Look, in the world of Nerdery, dragons are a pretty big deal. They're among the archetypical monsters of the human narrative tradition; something that passes for a dragon can be found in the folklore of peoples from all parts of the world. They're in both the Asian and Western zodiac, and the Archangel Michael and St. George each famously kicked a dragon's ass. And they hold a special place in the hearts of nerds, in fiction ranging from Eddison's Worm Ouroboros to the Chronicles of Narnia to Game of Thrones, and movies from Dragonheart to Reign of Fire to Eragon. They are, for that matter, what just naturally comes after the phrase "Dungeons and..."
But even within the world of Dragon-dom, Smaug is a pretty big deal. Indeed, the hoarder dragon from Tolkien's The Hobbit is the all-but-undisputed heavyweight champ of his kind. He was depicted fairly well in the 1977 Rankin-Bass animated version of the tale, voiced by the oddly but effectively cast western star Richard Boone. But he has now been realized, almost more spectacularly than could have been hoped for, in Peter Jackson's current The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
So even if Jackson's movie has fallen short of last year's Hobbit at the box office, it still seems like an auspicious time to recognize a few of Smaug's runners-up. But understand that I'm well aware that this is a personal, whatever-comes-to-mind list, and that even if it ran to 30, 50 or a hundred examples, there would still be entirely worthy dragons omitted. The dragons here, however, though rooted in classical mythology or literature, have all been through the pop culture filter - movies, TV, comics, video games. To make this list, in other words, a dragon has to be a commercial sell-out.
18. Fritz Lang's Fafnir
Dragons go way back in the history of the cinema. Earlier specimens could be probably be found, but at least as early as 1911 a lively fire-breathing dragon was among the title specters in the Georges Melies film Les hallucinations du Baron Munchhausen, and Douglas Fairbanks fights a nasty one in 1924's The Thief of Bagdad.
Maybe the most memorable dragon of the silent era, however, is Fafnir, battled by Siegfried (the legendary hero, not the Get Smart villain) in Part One of Die Nibelungen, Fritz Lang's epic two-part version of Teutonic myth. Perhaps because he is, apparently, a full-sized mock-up, the Fafster's not very mobile, and doesn't seem able to fight back very well, which makes Siegfried's unprovoked attack seem sort of mean.
This sympathetic reaction may be exacerbated for modern audiences for whom, it must be admitted, the beast's head can bear a regrettable resemblance to Ollie from Kukla, Fran and Ollie.
17. The Reluctant Dragon
The title character of this odd 1941 Disney feature - a behind-the-scenes tour of the studio with animated segments mixed in - was drawn from a short story in the 1898 book Dream Days, by Kenneth Grahame of Wind in the Willows fame. It concerns a shepherd's bookish son who learns that there's a dragon living on the Downs near his home.
His father gives the beast a highly evocative description: "He was as big as four cart-horses, and all covered with shiny scales - deep-blue scales at the top of him, shading off to a tender sort o' green below. As he breathed, there was that sort of flicker over his nostrils that you see over our chalk roads on a baking windless day in summer."
But when the boy investigates, he finds that the dragon belies his majestic appearance. He's a friendly sort, but effete and blasé, with a turn for poetry and no interest in behaving as other dragons do: "...always rampaging, and skirmishing, and scouring the desert sands, and pacing the margin of the sea, and chasing knights all over the place, and devouring damsels, and going on generally - whereas I liked to get my meals regular and then to prop my back against a bit of rock and snooze a bit..."
It's a good joke, and there have been numerous adaptations of it besides Disney's, including a Grahame-inspired '70s TV cartoon, The Reluctant Dragon and Mr. Toad Show. But it was probably also the origin of the Boy-and-his-Dragon stories that have become so popular in this past century, with such specimens as Elliot from Pete's Dragon (1977), and H.R. Pufnstuf, and...
Reputedly a magic dragon, Puff is said to have resided in a coastal area in the land of Honalee, where he was known to have capered in the hazy weather common in that region in the Fall of the year. Puff's closest associate is said to have been one Jackie Paper, who allegedly indulged his friend with lavish gifts.
Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary adapted a poem by a college acquaintance, Leonard Lipton (itself reportedly inspired by the 1936 Ogden Nash poem "The Tale of Custard the Dragon"), into a folk song which the trio recorded in 1961, thus creating perhaps the most familiar mainstream dragon of the 20th Century. The song has a stingingly unsentimental ending in which Jackie puts aside childish things, leaving his scaly pal bereft. It's always struck me that, in this era of arrested development, Puff needn't have been sad; Jackie would eventually have tracked him down on eBay.
For most of its existence, "Puff" has been dogged by the belief that it was intended as an allegory for marijuana use, and how it inevitably leads to harder stuff (the same notion attached itself to H.R. Pufnstuf). Yarrow has always irritably denied this, at one point reportedly snapping "When 'Puff' was written, I was too innocent to know about drugs. What kind of a meanspirited SOB would write a children's song with a covert drug message?"
Another prize specimen of Boy-and-his-Dragon is the "luck dragon" that befriends the heroic Atreyu in The NeverEnding Story. In Wolfgang Petersen's much-loved 1984 movie version of Michael Ende's novel and its sequels, Falkor isn't scaly and reptilian; he's depicted as a white-furred and somewhat doglike beast, with a rumbling yet warm speaking voice provided by Alan "Skeletor" Oppenheimer.
Falkor can fly, and at one point or another in the movie he's ridden by both Atreyu and the hero of the story-outside-the-story, Bastian Bux. Mounted aerial transportation is a potent childhood fantasy, but Falkor's greatest wish-fulfillment for kids is simply his friendship. Or maybe it's flying first, friendship second, scaring bullies third. Or maybe it's scaring bullies first, then flying, then friendship...
OK, one more Boy-and-his-Dragon...
Eddie Munster's faithful pet on The Munsters (1964-1966) was a roaring, fire-breathing dragon who lived under the stairs. It's said that Spot's dimly-visible head - maddeningly dimly visible, when you were a kid - was a recycling of the T-Rex head from 1957's The Land Unknown, and that's sure what it looks like. We also occasionally saw his tail, his footprints, or his silhouette, but in general he was camera-shy.
Probably Spot's juiciest half-hour on the show was the second-season episode "Underground Munster," in which Herman, forced to discipline Spot for tracking quicksand into the house, gives his enormous scaly tail the tiniest tap with a rolled-up-newspaper, at which the poor beast flees the house in terror. He takes to the sewers, and Herman must go there to search for him.
Incidentally, it's now possible to buy, from the official Munsters website, an official Spot house key.
Girl-and-her-Dragon has not, as yet, proved as common a motif as Boy-and-his-Dragon. But in Hayao Miyazaki's 2001 mastrepiece Spirited Away, the heroine's pal Haku sometimes takes the form an exquisite white dragon. She even gets to ride him.
He's not altogether dissimilar to Falkor, really...