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Wherever I see dragons in fantasy works, they are portrayed as very powerful creatures. They can decimate entire armies without taking much damage. Even powerful kingdoms avoid them at all costs. The Hobbit (and Tolkien's other works) and Game of Thrones immediately come to mind.

But, in Harry Potter, even school kids could defeat a dragon. Yeah, they are powerful, but not powerful enough to be feared by the entire wizarding world.

Why did J.K. Rowling choose to downplay dragons? Has she ever mentioned anything about it?

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    "They can decimate entire armies without taking much damages." You haven't read the Natural History of Dragons by Lady Trent series authored by Marie Brennan, then. :) – Lexible Dec 8 '18 at 1:51
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    Game of Thrones you say? But, ehm, awww. – Mr Lister Dec 8 '18 at 8:48
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    @Lexible That actually dovetails nicely with Kevin's answer. Brennan's series isn't high fantasy - it's a Victorian adventure fiction. It's as if Charles Dickens fictionalized Charles Darwin's adventures, but with dragons instead of finches. – R.M. Dec 8 '18 at 16:37
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    I'd like to point out that there are no "standards" dragons. There's a lot of different dragons for a lot of different stories and none can be called "the real dragon". Dragons can be big (or not), be scally (or not), be strong (or not), be smart (or not), use magic (or not), fly (or not). So outside the fact that JK Rowling's dragon aren't really weak in the first place (see @Bellatrix answer), there can't really be any notion of "downplay" as there are no universal dragon to compare to. – Echox Dec 10 '18 at 14:11
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    As Bellatrix points out, none of the students were tasked with defeating a dragon, just getting past it long enough to grab the egg. And, we're making an assumption that the dragons weren't juveniles themselves. – John Bode Dec 10 '18 at 20:07
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She didn't choose to violate genre conventions. She doesn't read fantasy in the first place, and Harry Potter wasn't intended as a (high) fantasy.

In an interview with The New York Times, J. K. Rowling said the following:

Any literary genre you simply can’t be bothered with?

“Can’t be bothered with” isn’t a phrase I’d use, because my reading tastes are pretty catholic [lowercase in original]. I don’t read “chick lit,” fantasy or science fiction but I’ll give any book a chance if it’s lying there and I’ve got half an hour to kill.[...]

She also didn't consider Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone a work of fantasy until after she'd written it. Another answer to the linked question contains numerous additional quotations indicating that Rowling doesn't like or read fantasy, so I'm going to consider that a well-established fact.

Given that Rowling does not read fantasy, we have to interpret Harry Potter in the broader context of English literature rather than as an intentional work of high fantasy. Comparisons with The Hobbit and other works in Tolkien's legendarium are particularly inapt, because those works spawned a literary and cultural canon which Rowling has intentionally avoided.

Dragons are, of course, fearsome creatures. But there is also a longstanding tradition, far older than Tolkien, of individual knights slaying them. Probably the earliest surviving example which can be called "English" in any sense is Beowulf, but of course there are numerous more modern examples. The dragons used in the Triwizard Tournament are a continuation of that literary trope. The "knights" are schoolchildren because the protagonists are schoolchildren. Finally, they didn't actually slay the dragons. They just had to retrieve an egg.

Turning to broader genre differences, it's clear that Rowling was intent on writing a "civilized" world, in which humans have a substantial level of control over magic. The dragons (and various other magical creatures) are kept as pets. The elves are enslaved. The goblins once rebelled, but now they merely run the economy. Why? Because Rowling was not writing a fantasy in which "anything can happen." She was writing a boarding school story which just so happened to be set in a magical environment. Boarding school stories can have a substantial level of mischief (think of Harry and company sneaking around with the invisibility cloak), but a common baseline assumption is that the school is mostly safe and mostly a civilized environment, in which children need only moderate adult supervision.

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    Re: "pretty catholic [lowercase in original]": I'm not sure why you felt the need to specify "lowercase in original"; no one capitalizes this sense of the word "catholic", so there's no reason to call special attention to the fact that the Times wrote it in the normal way. You might almost as well follow your quotation with [correct spelling and punctuation in original]. :-P – ruakh Dec 8 '18 at 5:20
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    @ruakh: You know that and I know that, but some hypothetical person clicking the edit button six months from now might not know that and try to "help." – Kevin Dec 8 '18 at 5:23
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    This is an important answer. Post Tolkien, readers of fantasy expect worldbuilding in a way which stands up to at least casual scrutiny - who grows the food for the city, where does its money come from, and so on. Not knowing fantasy, Rowling was utterly unfamiliar with the concept. There was some retconning in later books, and some points where she just acknowledged it didn't make sense. This is why fanfic like HPMOR has been written by people who do understand fantasy conventions (and basic science) as a what-might-have-been. – Graham Dec 8 '18 at 11:33
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    @Kevin And yet it is fair to hold her to higher standards on worldbuilding, because every novel needs a fictional setting which can withstand casual inspection, regardless of genre. Her plotting of course is very good indeed, and her writing style is perfectly pitched for her target audience; but her worldbuilding doesn't withstand the average junior school kid asking "but why...?" :) – Graham Dec 8 '18 at 11:39
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    Actually, a good bit of the humor in the book comes from the fact that, for a boarding school, Hogwarts is absurdly dangerous. – Kyralessa Dec 8 '18 at 13:41
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Dragons in Harry Potter are indeed powerful.

