The dragon is pretty much the grand poobah of mythical monsters. Nothing else gets as much press, nothing commands as much respect, and nothing quite measures up to a 50-ton winged lizard that can breathe fire. They’ve been the classic fantasy villain ever since Beowulf went toe-to-toe with one in the 7th century or so. No hero throws around as much clout as one who says he hunted and killed a dragon. There is a pretty good reason for that, too: it would be practically impossible for your standard medieval hero to do so.
For starters, lets leave out all discussions of magic for the moment. As soon as we throw magic in the mix, anything is possible, so there’s little point in discussing it. If you like, we can say the dragon’s magic cancels out the hero’s magic and leave it at that. What we’re looking at here is whether and how a person with access to the standard armory of the pan-medieval fantasy world could kill a dragon.
The Dragon’s Defenses
Okay, so let’s size up the opposition. Dragons are reputed to have the following capabilities:
- Massive Size: Dragons are usually said to be 20 feet long or longer, putting them on par with dinosaurs or whales–10 tons at the low end, maybe even 100 at the high end.
- Armored Scales: Dragon scales are thick, flame resistant, cover the majority of the body, and are hard to get through. Some places they are described as ‘hard as steel’, though we can presume this is a bit of an exaggeration.
- Flight: Dragons have wings and can fly. This is a major advantage, obviously.
- Intelligence: Dragons are fairly smart. In some cases they are shown to be as smart as people, while in others they are simply very cunning predators of standard animalian intelligence.
- Fire Breath: Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the dragon is its capacity to breathe fire. Any attempt to slay a dragon needs to take into account some way to survive a blast of flaming breath (which, we can presume, operates more like acid or napalm than simple fire, as those are more plausible explanations).
- Teeth, Claws, etc.: To top all that off, the dragon still has the standard array of deadly claws, fangs, horns, and so on that should be sufficient to pulp anybody who messes with it, anyway.
Given this, no sane individual (or team of individuals) would go after a dragon. Just give it the virgins, already, and move on with your lives. Points 4 and 5 alone are sufficient to guarantee that any idiot wanting to kill a dragon will be dead long before he’s finished challenging it in the name of St. George. They don’t make stuff in the middle ages that can take a soaking in napalm and let the user walk away. Nevertheless, if the dragon needs killing, folks are going to try anyway. Let’s consider their weapons.
Don’t be an idiot. Even provided you do make it past the flaming breath and it happens to stay on the ground and you don’t get crushed by giant claws or gobbled up by a giant fang-rimmed mouth, you’ve still got the scales to get through. Even if you do that, what makes you think the sword will actually kill it? If it’s a sufficiently huge dragon (like, Brontosaurus sized) it’s going to take you a long, long time to hack it to death with a sword. It would be like trying to kill a person with a dessert fork–you could do it, sure, but the person pretty much has to be tied up and you need plenty of time and/or a keen grasp of human anatomy. Try hunting a dragon with a sword and kiss your butt goodbye.
Better, certainly. The weapon is larger and longer, meaning you have a chance of puncturing something vital with a
strike. This is how they kill whales, after all, and so it’s not entirely without merit. It can still fly away, though, and can still melt you with fire, and it’s still armored in a way that whales aren’t. Furthermore, the way they actually managed to kill the whale with the lance was to harpoon it, exhaust it, then move in and kill it. Given flaming breath, flight, and all that, it seems unlikely you could pull this off with a dragon. If you were to do it, you’d need a big team of people (like a series of whaleboats, except on the ground) working in coordination and you’d need a dragon to be no smarter than your average whale. As a lone dragonslayer? Forget it.
Let me put it this way: Bard got stupidly lucky with Smaug. Skilled hunters do use bows to hunt large game like Cape Buffalo, but a Cape Buffalo is tiny compared to a dragon. Furthermore, such hunters today are using modern bows and modern arrows that maximize the kinetic energy needed to kill (read this article for more on the physics of hunting large game with bows). Granted the bow keeps the dragon from being able to fly away as easily, bypasses some of the dangers from flaming breath and the teeth/claws, but it is going to have a hell of a time penetrating the dragon’s hide by enough to wound it in any mortal capacity. You’d need dozens and dozens of skilled archers with the most powerful bows and sophisticated arrows in the world, and even then they’ve got fair odds of being roasted.
