Dragons are to fantasy what spaceships are to science fiction. A picture of one on the cover is an indicator of what sort of book you’re holding in your hands, and they’re the go-to monster for fantasy writers who want to tap into the rich vein of historical and cultural literature from which modern fantasy derives.
At their root, dragons are the antagonist in chaoskampf, the struggle to assert (or re-assert after cataclysm) order over the wild and mysterious power of the universe. When the hero slays the dragon, it’s a celebration of the ability of Man (yes, it’s usually a man) to prevail over hardship and lay claim to territory. The dragon not only evokes the wanton power of nature to make mockery of human achievements (in a similar way to tsunamis and hurricanes) but also the untamed aspect of nature. The idea that beneath the emerald veneer of the fields, deep in the black depths of the forests, lurk things that can never be controlled. Ultimately, dragons speak to the human (or at least, patriarchal) fear of not being the one holding the reins. They are an agent of ‘Panic fear’.
How they stopped dragons from nibbling on people in the Nibelung
Over the years writers have done a lot of cool things with dragons. They’ve explored other aspects of their nature, presented us with kindly dragons, friendly dragons, cuddly dragons… even heroic dragons. In tabletop wargames we see the champions of good riding in on them to decimate hordes of goblins. In epic fantasy, they take on more complex roles, such as the dragons of the Malazan Book of the Fallen; being able to shapeshift into dragon form makes Anomander Rake even more awe-inspiring, more in tune with the fundamental nature of the world in which he lives.
He turns into a dragon too? Jesus!
And, of course, there’s Smaug, lording it over all of these. What sort of dragon is Smaug? Well, he hordes gold and says things like, “I kill where I wish and none dare resist.” He’s not a dumb beast. He’s more like a twisted, arrogant tyrant. But he is still tied into the ancient mysteries of the world he inhabits, and in the unleashing of his fury remains the stuff of chaoskampf.
What’s in a name?
So we love our dragons. We paste them on our book covers and loose them on our hero’s people. But what do we name them?
Every fantasy writer agonises over the names of characters. We don’t settle on a name unless it feels absolutely right, unless it evokes in us (and hopefully, therefore, the readers) all the necessary associations and feelings. We don’t call our villain Aleysha Brightstone; we don’t call our hero Widowcutter Nightspawn. We don’t call our wizard Thunk Cudgeon, or our barbarian brawler Zenbengowlian the Wise. We work hard to come up with fitting names for humans and it doesn’t get much easier when it comes to naming dragons. So here are some thoughts I had to facilitate the naming process.
First of all, you need to know your dragon’s history. Is it an ancient predatory menace that has tyrannised the land for centuries, is it a member of an ancient and intelligent race, or is it just a monster bred for war by a general who just wanted a really amazing steed? Answer this question and you’re well on the way to coming up with a really suitable name for your dragon.
The Ancient Predatory Menace
Argh! It’s an ancient predatory menace!
Here’s a dragon who comes out of his cave once every hundred years or so to eat people, horses, elephants… and occasionally buildings. Given that he’s ancient, he would have been named in antiquity, perhaps in a language that is no longer spoken; or in an older form of the region’s current tongue.
Example: so, let’s have the people of the region call this creature The Derakyn because, in this particular fantasy world, this is the word for dragon in the ancient tongue.
The Ancient and Intelligent Race
Good job, owns cave, GSOH
This dragon has lived for thousands of years. He is wise and vicious, as likely to quote poetry as he is to devour your men-at-arms. What sort of name would he have?
Well, given that his race isn’t human, and given that his race is old, it would be a name that would sound different. He wouldn’t be called Doomwing or Firebreed, because this is the language of people, not the language of dragons.
Example: so how about something like Galuel. It’s odd, and it doesn’t sound like the sort of name a human would give to a dragon. It sounds like the name a dragon would give to a dragon.
The Impressive Steed
Nah, you can keep Shadowfax
Now, the king wanted something truly magnificent to travel upon, and a unicorn just wouldn’t do. So, he hired a mage and the owner of a local stallion stud farm to create a fabulous winged monstrosity. And they did. This dragon is a huge, gleaming animal, armour-plated and crystal-crested. Perfect to hoist the king into battle.
Example: so what name would such a beast likely have? Well, it was crafted by men, so it would have the sort of name a pet might have. Now we can brainstorm names like Skyspear, Hellwing, Fireswoop. Basically, ordinary human words that members of the society in question would use to describe something vast and winged and awesome. Let’s go with Skyspear.
These are just a few ideas of how to tackle the tricky process of naming a dragon, and ensuring that the monicker makes sense within the world you’ve built. I’m sure you have a lot of ideas too! Anyway, I hope it helps (or was, at least, amusing)!