Though it’s true that dragons were used in one of the tasks of the Triwizard Tournament competed in by schoolchildren, dragons were shown to be powerful creatures. The task wasn’t actually to defeat a dragon, just to retrieve an egg guarded by one. To defeat a dragon, Sirius Black says would need about six wizards working together.

“There’s a way, Harry. Don’t be tempted to try a Stunning Spell – dragons are strong and too powerfully magical to be knocked out by a single Stunner. You need about half-a-dozen wizards at a time to overcome a dragon –”
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Chapter 19 (The Hungarian Horntail)

Dragons are also classified as XXXXX, the highest of the Ministry’s danger classifications, which means known wizard killer/impossible to train or domesticate.

“DRAGON
M.O.M. Classification: XXXXX

Probably the most famous of all magical beasts, dragons are among the most difficult to hide. The female is generally larger and more aggressive than the male, though neither should be approached by any but highly skilled and trained wizards.”
- Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Though dragons may be portrayed as stronger in other works, they’re not portrayed as weak in the Harry Potter series. As for why they’re not portrayed as even more powerful, that may be because dragons aren’t as large a part of the story as they are in other works.

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    Right. Muggles with nothing more advanced than medieval weapons would have little chance to fight a dragon. – leftaroundabout Dec 8 '18 at 19:16
  • @leftaroundabout unless they had good stories to tell before becoming dragon chow. – CPHPython Dec 10 '18 at 17:23
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    Sirius doesn’t even say that defeating a dragon requires about six wizards – that’s just for overcoming it. Stunning the dragon is temporary, hardly defeat. Unless I’m misremembering, we don’t actually see even a single reference to actual slaying of dragons in the Potterverse. We see them subdued, but never slain (except inasmuch as there are gloves made from dragon hide, which was presumably not given up voluntarily). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 10 '18 at 18:00
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They can decimate entire armies without taking much damages

They could decimate entire medieval armies without taking much damage. They would be less successful against a fighter plane or two. There is nothing about the traditional fantasy dragon that would give it much of a chance against a modern military.

Now if muggle authorities can handle dragons, it would be something of an embarrassment to the wizarding world if they could not also deal with dragons. That would make the whole wizarding thing much less awesome. It's true that muggles do a lot of things better than wizards, but dragon slaying is too much.

There is also the general principle that if you don't want an unstoppable monster to be the focus of your story, you don't have one period.

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    That really depends on the dragon. – Adamant Dec 9 '18 at 2:07
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    @Adamant Sgt. Maj. James Dever, the military technical advisor for 2014 Godzilla movie, has opined that the US military could stop a real life Godzilla. There aren't many fictional dragons bigger than that. escapistmagazine.com/news/view/… – James Hollis Dec 9 '18 at 10:34
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    @Rogem Smaug boasted about having armor equivalent to ten shields. If we upgrade the (usually wooden or hide) medieval shield to plate armor, ten of those might be 1 inch of steel in total. He's far from invincible. Consider the A-10 Warthog, an enormous Gatling gun with a plane built around it, designed to destroy tanks. Can you name a dragon that could prevail against an A-10? – James Hollis Dec 9 '18 at 15:16
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    @JamesHollis It's not entirely up to the firepower: Smaug could simply choose to stay underground in a suitably hollowed out urban center, i.e. metro or sewer tunnels. Some D&D dragons could transform into civilians or rodents and thus hide among the local populace, and becoming rather impervious to appropriate levels of firepower. – Rogem Dec 9 '18 at 15:33
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    @JamesHollis Chinese dragons, who are almost definitely even more powerful. – Rogem Dec 9 '18 at 17:08
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Harry Potter takes place in the modern era, rather than medieval times, where the natural world has over centuries become "civilized".

Dragons are indeed powerful, and it's because of this power they are downplayed in the Harry Potter stories. In fact, dragons were so powerful they disrupted the spread of the noble wizard and muggle, and as a result were slowly hunted and pushed to the brink of extinction, much like North American Bison. By the time we meet Harry Potter, they're just not something one is ever likely to encounter in the normal course of things. If not for the work of Dumbledore and Nicholas Flamel finding ways to make Dragons at least somewhat useful, they might be gone completely.

Dragons in fantasy works ... can decimate entire armies without taking much damage.

True, true. But so could wizards. For the tournament, the dragon is chained and at least partially trained, and the goal is merely to steal from it rather than defeat it. And these aren't just children. The tournament is only open those at least 17 years of age... practically adults.

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It should also be considered that in the Harry Potter universe, what Muggles "know" about the magical world is often distorted or downright false.

HP gnomes look nothing like the gnomes in that coffee-table book from a few decades back, elves look nothing like Galadriel, and so forth.

In the case of dragons, we have intelligent and articulate dragons in Muggle fiction (such as Smaug in The Hobbit), but in the HP universe dragons' intellect is on the same order as that of lower animals. So more has been changed other than their raw power and ferocity.

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