A Complete and Scientific Classification of Cinematic DragonsJacob Hall |
Even after centuries of study and observation, we still don't understand dragons. No one has written the definitive dragon guide. Few scientists have devoted their lives to their study. The lack of proper field research means there is a dearth of facts on the subject of these winged, fire-breathing animals who frequently defy traditional classification.
In fact, much of what we do know about these magnificent beasts can be attributed to artists, who have documented their behavior for generations. Considering how rare dragons are in the wild, the films exploring the creatures have been a boon to both seasoned Draconologists and interested amateurs alike. Finally, we can observe dragons without having to venture into their territory.
With the highly anticipated film 'How to Train Your Dragon 2' set to begin a series of screenings among academic circles, we decided it was time to put pen to paper and do what biologists have failed to do for centuries -- it's time to begin surveying and classifying Draconia.
Here are the facts. Dragons belong the the kingdom Animalia and below that, the phylum Chordata. However, whatever connections they share to other creatures ends right there. Class Draconia is as deep and varied as any other biological class and it is here that our work truly begins. From here, you can divide Draconia into two specific orders (the Draconia Mysticaliformes and the Draconia Mundaniformes) before venturing further into the various families. In the interest of brevity, we will concentrate solely on the most documented Draconia -- this is a primer intended to encourage further scientific study, not a full and proper authoritative text.
Note: As we profile individual species, we will cite their most noteworthy documentary appearance for further study.
Dragons have more in common with long-extinct creatures like Unicorns and Leprechauns than they do with most modern animals. Like other "mythical" animals, Draconia Mysticaliformes have a deep-rooted connection to magic that separates them from not only other dragons, but the vast majority of life on Earth. These are the dragons that, in one way or another, defy rational thought through the spiritual and the seemingly impossible.
Magidae are driven by evolution and instinct. Despite magical origins or abilities, they are pure animals at their core, living to eat, mate and survive. Their connection to the mystical is incidental -- they are unaware that their supernatural abilities and traits are anything out of the ordinary.
The best footage of a Magidae can be found in the 1924 film 'Die Dibelungen' (d. Fritz Lang). In a particularly cruel sequence, a wandering warrior slays a dragon and bathes in the creature's blood, granting him invincibility. Although the poaching of magical dragons for their blood is considered cruel in modern society, the film illustrates the Magidae perfectly: it's just an animal, albeit an animal with extraordinary properties.
A more incomprehensible collection of Magidae footage can be found in 'D-War' (d. Shim Hyung-rae). Although they're closely involved in the machinations of human puppet masters, these dragons are still very much wild animals, just wild animals who have been partially domesticated through the use of magical totems and spells.
We may know little about the common Magidae or Bestiade, but we know even less about the Christodae. In the eyes of many people, trying to understand these seemingly omniscient dragons is like trying to understand God -- it may not even be science. However, many Draconologists argue that these one-of-a-kind dragons simply defy typical classification and require intensive study to fully understand.
In the Japanese series 'Dragonball Z' (d. Daisuke Nishio), the dragon known as Shenron is summoned whenever someone assembles the mystical "Dragonballs." Once summoned, Shenron will grant a single wish, showcasing abilities that defy all logic and reason. Thankfully, most of the granted wishes over the years have been benevolent in nature, but Shenron's neutrality is troubling.
Like Sociodaes or even Sapiendaes, Christodaes showcase human qualities (including a command of language), but their lack of a moral compass makes them more potentially dangerous than any other dragon in this study.
The vast majority of dragons are born in and maintain a single form, but Transmogradeas are unique. Many of them are initially human who, through intentional or accidental magic tampering, shatter every rule in biology and join the Draconia. For this reason, it's better to examine Transmogradae as human beings with the body of dragons instead of wild animals. Their desires and intentions generally remain human, even when their body is anything but.
Due to dragons being perceived in most cultures as a symbol of power, it's not surprising that the most famous Transmogradae often have roots in royalty and the elite. Maleficent of 'Sleeping Beauty' (p. Walt Disney) is the most notable example of this particular dragon type, but her brisk defeat proves that a more evolved human mind is often not enough to maximize the potential of a dragon's form. A similar fate befell Queen Narissa in 'Enchanted' (d. Kevin Lima). Dragons may be natural born killing machines, but a human who transforms into a dragon doesn't have thousands of years of evolution and instinct on his or her side.
One of the few truly successful Transmogradae on record is Haku, as seen in 'Spirited Away' (d. Hayao Miyazaki). Although susceptible to mind control and manipulation (his other form is a young boy, after all), Haku is the rare transforming dragon who doesn't perish quickly and brutally. Many Draconologists argue that the high death rate among Transmogradae dragons is simply nature course correcting and stopping human beings from overturning the proverbial evolutionary ladder.
