Who Invented the Ice Dragon?

Fire-breathing dragons are a well-known trope, but ice-breathing dragons are a relatively new beast to fantasy. Or are they?

icedragon.jpg

Picture by Ministry of the Russian Federation for the Development of the Far East (Ministry of the Development of the Far East)

1979: Was It George?​

George R.R. Martin, author of the Song of Fire and Ice fantasy anthology that inspired the Game of Thrones television series, wrote a short story titled "The Ice Dragon" back in 1979. In the introduction to that story, Martin makes a surprising claim:

"Ice dragons have become commonplace features of a lot of fantasy books and games in the twenty-odd years since I wrote 'The Ice Dragon,' but I believe mine was the first. And most of the other 'ice dragons' appear to be no more than white dragons living in cold climes. Adara's friend, a dragon made of ice that breathes cold instead of flames, remains unique so far as I'm aware, my only truly original contribution to the fantasy bestiary."

Breaking that bold statement down, Martin is arguing that his ice dragon is unique because it combines two characteristics: it "breathes cold" and is "made of ice." We know Martin himself was well-acquainted with role-playing games, because he wrote one:

Back in the ‘80s GRRM (as he is known to his fans) was gamesmaster for a super-hero RPG called Superworld. The Albuquerque group he played with – which included science-fiction writers Melinda Snodgrass, Victor Milan, John J. Miller and Walter Jon Williams – created a campaign setting in which an extraterrestrial virus brought to earth in 1946 caused ‘wild card’ mutations among the populace. Those few infected by the virus who didn’t die outright or suffer grotesque mutations were changed at the DNA level and became ‘aces’ – or superheroes, in other words. This campaign would form the basis for the long running Wild Cards series of books which are still edited by GRRM and Snodgrass.

So it seems likely Martin's reference to white dragons is to Dungeons & Dragons. But who's to say white dragons aren't made of ice?

1974: Was it D&D?​

White dragons were introduced in the original boxed set with one line, "White Dragons will be found only in cold regions." Their statistics tell the rest of the story: they breath a cone of cold, have the lowest hit dice (5-7) and have the lowest chance of talking and the highest chance of being found sleeping. The rules don't explain the significance of a talking dragon but entries for the other dragon colors imply that talking is a prerequisite for casting spells.

This skeletal framework ensured change the legacy of white dragons in later editions. They were considered the least of the chromatic hierarchy, dumber and less powerful than their more ferocious cousins. There's no indication of what white dragons are made of, but there is one other clue: there are attacks they're vulnerable or resistant to, with a hit and damage modifier against them of -1 for water and earth, and a +1 for fire and lightning. Given that water damage does less harm to white dragons, it's entirely possible they could be made of ice. That booklet predates Martin's book by five years, published in 1974.

But co-creator Gary Gygax never claimed he invented the white dragon, and for good reason.

1933: Was it Ruth Plumly Thompson?​

The second official Historian of the Oz series of books after Frank L. Baum was Ruth Plumly Thompson, who included all sorts of fantasy creatures in the Oz series. She was particularly fond of dragons, including an ice dragon:

Ruth Plumly Thompson created such a creature in Ojo in Oz (1933). Colored blue and puffing out frost, it runs endlessly around Crystal City, keeping the inhabitants frozen solid.

The dragon is described as being blue, not made of ice, but later when Realbad the bandit kills it (off screen, as this was a children's book), he explains how:

"There was another kind of body thought," Realbad reminded him with a little laugh. "A blue dragon's body. There is your dragon, Ojo. I carried wood from the kitchen, built a fire in the road and he melted away like a snowflake."

So it seems the blue dragon was indeed made of ice. But Thompson wasn't the first person to create an ice dragon.

