A Question of Dragons

November 30, 2015

Among my myriad editorial, writing, investigative, and other duties I often get e-mails from the public asking me questions about "unexplained" subjects. Since my colleague Joe Nickell doesn't use e-mail, many of these queries (from journalists, students, and others) are fielded to me or someone else as CFI.

I don't have the time or resources to personally answer all the emails but if I can spare a few minutes to respond to the public-and students especially--I make an extra effort to do so. I've gotten heartfelt thank you's from students, parents, and teachers who are appreciative that an expert took the time to reply, that it made them feel important and worthwhile and encouraged them in school and science.

Here's a recent e-mail I thought I'd share:

My name is Hailey and I am working on an independent study project for my gifted class. I am a sixth grader at (XXX) Middle School and noticed that you had done some research and written some articles on dragons. For my independent study project, I am required to ask an expert some questions and wondered if you would be able to help with this part. Here are my questions:

1) Are dragons really as terrifying as pictures describe them?
2) Is there any proof that dragons may exist?
3) How many types of dragons may there be?
4) Which dragon is supposedly the strongest?
5) Are dragonologists real? If so, what have they discovered?

I would appreciate any help that you can give me.

Thanks so much,

I wrote back the next day:

Dear Hailey,

Thank you for contacting me. I am on deadline for the next issue of my magazine, Skeptical Inquirer, and so I'm short on time at the moment but I will try to answer your questions as best I can briefly. I was in the Gifted program in middle school and I loved it and learned a lot from my excellent teachers. Dragons is exactly the sort of subject I would have chosen to research, so you have excellent taste.

1) Are dragons really as terrifying as pictures describe them?

This is a difficult question to answer, because as far as we know the dragons of fantasy novels and movies do not exist, and have never existed. However I think it is reasonable to assume that if dragons were real, they would indeed be as scary as often depicted. They are after all feral animals who are often depicted as greedily guarding treasure. This of course raises the question of why a dragon would need treasure or money anyway, since they are presumably so big and powerful that they can just take whatever they want. Can you imagine a dragon going to Target and handing over gold coins to pay for something? Me neither! If he could fit inside the door, he would just fill up a shopping cart and walk out.

2) Is there any proof that dragons may exist?

Unlike dinosaurs, for example, there is unfortunately no evidence that dragons ever existed. However dinosaur bones were likely mistaken for dragons centuries ago, so it makes sense that it confused people long ago. Another false lead on evidence was the Komodo dragon, which was only recently discovered (around 1910), but rumors of them circulated before that. With so many people around, and satellite images and planes everywhere, it's certain that if dragons existed today we'd know about it.

3) How many types of dragons may there be?

Like ghosts and fairies, there are as many types of dragons as you want there to be. Some fantasy writers only describe one or two types, while others go into details about them. In the popular Dungeons and Dragons game there are about 20 different types, organize by color (red, black, blue, etc.) metal type (brass, silver, gold, etc.) and gem (sapphire, crystal, etc.) as well as mist dragons, and so on. Since they're made up, you can make them into whatever you like.

4) Which dragon is supposedly the strongest?

Which dragon is the strongest depends on who you talk to, but I personally would never mess around with a red dragon. That's just not a good idea.

5) Are dragonologists real? If so, what have they discovered?

Dracontologists--that is, people who study dragons--are real, but it's more correct to say that they are folklorists, since what they're studying are legends, lore, and myths about dragons. Until and unless a real dragon is found, that's as close as we will get to studying them.

Hope this helps, and good luck with the project...

Ben Radford, M.Ed.
Member, American Folklore Society
Research Fellow, Center for Inquiry
Author, Lake Monster Mysteries and Tracking the Chupacabra
Writer, About Weird Things


#1 Jamie (Guest) on Wednesday December 02, 2015 at 11:11am

I loved Ben’s kind response to the query about dragons. I do have a quibble however. He suggests that a dragon could take anything he (she?) wants. Fine, but since a dragon is a mythical beast, it would not be heavy enough to trip the sliding doors. Poor logic, sir.

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