While most Transmogradae are the result of a magical event, others are born into it, like Beowulf's half-human, half-dragon son in 'Beowulf' (d. Robert Zemeckis). Like so much of his brethren, he's not long for the world, but he's fascinating evidence that transforming dragons can be the result of proper biological reproduction, not just a magic incantation. Draconologists are hoping to replicate these results in a controlled environment in the near future.
Despite their dominant position on the food chain, some dragons are not only peaceful, but allies of the human race. Draconologists still debate whether or not Sociodaes are the result of long-term and long-forgotten selective breeding, but their friendly nature does not imply domestication. These are still wild animals, but they're wild animals with a strange desire for companionship, operating in service of evolutionary tics that cannot be explained without further study.
There appears to be an unwritten hierarchy among the Sociodaes. At the bottom are the most gentle and passive of the bunch, dragons without a single aggressive bone in their bodies. These particular creatures tend to grow attached to young children, offering assistance through troubled times or company through dangerous lands. "Elliot," a dragon caught on film in 'Pete's Dragon' (d. Don Chaffey) may be the source of various "guardian angel" myths from around the world due to his need to assist young people from behind his cloak of invisibility. H.R. Pufnstuf, the subject of the series bearing his name (d. Sid Kroft and Marty Kroft) is even more peculiar, actually holding political office and using his powers to save children from occult forces.
The next rung belongs to companion dragons who are "assigned" to individual humans, seemingly from powers beyond our current comprehension. Some of these Sociodaes keep themselves hidden from view and act as quiet advisors. Others get more actively involved in the plight of their chosen human. This type is best exemplified by Mushu in 'Mulan' (d. Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook) and Falkor the "luckdragon" in 'The Neverending Story' (d. Wolfgang Peterson), both of whom meddle in human affairs when commanded or when the fate of their territory is at stake.
Finally, there are the dragons who are intrinsically bound to a specific human for reasons often defined by magic (or an unexplored psychic science). Saphira in 'Eragon' (d. Stefen Fangmeier) is a prime example. Bound to her to rider, she communicates telepathically and generally bows to his every whim in an unsettling example of what happens when dragons get a little too domesticated.
Like Sociodaes, Sapiendae dragons showcase qualities that are disarmingly human. But unlike their gentle cousins, they often have no interest in a passive, partially domesticated existence. Like humans from which they draw their name, Sapiendae are greedy, vain and violent, always in pursuit of more never getting enough. Unlike the simpleminded Magidas (who kills as a wild animal kills), these dragons operate outside of pure instinct. They have desires that could be mistaken for human.
These desires often don't make much logical sense. Why does Smaug, who was extensively filmed in his natural habitat in 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' (d. Peter Jackson), crave the riches hidden underneath Erebor? What use does a dragon have with human riches that he will never actually spend? Even the less-evolved Sapiendae are inherently cruel. Verminthrax Pejorative, the subject of 'Dragonslayer' (d. Matthew Robbins), lacks Smaug's ability to speak, but she does readily and greedily accept virgin sacrifices when they're offered.
That's the contradiction of so many Sapiendae: they're often cruel for no reason. Something in their genetic make-up is fundamentally broken, giving them pithy human wants without the ability to act on them in a fashion that would prove productive. In a millennia, they could evolve and replace humans, but right now, they're just nature's own perfectly manufactured sociopaths.
However, their human-like free will does run both ways. 'Dragonheart' (d. Rob Cohen) features Sapiendae dragons who straddle a more gray moral line, actively working alongside human beings and against them depending on the whims. The main subject of of the film, Draco, is ultimately a martyr for the human cause, but his willingness to act as a con man and deceive others for his own personal benefit intrinsically ties him to the likes of Smaug. This moral flexibility is rare in dragons and generally only found in the Sapiendae (and only in a few specific examples). Many Draconologists theorize that these are the furthest evolved dragons, animals who have taken on enough intellect to develop a moral compass and the narrowest semblance of a culture.
For additional study, we recommend 'Shrek' (d. Andrew Adamson). Although predominately an expose on the life of the now-extinct Ogre, the film features extensive footage of a Sapiendae dragon who, despite lacking advanced communication skills, falls in love with an Equus africanus asinus and makes the deliberate choice to change her ways. The concept of emotional and intellectual freewill was once relegated to the realm of Man -- if dragons were not frequently hunted to the brink of extinction, they would be poised to overtake human civilization in a few thousand years.
