Everything I knew of dragons as a child involves them being huge lizard-like beings, usually with wings. Most fairy tales and popular fantasy works (such as the Hobbit) follow that pattern.

I've noticed however that in many stories dragons also can take human form, and that often seems like a mundane ability of them. Examples include

the second Dragon Heart film and the Longest Journey games.

I'm wondering if this idea first appeared in a "modern" fantasy story and has been adopted by others since, or if it was an ability of dragons in folklore as well.

  • Possibly better suited for the Mythology Exchange – Daft Jun 11 '15 at 10:03
  • An example of dragons taking human form is GRR Martins books? "You sew some beast upon a scrap of silk, and suddenly you are all lions or dragons or eagles" There are no dragons in human form in his stories, just people who call themselves dragons or lions. – Mikey Mouse Jun 11 '15 at 11:45
  • Interesting question. I've first read about it in one of Sapkowski's Witcher anthologies. Then it was in "Dresden Files", so I did a little digging on the topic... Quite interesting, as both Sapkowski and Butcher research "their mythology" rather thoroughly and try to keep it culturally localized... So would like to know from where they got the idea. – AcePL Jun 11 '15 at 13:45
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    @Daft: I respectfully disagree. Even if it began in mythology, it is an element of modern fantasy as well. – George T Jun 11 '15 at 18:47
  • I think that, at least in video games, it may be partly a convenience thing - especially if the dragon isn't evil, and has some degree of regular presence within normal circumstances. It may be fun to fight a big hulking dragon, but traveling with a creature that fills up half the screen could get old very quickly. – Misha R Apr 23 '19 at 22:28

It is called (incorrectly, IMO) drakanthropy and has it's roots in Far East mythology. And this answers part of your question - it's not "modern fantasy".

The Chinese further state that they (maybe broadly humans, definitely Chinese folk) are descendants of the dragons. Also, sometimes, it is being defined as common ancestor of human and other species (swine, cow, horse etc.). They are thought of a powerful magical creatures as well.

The idea would be late transplant to western mythology, and is at odds - some - with established picture of dragons of the West... Which depiction is essentially modern, exclusive to Europe and which I don't like much. I really prefer dragons as ancient creatures of LeGuin world rather than "Reign of Fire"...

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  • Not sure what you mean by LeGuin world.. but if it's a reference to Ursula K LeGuin, you may want to think about Mr. Underhill (from the Rule of Names), Tehanu and others. Her dragons could often take human form. – K-H-W Apr 23 '19 at 22:00
  • @K-H-W - I was referring to depiction of dragons as dragons, not as something able to take a different form. LeGuin's dragons are nothing like vicious, killing/destroying dragons of the modern Western mythology. Not good, not benevolent, but... not near-mindless evil monster guarding a treasure, that's for sure. – AcePL Apr 24 '19 at 13:00

There is a dragon from Korean mythology called the Imoogi (I may have spelled that wrong, so if I did, forgive me). It is born as a human child, and, as far as I know, female. It remains human until its seventeenth year, then it can go back and forth between forms (human and dragon) as it pleases.

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    Nice answer - but could you give a link to some more info about this creature? – Rand al'Thor Feb 13 '16 at 23:11

The thought has occurred to me that changing to Human size would be a good way for a dragon to find all the individual gold and silver and bejeweled objects and treasures in some community he has taken over. That could explain how Smaug was able to fit or reach into so many small spaces in Erebor to get the gold belonging to individual dwarves.

I suppose that turning into a Human or Elf or Dwarf would be even better for getting all the loot.

The bigger a great dragon like Samug is supposed to be, the more useful being able to turn Human sized or even Human would be while collecting treasure from a devastated community. And it would be handy to turn Human sized or Human sometimes, such as when eating and later digesting his meals - that would make them last longer.

But unless Tolkien deliberately wrote The Hobbit intending to suggest such ideas, I can't think of any Western culture fantasy dragons who could change size or appearance.

Fafnir, who was a man or elf or dwarf in Norse mythology changed into a dragon. Maleficent the evil fairy in Sleeping Beauty (1958) could turn into a dragon, and at last in the Teen Titans episode "Spellbound" there was a Dragon who could take on Human appearance (October 9, 2004). Could that possibly be the first shape shifting dragon in western movies or tv?

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