfitted with armor-like scales, large wings, fiery breath and a fierce demeanor. However, like most dragons, Smaug also has an Achilles heel: a chink in his armor right over his cold, dark dragon heart. This defect turns out to be a lifesaver (although not for the dragon) when Bilbo Baggins, unlikely hero, thief and main protagonist, steals a gold cup from Smaug's mountain cave and notices the dragon's tender spot. This knowledge later allows a local man named Bard the Bowman to save his village by shooting an arrow through Smaug's ticker. Not before Smaug could reduce most of Bard's village to charred embers, though. All in all, it was a pretty good revenge for a Scrooge of a dragon [source: Tolkien].
Writer Lewis Carroll was known as much for his invented language as for his prose. Perhaps the first person to really rock a mash-up, Carroll had a penchant for combining words to give them another meaning (or two).
Using this technique, Carroll conjured images of a great dragon in a poem published in 1871 in his book "Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There." He dubbed it a Jabberwock and gave it a ravenous bite, fiery eyes and sharp claws. The book's original illustrator, Sir John Tenniel (the first illustrator to be knighted for his life's work in the United Kingdom) added giant bat wings for a full dragonlike effect. The poem ends with a triumphant boy lugging the dragon's head back to civilization -- a common literary ending for many dragons [source: Lewis Carroll Society of North America].
With a pearlike shape, dainty pink wings and purple scales popping up along his spine, the lime-green dragon known as Puff, the Magic Dragon, is anything but threatening. And, say fans of the fictional dragon, that's exactly the point. Puff is the imaginary companion of a boy who, as he matures, leaves the dragon -- and his imaginary home in the land of Honalee -- behind in this coming-of-age tale that was penned in 1959 and popularized by the Peter, Paul and Mary song in the 1960s. Despite a longstanding urban legend that the song is about smoking marijuana, its creators insist that is simply not the case. Puff has been immortalized in poem, song, book and animated short, and according to creator Lenny Lipton, has been translated into 14 different languages [source: Lipton]. Not bad for a make-believe dragon.
In the 1998 Disney animated film "Mulan," a diminutive dragon named Mushu is given an assignment by the ancestors of a poor but dignified Chinese peasant: Watch over the peasant's headstrong daughter, Mulan. And, because Mulan has disguised herself as a male warrior and run away to join the Imperial army to battle invading Huns in her aging father's place, that's no easy task for this little guy [source: Disney]. Unlike airplane-sized Western dragons known for their bad tempers, Mushu is a raccoon-sized dragon that is protective and good-humored. In the end, he helps Mulan restore honor to her family and save the empire.
Homestar Runner is a cult-favorite, Flash-animated Web series that's rich with quirky, not-quite-playing-with-a-full-deck characters. And when the animated cast gets an email request to draw a dragon, the action takes off. Starting with the letter "S," this dragon initially has some pretty impressive guns. (Can you call arms "guns" when they're on a dragon? And why would a dragon have human arms, anyway?) With a bit of trial-and-error and a lot of eraser debris, Trogdor, a majestic dragon with just one beefy arm, comes to life. To a heavy-metal soundtrack, Trogdor the Burninator wreaks havoc on peasants, cottages and the countryside -- and thus became one of the Web's most popular cartoon skits to date.
Like most freshly hatched babies, Norbert the dragon was an adorable little thing. This fictional dragon, part of the also imaginary Norwegian Ridgeback lineage, played an integral role in "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" by J.K. Rowling. Half-giant and school groundskeeper Rubeus Hagrid kept Norbert as a pet, although the young dragon grew with alarming rapidity and randomly belched fire. Hagrid found this charming enough, but there was one pressing problem: It was illegal to harbor dragons. Eventually, he sent Norbert to live out his days in a dragon sanctuary in Romania, where another issue cropped up: Norbert is actually a Norberta. Dragon expert Charlie Weasley said he could tell because female Ridgebacks are much more violent [source: Rowling].
Saphira is a majestic blue dragon and a central character in the "Inheritance Cycle" book series that Christopher Paolini started writing when he was just 15 years old. The books were later adapted into movies in which Saphira starred on the silver screen, along with the boy who helped her hatch from an egg: Eragon. As the last dragon in the land, Saphira's role is a dual one: She is compelled to protect Eragon during his attempts to defeat dark forces, and she must survive so that her species can continue [source: Paolini]. Saphira serves as Eragon's steed, too, proving to be a fast and determined flyer -- something that should come naturally, considering her huge, batlike wings.
What would medieval legends be without dragons? According to some versions of Arthurian legend, the dragon Kilgharrah befriended Merlin, King Arthur's protector and resident magi. However, their relationship had its ups and downs. Kilgharrah often offered advice to Merlin (some good, some bad), who sometimes refused to do as the dragon suggested. At one point, Kilgharrah tried to kill Merlin, who in turn vowed he would never help to free her from her enslavement in the castle dungeon. Eventually, Merlin did set the huge, red-hued, bat-winged beast loose. And, in keeping with the dragon's often vengeful attitude, Kilgharrah nearly destroyed Camelot [source: Geoffrey of Monmouth]. If there isn't an ancient platitude about keeping your enemies close and your dragons closer, there should be.
Dungeons & Dragons is one of the most popular role-playing games of all time, and a dragon goddess named Tiamat -- one of its most popular villains -- appeared in the very first D&D supplementary rulebook, "Greyhawk," in 1975. Not one to age gracefully, this five-headed lady dragon has fully embraced her role as a vain and evil queen.
Each of her five heads is a different color -- white, blue, green, red and black -- to represent all the colors of her minions, which are an army of chromatic dragons. And, for good measure, she has an elongated reptilian tale equipped with a deadly stinger [source: Cook].
To see the dragon that tops our list, all you have to do is look at the northern sky on a clear night in the northern hemisphere. Draco, the dragon constellation, is a beast with a snakelike body; sometimes it's depicted with wings and legs, sometimes without. This constellation has been identified since ancient times, and there are many myths surrounding the benevolent star dragon. It played a central role in Greek mythology when Zeus took its form to escape his father, Cronus -- who, by the way, had eaten the rest of his other children [source: Brittanica Encyclopedia, Hunt]. Seems like pretending to be a dragon was the way to go.
Fire can turn our teeth to dust. But what about dragons'? HowStuffWorks looks to science to see how fire-breathing dragon's teeth would survive.
- Britannica Encyclopedia. "Draco." (Sept. 23, 2011) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/170675/Draco
- Carroll, Lewis. "Jabberwocky." Jabberwocky.com. (Sept. 23, 2011) http://www.jabberwocky.com/carroll/jabber/jabberwocky.html
- Chapman, Mike, Chapman, Matt. "Strong Bad Email No. 58." (Oct. 7, 2011) Homestar Runner. http://www.homestarrunner.com/sbemail58.html
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- LennyLipton.com. "American Inventor, Author, Songwriter and Filmmaker." (Sept. 23, 2011) http://www.lennylipton.com/
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- TVtropes.org. "Mulan." (Sept. 15, 2011) http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Mulan