Dragons never seem to vanish from popular culture.
Whether they are used to describe supposedly fearsome venture capitalists in Dragons’ Den, or are reinvented on film and television (Game of Thrones, The Hobbit), they retain a stubborn hold on our imaginations.
The Enlightenment, and subsequent industrialization, didn’t quite manage to eliminate such creatures from the darker recesses of our minds. Indeed, for some, they became synonymous with them.
In George Cruikshank‘s cartoon “The Railway Dragon”, a family are disturbed at Christmas dinner by a terrifying steam train, which intones:
I come to dine, I come to sup;
I come, I come, to eat you up!
This specifically refers to the collapse of the railway stock market bubble in 1845-46, but leading Nineteenth Century figures such as William Wordsworth, John Ruskin, and Charles Dickens, saw the railway as a destructive force, causing social and environmental harm.
Growing up on the edge of Birmingham, J.R.R. Tolkien witnessed the city gradually encroaching upon the rural Worcestershire of his childhood, and it was this, as well as his experience of the mass mechanized slaughter of the First World War, which informed The Lord of the Rings as much as Beowulf or Norse mythology.
For all the apparent wealth and security of the Western world – even in these straitened times – we still fear those things we cannot explain, which are many, whilst, paradoxically, enjoying the vicarious thrill of seeing the fearsome creatures of our worst imaginings wreak havoc (before, ultimately, being vanquished) in the world of literature or film. We feel better for it. And so the defeated dragon is continually reborn for our benefit, its power both attracting and repelling us, as our own terrible power to desecrate and destroy the world does. We conjure the dragon into existence because we need it, and probably always will. For all our advances, our scientific achievements, our great civilizations, we know that catastrophe is always lurking there, somewhere; that all that we have is as fragile as tissue-paper. We keep such fears at bay with stories, and if the stories are good ones, we are ennobled by them, and they give us courage. The dragons of our imagination can be strong and even noble, but we know that in a moment they can turn, and burn all to ashes.
- Dragons vs Wyverns: The Question of Smaug (atolkienistperspective.wordpress.com)