Essentially, the lone dragonslayer thing is extremely unlikely to the point of being implausible without the use of the idiot ball in some way. You’d need a team of dedicated professionals using things like siege engines, laying traps, and, most importantly, using dirty tricks. Poison its water supply, collapse its cave on top of itself, or, of course, some kind of magic. Beyond that, you are fresh out of luck.
Now, much of modern fantasy lore is well aware of this. George RR Martin points some of this stuff out in A Song of Ice and Fire, and, in one of my personal favorites, Barbra Hambly explores just how impossible a task this is in her 1985 novel Dragonsbane (which I recommend, though I haven’t read it since high school and my memory of it may make it seem better than it is). It should be noted, even, that Beowulf himself died in his struggle with the dragon (though he killed it with a dagger) and had help from his friend, Wiglaf. In any event, I feel it is important to give dragons their due when trying to take them down–the frontal assault isn’t going to work, guys, and you’re going to need help.
Say you really loved the sitcom, Cheers. You were totally into the zany exploits of Sam, Norm, Cliff, Woody, Fraser, and the rest of the gang. You tuned in every week like clockwork and laughed your butt off. Then, somewhere around the 11th or 12th season, the plot followed Fraser as he moved to Seattle. It spends a lot of time with Fraser, actually. Next thing you know, every episode is set in Seattle, where we meet Fraser’s father, his zany brother Niles, and a bunch of other characters. You keep watching, but you also keep cursing and asking the TV ‘where the hell is Norm, guys? What’s going on at the bar?’ Then it hits you – you aren’t watching Cheers anymore. This is a spin-off called Fraser.
Except nobody ever told you, and the show is still called Cheers.
This, my friends, is exactly how I felt upon finishing A Dance with Dragons this weekend. I have come to the conclusion that I am no longer reading the series of books I started and, accordingly, my interest in the storyline has faded to almost nothing. I am not reading any more of the books, since I don’t see the point. I didn’t sign on to watch Fraser, guys.
Oh, and if you care about these things, there are lots of ‘spoilers’ below. I put the word ‘spoilers’ in quotes because I fail to see how a series of storylines completely irrelevant to the one you’re reading now could be ‘spoiled’ at all (presuming you are in the first three books of Song of Ice and Fire). Anyway, you’ve been warned.
Before I set about tearing into the book, I’d like to give some shout-outs to the things I liked. There aren’t many:
1) To Jon Snow: For cutting off that fucker Janos Slynt’s head. That felt good.
2) To Wyman Manderly: For uttering the following line: “Perhaps it is for the best. Had he lived, he would have grown up to be a Frey.” <zing!>
3) To Theon Greyjoy: For having the decency to mope about all the Starks being dead and the old days being gone for good. I really identified with him in that sense.
4) To Danerys’s Dragons: For fucking shit up and finally, finally introducing some action into the plot, even if it was only for the last 10% of the book.
Now, to Brass Tacks
I will henceforward refer to the vast majority of this book and the last book as ‘The Dithering’. I call it ‘the Dithering’ because that’s what happened – Dithering. Most of the books were various individuals sitting on their asses and wondering what to do next. So much internal monologue it made me want to scream, and this is even though Martin is really good at writing inner monologues. This wouldn’t have been so bad if we were seeing the thoughts and hopes and dreams of characters we cared about, but Davos Seaworth? Victarion Greyjoy? Quentyn Martell? Jesus Christ! Booooring! Also, it seems to me that Martin deliberately avoids writing action sequences since, for the vast majority of instances, the action happens off-stage. Did Stannis have his head cut off by Bolton? If so, HOLY CRAP that’s something I would have liked to see. Screw you, Martin. If it isn’t true…meh. More Dithering is to come, I suppose.
Beyond the Dithering, however, is the fact that the story is no longer about the things I care about anymore. It has become a series about other plots, other families, and other conflicts that, frankly, don’t interest me in the least. My interests, at the start of the series, were as follows:
#1: The Fate of the Starks: I wanted to know if the Starks could spring back from the blows of the Red Wedding and Ned Stark’s death. I have my answer now, and it is ‘no, they can’t.’ Ned is Dead, Robb is Dead, Catelyn is Dead, Jon is Probably Dead, Sansa is worthless, Rickon is a toddler somewhere, Arya Stark is being actively convinced by other characters to stop being a Stark, and Bran has decided to sit down and become a tree. Gotcha – I can stick a fork in this one, folks.
