Archetypal Antagonists for the Hero Arc: Dragon and Sick King

The well-known Hero Arc offers us the exciting story of a brave youth fighting to discover and earn his own worthiness. It follows on the heels of the Maiden Arc‘s initial individuation from the Authority Figures that dominate one’s youth, and it offers the young adult the opportunity to discover what he is meant to do with his life.

Viewed mythically, the Hero Arc (or Journey) is usually an epic Quest, in which the Hero ventures away from the Kingdom to confront a Dragon and find the Elixir that will heal the Sick King and save the Kingdom. More realistically, it is a story about finding meaning and setting one’s course in the very specific ways that will influence the entire rest of one’s life.

As we’ve already explored in our initial post about the Hero Arc, it is a story about exploring one’s newly burgeoning Power as an adult—and discovering whether or not that Power will be surrendered into a greater Love (which could be for a specific person or cause, but generally is seen to represent a loving reintegration with society itself).

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As such, the Hero Arc is certainly a story with a deep inner conflict and character arc for the protagonist. The antagonists the character faces in the external plot may demand all sorts of heroic action. But fundamentally, as always, they represent key aspects of the Hero himself.

The two-sided face of the Hero’s archetypal antagonist can be seen to be represented by the Dragon and the Sick King. As always, one or the other can be more prevalent in the outer conflict, depending on the nature and focus of the specific story. Either way, both are important symbolic forces within this exciting story.

The Hero’s Antagonists: Practical and Thematic

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Although the distinction may not always be cut and dried, we can recognize that a “practical” antagonist is one that faces the Hero in the external plot, while a “thematic” antagonist is one that represents the character’s inner struggle. Often, there is much crossover within the actual portrayal within a story (since, of course, we want plot and theme to be as unified as possible), but when viewed symbolically through the terms Dragon and Sick King, we can get a better glimpse of the true essence and purpose of these driving forces in a Hero’s story.

Dragon as an Archetypal Antagonist

The symbolism of the Hero slaying the Dragon is one of the oldest in human memory. We recognize this representation of the Dragon as that of a “monster”—a relatively undifferentiated “evil” but one that is animalistic rather than abstract. (In light of the fact that this “evil” grows more and more abstract as the life arcs progress, it is perhaps interesting to consider that the Dragon appears as such a practical foe in the Hero Arc in part because youthful protagonists tend to view good and evil in very simple and practical terms—as another living entity that simply needs to be vanquished.)

Other than being powerful, ravenous, and indiscriminately murderous, Dragons are generally portrayed as greedy hoarders. By the time the Call to Adventure reaches the unlikely Hero, it is clear the Dragon’s threat to the Kingdom is less about whatever damage he is wreaking through his fire-breathing and more specifically through something crucial that he has stolen and/or hoarded.

This special MagGuffin—famously referred to by Joseph Campbell as the “Elixir”—could be a magical object or it could be a person, such as the Princess whom the Hero is so often charged with saving. Whatever it is, it is more than just a “thing.” It is symbolic of the Kingdom’s well-being. Without this thing or person, the Kingdom will suffer and decay.

And so the Dragon represents a force in the Hero’s world that is blocking health and growth. Crucially, the Dragon is blocking not just the Hero but others as well. The Hero Arc is founded upon the Hero learning to care for and protect others—in essence to become a stand-up member of society. As such, it is important that even in a relatively mundane story, the threat will be to more than just himself, even if it should seem that narrow in the beginning. Indeed, by the end, the Hero will at least become willing to sacrifice his own well-being for the good of all.

Depending on the scope of your story, the Dragon may indeed be a Dragon or some other mythic foe. But his essence can also be represented in other character archetypes, ranging from a Sorcerer on down to those characters who are more properly the Hero’s “equal” such as the Bully.

What is important is that the Dragon represents a threat to the Hero’s safe little Village world. It is a threat that initially seems far beyond his capability to deal with. But it is in the rising up that he reaches his heroic potential and grows into the caring responsibility and leadership of a mature adult.

The Sick King as Archetypal Antagonist

Almost as ancient although perhaps less well-known than the Dragon is the Sick King. Very often in the old tales, the Hero Arc is precipitated by the illness of the realm’s King. The magical object held by the Dragon is symbolically the healing “Elixir” needed to cure the King.

