Why are dragons always guarding something? If dragons never existed, how has every culture throughout human history depicted them in their mythos?
1. In Every Culture
I have always thought of dragons as the ultimate predator. They are massive, they have armor that cannot be pierced, they breathe fire, they are intelligent, and they can swim, crawl, and fly. If you were to draw, from scratch, the general idea of a predator with no equal, what you’d draw is a dragon, without trying.
This is why we find dragons everywhere, despite them having never existed. But there is more going on here than just a mere idea of the greatest predator…
2. The Embodiment of Sin
In being the ultimate predator, dragons are inherently the embodiment of sin itself. I’ll use the Seven Deadly Sins to illustrate this. Pride, greed, wrath, envy, gluttony, and sloth.
Pride. What dragon doesn’t have pride. Some dragons have pride as their defining characteristic, like Smaug. But it seems all dragons in fiction are proud creatures. They never show restraint, they never show fear, and the only dragon I’ve ever seen show emotions like sadness is the dragon from Shrek.
Greed. Dragons never give up that which they have acquired. Whether it’s a damsel locked away in a tower, or a treasure hoard.
Wrath. Dragons will always attack you with a vengeance if you dare to cross them. It is as if they are perpetually angry, and wish destruction upon anyone that is not … them.
Gluttony. You never really see fat dragons, but most of the time, what we do see is dragons being absolutely enormous. They take up a lot of space, just like a gluttonous man takes up a lot of space and resources. Combine that with the fact that dragons are always after some kind of treasure, then they share that in common with gluttonous men as well. It’s like dragons are fat, without being fat. And I think of dragons like Smaug, who refuse to part with a single coin in their treasure hoard, and they always want more.
Envy. I’m lumping this one in with lust, because lust is a type of envy. That’s why I only listed 6 Deadly Sins instead of 7. But anyway, dragons seems to always want something. They never simply … exist. They are always after something. The only example I can think of where this is not the case is the dragons from Game of Thrones, which seem to be satisfied being pets… Same with the Eragon books. But in stories where dragons are not pets, and are their own independent creature, there is always something they want, and that thing is usually treasure. In many stories, a virgin is the treasure, which makes no logical sense, but then again, a dragon desiring treasure doesn’t make much logical sense, either.
Sloth. You almost always find dragons, in pretty much every story, pretty much just sitting around all the time. Usually, they are waiting to attack an intruder coming after their treasure, but still, they are nonetheless just sitting around for most of their existence.
You can write your own stories in which your dragons are depicted as good, benevolent creatures, but it wouldn’t change the fact that they are built to be destructive. You can give them impenetrable scales, sharp teeth, and a massive build, and make them as gentle as a teddy bear, but it still wouldn’t change the fact dragons are physically built to be creatures of destruction and pandemonium.
3. Guarding Treasure
Since they are the ultimate predator, legends have frequently depicted dragons guarding something because they represent the hero’s challenge to conquer evil itself.
Defeat the beast, get its treasure.
So, naturally, sometimes that treasure won’t be a mountain of gold, but rather, a virgin princess. A beautiful woman who has never been with another man, who will also inherit a kingdom by birthright someday.
Therefore, even though it makes no logical sense for an alpha predator to spend day after day sitting around guarding something, that is why they are almost always depicted doing so. I remember reading a line, an actual line, from the Hobbit book in which Tolkien admits dragons have no use for treasure, but Tolkien still wrote that into the book. Not complaining, I just find it funny.