#2: Justice for the Lannisters: I wanted to watch the Lannisters pay for what they’d done. Well, Tywin is dead, Joffery is Dead, Jamie is gone rogue, Cersei is mortified and finished, Tommen and Mycella are children, and Tyrion is halfway around the world and no longer directly involved in this plotline anymore. Finished here.
#3: Can Jon Snow Hold off the Others at the Wall: The answer is ‘no’. Even if he isn’t dead, everybody up there sucks so badly at life that I think it’s a foregone conclusion.
#4: Will Danerys be the Targaryens claim the Iron Throne: This, I should point out, is a distant fourth. I really only care insofar as it related to plot’s 1 and 2, and all the Dithering has convinced me that the amount of time it is going to take Danerys to get her ass back to Westeros is such that it doesn’t make sense for me to read the other books. Besides, there’s Young Griff already back there, ruining the surprise for Danerys, and there goes the novelty of that little plotline. Booo.
As for the rest of them, they can all jump, for all I care. I don’t care about Dorne, I could give a crap about Sam and his schooling, the Seastone Chair I have already ranted about at length, all those mercenary companies disinterest me, Stannis and the Bolton’s deserve each other, the Others can undead-ify the world, for all I care, and the whole slave revolt/Red God thing? Who cares? Martin trying to get me to care about the slaves of Slaver’s Bay is like Hermione Granger trying to get everyone to give a crap about House Elves.
Oh yeah, and Danerys had her chance to ride her dragons a long time ago. Now it’s too late – I just don’t care. When all those guys from her past were giving her crap about not moving on from Mereen while she was hallucinating, I was right there with them saying ‘yeah! Tell her!’
So, there you have it. I’m done with Westeros – all that has thus far occurred has convinced me I haven’t anything to look forward to. At the very least it isn’t like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, which took a somewhat more kick-ass story (and somewhat less ‘gritty’) and dithered itself away into a bloated monstrosity of nothing happening at all until, at last, the author died. Yeah, at least that hasn’t happened to Martin.
Dear George RR Martin,
Why are there vikings in the Song of Ice and Fire? Seriously, I’m honestly curious. I mean, yeah, Vikings are cool, but you made a deliberate decision somewhere (second book, I think, or maybe third) to make the squabbles among the folk of the Iron Islands into a major subplot and I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why.
Let me be clear: Theon Greyjoy is a great character. He is, frankly, the best thing about A Dance with Dragons; were it not for his wandering around Winterfell and regretting everything that happened to him, I’d probably have put the book down by now (I’m about 75% through at this point). To have Theon, though, we didn’t need the Iron Islands. It isn’t like there’s a shortage of murderous dickheads in Westeros. There are dozens of petty lords and assholes scattered around the north of Westeros whom you could have easily had revolt at some time in the past and have Eddard Stark kick their asses and then have Greyjoy grow up with the Starks and so on and so forth, but no – you needed to create the stupid Seastone Chair and waste our time with idiots like Euron and Asha and Victarion.
That’s right: Waste. Our. Time.
I just read a chapter where Victarion is considering sending men into the rigging of his ship to chase monkeys. Yes. Monkeys, in his rigging – apparently it’s a problem. You should know this, since you must have spent at least an hour or two writing this chapter and thought to yourself ‘you know what would be funny? Monkeys on a sailboat.’ You know what would have been more funny, though? Having Arya stab Cercei in the eyes. Much more funny, I promise.
Okay, so granted, that whole chapter wasn’t about monkeys in the rigging (though you did spend a bizarre amount of time describing their shrieking and poop-flinging episodes), but it isn’t as though the rest of the chapter was somehow interesting or worthwhile. Moqorro? You had to bring him back from the dead? Why? So he could convert Victarion to the worship of the Red God? WHY? WHO THE FUCK CARES? One guy we don’t care about converting some other guy we don’t care about to a God we’ve already seen used plenty of other places doing the same exact thing? Sheesh…
Here, for your perusal, is a list of facts:
1) Nobody gives a crap about Victarion. At all.
2) No one from the Iron Islands has interacted with a single other major character in Westeros for something like 1000 pages. No, Asha talking to stupid Stannis doesn’t count.
3) The person who sits on the Seastone Chair is completely, 100%, and in all other ways irrelevant to the main plot of this series. Provided it still has a main plot, which I’m beginning to doubt.
