(Originally published on the Nerdic Vikings website on 9th June 2017)
Dragons have always been one of the most popular mythical creatures to stick in your new movie or game, and for good reason – they’re majestic, intelligent and deadly, and let’s face it, they look frickin’ awesome.
But in the past few years a trend has developed in the entertainment industry for replacing dragons with wyverns and hoping nobody would notice.
The dragons in the TV series ‘Game of Thrones’? Nope. Daenerys Stormborn should actually be called the Mother of Wyverns.
The dragons in the Harry Potter movies? Guess what, they’re all wyverns again. Good news Harry, you haven’t got to fight dragons after all, so this competition you didn’t enter should be a bit easier for you.
Even Smaug, the King Under The Mountain from the Lord of the Rings books couldn’t escape being wyvernised for the big screen.
And the dragons in Skyrim? Let’s just says that being the Wyvernborn doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
I’m not knocking Paarthurnax, he’s awesome.
When I sat down to write this blog post, this was how it was going to start. It was all so simple! I was going to sit here and have a go at the entertainment industry for making all our favourite bad-ass dragons into mere wyverns, then go and have a cup of tea and a biscuit. I even had a good title for it: ‘Why, why why the Wyverns?’ But the more I looked at it, the more I realised that it isn’t as black and white as it seems, because you know what? It’s true that none of these on-screen creatures are dragons, but strangely, none of them are wyverns either.
Let me explain.
On the face of it this looks like an open-and-shut case, which was why I became a bit miffed about it in the first place. For example, in the Tolkein books Smaug was clearly a dragon; he had four legs and wings and was quadrupedal, just as a classic dragon should be. Yet in the movie ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’ he was relegated to only two legs and wings, the standard bipedal configuration for the dragon’s lesser cousin, the wyvern.
So I dug a little deeper, because I’m not one to spout off without checking my facts, right?
Wyverns, like dragons, are a part of our history and heraldry, and the word ‘wyvern’ is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘wivere’, meaning serpent or wyrm. You can find both in medieval folk tales and if you haven’t read the story ‘Maud and the Wyvern’, which was first transcribed in the 1790s but dates from much, much earlier, you totally should. It’s quite heart-wrenching.
But it’s generally accepted that dragons are much larger than their wyvern brethren, are usually highly intelligent, are capable of speech and intellectual conversation, and of course, they breathe fire. In contrast, wyverns are more like reptilian danger chickens. You couldn’t have a debate with one, and if you do get eaten, which is highly likely because of how bad-tempered they are, you’ll be raw because rampant fire-breathing isn’t in their repertoire.
And therein lies the dilemma! Whilst all the dragons I mentioned above have two legs and true wings like wyverns, they’re all far too large to actually be wyverns. And although the dragons from Game of Thrones and Harry Potter don’t talk and aren’t intelligent, making them closer to wyverns, they do breathe un-wyvern-like fire.
So the conclusion? They’re all wygons. And yes, I just made that word up.
Which brings us back to our original, if slightly amended, question; why would the entertainment industry try to fob us off with a bunch of hybrid wygons in the place of the true dragons we were expecting?
Probably the easiest to explain here is the mighty Smaug, and that’s simply because Benedict Cumberbatch did all the motion capture for this lord of all dragons. Nobody would want to waste all that magnificent cumberbatchiness, least of all Peter Jackson, right? And let’s face it, it’s easier to animate two legs and two wings based on the actor’s performance, rather than animate four legs and then try to create the wings from scratch.
And perhaps that’s why the wygons have risen, purely because of the animation factor.
For a start, the four-limbed configuration is much easier to fit onto a movie or TV screen and allows for a greater range of movement within those confines than a six-limbed creature.
But there’s also the fact that dragons don’t exist in nature, meaning that there’s nothing to draw upon in real life to make the animation believable – sure, you could look at lizards for the four-legged movement, but again you’ve got a left-over pair of wings that are a bit of a mystery.
Now, I know what you’re thinking – ‘Ragnhild, there aren’t any wyverns either, you silly Viking!’ And yes, while that’s true, there actually are some animals that do move in a very wyvern-esque fashion. Take the common vampire bat for example, which potters about on all fours when it’s not flitting around looking for mammals to suck on like a tiny Dracula. It’s not perfect, but it does give you a starting point animation-wise.
Having said all this though, you’ve got to admit that the entertainment-bred wygon does look pretty darned cool. I mean, come on, you could majestically ride one of those like a bad-ass, without having to scrunch up to avoid the massive additional wings. It’s that kind of thing which could put a severe crimp in your hero street cred.
So there you have it. The next time someone complains to you about all the wyverns in movies that aren’t supposed to be there, you can point out that they’re not actually wyverns, but wygons.
Oh, and before I let wygons be wygons? Kudos to CD Projekt Red, who got their reptilian danger chickens spot on in ‘The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’. Bravo!