1899: Was it E. Nesbit?​

Nesbit wrote about an ice dragon:

And, sure enough, it was a dragon - a great, shining, winged, scaly, clawy, big-mouthed dragon - made of pure ice. It must have gone to sleep curled round the hole where the warm steam used to come up from the middle of the earth, and then when the earth got colder, and the column of steam froze and was turned into the North Pole, the dragon must have got frozen in his sleep - frozen too hard to move - and there he stayed. And though he was very terrible he was very beautiful, too.
This dragon is made of ice through and through, as it melts later (a common theme when it comes to dragons made of ice) but does not breathe ice. It does turn everything that touches it to ice however, and it's implied that the dragon's presence freezes things.

So it's clear that ice dragons aren't unique. And neither are white dragons, who have a long history in mythology.

828: Was it Nennius?​

The Historia Brttonum, a purported history of the indigenous British people, contains a story of King Vortigern and Ambrosius, who reveals a disturbance caused by two dragons:

The relevant story takes place at Dinas Emrys when Vortigern tries to build a castle there. Every night, unseen forces demolish the castle walls and foundations. Vortigern consults his advisers, who tell him to find a boy with no natural father, and to sacrifice him. Vortigern finds such a boy, but on hearing that he is to be put to death to solve the demolishing of the walls, the boy dismisses the knowledge of the advisors. The boy tells the king of the two dragons. Vortigern excavates the hill, freeing the dragons. They continue their fight and the red dragon finally defeats the white dragon. The boy tells Vortigern that the white dragon symbolises the Saxons and that the red dragon symbolises the people of Vortigern.

There is no indication that the white dragon is made of ice or breathes cold, but it may provide a clue as to the origins of Gygaxian chromatic dragons. If that's the case, white dragons got the losing end of the deal, as the white dragon in this story is the red dragon's equal.

So Who Created Ice Dragons?​

Martin was careful to explain that he considered the combined characteristics of a dragon made of ice that breathes cold to be unique. It's a fair interpretation. Dungeons & Dragons never explicitly said white dragons were made of ice, and later iterations were definitely flesh-and-blood creatures. Conversely, only a close reading of Thompson's work makes it clear that the blue dragon is made of ice and breathes cold, due in part to its death explained after the fact. And of course, white dragons have been around in myth as long as dragons have been in legend.

It's clear that Martin's ice dragon owes a debt to all the dragons that have gone before, including its measly ancestor, the underappreciated white dragon.

Your Turn: Are your white dragons made of ice?
 
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca



Alzrius

The EN World kitten
I believe it's since been discovered that Gygax described his chromatic dragons (and the purple worm) in an article he wrote for a Tolkien fanzine, Thangorodim. Trivial, in light of the Oz reference, but it pushes his creation of them back to 1969.
Quite right! For more on that, check out the blog entry below:

 

Dioltach

Legend
Was the E. Nesbit quote taken from either The Phoenix and the Carpet or The Tale of the Amulet? Because those are the only two of her books that I read, and I recall reading about an ice dragon as a kid.
 

Not likely to use an ice dragon, both because I am trying to keep dragons special (the party has met exactly two of them and is hunting a third) and because the game is set in a desert. But I do appreciate the idea. Perhaps they'll face off against someone who can use ice powers to create animated dragon statues.
 

It certainly wasn't GRRM or Gygax. I'm pretty sure the first reference occured about 10 minutes after the "creation" of a fire breathing dragon when a couple of neanderthals were huddled around a fire in a cave some where.

But what are my white dragons made of? Flesh, blood and magic!
 
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CreamCloud0

One day, I hope to actually play DnD.
Not likely to use an ice dragon, both because I am trying to keep dragons special (the party has met exactly two of them and is hunting a third) and because the game is set in a desert. But I do appreciate the idea. Perhaps they'll face off against someone who can use ice powers to create animated dragon statues.
Don’t deserts get incredibly cold at night? That’d be a decent justification for ice dragons in the desert, especially if they’re nocturnal or something, be a bit of a surprising but somewhat logical twist for the players.

Don’t take this as me telling you to put dragons in your game, I respect the goal of giving their appearances weight, I’m just querying if ‘desert ice dragon’ is such an out there concept.
 