4) The idea that Victarion and his crappy band of Viking buddies are sailing off to capture Danerys is stupid. Why? Well, we already know Danerys isn’t in Mereen, anyway. Plus she has dragons. Plus there are a billion other people there to kick Victarion’s ass. Plus WE DON’T CARE ABOUT VICTARION OR WHAT HAPPENS TO HIM!
Seriously, Mr. Martin, this is driving me bonkers. I really love your world, here. Well, specifically, I love the story of the Starks and the Lannisters, I’m interested to see what happens with the Others, and I’m willing to tolerate Danerys long enough for her to deus ex machina Westeros out of being consumed by snow demons. I really cannot stomach the Iron Islanders. They have nothing to do with the story in any interesting fashion, Theon excepted. Can’t we just forget they exist? Can’t we go back to seeing what happens to Arya and Tyrion and Jon? Remember when the main characters occasionally talked to each other about things that were interesting? I miss that time. I want that time back. Every page I waste hearing about the Drowned God keeps me from the time where that may yet happen again.
So, in short, if you wanted to write a book about Vikings, you should have done so in some other book. Here, it’s just plain annoying. They’re a bad sideshow, a disinteresting distraction, a plot thread I’d rather see get cut with a massive set of Editing Shears than see to its conclusion. Don’t take this personally–you are a fine writer in most other respects and probably a very nice person. Let’s face it, though, the Ironborn are just plain old stinkers and they ought to all go to their Drowned God.
P.S.: Don’t get me started on the Dornish.
I’m just now about halfway through George RR Martin’s A Dance with Dragons. He is a fine writer and has a gift for characterization, but, while I tore through the previous four books (okay, the first three and read the fourth in a week), I’ve found myself stumbling through this fifth in the series. I’ve been trying to pin down why, exactly, and I believe I’ve figured it out: This series isn’t about a person anymore, or even a group of people or two groups of people. It’s about Everyone.
Let me be frank: I don’t care about everyone. I mean that in the context fiction, specifically (primarily, at least, but let’s not delve into my misanthropy just now). No matter how much I get drawn into a work (and Martin really sucked me in with A Game of Thrones), I pin my interests and cares on the main characters, whoever they are, and there my concerns stay. I did not cry when they blew up Alderaan. I did not give a crap when all those dwarves died in Moria. I produced a big shrug when the aliens in Independence Day nuked Los Angeles…
But I cheered when Will Smith’s dog evaded that giant fireball.
A story, to my mind, should be about a character or groups of characters going through a journey that changes them and challenges them. The more characters you have, the harder it gets to keep the reader focused on the story and the harder it becomes to engage them with the characters. Too many irons in the fire; too many cooks in the kitchen. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire has become an unwieldy behemoth of a series, with well over 100 characters. It’s a pretty huge struggle for me to give a crap what happens to them all. There are barely over 100 real people I care about that much.
Let me make this clear, as well: it isn’t that I can’t keep the characters straight. I have a pretty solid memory for things like plot and character – I picked up Dance and started reading after having read the other books many, many years before and was able to keep up just fine. I remember most things of consequence and the stuff I forgot I am reminded of as soon as it comes up again. I’m on top of the narrative – comprehension isn’t the problem.
The problem, I’ve come to realize, is that the only characters I care about – and I stress the word only – are those
characters present in Winterfell when King Robert came to visit in the first book. That’s it – those are my characters. Even Daenerys is, well, only mildly interesting (I was frustrated by her inclusion in the first book, honestly. She got better, but I still wouldn’t give a crap if somebody stuck a knife in her eye…well, aside from the overriding plot repurcussions that might prevent GRRM from reasonably resolving this story, but whatever). Those characters at that castle set the tone for the rest of the series and presented to me all the protagonists and antagonists I’d really care to meet in this world ever.
Now, how many of those characters are still around, keeping us interested? How many of them are still relevant to what is happening in the world at large? How many of them have we even seen in the past book and a half? Yeah, not that many. Two? Three? Screw it, I say. I’m getting bored, and not because the book is badly written (far from it), but because I feel like I’m done here. It’s like watching the playoffs after your team’s been eliminated – why bother? I got plenty of other books to read where characters I like are still involved in the main plot.
This, in the end, is the main cost of writing ‘epic fantasy literature’ in its various forms. The author gets so invested in his world, he forgets why it exists in the first place: To give interesting characters a place to live and strive and die. Take away the characters, or drown them in a sea of unfamiliar faces, and the books lose something essential, something elemental to all storytelling.