Before the printing press and paper production on an industrial scale, there were very few mass-produced dragon depictions in popular culture. Most of the ones I referenced in Parts I and II of this series were oil paintings intended for the nobility or wealthy merchants, or in illuminated manuscripts for the Church. The majority of medieval citizenry lacked such portrayals, crude as they were. If they were lucky they might see some dragons as part of the artwork of their local cathedral, or on crude block prints sold for decorative use.
In the 19th century, when book production took off as part of the industrial revolution, depictions began to filter down to the masses. Many of them were based on, or reproduced, older art. Detailed metal engravings were common for the printing industry of the time.
In the early decades of the 20th century printing and paper making technology enabled the production of the cheap mass market literature known as pulp, or the pulps, called that for the paper it was printed on, made of wood pulp that yellowed easily and quickly decayed. Pulp also well described its subject matter, which was sensationalistic – early science fiction and fantasy, detectives and police stories, horror. With the addition of a growing children’s literature market, dragon portrayals began a mass dissemination into popular culture.
For children, most of these portrayals were from fairy tales, the imperiled princess and rescuing knight kind, but without the religious piety. The adult side had the female figure mostly being captured or menaced by various BEMs (bug eyed monsters) in addition to dragons and other reptilian creatures. The female was often contorted, clutched, or crawling on the ground as the hero rushes to protect her.
But. In a new strain of fantasy fiction, typified by the Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the princess is an active participant in these adventures, sometimes even wielding a sword and fighting alongside the hero.
OK, this dragon is more like a giant lizard. But in the 1960s, when Frazetta painted this, we can see a change taking place. Though the girl is hanging for dear life, she’s not screaming or clutching at the male as in earlier pulp depictions. She’s looking around, as if scouting, alerting the archer to attackers. Most importantly, she is riding a dragon.
In his career Frazetta painted many woman hanging around with giant wolves, snakes, demons, and other dire beings, so this was just part and parcel of that, and it’s probably not the first woman riding a dragon on the cover of a pulp fantasy book, either. But Frazetta was the most influential fantasy artist of the time, and his covers were in constant demand and constantly visible, often being re-used for different titles. More importantly, they were also being reproduced as art prints.
Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books introduced the female dragonrider with more fanfare in the late 1960s, even though the early covers did not actually feature Lessa on her dragon. But by the early 1970s, they did.
But before the first Pern story was published in Analog, there was a woman that rode a dragon, in a Hanna Barbera cartoon called The Herculoids no less, on Saturday morning.
I loved this cartoon as a small child because of that dragon, whose name was Zok, whom I took to be a female (I was let down when I began paying more attention to the dialogue and realized the other characters referred to it as a he) and though the stories were very basic – barbarian family on strange planet is besieged by aliens, then defeats them with the help of their giant pets – cringingly so if watched today – I loved that dragon, who in addition to shooting rays from its catlike eyes, could whip its tail around in midflight to shoot yet more rays from its tip. Tara, the generic female of the barbarian family, was mostly useless, prone to being kidnapped and then rescued by Sandor, her husband, but occasionally she entered the action riding one of the beasts, usually Zok, to attack.
Since Alex Toth, the creator of these characters, came from the comic world, I’m sure there are dragon-riding women buried elsewhere in the comics of this age. He passed away at the age of 78, at his drawing table, still creating art. Now that’s an artist!
There was also this singular image from a groooovy black light poster produced in the early 1970s.
I first saw this poster in a friend’s brother’s bedroom in Hawaii and I remember staring at it in fascination. Her mom would always shoo me out, because they were a military family and the brother was away at basic training, or something, but I would continue to sneak in, and stare, when I could. This brother also had a taxidermied cobra emerging from a basket, and I would stare at that, too.
The poster is a hippy product, no doubt, and the female dragonrider has a man behind her, which had vanished from my memory over the years. But she is riding it, even if the man seems to be teaching her, and the dragon is fierce. I wonder if its creator had read the Pern books, or been influenced by comic art. Or perhaps there was some Mucha-influenced girl and dragon combo on a Bay Area rock poster.