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The Implausibility of Dragons

I don’t know why my brain decided 3 minutes after my putting my head down on the pillow, the other night, to suddenly start thinking about dragons, but it sis. Specifically, the implausibility of them, as in, just how do dragons breathe fire?

That question, among many that popped like little soda bubbles, drove me nuts all night long, as I struggled to make sense of just how do dragons fly?

Well, I may not have had a great nights sleep, and it’s taken me a couple of days of pondering, but I’m here now to tell you my thoughts, such as I’m able to wrangle from the wreckage of a night of lost sleep.

First up, lets start with…

FIRE

My logical brain, and the science nerd in me absolutely refuses to believe magic, and magic alone, let alone living in a land supposedly filled with magic is responsible for dragons being able to breathe fire, on command, and—like in certain film scenes where everyone has endless bullets—able to spew fire with impunity.

I mean, come on people, just how much gas does that dragon have?

Okay, so lets set magic aside, and let’s talk about under what circumstances would a dragon be able to make and sustain fire for any length of time. And here my hat goes off to Anne McCaffrey for her Dragon series, as she—out of all the fantasy books I’ve read over the ensuing decades—at least had a plausible explanation. She got it. She got the gist of what dragons could and should be able to do. In this case, with the Pern series of books:

“…Dragons, bred from small fire-breathing lizards—can breath fire by chewing a phosphine bearing rock called ‘firestone’, which reacts with an acid in a special organ. This forms a volatile gas that can be expelled (at will) and ignites upon contact with the air. The chewed firestone, however, must be expelled from the body after use as the dragons cannot digest it.”

No magic in her fantasy series, but sound logic based on plausible science, that creates a breed of dragon/lizard capable of breathing short bursts of fire. It all makes perfect sense.

SIZE

How big is too big? I ask because in this next section we’re going to talk about flight, and oh boy, Honey, there ain’t no way some damn wizard or mage is gonna be able to conjure up a spell strong enough to keep a 44 ton dragon in the air for any length of time, without it suddenly and inexplicably falling under the weight of gravity. And that tiny village below? Toast! That dragon is going to make one hell of a mess when it hits with all the power of several MOAB (Mother Of All Bombs)!

So I think size is going to play an important part in any good fantasy featuring a dragon. To my mind, the Chinese had it right when it comes to shape and size. If memory serves me well, the stories I read as a child had these creatures lithe, slim, long, and lightweight, and I don’t remember any ever flying or breathing fire. I’m not sure where flying came into it with the Euro-version. But let me tell you, even in a world full of magic, gravity still holds sway, and if you are going to put any creature, of any impressive size—and weight—up in the air, you better come up with one hell of a plausible way to convince me this damn thing can fly and, naturally!

Which, I guess, is a good segue into a dragon’s ability to fly.

FLIGHT

I can almost, and I mean, almost believe a dragon could breathe fire, after all, as I said, I’ve read all of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragon series—but flight is one of those magical abilities I have a great deal of trouble getting my logic around. Simply put, as I mention above with size, there’s no way I picture a large several ton dragon taking flight, no matter what length of wing it has. Yes, I know a jumbo jet is heavier, but a jumbo isn’t expected to take flight by simply flapping it’s 200 foot wingspan in order to gain flight. A plane is assisted by 2 to 4 roaring jet engines and a great deal of science, not a pair of leathery wings.

In my mind I see those large, bulky dragons trying to run along on stumpy legs, furiously flapping their wings while simultaneously jumping as high as they can, to attain flight. But, in the end, are seen crashing awkwardly to the ground in a tangle of limbs an ineffectual wings. Just not plausible.

Now, those small Norse wyrm like dragons of earlier myth, maybe.

Personally, I think size has everything to do whether or not flight is an option for any self respecting dragon. And for that dragon to take flight, I’m thinking it needs to be no bigger than a large turkey, or bird of a similar size. For me, it’s all about that very important size to weight ratio as to whether or not those wings will get a dragon airborne.

And you, what are your thoughts?

6 comments on “The Implausibility of Dragons

  1. Avatar
    Linda White

    Well if we’re going to be all sciency about it, then of course you’re right—either the dragon has to be really absurdly lightweight (and then it’s not the big, powerful reptile of our dreams), or the atmosphere has to be much, much denser (and now humans can’t exist in the same world, so what fun is that?) So go small, or go home, I guess.

    The thing that keeps ME up at night is that typical winged dragons have six limbs (as does a pegasus, gryphon, winged humanoid, etc.) In vertebrates in our world, wings are an adaptation of the forelimb, so you either get arms/forelegs or wings, but not both. I’m okay with the idea of a different line of evolution that involves six limbs, but then I want to see lots of other six-limbed vertebrates in lots of ecological niches in the same world!

    • Alex

      Sorry, not sorry, Linda! You can blame this on a discussion a friend and I were having about a dragon in a book they were reading. And we got into the details of how a dragon the size of a house could actually fly! And it went from there. Of course, dragons that big wouldn’t exist in our world, as is. But two bandwidths over from our reality, why not?

      And you’re right if we did have them, wouldn’t they be considered 6 limbed? Oh, and I love the idea of having other 6-limbed creatures as well. Now, who’s going to write that series of books/stories? Ha! Ha!

  2. Avatar

    I love this post so much haha! Have you seen Reign if Fire? It blew my mind when I was a kid and in the midst of being obsessed with dragons. They explain fire-breathing with two little organs that secrete substances that combust when they get mixed. So, it sounds like they stole that from Mcaffrie! I don’t know whether it was that film or another source that suggested would have hollow, ultra light bones like birds to make flying more feasible.

    • Alex

      In our imaginations, all sorts of creatures are possible, but if you decide science and reality reign then you have to accept that, even with hollow light-weight bones, like birds, dragons would still only be as big as a turkey. And then, only able to fly short distances. I know, it seems mean. We want our dragons HUGE and able to breathe fire at will, not have a gas-out event! Ha! Ha!

      And yeah, the Reign of Fire people quite probably stole McCaffrey’s idea. She at least explained it took them centuries of breading and manipulation to take dragons from small cat size to the size they are, in her books. Inflatable gasses in the stomach. Chewing a version of coal and igniting the gas in pouches to belch fire. She really thought about it.

  3. Avatar

    I have a mental love affair with dragons! Logic doesn’t enter into it😏

    • Alex

      Me and mine are the same, dragons are always acceptable … in fantasy. But it was fun to sit down and write this one based on the fact science doesn’t allow for house-sized dragons breathing fire at will. But, we can dream, right? 😉

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