Don’t deserts get incredibly cold at night? That’d be a decent justification for ice dragons in the desert, especially if they’re nocturnal or something, be a bit of a surprising but somewhat logical twist for the players.

Don’t take this as me telling you to put dragons in your game, I respect the goal of giving their appearances weight, I’m just querying if ‘desert ice dragon’ is such an out there concept.
Desert nights can be very cold, but they rarely result in freezing temperatures during the summer months. Even in midwinter, while it does get cold, it doesn't drop that far below freezing.

Likely, what you'd need to do is have either a deep underground lair (using the sand above as a reflector), and some way of venting heat from the cavern without letting any in. It's somewhat plausible, but would require some buildup I think in order to feel like it makes sense in context.
 

I really need to get to reading the Book of Dragons. I've had it on my Kindle for a while now.

1899: Was it E. Nesbit?​

Nesbit wrote about an ice dragon:


This dragon is made of ice through and through, as it melts later (a common theme when it comes to dragons made of ice) but does not breathe ice. It does turn everything that touches it to ice however, and it's implied that the dragon's presence freezes things.

For D&D, I don't think I'll change white dragons (since then you start having to wonder if red dragons are made of lava, or are brass dragons made of dreams, since they can put people to sleep), but for something like DCC RPG or Troika, yeah, white dragons being made of ice is perfect.

Your Turn: Are your white dragons made of ice?
 


J.Quondam

CR 1/8
Don’t deserts get incredibly cold at night? That’d be a decent justification for ice dragons in the desert, especially if they’re nocturnal or something, be a bit of a surprising but somewhat logical twist for the players.

Don’t take this as me telling you to put dragons in your game, I respect the goal of giving their appearances weight, I’m just querying if ‘desert ice dragon’ is such an out there concept.
The Persians routinely made ice. They filled a shallow pool with water and harvested the ice that formed on it shortly before dawn. They could store the ice for months in special built structures consisting of a subterranean pit and a special flue.
Also, not all deserts are "hot" deserts. Ice is very familiar to inhabitants of the Gobi Desert, for example. And cold snaps penetrate even hot continental deserts like the American desert southwest with some regularity.

So I don't think ice would be a terribly weird idea for most desert dwellers, at least not on historical Earth. Fantasy worlds could differ, obviously.
 



Marandahir

Crown-Forester (he/him)
Nennius's White Dragon and Red Dragon are not Ice and Fire Dragons persay, but representatives of the conflict between the Anglo-Saxons and the Welsh.

See: Red Dragon of Wales on the flag.
 

Marandahir

Crown-Forester (he/him)
I really need to get to reading the Book of Dragons. I've had it on my Kindle for a while now.



For D&D, I don't think I'll change white dragons (since then you start having to wonder if red dragons are made of lava, or are brass dragons made of dreams, since they can put people to sleep), but for something like DCC RPG or Troika, yeah, white dragons being made of ice is perfect.
No, those are Catastrophic Dragons that are made purely out of the elements they're breathing. They were in the 4e Monster Manual 3 and expanded upon in Dragon Magazine:

  • Avalanche dragon
  • Blizzard dragon
  • Earthquake dragon
  • Tornado dragon
  • Typhoon dragon
  • Wildfire dragon
  • Volcanic dragon
 


Bitbrain

Glory to Ka!
In the homebrew campaign I’m working on (currently dubbed “the Refracted World”) white dragons aren’t made of ice, but their breath weapon does deal cold damage in the form of a cone of freezing-cold air.
 

That looks so charming! I've never heard of it before now.

Sadly, but entirely understandably, Talien’s list of ice dragons omits my favourite ice dragon - the one featured in a season of the beautiful Smallfilms/BBC animated kids’ series The Saga of Noggin the Nog, first broadcast in c. 1959 and still being shown in the mid-70s when I was a kid. Ah, lovely stuff.
 


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