The names of our dragons

The first piece of very-popular epic fantasy fiction I read was J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth saga, which, among many things, reminded me how much the American and British writers of ‘high fantasy’ owed the ancient mythologies of the people of Northern Europe and, to a lesser extent, east and central Asia. I read many other books of the same genre after until I was introduced to Steven Erikson’s grand Malazan Book of the Fallen series. The 10 books of the main series have hundreds of protagonists and more than a thousand named characters (including non-humanoid life-forms and excluding inanimate things like deserts and valleys) overall – and reading about them, I thought I had finally found one writer whose work allowed me to escape the mythological thrall of Norse and Asian mythologies.

But it wasn’t to be. Many years after I’d finished the series (and declared it to be my new all-time favourite), I discovered that Babylonian mythology has a dragon goddess named Tiamat, a “deification of the primordial sea” (source). The Malazan series makes repeated references to an Elder goddess and the mother of all dragons named T’iam, and who, the series’s characters hint every now and then, came into their shared realm from a different, unknown one many eons ago. (A prequel trilogy, centered on the city of Kharkanas, also describes the formation of a “poisonous” sea called the ‘Vitr’, from which a new primordial being emerges; she is later named the ‘Queen of Dreams’.)

To be sure, it is just a name, but only if you also ignored the economics of symbolism. The authors of the Malazan series, mainly Steven Erikson but with some help from his friend Ian C. Esslemont, went to great lengths to name an incredible array of characters. Every one of them is far from contrived, with close attention paid to the sounds and common arrangements of letters in other words of the same language the name-bearer’s people spoke. Tolkien did this also, by loading dwarven names with Ds, Gs, Rs and Ns, and elven names with Ls, Ss, Ns and Os. The point is – why to go so much trouble for so many names, but include T’iam ‘as is’, considering its nominal proximity to Tiamat?

(By the way, Dungeons & Dragons lore has a big bad dragon named Tiamat, and Erikson and Esslemont both used the game to develop their books. If Erikson borrowed T’iam from D&D’s Tiamat – or if both share a common ancestor –, and not directly from ancient Babylonian mythology, the problem still stands. I’m only leading with Malazan here because I know more about it.)

Second, if T’iam was rooted in Babylonian legends’ Tiamat, what else did Erikson and Esslemont borrow from this and other mythologies? (Note here that there can be no dispute for primacy between an author writing in the 20th or 21st centuries and those who wrote their stories thousands of years ago. Note also that wherever the Babylonians and the people of other civilisations adapted their symbols from, the emergence of written communication – including drawings and paintings – in their time precluded modern historians from deducing much about the people who lived earlier, except if their stories survived in written records of some sort.) The answer to what else the duo borrowed won’t change the fantastic stories of the Malazan series; instead, it would impinge on the genre more broadly. That is, it would ask: has any popular work of epic fantasy completely transcended the symbols first created by, and preserved in, people’s ancient tales?

Whatever the answer isn’t, it can’t be Marvel Comics either, which coopted Thor, Odin, Freyja, Loki and a host of other Nordic characters and Americanised them. More fundamentally, and perhaps also more forgivably, while the writers and illustrators of Marvel produced big hits with the mass market, I doubt they set out to redefine the elements of epic fantasy through their work for this production house, and in hindsight may have contributed more towards justifying the US’s socio-cultural pursuits in each era, as exemplified by the rise of ‘Captain America’ in the post-war period. (This is speculation; I could be horribly wrong, and also beside the point.)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has further entrenched this process of Americanisation, including through its latest offering: The Eternals, which features a supreme antagonist, from the PoV of the film’s narrative, named Tiamut the Communicator. In Marvel’s canon, Tiamut is known as the ‘Dreaming Celestial’, a being of extreme power and, later, thoughtfulness, which starts off with a mandate to annihilate Earth. (Its title is reminiscent of Erikson’s ‘Queen of Dreams’, which suggests a deeper connection with ‘dreaming’ in Babylonian lore.) American comic-book artist Jack Kirby first introduced Tiamut in 1977 (Tiamut’s last appearance, so far, was in 2013).

As with ‘T’iam’ in the Malazan series (and ‘Eru Iluvatar’, etc. in The Silmarillion versus Odin All-father, etc. in Norse mythology), is the act of reusing a name, with some modifications trivial enough to maintain the similarity, a tribute? Tiamut in the comics bore no other similarity to Tiamat – although Tiamut goes from being an antagonist of sorts to a protagonist whereas Tiamat in Babylonian lore goes from being creator to destroyer. Or is it an admission that the writer is adapting an old trope in order to stave off ridicule; an attempt to evoke preconceived impressions of dragon-like power; or, ultimately, a complete failure of the imagination?