Skyrim’s Dragons Aren’t Dragons?

I’m going to preface this by saying I have an obsession with dragons that probably boarders on unhealthy. It’s cool though. I live with it just fine. I consider myself trans-dragon and go on with my life. So, this topic is near and dear to my heart, even though it’s a topic that’s been touched on a number of times. I still think I can put a slightly original twist on it to really make it my own.

Skyrim’s dragons aren’t dragons.

This has been floating around the internet since The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was released in November of 2011. I bet you’re asking, why has this been such a question? What about the dragons from Skyrim makes them not be dragons? The answer to this is perception and popular culture.

All of our lives we’ve had a very specific idea of a dragon driven into our mind, and only in the last decade has that vision started to shift. I’m sure you’re asking now, what type of dragon have we been fed all this time? See the picture below:

Humans are crunchy and taste good with ketchup.

This my friends, is the epitome of the dragon. The “true” dragon as it were. This is also the classical European version of the dragon. Part of what has driven the image of a dragon with four legs and a pair of wings into our minds is J.R.R. Tolkien and the character of Smaug from The Hobbit.

And I don’t mean this Smaug.

But, in The Hobbit, Smaug was described as follows: “There he lay, a vast red-golden dragon, fast asleep; thrumming came from his jaws and nostrils, and wisps of smoke, but his fires were low in slumber. Beneath him, under all his limbs and his huge coiled tail, and about him on all sides stretching away across the unseen floors, lay countless piles of precious things, gold wrought and unwrought, gems and jewels, and silver red-stained in the ruddy light. Smaug lay, with wings folded like an immeasurable bat, turned partly on one side, so that the hobbit could see his underparts and his long pale belly crusted with gems and fragments of gold from his long lying on his costly bed.” This is the image of the dragon that Gary Gygax ran with when he created Dungeons and Dragons, and as if it were a boulder rolling downhill this image of the dragon gained momentum and kept gaining momentum and is seemingly still going. After all, if this weren’t the dominant image of the “true” dragon then why would there be a debate over Skyrim’s dragons being real dragons.

If Skyrim’s dragons aren’t dragons, what are they?

The image of the dragons used in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is that of another relatively famous mythical creature. It is the wyvern. What is a wyvern? Well… as defined by Dictionary.com a wyvern is a two-legged winged DRAGON having the hinder part of a serpent with a barbed tail. This definition is also plucked right from British heraldry.

And, if anybody knows their European dragons it’s the Brits.

And, we can trace yet another distinction between the “true” dragon and the wyvern back to Dungeons and Dragons. D&D has been as much of a trope codifier for the “true” dragon as The Lord of the Rings has been for the fantasy genre. In D&D there is a distinction between the “true” dragon and the wyvern. This comes in the way the stat blocks are built for the monsters.

“True” dragons (D&D is actually where I got the use of “true” dragons, as in the game they are actually classified as True Dragons as it is their type.) are the ideal of the European dragons, four legs, two wings, and a breath weapon that is related to the element the dragon represents. The distinction breaks down even further because the True Dragons are broken up into multiple categories with Chromatic Dragons being evilly aligned dragons and Metallic Dragons being the goodly aligned dragons. (They’ve even got it broken down into a third primary category called the Gem Dragons which run along the neutral alignment range.) Then there’s another primary distinction breaking the True Dragons down by age categories and providing specific stats for each age range of the specific type of True Dragon.

Talk about a third wheel.

While on the wyvern side of things there is only one stat block for the creature, and maybe a half page description of the monster and its abilities. Those abilities don’t even include a breath weapon. Rather it’s special attack is a scorpion-like sting with its barbed tail.

That all being said, there is something to be said for the way D&D has the dragons structured. Why? Because even in D&D wyverns are considered a type of dragon. In D&D, as it is in real life, the monsters are broken down into different categories and kingdoms and such. Thus the “Dragon” is a type of creature. It doesn’t refer to one specific type of creature. Like canine is an umbrella term for all the different breeds of dogs, dragon is an umbrella term for many different “breeds” of dragons.

Even this little guy’s considered a dragon.

Why a wyvern?

Now, the biggest question behind all of this hoopla is: why did they use a wyvern?

This was most definitely an intentional choice on the part of Bethesda, as it has been an intentional choice for movie producers, animators, and video game developers for the last decade. The “true” dragon idea is shrinking thanks in large part to the trend that movies have become darker, grittier, and more realistic. That last word is the real reason behind the change: Realism.

You’re probably thinking that’s an interesting word to use regarding a dragon, as there is nothing real about a dragon at all. There are a couple of lizards that have the word dragon in their name, but they have nothing in common with the titanic winged creatures of myth, legend, and fantasy. So, if they’re going for realism regarding dragons, aren’t they up s*** creek without a paddle? Well, no, not really. The realism they’re applying to these “dragons” is based on biology, and the way the body of a vertebrate is constructed.

What is a vertebrate? You are a vertebrate. Your cat is a vertebrate. Bats are vertebrates. Lizards are vertebrates. Birds are vertebrates. A vertebrate is any animal, be it mammal, reptile, avian, or marsupial, and these critters are considered vertebrates because they have… a spinal column that is broken into vertebrae as part of an internal skeletal system. Besides a spinal column, vertebrates also have a head, torso, pelvis, and four limbs in common. Notice that last part, and you’ll understand where the big controversy is coming from. A realistic vertebrate only has four limbs. So, when it comes to realism regarding dragons that means a head, a tail, two wings, and two legs. The very definition of a wyvern. Yay science.

This trend in realism has been going on for the better part of the last two decades. Here’s a look at a few of the feature film dragons showcased in the 2000s and 2010s.

Reign of Fire 2002
Beowulf 2007
Maleficent 2014
Game of Thrones 2011-present