My favourite scene in the entire trilogy of The Hobbit films by Peter Jackson is right at the very end of An Unexpected Journey when Smaug the dragon opens its eye. Never have I looked forward to a sequel more.
In researching all things dragon for book two of The Blood of the Bear, it quickly became apparent that the eye was considered the important part right through history. The origins of the word Dragon, generally describe sharp, bright, and even deadly looks, with the classical Greek term derived from a word which translates as "I see".
"The eyes are the windows to the soul"
Maybe dragons in history represented something more than just fearsome creatures that terrorised communities and hoarded treasure until some fabled warrior inevitably came along and ended their life ...usually with a small, pointy bit of metal.
The European dragons first appear in the mythologies of medieval culture. Quite often the unfortunate creatures are slayed during these stories. In fact, killing a dragon seems to have been a popular route to sainthood at the time. Not all cultures viewed them as being evil. Eastern dragons can be linked with good fortune, maybe because of the ability to hoard treasure.
Generally when they make an appearance in history they are already referred to as something ancient. They are mythical creatures existing in the realms of the gods and demi-gods. They represent attributes such as courage, power, and authority, but also greed, pride, and maybe just a liitle bit of ego. A dragon seems to be typically corrupted as a result of its own success.
Dragons and the Arthurian connection
It is the young Merlin who provides the dragon story within the Arthurian lore. Merlin is summoned by King Vortigern to Dinas Emrys, having been selected as the unlucky tribute in a child sacrifice (obviously). This perfectly reasonable course of action is intended to sort out the problem of a new castle construction that keeps falling apart every night.
Merlin tells the King that the inability to build is caused by two dragons that exist deep within the hill, fighting each other in a nightly feud. The struggle shakes the earth below the castle's foundations resulting in the building crumbling down. Again, gluttony seems to have been the root cause of the presence of the dragons, having been first trapped in Dinas Emrys in a cauldron of mead - I can understand that.
A dig is ordered and they discover the creatures, so Merlin doesn't meet with a premature end, and is allowed to go on and make other prophecies.
The dragons themselves, one white (the Saxon dragon) and one red (the dragon of the Britons) seem to keep on fighting until eventually the red dragon triumphs. The red dragon of the legend is now of course widely recognised as the Welsh Dragon, celebrated on the national flag of Wales.
...And do they breathe fire?
Yes, I did research on this as well, and amazingly it does seem that fire-breathing animals are possible, even if none have actually been discovered.
There are a few options for how this might work, and there's some really good further reading in an article I've linked below. I won't repeat all the science here as it's someone else's work, but suffice to say I've decided to go for the Hydrogen Sulfide option as it lends itself to a slightly more comedic take on the subject. Don't want you to think I'm getting all academic on you.
...but they're just great.
The science and the history are important, but at the end of the day there is nothing quite like a dragon for beefing up a fantasy tale. Whether it's in games such as Dragon Age or Skyrim, or the many books of Anne McCaffrey, George R.R. Martin, and J.R.R. Tolkein, with their hugely popular T.V. and Film adaptations.
This of course takes me back to where I started with Smaug. A dragon who can apparently fire me up just with the opening of an eye.