GUY RAZ, HOST:
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If you're a fan of the HBO series, "Game of Thrones," which begins again tomorrow, you may also like dragons which feature prominently in the series. And it just so happens that dragons are also featured in two new movies, a new book, new video games and a museum exhibit.
Why now? NPR's Allison Keyes investigates.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: In many Asian cultures, this is the year of the dragon. At Washington, D.C.'s parade marking the auspicious occasion, Jalen Ahmad was among the grinning people standing along the route, watching the multihued dragons prance sinuously down the street. He says the year of the dragon is exciting and significant in the Chinese zodiac.
JALEN AHMAD: I feel like for the dragon, it's very powerful, strong, courageous.
KEYES: Six-year-old Micora DuBos, here with her mom, likes dragons for their looks, not their brains.
So, do you think they're pretty?
MICORA DUBOS: Yes.
KEYES: Do you think they're smart?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KEYES: But, Micora, they are cunning. That must be how they've wormed their way so deeply into our hearts.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUFF, THE MAGIC DRAGON")
PETER, PAUL AND MARY: (Singing) Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea...
KEYES: From Peter, Paul and Mary's friendly, playful dragon to the terrifying dragons of the top-selling video game "The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim" to "Game of Thrones," where three baby dragons are about to cause all sorts of drama.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GAME OF THRONES")
EMILIA CLARKE: (as Daenerys Targaryen) When my dragons are grown, we will take back what was stolen from me and destroy those who wronged me.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MERLIN")
JOHN HURT: (as The Dragon) None of us can choose our destiny, Merlin.
KEYES: Then there's Kilgharrah, the sly dragon who is both friend and sometime foe to King Arthur's protector Merlin in the BBC TV series.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MERLIN")
HURT: (As the Dragon) And none of us can escape it.
I thought it would be quite fun to play a dragon.
KEYES: Actor John Hurt just received two British lifetime achievement awards and plays the great dragon on the show. He says Kilgharrah is an interesting character who just happens to be a dragon, and that dragon cares for both Merlin and Camelot.
HURT: He cares about the country, you know? He cares in his own way. But, I mean, he is a dragon, so therefore, he can't be completely relied upon.
KEYES: Hurt echoes scholars who believe one of the reasons dragons permeate cultures around the world is because fossils that somewhat resemble dragons have been found all over the planet, some before there had been any study of paleontology.
HURT: It's very early findings of dinosaurs and so on. And I think that's where the mythology of the dragon came from.
LEE TALBOT: For thousands of years, people around the world have told stories of these mythical creatures with supernatural powers.
KEYES: Lee Talbot is a curator at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. The museum is currently running an exhibition called Dragons, Nagas and Creatures of the Deep. The oldest piece in it is a tunic panel from fifth century Egypt featuring an ancestor of the modern dragon.
TALBOT: Technically, the name of the creature is a hypocamp. And it is a cross between a horse and a fish.
KEYES: Talbot says at the same time on the other side of the world in china there was a legend about a dragon that was also a cross between a fish and a horse. He points at an elaborate navy blue gauze jacket from early 18th century China adorned with fearsome looking golden dragons with open mouth and outstretched claws.
TALBOT: Only the emperor of China, his wife and immediate family were allowed to wear five-clawed dragons.
KEYES: In East Asia, dragons are symbols of power and protection and are closely related to water and rainfall. But in Europe, dragons are seen as dangerous. The curator says they're worse than that in the Christian tradition.
TALBOT: The stories of, for example, St. George and the Dragon, the dragon started to symbolize evil and Satan, and then the saint symbolizing Christianity battling paganism.
KEYES: But that just covers the dragons on this planet. The extraterrestrial dragons in author Todd McCaffrey's world are beyond friendly. He says these dragons, from the iconic "Dragonriders of Pern" series, bonds telepathically with their riders.
TODD MCCAFFREY: So you really didn't want something that big and that powerful not united with a human in a way that would allow us to survive.
KEYES: By big, McCaffrey means the size of a wide-bodied jet plane. Pern's dragons have head knobs like giraffes, multifaceted eyes and skin rather like the hide of a horse. But McCaffrey says he thinks the reason people are so fascinated by dragons goes way beyond their looks.
MCCAFFREY: I think dragons are a really fundamental embodiment of our wishes and dreams.
KEYES: On top of that, McCaffrey says they're incredibly powerful and they embody the best of humans and their aspirations.
MCCAFFREY: Dragons are sort of like the love of dinosaurs that little kids have but now they can fly. And they breathe fire too. How much better can it get?
KEYES: Allison Keyes, NPR News.