I have some issues with dragons in fantasy, as you may have gathered from other articles on dragons I’ve penned. The level of thought that goes into their presence in a world is laughable most of the time, and even books which focus on dragons such The Inheritance Cycle there’s a lot not explained or even hinted at. How can a dragon get to the size of a small mountain and not die? I mean it would lack oxygen for a start as getting enough to sustain a body that large would be impossible, let alone how much strain must be on their hearts to pump blood to all it’s extremities. That said, some works do them better then others.
The dragons of Tolkien’s works are among those with which I have the least issue. Despite their monstrous size, ability to breathe fire, and intelligence, their status as creations of war and magic render all of my usual issues null.
As you may know, the dragons in The Lord of the Rings and associated works were created by the Dark Lord Morgoth as creatures to fight in his war against the Elves during the first age. They are said to be created out of ‘fire and sorcery’ and as such their size, propensity for expelling fire, and intelligence are all plausible within the worlds rules. This even allows for there to be six limbed reptiles, when considering the winged dragons who were said to be created at a later date to their four limbed and serpentine brethren.
This is a perfect example of dragons being done right. The details of their creation is not exhaustively covered, and stated to be heavily based in magic which allows for most logical problems with their existence to be ignored. Their evolution can also be overlooked, as can anything in Tolkien’s works, due to the established lore of the worlds creation. This internal consistency elevates the work to a level above most other fantasy works featuring dragons. Dragons don’t just exist because they’re expected to. They are the result of planning, war, and design. They make sense within the world.
This is the kind of world building that fantasy needs more of. The consideration of what the implications of an aspect are. If dragons exist, what did they evolve from? If magic exists how may that change the economy? If there are different races, such as elves or dwarves if you’re feeling cliched, how may that affect a society?
Almost anything you see in fantasy can be examined like this, and found wanting in some way. It just so happens that dragons are the most prominent, and most ubiquitous example to date.