Dragons! Huge beasts with bright red scales! Or is that green? What, maybe they’re golden? Hold on, they’re four-legged serpent-like creatures with feathers…
Dragon is an evocative word, and there is no doubt dragons come in a variety of shapes and colours in myth. From the battling red and white Dragons which fell castles in Welsh myth, to the symbol of the emperor in Chinese history – the one things they all have in common is power and strength.
In most fiction there is only one type of dragon. Most commonly in the west it is a huge fire-breathing lizard with wings, often intelligent but cruel, always symbolic of power. Sometimes the greatest ruler will command a dragon or three, other times the heroes will consult a dragon to discover ancient wisdom and forbidden lore, and sometimes they will battle one to prove their prowess or outwit one to prove their intelligence.
But what about colour? In most fiction it makes no difference – there is only one type of dragon because no more than that is needed. In a few instances, however, dragons come in more than one colour, and you can tell a lot about the dragon by what colour its scales are.
On Pern (by Anne McCaffrey) the colour of a dragon determines (or is determined by) its sex and its size. The largest, gold dragons, are fertile female and extremely rare, while the smallest (and most common), green dragons, are infertile females. Male dragons, bronze, brown and blue (from largest to smallest and frequency) are all somewhere in between in terms of size and frequency.
All dragons psychically bond with their rider, dragon riders are considered important people, and they have a specific and important job to do: stopping thread, a dangerous substance that falls from the sky and kills all that it touches. Each colour approaches this in a slightly different way, but they all ultimately do the same job – with the exception of the gold dragons who are considered too valuable to risk on such endeavours.
But it is Dungeons and Dragons that dragon colour sees the most variety. Best known are the five Chromatic Dragons – Red, Green, Blue, Black and White – who are all evil. Each has a different breath weapon – reds have the traditional fire breath, which Greens breath poison and exude mind-altering pheromones. They have different personalities too – whites are brutal and unintelligent (by dragon standards), while the black ones are more cunning and cruel.
Then there are the Metallic dragons – Gold, Silver, Bronze, Brass and Copper – who are good (or at least err that way). Each of them also has a different breath weapon, and once again the largest and more regal, the gold dragons who have fiery breath. Their personalities seem to be less well pinned down between editions and settings – in some, for example, silver dragons are near-paladinic in their drive to do what is right, while in others they are merely loyal to their friends.
In many cases the comparison the Metallic and Chromatic dragons can be considered mirrors of one another – for instance the Lawful Good gold and silvers and Chaotic Evil reds and whites who master fire and ice respectively. In our personal setting, the difference between metallic and chromatic was not simply a matter of birth but one of corruption – the metallic tint of the scales was a sign of purity in the dragon, and losing it was the result of a disease that twisted their minds.
But it doesn’t stop there – there are other, rarer, colours of both chromatic and metallic dragons. Brown dragons are gourmets, and purple dragons have psychic instead of arcane powers – even pink dragons made an appearance one april fool’s day! Mercury dragons are small and unsurprisingly mercurial, while adamantine dragons are very tough indeed.
Then there are the more bizarre options, such as catastrophic dragons – an earthquake or volcanic dragon is a potent foe. Gem dragons are literally made of gemstones. They are neutral counterparts of the chromatic and metallic dragons, and just as varied…
So dragons, friend or foe, are powerful beings and their many colours, shapes and sizes tell brave (or foolhardy) adventurers what to expect from them – you may not be able to judge a book from its cover, but you may be able to judge a dragon from its scales!