It is understood that the Sick King is representative of a sick Kingdom—that, indeed, the Kingdom’s current woes are because of the King’s sickness. And although this sickness may be a literal physical malady, it too is symbolic—of a failure of leadership or even egregious corruption on the King’s part. He is no longer a true and healthy King, as we see in the King Arc, but more properly Puppet/Tyrant, or even Hermit/Witch or Miser/Sorcerer.

The Sick King represents a failure in the cycle of the life arcs. Growth has stagnated, and it falls upon the youthful life-force energy of a newly appointed Hero to try to set right the balance (with perhaps some help from a canny Elder or Mentor). It is the Hero’s purity and potential that allow him the opportunity to restore youth and vitality to the King and the Kingdom.

Although not healed as part of a Hero Arc, an excellent example of the Sick King can be found in The Two Towers, in which Theoden, king of Rohan, has lost all strength, vitality, and even reason due to the corrupting whispers of Wormtongue in his ear. The Kingdom suffers direly, on the brink of falling to the great Evil of Sauron, even as Theodon’s son and heir dies and his beloved niece and nephew are degraded before him.

In the face grotesque of this corruption of responsible and loving leadership, the only hope is that either a rising Queen shall dethrone him or a Hero shall redeem him.

In some stories, the Sick King may only be a background motivation for the Hero’s Quest against the Dragon. The archetype of the Sick King may be mostly present within the story simply as evidenced in the sickness of the Kingdom through which the Hero travels. But the Sick King may also be a more direct antagonist.

If the Sick King’s “illness” is less debilitating than corrupting, he may be represented as a powerful figure who is directly blighting the Kingdom, either personally or vicariously through a weaponized Dragon (symbolic or otherwise). We can see this in the evil Fairy King character of the “Gentleman With the Thistledown Hair” in Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

It’s also possible, and more mythically accurate, that the Sick King and the Dragon should both be actively destructive elements within the story—but ones who also directly oppose each other. In this case, the Hero must defeat them both in order to redeem the Kingdom.

How the Dragon and the Sick King Operate in the Conflict and the Climactic Moment

The Hero Arc, like all the masculine arcs, lends itself most obviously to plot-driven stories in which the primary antagonists are those faced in the external conflict. It is indeed possible that the conflict should be entirely focused on external antagonists (which can still be deeply symbolic in their own right). But because this is specifically a Hero Arc, the changes should be influencing the protagonist’s personal growth as well.

Both the Dragon and the Sick King will be active in the external plot. Often, the Sick King will be a presence lurking behind the Hero, pursuing him on his Quest, while the Dragon is a presence ahead of the Hero, creating obstacles. This can present a wonderfully layered set of conflicts, as well as many opportunities for raising the stakes.

But it is to be recognized that the Dragon and the Sick King are also both internal forces with which the Hero starts out unwittingly identifying. Just as Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back cut down his vision of the “Sick King” Darth Vader, only to find his own face staring out of the broken mask, the Sick King represents the decay of the heroic principle.

The Hero’s central struggle is between Power and Love—control and surrender—and so his relationship to the Sick King can be used to represent his own natural affinity and temptation toward corrupted Power. (This struggle, of course, can end with a powerful declaration such as Luke’s to Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi when he later refuses to kill Vader, whom he now knows to be his own father: “I’ll never turn to the Dark Side. You’ve failed, Your Highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.”)

The same holds true in regard to the Dragon. Symbolically, it is understood that the ancient Dragon was often simply another guise of the Princess that the Hero was trying to recognize. As such, the Dragon is in fact representative of the corrupted capacity for Love in the Hero himself. His journey is that of overcoming his own selfishness and desire for power and control, so that he may love fully and compassionately. Only once he has slain his own inner Dragon is he worthy to Love and save the Princess (and thereby heal the Kingdom). In their book Romancing the Shadow, Connie Zweig and Steve Wolf note:

In these countless tales, a young male full of bravado makes a perilous journey, which typically includes a descent to darkness, slays a terrible shadow-monster, winning a damsel as his prize. Interpreted psychologically, the hero slays the monster-Other within; the ego vanquishes the shadow but does not stop to recognize it as a dark brother, so the deeper initiation does not take place.

These deeper initiations will wait until later arcs.