Not all dragons can be classified as "magical animals." Dracona Mundaniformes frequently share physical similarities with Draconia Mysticaliformes, but the comparison is, often literally, only skin deep. This order has no magical traits and its members are pure biological specimens. They are large winged beasts who breathe fire, but they exist without mysticism or the help of supernatural sciences. They are creatures crafted by nature and nature alone.
Often jokingly referred to as "no-frills" dragons, Bestiadae are an anomaly among their kind in that they have few traits that could be considered truly spectacular. However, their lack of panache (for lack of a better term) is part of why they're fascinating. They have evolved to become what they are with limited human interaction and no magical abilities. Like the Magidae, they wild animals driven by their natural urges, unaware of their rarity. They have become perfect hunters and companions on their own.
To best appreciate how wide and varied the Bestiadae can be, it is highly recommended that interested parties seek out 'Reign of Fire' (d. Rob Bowman) and 'How to Train Your Dragon' (d. Dean DiBlois and Chris Sanders ), both of which offer unique perspectives on this particular family.
'Reign of Fire' is one of the most negative dragon film ever produced, but its footage is often remarkable and worthy of study. Combining footage from the field with a speculative and fictional look at a potential future world if the dragon population isn't contained, the film is pure anti-dragon propaganda. However, the actual dragon footage is nothing short of spectacular, showcasing animals that are so highly evolved and deadly that it's impossible to believe that there are no magical traits coursing through their veins. The film is also noteworthy for hypothesizing that a dragon's fire-breathing abilities are the result of a natural chemical mixture in the throat that creates a sort of all-natural napalm.
'How to Train Your Dragon' is as positive as 'Reign of Fire' is negative, presenting its subjects as noble creatures who are capable of forming fast and strong bonds with particular humans. Although some criticism has been leveled against the film for its strong pro-dragon domestication stance, the film is remarkable for showcasing so many various species of dragon. Although less famous than their magical cousins, Bestiadae outnumber all of the dragons two-to-one, with more species being discovered every day. This film's impact on the scientific community cannot be overstated. For the first time in decades, Draconology is a growing field and we can thank massive public interest in Bestiadae for it.
If we can barely understand the dragons who inhabit our own planet, how do we even begin to study those that came here from beyond the stars? That's the problem with studying Peregrinusdae, dragons that have origins on other planets. Their physiology is literally alien to us and it is impossible for us to know if they share any traits with species found on their home world.
What we do know is that Earth seems to have a habit of rejecting these transplanted creatures. The most infamous of Earth's many Peregrinusdae visitors is undoubtedly King Ghidorah, the three-headed dragon documented in 'Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Dragon' (d. Ishiro Honda). A vicious and almost unstoppable creature, humanity has had to rely on assistance from the likes of Godzilla (who, contrary to popular belief, is a dinosaur, not a dragon) to avoid total annihilation. Although Godzilla has done mankind a great service in opposing him, their frequent battles have not given scientists enough time to observe how an unhindered King Ghidorah would act in the wild. Until then, we can only speculate on his actual behavior.
The final family of dragons is one of the most odd and specific. In most aspects of their behavior, physical appearance and demeanor, Raradae dragons resemble the Bestiadae. They're straightforward creatures operating on basic instinct. However, unlike their close brethren, they are more uncommon and exist only in areas with strong connections to the mystical.
That's not to say they're magical animals. On the contrary, Raradae dragons never show an affinity for the supernatural and their physiology is no more extraordinary than that of a typical Bestiadae. In fact, the main difference between these two families is geographical. They exist only in magical places or come into existence due to magical forces, but the magic itself has no bearing on their actual life or behavior.
Prime examples of Raradae can be found in the 'Harry Potter' series of films (d. various). Although predominately a series dealing with the unknown plight of the world's Wizarding population, the films showcase dragons who are born and protected in magical spheres of influence. Other than their deep connection to the magical world, they exhibit typical Bestiadae behavior, although these particular species tend to respond poorly domestication.
In fact, Raradae dragons seem more resistant to taming than the other animalistic breeds. The dragons showcased in the HBO nature series 'Game of Thrones' (d. various), who only come into existence thanks to powerful blood magic before abandoning all magical traits, quickly grow too large and unruly to be fully controlled. 'If How to Train Your Dragon' is a strong argument for dragons as pets, 'Game of Thrones' is sobering warning.
This is not a definitive document. However, it is our intention that it opens the discussion regarding Draconia, "breaking the ice" for the scientific community, so to speak. These amazing creatures deserve our attention and respect outside of a television screen. It's time to acknowledge their existence and devote the necessary time and resources to their study and classification.
Thank you for your time.
Dr. Jacob S. Hall, PhD, Doctor of Dragon Studies, specializing in taxonomy and biological systems.