Dragons Get a Modern Image Makeover

Old maps bore the scary legend "here there be dragons." These days dragons aren't so scary. In countless books and movies, they're portrayed as loving companions to the humans that ride them.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

In a moment, good and evil from the mind of Norman Mailer. But first, a meditation on the dragon. The enormous, fire-breathing mythical creatures we call dragons have been a part of human culture for centuries. Once portrayed as nothing more than monsters that devoured and destroyed, they now have a different role in science fiction novels. They've become companions to humans, bonded to their riders, teaming to combat evil.

From member station KUSP, Rick Kleffel looks at dragons and those who ride them.

RICK KLEFFEL: In the movie "Eragon," based on Christopher Paolini's best-selling novel, Saphira the dragon is not a mindless monster with an appetite for armor-wrapped knights. She's an intelligent and sympathetic character who communicates with Eragon using mental telepathy.

(Soundbite of movie, "Eragon")

Mr. EDWARD SPELEERS (Actor): (As Eragon) I need to know, Saphira. Why me?

Ms. RACHEL WEISZ (Actor): (As Saphira) We choose a leader for his heart.

Mr. SPELEERS: (As Eragon) But I'm not without fear.

Ms. WEISZ: (As Saphira) Without fear, there cannot be courage. But when we are together, it is our enemy who should be afraid.

Mr. SPELEERS: (As Eragon) And are we together, Saphira? As one?

KLEFFEL: Saphira, the voice in the movie by Oscar-winner Rachel Weisz, can be a cuddly friend or a vicious predator. For inspiration, Eragon author Christopher Paolini just looked out his window in the Yosemite Valley.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER PAOLINI (Author): I think of her as a combination between like a cat and a falcon. Part of my ability to write about that, I think, comes from having grown up around animals and with cats and watching the wild animals eat and hunt and that sort of thing.

MALAKOFF: Writer Anne McCaffrey bases her dragons on the horses she raises.

Ms. ANNE MCCAFFREY (Author): Dragons are not horses, although they look more like horses than reptiles.

MALAKOFF: McCaffrey is a science fiction grandmaster and pioneer who created the Dragonriders of Pern for her 1967 novel, "Dragonflight."

Ms. MCCAFFREY: You can get closer to a dragon than you can to a horse. Horses are smart within their own boundaries but dragons are very smart.

MALAKOFF: Her latest novel, co-written with her son Todd McCaffrey, is Dragon's Fire. When a fan invited her to his research station in Florida, she was introduced to another intelligent creature.

Ms. MCCAFFREY: He said, why don't I stop by? And he'd see that I got to swim with a dolphin. And oh my word, it included everything I thought of for dragons. So I knew that my dragons were viable because there was something swimming around in our oceans that's very much like a dragon.

MALAKOFF: Naomi Novik is the author of the Temeraire series, which she describes as the Napoleonic wars with dragons. Her novels have recently been optioned by Peter Jackson, director of the "Lord of the Rings."

Novik had another creature in mind when she sought to create the dragon Temeraire:

Ms. NAOMI NOVIK (Author): Dinosaurs. You know, when I was little I used to go to the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, which at the time had this setup of dinosaurs arranged in such a way that you really felt that you were looking up at this towering deadly creature. And it wasn't scary particularly. It was just enormously awe-inspiring.

KLEFFEL: Though each of the writers based their dragons on real animals, they've all taken care to portray dragons as the intelligent equals of the men and women who ride them. But not every writer starts out with smart dragons.

Mr. PAOLINI: I'm not sure exactly how to explain my approach to Saphira. When I started writing her, when she first hatches in Eragon, I never intended to have her become sentient.

KLEFFEL: Christopher Paolini realized that his dragon would have to be not just a monster but a character. And for Anne McCaffrey, intelligent dragons were a necessity as well.

Ms. MCCAFFREY: Then I thought, you didn't want something nearly 30 feet long just running around without any kind of control. So I decided to take the ducklings analogy, and the dragon bonded with some human. He was always presented with 30 or 40 kids, and he picked one with whom he could bond and the bond was indissoluble. If the dragon died, the rider wanted to. And if the rider died, the dragon committed suicide.

MALAKOFF: McCaffrey and Paolini both have their riders communicate with dragons using telepathy. Naomi Novik's dragons learned spoken language while still in the egg. But the rapport between the dragon Temeraire and his rider, Laurence, is powerful beyond the bonds of ordinary human relationships.

Ms. NOVIK: That is absolutely critical to me, that no matter, you know, if Laurence did marry, if Temeraire did take a permanent mate, they would still be the focal relationships of each other's lives. So I think a chaste romance is not a bad way to describe it, actually.

MALAKOFF: Anne McCaffrey takes the notion even further.

Ms. MCCAFFREY: The connection, the affection between dragon and rider is total. And it's like having your own guardian angel and you can say anything to it and it responds.

MALAKOFF: For Christopher Paolini, the connection is so strong as to become internalized.

Mr. PAOLINI: When Eragon begins to take a few tentative stabs at romance on his own, Saphira basically comes back to him and, you know, gives him a little talking to. And tells him, you know, well sure I want you to be happy, but anyone you happen to fall in love with - or anytime you have those sorts of feelings for someone else - that's going to affect me as well because I'm inside your head all day and you're inside my head and we just can't get away from that.

KLEFFEL: For each of these writers and for all the dragon riders, the dragons become a sort of fire breathing conscience, a means of externalizing inner conflicts in fictional worlds. But no matter how remote or fantastic the settings, dragons proved to be more than company for both their riders and readers. For NPR News, I'm Rick Kleffel.

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