Did we say three examples of dragon description in Wonderbook? We meant more than that, surely? Below find juxtaposed several different approaches by some of our finest writers. In studying them, what seems the same and what is different? Which approaches are more or less immediately compelling, and why? How would your own approach differ?
Excerpt from the novel The Farthest Shore by Ursula K Le Guin
“In Serilune,” said Arren, “is the skin of Bar Oth, killed by Keor Prince of Enlad three hundred years ago. No dragons have ever come to Enlad since that day. I saw the skin of Bar Oth. It is heavy as iron, and so large that if it were spread out it would cover all the marketplace of Serilune, they said. The teeth are as long as my forearm. Yet they said Bar Oth was a young dragon, not full grown.”
“There is a desire in you,” said Sparrowhawk, “to see dragons.”
“Their blood is cold, and venomous. You must not look into their eyes. They are older than mankind. . . ” He was silent a while, and then went on, “And though I came to forget or regret all I have ever done, yet I would remember that once I saw the dragons aloft on the wind at sunset above the western isles; and I would be content.”
“The Ice Dragon,” an excerpt from a story by George R. R. Martin
The ice dragon was large, half again the size of the scaled green war dragons that Hal and his fellows flew. Adara had heard legends of wild dragons larger than mountains, but she had never seen any. Hal’s dragon was big enough, to be sure, five times the size of a horse, but it was small compared to the ice dragon, and ugly besides.
The ice dragon was a crystalline white, that shade of white that is so hard and cold that it is almost blue. It was covered with hoarfrost, so when it moved its skin broke and crackled as the crust on the snow crackles beneath a man’s boots, and flakes of rime fell off.
Its eyes were clear and deep and icy.
Its wings were vast and batlike, colored all a faint translucent blue. Adara could see the clouds through them, and oftentimes the moon and stars, when the beast wheeled in frozen circles through the skies.
Its teeth were icicles, a triple row of them, jagged spears of unequal length, white against its deep blue maw.
“The Miracle Aquilina,” an excerpt from a story by Margo Lanagan
Completed, the creature described a great hunched curve, nearly to my eye-level on the high platform; all men were dolls beside it, and the shepherdess was the smallest doll of all. Spiked head to tail-tip, was the beast, with knife-blades become spines, and its claws were of the same sharpness. Its mouth could not contain all its mass of teeth, but two of them must needle upward and another two down, outside its lips of glinting mail. From its nostrils puffed an air choking in its heat and smell, and the thing did not care that we could not breathe it, we courtiers, we watchers. All its attention, as a cat’s is with a sparrow, was directed from the limits of its poised body, its bunched muscles, through its dazzle-yellow eyes, upon the woman before it, standing in my view like a priest between candles, between the two gleaming uprights of its projecting teeth.
“Orm the Beautiful,” an excerpt from a story by Elizabeth Bear
Orm the Beautiful stretched his long neck among the glorious rubble of his kin and dozed to their songs. Soon he would be with them, returned to their harmony, their many-threaded round. Only his radiance illuminated them now. Only his eye remembered their sheen. And he too would lose the power to shine with more than reflected light before long, and all in the mother-cave would be dark and full of music.
He was pale, palest of his kin, blue-white as skimmed milk and just as translucent. The flash that ran across his scales when he crawled into the light, however, was spectral: green-electric and blue-actinic, and a vermilion so sharp it could burn an afterimage in a human eye.
It had been a long time since he climbed into the light. Perhaps he’d seal the cave now, to be ready.
When he was done, he lay down among his treasures, his beloveds, under the mountain, and his thoughts were dragonish.
“Dragon’s Fin Soup,” an excerpt from a story by S.P. Somtow
The dragon could not, of course, be seen all in one piece. There was, in the kitchen of the Rainbow Cafe, a hole in one wall, about nine feet in diameter. One coil of the dragon came through this wall and curved upward toward a similar opening in the ceiling. I did not know where the dragon ended or began. One assumed this was a tail section because it was so narrow. I had seen a dragon whole only in my dreams, or in pictures. Rumor had it that this dragon stretched all the way to Nonthaburi, his slender body twisting through ancient sewer pipes and under the foundations of century-old buildings. He was bound to my family by an ancient spell in a scroll that sat on the altar of the household gods, just above the cash register inside the restaurant proper. He was unimaginably old and unimaginably jaded, stunned rigid by three thousands years of human magic, his scales so lusterless that I had to buff them with furniture polish to give them some semblance of draconian majesty.
“The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule,” an excerpt from a story by Lucius Shepard
Meric was weary of being awestruck, but even so he could not help marvelling at the eye. By his estimate it was 70 feet long and 50 feet high, and it was shuttered by an opaque membrane that was unusually clear of algae and lichen, glistening, with vague glints of colour visible behind it. As the westering sun reddened and sank between two distant hills, the membrane began to quiver and then split open down the centre. With the ponderous slowness of a theatre curtain opening, the halves slid apart to reveal the glowing humour. Terrified by the idea that Griaule could see him, Meric sprang to his feet, but Jarcke restrained him.
“Stay still and watch,” she said.
He had no choice – the eye was mesmerizing. The pupil was slit and featureless black, but the humour… he had never seen such fiery blues and crimsons and golds. What had looked to be vague glints, odd refractions of the sunset, he now realized were photic reactions of some sort. Fairy rings of light developed deep within the eye, expanded into spoked shapes, flooded the humour, and faded – only to be replaced by another and another. He felt the pressure of Griaule’s vision, his ancient mind, pouring through him, and as if in response to this pressure, memories bubbled up in his thoughts. Particularly sharp ones. The way a bowlful of brush water had looked after freezing over during a winter’s night – a delicate, fractured flower of murky yellow. An archipelago of orange peels that his girl had left strewn across the floor of the studio. Sketching atop Jokenam Hill one sunrise, the snowcapped roofs of Regensburg below pitched at all angles like broken paving stones, and silver shafts of the sun striking down through a leaden overcast. It was as if these things were being drawn forth for his inspection. Then they were washed away by what also seemed a memory, though at the same time it was wholly unfamiliar. Essentially, it was a landscape of light, and he was plunging through it, up and up. Prisms and lattices of iridescent fire bloomed around him, and everything was a roaring fall into brightness, and finally he was clear into its white furnace heart, his own heart swelling with the joy of his strength and dominion.
Readers can find all but the Le Guin excerpt in Wings of Fire, an anthology of fantasy fiction featuring dragons. Thanks to Jonathan Strahan for his help, and Tessa Kum for compiling the quotes. Copyright retained by the individual writers.