RandomAccess asks:

I just saw the YouTube video “Trope Talk: Dragons” from the channel “Overly Sarcastic Productions”. Basically a brief summary about how a dragon is defined (or rather how they lack a concrete definition) and how they play an important role throughout almost every human culture in the world. If you have seen the video (or probably more accurately, decided to see it after reading this) I’m curious if you have thoughts on it regarding how these ideas might apply to the variety of the dragon type in Pokemon.

Well, it’s a good video!  No corrections! (Here it is, for anyone wanting to watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3eXAPwjASEQ)

The basic thrust is that “dragon” is just a word we use very liberally, for a lot of unrelated creatures from the mythologies of different cultures.  If there is a point of commonality it’s that they’re pretty much all basically reptilian and often winged, serpentine or both, but from one culture to another (or even one creature to another) they vary wildly in shape, moral alignment, scale and the nature of their powers.  That should certainly remind us of how varied Pokémon’s dragons are, although Pokémon goes even further and doesn’t even need its dragons to be basically reptilian.  The Dragon type includes Pokémon like the mollusc Sliggoo, the bird Altaria, the giraffe-kangaroo-sheep(???) Mega Ampharos, the fish Dragalge, the insect Vibrava and the coconut tree(!) Alolan Exeggutor.  The Dragon egg group includes non-Dragon-type serpentine Pokémon, but also a number of lizards like Sceptile and Heliolisk (it used to exclude Noivern and Flygon, but as of Sword and Shield this is no longer the case, and the only non-legendary Dragon-types who aren’t egg group Dragons are Exeggutor and Ampharos).  But OSP proposes, instead of an anatomical typology for dragons (e.g. dragon vs. wyvern vs. lindworm etc.), a thematic/narrative typology:

Is your dragon a divine creature (like a Chinese long)?
Is it cursed (like the Norse dwarf-turned-dragon Fáfnir)?
Is it a noble steed (like Toothless in How to Train Your Dragon)?

And so on, with most dragons having two or more of these traits.

When you look at it that way, Pokémon’s dragons don’t really have a lot of traditional narrative traits of dragons.  Unlike a lot of European dragons, they don’t hoard treasure and aren’t malevolent or cursed, but they also can’t really fall under “just misunderstood” because there is no reversal of how Dragon Pokémon are viewed or treated; like most Pokémon they’re highly regarded from the get-go.  They can’t change their shapes.  With the exception of a few legendary Dragons like Dialga or Eternatus, they don’t fit the apocalyptic scale category (and it’s worth noting here that Pokémon sees “kaiju” as a separate, albeit overlapping, category: the “Monster” egg group, with its bulky dinosaur-like Pokémon, is the kaijū group in Japanese).  They are “noble steeds” – maybe not all of them can literally be ridden, but like all Pokémon they are loyal companion creatures, which I think hits the spirit of that category.  I tend to think that the main thing setting Dragon-type Pokémon apart from all other Pokémon is the last category: divinity, or more specifically a connection to the Pokémon world’s abstract “life force.”  That makes sense because dragons are divine in Japanese mythology, but I also think it sheds a bit of light on some of the notable exclusions from the Dragon type, and how Pokémon’s idea of a “dragon” has changed over the years.  Generation I only has one family of Dragon-types: the mysterious, benevolent and magical Dratini, Dragonair and Dragonite.  Charizard isn’t a Dragon; Gyarados isn’t a Dragon.  I think if those designs were introduced today, as new Pokémon in Sword and Shield, they probably would be Dragon-types.  Generation II only added Kingdra, who is again extremely rare and has powers that seem almost divine or cosmic.  Another narrative quality that arguably defines Dragon Pokémon is the idea that they come “from humble beginnings,” like the waterfall-jumping fish in the Japanese folktale that inspired Magikarp’s dramatic evolution into Gyarados – which is not at all an idea that fits with western ideas of what a “dragon” is, but makes sense for the age and wisdom often associated with East Asian dragons.

There is also a dimension in Pokémon where anything can be a dragon if you can make a pun of it – so, like, Ampharos gets to be a dragon because its name, Denryū, could be taken as a pun on 電流, “electric current,” and 電竜, “electric dragon”; Vibrava is a dragon because it’s a dragonfly; Twister is a Dragon-type move because the Japanese word for a twister, tatsumaki, literally means “dragon spiral.”  Which feels a little bit absurd sometimes, but it’s also a reflection of how wide a usage the word “dragon” – or doragon, since Pokémon uses the English word and not one of the native Japanese terms like ryū or tatsu – has in the real world!

Finally, this video inspired me to make this chart, based on the popular “sandwich alignment chart,” for describing what you think counts as a dragon.  I am certain this will provoke no heated disagreements or blood feuds whatsoever!

10 thoughts on “RandomAccess asks:

  1. At the beginning of the question I legitimately thought that it’d be a response to the naming a dragon question. There was a moment of shock when I remembered that the question box is theoretically meant to focus on Pokémon.

    In my defense, that video was fresh in my mind as the last time I’d thought about dragons until that question got published, and they’re pretty easy to associate as opposite points on the definition of a dragon.

    Also, I’d disagree with the idea that dragons are supposed to have reptilian features in traditional lore- in medieval european depictions, they’re just all over the place. Dog-faced, bird-legged, and bat winged. Hell, no dragon with those wings could be considered to be purely reptilian! Those wings don’t exist in reptiles, only mammals!

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      1. Ironically enough, the Nintendo gacha game Dragalia Lost has a dragon that is just a big panda. Like, literally just a large panda in Chinese clothes and that’s it… but he’s considered a dragon.

        Then again, they play fast and loose on the definition of “dragon”, given a number of the dragons are anime girls with maybe a tail and/or claws…

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      2. People laugh at Twilight Sparkle’s inclusion, but Monster Hunter has a unicorn-like beast that is described as an “elder dragon”. Then again, it’s apparently covered in scales and is called a “Kirin”, which is the name of a single horned mythical creatures that has been described as everything from reptilian to giraffe-like (to the point where many Asian languages just call giraffes “Kirin”) so who knows. XD

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        1. Monster Hunter plays pretty fast and loose with elder dragons anyways. It has Chameleos (which is pretty much just a large, winged chameleon), teostra and lunestra (manticores), yama tsukami (which looks like… Uh… a mossy eldritch balloon… ya know, just look it up), and, my personal favorite, nakarkos (which is literally a gigantic cephalopod that armors itself with the bones of its prey – it’s not even scaled, like every other elder dragon I can think of, it’s straight up a squid with a beak, tentacles, and a creepy strobe effect). Monster Hunter does properly categorize its other “dragons” (like the various types of wyverns), but elder dragons are solely categorized as “ monsters that are far removed from the known tree of life. The very appearance of an elder dragon is enough to cause natural phenomena and disasters.” Unlike every other category of monsters in the series, which is based on physical traits, “elder dragons” are literally any monster powerful enough that a single one of them can shape an entire ecosystem. It’s less of a type of creature and more of a threat level, as a monster can be categorized as something other than an elder dragon in its adolescence and then become an elder dragon when matured.

          To put it simply: the people can accurately categorize monsters into beasts, wyverns, beetles, etc. “Elder dragon” has nothing to do with their physical traits and simply means, “Kill these things in any given circumstance because they’re a threat to the entire ecosystem.”

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          1. To be fair to Nakarkos, they didn’t realize it wasn’t a zombie hydra until they’d already classified it.

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            1. That’s fair. Also worth noting however that they have reclassified monsters before. I still stand by my statement that “elder dragon” is not based on physical traits, it just denotes a threat to the ecosystem.

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