Saturday, 15 May 2010

Bel and the Dragon

[Blogspot is acting the goat, so for some reason I can't edit html for this post. This means I can't put it in my usual trebuchet font or use bullet points. Apologies if this causes you a stroke or mental collapse of some kind.]

Bel and the Dragon is an interesting little tale from the extended book of Daniel. If you're a good little Baptist as I was brought up to be you shouldn't view it as canonical, but really, who cares?

Bel and the Dragon (at least the most interesting part; there's also a retelling of the Lion's Den story tacked on) is actually two narratives. In the first one, Daniel challenges the cult of a dragon-shaped idol called Bel which is worshipped by the king of the Persians. The idol is made of bronze, but food which is left out for it each night is always gone by morning. The king believes this is because Bel comes to life at night. Daniel proves that it is because the priests and their families have a secret door through which they enter Bel's chamber during the night and eat all the food, and Bel is merely a statue. The priests and their families are then put to death. It is a rare moment of pure rationalism; Richard Dawkins would be proud.

In the second one, the dragon is real, and worshipped by the Babylonians. Daniel kills it by mixing a special cake mixture (true story) which explodes inside its belly. It's a brief and weird little vignette.

Here's what we can take from it:

1. In the first instance, I like the idea of the fake dragon. For one thing, it makes a real dragon that little bit more special if the PCs' first encounter with such a creature turns out to be a damp squib. For another thing, I don't think in all my years of playing D&D I've ever come across a fake Big Bad Evil Guy - I've never seen it turn out that the evil wizard/demon/giant/mind flayer is really just a hunk of bronze. And finally, I like the tricksy Hercule Poirot style solution to the problem on the part of Daniel.

2. In the second instance, I like the idea of a dragon as a god (or devil). I've written several entries in the past about the general dumbing down of dragons in D&D (to the point where first level characters in 4th edition can kill a white dragon). This is a great disappointment in my view - I want dragons to be special, just like I want dungeons to be special. It's in the title of the game, for Christ's sake! A dragon should be a mighty being of mythic power and malevolence. Leviathan, Fafnir, Glaurung. Not big nasty monitor lizard with wings.

3. In the third instance, in Bel and the Dragon Daniel shows PCs how to get creative. If you can't slay the dragon fairly, box clever and poison the swine. If you come across a sinister cult of devil worshipers, investigate whether you can disprove the entire premise rather than risk your life fighting. Think outside the box.

Finally, I really thing the book should be adopted in Protestant versions of the Bible because, let's face it, you can never have enough dragons.


  1. Edgar Rice Burroughs "Mastermind of Mars" has a fake god/statue in which priests hide and claim to it's voice. The whole book is surprisingly anti-religion when you consider that it dates from 1927.

  2. thanks for this. There's a restaurant near me called Bel and the Dragon (in a de-consecrated anglo-saxon church funnily enough). This is from their website

    And I totally agree about dragons needing to be mythic and awe-inspiring, not just big fire breathing reptiles.

  3. The dragon-slaying-via-cooking theme is actually very common in medieval literature. Female saints apparently did it all the time. A lot of times the dragon exploded.

  4. I'd just like to point out that the killable-at-first-level white dragon you mentioned is literally a newborn hatchling.
    And still not an easy fight, especially when one takes its mother and probable siblings into account.

    Very excellent points though, I've always thought it was bizarre powerful dragons as objects of worship were so rare in D&D.

  5. Interesting. If you take into account the innumerable real world examples of culturally important totemic animals it makes a whole lot of sense that the monsters of D&D-land would figure very highly as objects of veneration.

  6. 1. Except the story is used in Dragons of the Autumn Twilight, the first Dragonlance novel, where the fake dragon ends up being destroyed by the kender to free his friends. Now I know where they swiped the story from, I always assumed it was the Wizard of Oz.

    1a. Never one illusionist? I thought everyone tried to do an illusionist at some point in time and that got frustrated by it's failure.

    2. Tiamat was a Dragon goddess in the original Deities and Demigods, including the cover, because you always stick a dragon on the cover if possible Which also ended up being a big part of the Dragonlance universe as well as some sort of generic mother of dragons. I seem to remember it being used in that Thora Birch franchise as well.