Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Great Dragon Dilemma: Should I or Shouldn't I?


I'm in a bit of a pickle. I'd like to include a dragon of the sea serpent variety in my historical novel set in ancient Babylon. But will readers accept a dragon in historical fiction or will that push it over the edge into fantasy?

In the Bible, the book of Job has an entire chapter devoted to a sea monster, a leviathan. This enormous creature was a lethal fire-breathing snake-like apex predator without equal and without fear. But did such a beast ever exist?

Every country has dragons in their mythology and stories of dragons have been passed down through millennia. They must have some basis in reality.

The Aberdeen Bestiary, written in the early 16th century, describes the dragon as 'bigger than all other snakes or all other living things on earth'.
The third century historian, Flavious Philostratus, said about dragons in India and Ethiopia that 'the marshes are full of them' and that they were 'thirty cubits long'.  Pretty darned big. Depending on how you measure a cubit, (18" makes a royal cubit while usual measurement was the length of a forearm) the creature could be as much as 45 feet long!

Now before you say, not possible, keep in mind that the blue whale runs around 98 feet in length, an African bush elephant measures about 35 feet from trunk to tail and the largest confirmed crocodiles are 20 - 23 feet long. One of my favorite apex predators, the almost extinct Barbary lion, is pretty small in comparison at only 11 feet long but he has a guaranteed spot in my novel.

African Lion 

Dragons are incorporated into much of ancient Babylon's artwork. The Ishtar Gate is ornamented with some pretty cool dragons in glazed-brick relief but they're rather fanciful affairs not actually meant to depict living animals, well at least not as far as we know anyway. They seem to have scaly bodies and snake heads, scorpion tails, the feet of a lion and the talons of a bird of prey.

But one of the best 'proofs' I found for water dragons in ancient Babylon is this white limestone boundary-stone housed in the British Museum and recording certain privileges granted to a chariotry captain by Nebuchadrezzar I.  This is the front of the stone. You can't see the dragon very well from this view.

But here's a side view and you can clearly see a thick giant serpent dragon running the length of the stone.

Cool, right? So, I'm thinking - maybe a dragon isn't such a far-fetched idea after all.


  1. I think a sea serpent type dragon could be fine, especially considering we haven't seen and studied oarfish very much, and they're 36 foot long sea monster looking things!

  2. Linnea, I think it all depends on how you handle it. Maybe if you discuss the basis for it in an author's note, that would help. I admit, my first thought was "NO," but if you could somehow convey that this is a beast that once existed but is now lost . . . Not sure how you'd do that unless you had them already in the process of dying out, and your characters could remark on that. In the interest of full disclosure, I'll tell you that my reaction is based on a particular incident. About a year ago, I was reading the first book in Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series. I was having some qualms about the story but not enough to stop reading . . . until the main character had an encounter with Nessie. I put the book down at that point and vowed never to read another in the series. So I would caution you that some people might react as I did unless you're very careful. On the other hand, I seem to be in the minority as Gabaldon's books are wildly popular.

    1. Yes, I expect there will be people who react as you do Ruth. I'm going to deal with the creature in a very brief and matter-of-fact way that will hopefully allow me to slip him in without offending readers. At least that's the plan. I'll also have author notes on all the questionable choices I make, giving my reasons for including them.