There are different sources in which dragons are able to speak and not speak.

Speaking examples:

  • Smaug in The Hobbit
  • Skyrim
  • DragonHeart

Non-speaking examples:

  • Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire
  • Beowulf poem

Where did this notion that a dragon could speak come about? Or is it more that it was always seen as speaking and the non-speaking dragons are "newer"?

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    @Himarm - actually, it's even older than that. In Asian mythology, dragons are the ones who taught MEN how to talk. So it's pretty ancient. There does seem to be a correlation between Asian & European cultures, though - Asians saw dragons as wise & benevolent creatures whereas Europeans saw them as animals/monsters to be slain. That's probably why the non-speaking versions are based on European types. – Omegacron Oct 31 '14 at 19:28
  • welp there we have it. blows modern litterature out of the water by a couple thousand years or more. – Himarm Oct 31 '14 at 19:31
  • @Omegacron very interesting. – Raego Oct 31 '14 at 19:33
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    @Omegacron - You should post that as an answer! – System Down Oct 31 '14 at 20:33
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    How are talking dragons different from all the other talking animals in fairy tales? In Lord of the Rings there are talking trees too. – Dima Nov 1 '14 at 15:00

TL;DR: The oldest mention of a talking dragon would be from Chinese mythology.

It's important to note that the modern concept of dragons is an amalgamation of two primary sources - the European "Classic" dragon myth, and the Chinese Dragon of Asian mythology. Both are tales of large, serpent-like creatures but that's about where the similarities end.

In classic European mythology, dating back to at least the 8th century, the dragon was seen as a large, hostile creature which did not speak or fly. These creatures were typically seen as the embodiment of evil, and may have had their origins in the Middle East (where both the Muslim Quran and the Christian Bible make mentions of evil manifesting as large serpents).

Going even further, however, we find that the Chinese dragon first appeared in Asian mythology some time between 5000-2000 BC. In contrast to the evil creatures found in Western culture, Eastern culture depicts dragons as benevolent and wise creatures who represent celestial power. Eastern dragons almost always talk, and in some traditional stories it was, in fact, dragons who first taught mankind to speak. Eastern dragons also flew, albeit without wings. As part of their celestial power, they "rode the winds".

Modern dragon depictions have, for the most part, kept the traditional two modes separate. The "classic" dragon is still depicted as a large, dinosaur like creature with wings. Over the centuries, however, the classic dragon has begun to take on aspects of its Eastern counterpart - intelligence, ancient power, and (sometimes) benevolence. Although much of this merger has been popularized by recent depictions, aspects of the Asian dragon can be seen in Western culture as far back as Roman battle standards from around 270 AD.

The Chinese dragon, on the other hand, has changed very little in over 5000 years. Numerous Yangshao clay figurines & statues from the Neolithic Period have been found which bear a remarkable resemblance to the modern Chinese dragon. Even in modern Asia, dragons are seen as wise, benevolent, ancient creatures who represent good luck & success. They are almost never seen as evil or hostile, however, unless provoked by extraordinary circumstances brought about by men.

So, to summarize, modern dragons like Smaug are about 80% classic European dragon (looks & intent) with maybe 20% Chinese dragon thrown in (speaks & possesses ancient knowledge).

  • Do you have a source (or more information) about "The Chinese dragon, on the other hand, has changed very little in over 5000 years."? – Charles Nov 18 '14 at 15:20
  • Charles - Chinese writing only gos back about 3,500 years, give or take a few centuries, leaving about 1,500 years when the only evidence for the Chinese dragon would be pictures on artifacts. – M. A. Golding Jun 14 '15 at 3:27
  • @M.A.Golding - you are correct, I've added a sentence and link explaining that the earliest depictions are from statues/figures. – Omegacron Jun 15 '15 at 14:14

I don't know when the first talking western dragon appeared. I have read that Smaug in The Hobbit (1937) made a big impression and is the model for many fictional dragons since.

In a classic story by Haywood Broun, published by 1921, at least one dragon talked to Gawaine le Coeur-Hardy, a teenage student at knight school. Gawaine was sent out to kill a dragons every day with good weather and succeeded fifty times in a row. Unfortunately for Gawaine, the title was "The Fifty-First Dragon".

Kenneth Grahame's "The Reluctant Dragon" (1898) could talk and recite poetry.

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