The History of Dragon Stories and the Woman Who Helped Bring Them to Westeros

House of the Dragon is another global hit for HBO, and more Game of Thrones spinoffs are on the way. Despite all that success, though, most viewers don’t know the name of the woman whose contribution to the franchise helped make all of that possible. Because had author Phyllis Eisenstein not convinced George R.R. Martin to “put the dragons in” his story, most of us might never have met Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, and Princess Rhaenyra. Those fantastical beasts have cast a spell over mankind— transcending both culture and time—for as long as people have told stories. They’ve also continued to capture our imaginations since the moment we started putting moving pictures on screen. And without dragons, Westeros might not be the magical phenomenon it’s become.

A House Targaryen dragon from HBO's House of the Dragon.

Dragons have been part of mankind’s myths since the beginning of civilization itself. The first such legend dates back to Ancient Sumer during the 4th or 3rd millennium B.C.E. Those mythical animals started appearing in stories from China, Egypt, and India not long after. Ancient Greece then followed with its own famous dragon tales starting 4,000 years ago, with more societies around the world independently contributing their own tales to dragon lore. ( Possibly after finding dinosaur skeletons.) The classic English dragon tales that endure to this day—ones where brave knights battle giant beasts of fire—began earlier than many realize. The Medieval story “Saint George and the Dragon” traces its origins back to around 300 C.E.

The specifics surrounding tales of large reptilian monsters differ throughout history. In some parts of the world dragons are benevolent and heroic. In others they’re cruel and dangerous. Some fly and breathe flames, while others swim or crawl on land. Others have no wings at all, but sport great horns or even antlers. But while their features, size, and personalities change, dragons’ enduring place in our myths and folktales do not. That didn’t change as the way we tell stories do, either. Just as they’ve long adorned works of art, scrolls, and books, they’ve been part of our movies and TV shows for as long as we’ve had those.

The first dragon appeared on screen in Austrian director’s Fritz Lang’s 1924 “Die Nibelungen.” A dragon made its animated film debut in Disney’s 1931 film The China Plate. (They’ve remained a staple of Disney movies ever since.) Those magical beasts then made the jump to TV in 1946 on Kukla, Fran and Ollie. (The final name in the show’s title refers to the puppet Oliver J. Dragon.) The advent of CGI has only made dragons’ place on screen more ubiquitous during the 21st century. Between live-action stories, cartoons, video games, and tabletop adventures, in many ways dragons are more prevalent in society than ever before. The 21st century makes Arthurian legends seem dragon-light.

Dragons owe their oversized place in modern pop culture to the written word just as much as moving pictures, though. J.R.R. Tolkien’s tales of Middle-earth began with The Hobbit, an adventure about defeating a greedy dragon. We’ll never know if that novel would have been beloved without Smaug. Nor if publishers would have gone forward with The Lord of the Rings had the author’s introduction to his fantasy world not been so well received. But we know Bilbo’s journey led to us meeting Frodo, Gandalf, and Sauron, as well as generations of fantasy stories inspired by the Fellowship of the Ring. Without a dragon at the start we wouldn’t have many of the most beloved and influential fantasy epics we have today. That very much includes George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.

Westeros is not interesting merely because it has dragons. It’s too rich and layered a world to only define it by one element. But it wouldn’t be the same without dragons. Those creatures add a grandeur and mystical quality the story might not otherwise have. (And, let’s be honest, dragons are always cool.) But most importantly they give A Song of Ice and Fire a timeless quality that speaks to people everywhere.

There’s a reason countless cultures, separated by both time and distance, came up with their own dragon myths. It’s the same reason their place in our stories, both for kids and adults, remains steadfast to this day. Dragons represent the power, beauty, and danger of nature. They represent both the perilous challenges and incredible possibilities all humans face. Dragons are supernatural yet made of flesh. They’re seemingly impossible to defeat or even tame, yet vulnerable as any creature. They can be good or bad or something in-between, same as us. They are a fantasy that capture the horror and wonder of the real world.

And George R.R. Martin almost didn’t include them in his story.

Game of Thrones dragons

Martin originally considered giving House Targaryen a dragon sigil but no actual dragons. Instead he would have imbued Targaryens with “a psionic power” that was like a “pyrokinesis” where “they could conjure up flames with their minds.” Ultimately, though, his friend and fellow fantasy author Phyllis Eisenstein wisely told him to include actual dragons, forever changing the trajectory of not only Martin’s novels but the entire world of pop culture. Would his books have been as good or successful without dragons? Would HBO have adapted them without that success? And would Game of Thrones, a true global phenomenon, have found its massive audience minus an element that has long been a part of mankind’s stories everywhere?

We’ll never have answers to those questions. We don’t want to know or need to know them anyway, because we know what happened with dragons in the story. We’re reminded of that every time we watch or discuss House of the Dragon, a prequel about the time when House Targaryen had its highest total of dragons ever in Westeros.

Rhaenys flies her dragon Meleys next to her son Laenor riding his dragon Seasmoke on House of the Dragon

Martin dedicated 2000’s A Storm of Swords, arguably the best book in his series, to his friend. But while Phyllis Eisenstein saw the world embrace Game of Thrones, she passed away in 2020. She never got to see dragons take to the sky on House of the Dragon.

Every time they do, though, we should remember her role in making it all possible and be grateful for what she did. Because she recognized something mankind has always known: dragons always have—and always will—make any story better.

Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at  @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.

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