24 Agosto 2017 07:49
In the fantasy world of George R.R. Martin, the age-old universal symbology is reinterpreted
The concept of the dragon as a universal symbol of the struggle between good and evil or life and death can be clearly seen in the last episode of Game of Thrones with the appearance of the awe-inspiring ‘ice dragon’.
So, while, until now, Daenerys’ children were simply out-of-control, hot-tempered and violent creatures, after the pivotal showdown with the Night King’s Army, these characters must now be framed within a wider story: their strengths have been polarised in a Manichaean tale that pits them against a cold, empty and merciless enemy.
It is no surprise that Drogon, Viserion, Rhaegal and Balerion, the four-winged reptiles dreamed into existence by George R.R. Martin for his saga A Song of Fire and Ice, are already among the best-known dragons in literary history. The success of the HBO television series has made them almost household names among the wider public. However, the recent appearance of the improbable ‘ice dragon’ may constitute a new milestone in the depiction of this mythological animal.
In A World of Ice and Fire, ice dragons are mentioned as mere fantasy, a story that was told in the North to frighten young children:
‘Colossal beasts, many times larger than the dragons of Valyria, said to be made of living ice, with eyes of pale blue crystal and vast translucent wings through which the moon and stars can be glimpsed as they wheel across the sky. Whereas common dragons (if any dragon can truly be said to be common) breathe flame, ice dragons supposedly breathe cold, a chill so terrible that it can freeze a man solid in half a heartbeat… As ice dragons supposedly melt when slain, no actual proof of their existence has ever been found.’
Although ice dragons are a rare exception, in the ‘Game of Thrones’ universe, like other mythological settings, the idea of the ‘common dragon’ and how its symbology is interpreted is unclear: throughout history, dragons have been portrayed in many different ways.
Undoubtedly, the country where these mythical beasts are held in the highest esteem is China, the home of the Heavenly Dragon, a totemic animal that has left an indelible mark on the nation’s cultural history. A symbol throughout the country, the people of China call themselves ‘descendants of the dragon’. The dragon is the embodiment of valor, daring, power, excellence, divinity, perseverance and heroism.
Depictions of the Heavenly Dragon are not unfamiliar to us. Since the Han dynasty, it has been described as a being with the body of a snake, the scales of a carp, the tail of a whale, the antlers of a stag, the face of a camel, the claws of an eagle, the ears of a bull, the feet of a tiger and the eyes of a locust. It is a noble and friendly creature, associated with the element of water.
Shenron, from ‘Dragon Ball’ is an almost exact match for this description.
This perception of the dragon as a benign divinity is an exception. In the west, one of the first representations of a dragon was Nidhogg - which means ‘malice striker’, an animal who feeds on the roots of the Yggdrasil, the tree of life in Norse mythology.
Fafnir, the dragon that Siegfried must slay in The Song of the Nibelungs - an epic poem that includes many of the legends that make up germanic mythology - is a direct descendant of Nidhogg: also related with the sources of life, its blood gave the German hero the gift of invulnerability.
Likewise, in Ancient Greece, this creature again appears as a guardian of a tree. Ladon or the Dragon of Hesperides was charged with protecting the golden apples that grew in the garden of the goddess Hera. The story is a well-known one, as it was none other than Hercules who had to face the dragon in order to steal the precious fruits, a feat that constituted one of his famous twelve labours.
('Hercules and the Serpent Ladon', by Antonio Tempesta, 1608)
In this regard, the Italian painter and engraver Antonio Tempesta, for the title of his work, used the word ‘serpent’ to describe Ladon - dragons in Christian tradition being associated with Satan -, its serpentine form again depicted descending from a tree. Considered demonic symbols, in the mythical bestiaries of the Middle Ages, dragons were the true enemy of God and man, to the extent that in Romantic art they were always depicted as slain animals.
Although conceptually they were conceived as winged serpents, in paintings and sculptures dragons are closer to a bipedal bird with the head of a dog, large eyes, pointed ears, long jaws and the tail of a snake. It wasn’t until the Gothic period that the wings of this malign beast and creature of the underworld would be drawn with membranous limbs, like those of a bat. In addition, the dragon grew a jagged crest on its head.
This evolution in iconography would influence the imagery of the painter and poet, William Blake, whose anthropological Great Red Dragon compels us to rethink the significance of the dragon.
Blake’s paintings are inspired by a landscape of the Apocalypse, called ‘The Vision of the Woman and the Dragon’. We are, once again, faced with the struggle between good and evil:
‘A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. / Because she was with child, she wailed aloud in pain as she laboured to give birth. / Then another sign appeared in the sky: it was a huge dragon, flaming red, with seven heads and ten horns; on his heads were seven diadems. / His tail swept a third of the stars from the sky and hurled them down to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, ready to devour her child when it should be born.
Many scholars have pointed out that for Blake, the dragon has a human form because, as he says in one of his poems, titled ‘A Divine Image’:
‘Cruelty has a human heart,
And Jealousy a human face;
Terror the human form divine,
And secrecy, the human dress.'
The Argentine writer Ernesto Sabato seems to have held a similar view. The first chapter of his best-known novel, On Heroes and Tombs, published in 1961, is titled ‘The Dragon and the Princess’, and centres on a young girl called Alejandra, who is as special and ethereal as the inspiration for Blake’s works, the Woman of the Apocalypse.
In Sabato’s tale, the woman is not the antagonist of the demonic beast, but rather is a dragon-princess herself, ‘an indiscernible monster, at once chaste and fiery, innocent and repellent: like a virgin child dressed for communion dreaming of reptiles and bats.’
('Saint George and the Dragon’, Paolo Uccello, 1440)
This reading clearly opposes the Manichaean tradition that juxtaposes the innocent princess with the corrupt animal. It is a far cry from the Saint George who does battle with the dragon to save the King’s daughter or the Japanese demon-dragon Yofune-Nushi, who thirsts for human flesh; for Sabato, the dragon-princess would be nothing more than a symbol of an animal that cannot help but harm others.
So with the appearance of the ‘ice dragon’ in ‘Game of Thrones’, we see the same universal symbology, once again reinterpreted: a dragon-princess, the dragons themselves and the eternal struggle between light and darkness, good and evil, fire and ice, life and death.
But, how have these elements been reorganised? Does the ice dragon represent the armies of the underworld as a counterpoint to the pure, brave and noble dragons? Or is it a struggle between beasts who are all as corrosive as each other, and which need one another to uphold the balance? Is this a fable about cruelty, in which humans and dragons form part of the same destructive drive?
All that is clear is that unlike other dragons from modern literature - J.R.R. Tolkien’s Smaug, Michael Ende’s Falkor, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Kalessin or J.K. Rowling’s Norbert -, the dragons created by George R.R. Martin leave us no option but to reinterpret their universal symbology. But to find out how, we must wait for the American author to finish writing The Winds of Winter.