When Guillot is tasked with slaying the last of the dragons in Duncan M. Hamilton’s Dragonslayer, the first in a planned fantasy trilogy, the character is way past his prime. All bets should be on the dragon, but a semblance of that knightly duty remains—even though Guillot struggles with alcoholism and is actively thwarted by someone high in power, there’s tension in the narrative. Could Guillot actually win?
Knights and dragons — it’s a tale as old as fiction and mythology. The traditional sort of dragon—winged, fire breathing—was popularized in the Middle Ages, the most famous story being St. George slaying the dragon. That story was immortalized in a Raphael painting, circa 1506, titled “Saint George and the Dragon,” that now resides in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.
Dragons have been an enduring story and iconography throughout history. You’re hard pressed to find a culture without a dragon or dragon-like entity. Ancient China, Sumeria, Nepal, Tibet… even the Aztec had a dragon-like creature woven into their iconography. A fantastical creature possibly derived from a combination of imagination and seeing real creatures like crocodiles, or in some cases finding fossilized dinosaur bones, the dragon is something as universal as the act of telling stories.
Dragons were thought of as creatures to be overcome by the most gallant and saintly, and thus you can hardly see a story involving a knight without a scaly, fire-spouting foe. Even though the book The Story of King Arthur and His Knights, published in 1903, didn’t contain any dragons, the many variations on that tale since have often incorporated the creature as something for King Arthur’s knights to surmount. By the time we get to the BBC’s Merlin, the wise yet destructive dragon was such an important part of the narrative, he was voiced by none other than British acting icon John Hurt.
We’ve seen the image of the dragon take a decidedly friendlier turn. Perhaps the beginnings of this could be seen in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series published in 1967. There, the series was science fiction instead of the usual fantasy, because the dragons were genetically engineered. It made McCaffrey the first women to win a Hugo Award, and spawned a rich fandom in which fans “play” Pern, creating original characters to inhabit the fictional world.
In movies, we’ve seen Pete the Dragon (1977 and 2016) and Dragonheart (1996), both unabashed family romps that basically give the character a magical best friend. The Inheritance Cycle, a book series by Christopher Paolini, also played on the dragon-riding fun, and was eventually made into a lackluster movie.
Not all dragons had to be series either. Ever read Myth Adventures by Robert Asprin, published from 1978 to 2002? Because you should. The main character has a pet dragon called Gleep who only says the word “gleep.”
History is cyclical. What’s old becomes new again. As you might have noticed, dragons have returned to popular fiction in recent years as their fearsome selves—most notably the Cumber-beast Smaug in The Hobbit, Daenerys’s besties in Game of Thrones (both adaptations of books published in 1937 and 1996, respectively.)
The kids get How to Train Your Dragon’s Toothless. The grown ups with an HBO Go password get what happens if you don’t train your dragon to be a big puppy. The shift from monster to friend to monster again—it’s paralleled in fiction’s exploration of other fantastical creatures, like vampires, werewolves, etc. (I have yet to hear of any angsty sparkling dragons and, if there are some, feel free not to share them. Some things are meant to be slain.)
We’ve had fantastic stories told that resonate with an audience long after the last pages or last episodes have aired. You still hear shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad mentioned — these shows broke down the usual expectations about gangsters and drug dealers and created quality entertainment. We’re seeing that in our fantasy and science fiction, too. A classic foe—the dragon—can return to fiction and represent an audience’s need for more than just a good guy fighting a bad monster.
Reinvention has kept old stories and concepts fresh. Take for example, the bold brash action in the Amazon Prime series The Boys. Gone are the usual tenets of a hero’s compulsion to seek justice. Instead we get a super violent, ugly view of a corporatized hero system designed to sell movies and stuff and pander to the American dream while sweeping accidental and wrongful deaths under the rug.
When speaking to Den of Geek about his creative process, author Duncan M. Hamilton explained: “For the dragons, I leaned toward real myths and legends as a starting point, then embellished to my own taste as I went.” That embellishment created more than just a monster of legend, but a being with a rich inner life that allowed the reader to take a peek inside his head for a few chapters.
In many ways, Dragonslayer represents a return to the classic story of a gallant knight riding into battle against a fire-breathing beast. What it does well is the fact that our hero is hardly suited for the task anymore, and that our dragon is even questioning his own motives. In Dragonslayer, chapters take turns seeing from Guillot the knight’s point of view, the sorceress he befriends, his human adversary, and the dragon himself. From each character’s perspective, we see their wants and needs, their motivations and the dangers they face. We empathize, even, when faced with the adversaries of the hero. Even when that adversary is a great scaly beast.
Hamilton told us: “I think being able to empathize with the dragon makes for a far more compelling story.” It does. Looking at the dragon in a new light also helps illuminate how special our protagonist is. Guillot is not a knight in shining armor. He was, once, but he’s let himself go. He’s almost reprehensible, wasting away his days as a drunkard and a nuisance to his town, languishing in his bad memories.
Guillot often bemoans his ineptitude in the beginning, even feeling guilty when the sorceress thanks him for rescuing her from certain death: “The praise made Gill feel uncomfortable. He was a drunk who had pissed his life away because things hadn’t gone his way. He thought about admitting that he had still been drunk when he’d rescued her, but couldn’t bring himself to say it.”
But when the call to action comes, he answers, even if he begrudges being out of shape and out of practice. In this way, Guillot is more like the reader than many heroes in classic fantasy stories. Once a skilled swordsman, he’s woefully out of practice, and rides forth believing full well that this could be his end.
Add to this the search for a relic that may be even more important than anyone realizes. This relic ends up having a deep significance to Guillot, something that he and his allies won’t realize right away until the pieces start falling together with each new discovery. And who happens to have that relic in their claws? I think you might see how this all ties together…
Alliances are made, promises broken, secret histories revealed—and it all revolves around the discovery of a dragon waking up from a long snooze.
Taking something old and making it new again—it’s a way to show familiar ideas but make them fresh. It’s an opportunity to explore new territory. Hamilton certainly accomplishes this in Dragonslayer.
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