Dragons

In the mid-17th century Athanasius Kircher recorded a description given by a Swiss government official of a dragon he had sighted in the Alps: ‘Its wings were agitated with much celerity; its body was long as well as its tail and neck. Its head was that of a serpent with teeth, and when it was flying, sparks were coming out of it like the embers thrown by an incandescent iron when struck by smiths on an anvil.’ The cracking of glaciers may have provoked beliefs in winged monsters among uneducated villagers. The sober prefect’s account defied Kircher’s attempts at explanation.

Kircher, a German Jesuit, was known as ‘The Master of 100 Arts’. Johann Jakob Scheuchzer, a near-contemporary Swiss scholar, had more focused interests. A Fellow of the Royal Society, compiler of the 18th century’s definitive maps of the Alps, and one of the fathers of paleobiology, he was no more inclined to believe in tall tales, His Itinera Alpina Tria, an account of the journeys he made between 1702 and 1704, was sponsored by Isaac Newton and Hans Sloane.

Yet no early-modern naturalist was able to take Scheuchzer seriously; the book contained a chapter cataloguing Alpine dragons. Alongside eye-witness reports, he provided a complex taxonomy of dragon subspecies, among them ‘winged, wingless, without feet and many footed’, similar to the categories used in Chinese mythology. J.R.R. Tolkien probably drew upon Scheuchzer’s accounts when designing his own taxonomic system for dragons. Tolkien classified according to locomotion and fire-breathing. His dragons, unlike Tolkien’s cosy feudalism, also evolve – winged dragons appear in later eras than wingless ones. What unifies all of Tolkien’s dragons is a love of gold.

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