In most Hero-Arc stories, the Dragon will be the final climactic antagonist the Hero faces. From there, he will return with the Elixir to heal the Sick King in the Resolution. But these trappings are, of course, deeply symbolic and can be maneuvered into many different practical aspects in different types of stories.

Foundationally, the Hero Arc is a wonderfully simple story about the struggle between Love and Power. As such, the conflict between protagonist and antagonist is usually relatively simple as well. Stereotypically, we see it in the old trope about how all the Hero has to do is “kill the bad guy, save the girl, and ride off into the sunset.” There’s a deep resonance and beauty to this, but it’s important to recognize and remember that this simplistic view of good and evil (and life itself) is still a relatively youthful perspective. It is one that belongs specifically to the Hero stage of life, but one that should hopefully be moved past as the character continues to evolve into the capacity to see life’s conflict in broader terms and to adapt accordingly in later arcs.

Stay Tuned: Next week, we will discuss the Queen’s archetypal antagonists: Invader and Empty Throne.

Related Posts:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Can you think of any further examples of the Dragon and Sick King in fiction? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Grace Dvorachek says

    I am mildly obsessed with the middle ages right now, so this post really had me! I love all the potential for different layers of conflict, too. TWO antagonistic forces–perhaps even working separately from themselves?! And we have even gotten to the contagonist and other conflicting characters yet! This series is already helping me further understand antagonists in a way I never looked at them… so, thank you!

  2. I can’t think of anything other than the obvious Bilbo and Smaug, but I wanted to tell you that I look forward to Mondays because your newsletter always makes me feel like writing—even when I’m having an autoimmune flare or something weird is happening. Thank you!

  3. “Symbolically, it is understood that the ancient Dragon was often simply another guise of the Princess that the Hero was trying to recognize. As such, the Dragon is in fact representative of the corrupted capacity for Love in the Hero himself.”

    Interesting interpretation, because it seems like two separate ideas. The latter half of it says that the Hero might become a Dragon himself, and imprison the Princess and the town he’s learning to “love.” But the former says that the corruption might come from the Princess?

    I suppose the point is that corruption works both ways, and they feed on each other. Trying to do “good” for a flawed reason can lead to disaster, but so can saving the wrong people in the wrong way. When a hero’s own nature is tempting him, it can only get worse if he finds a prize that brings out the worst in him.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This really from the same meta perspective that suggests *all* characters in the narrative are a symbolic psychological aspect of the Hero. So if the Dragon represents an aspect of the Hero, so too does the Princess or feminine aspect which needs to be protected from corrupted power.

  4. Joan Kessler says

    I like the way the antagonist can reflect the internal as well as external struggles of the Hero. As Grace mentioned, there’s loads of potential conflict to play with and develop. Lot’s of fun here!

  5. sanityisuseless says

    Another example of these villains is from the Jack Blank trilogy. The Rustov are the Dragon and Jonas Smart is the Sick King. While the two aren’t directly in leauge, both spend all their time trying to destroy the hero and Smart gets all of his power from the fear that the Rustov inspire in the people of Empire City.

  6. To continue the Mahabharata theme from last week’s comment… the most obvious example of a Sick King antagonist is Dhritarāshtra, who is literally a king and blind (there’s some ableism there. I don’t think Sick King archetypes are always ableist, but that’s a risk writers need to be aware of). In addition to being literally blind, Dhritarāshtra loves his children so much that he refuses to intervene when their injustices are about to trigger the Kurukshetra War, despite the warnings. Also, King Yayati is another Sick King (he takes the youth from one of his sons, so he spends a thousand years living in a youthful body while his son lives as a decrepit old man, and it’s implied that while he’s enjoying his youthful body he’s not acting as a wise ruler).

    Since I don’t want to only comment on the Mahabharata, I’ll look for Dragon examples elsewhere… the trouble is that I don’t really care for stories where the Dragon is the main antagonist, though I like plenty of stories where the Dragon is the Disc-One Final Boss and those examples are running through my head: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/DiscOneFinalBoss

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Historically, blindness symbolized impotence or lack of ability to rule. Sometimes literally in ancient cultures, you’ll see a conquering new king blinding his predecessor rather than killing him, as it was understood that his blindness represented death and rendered him unable to ever take the crown back.

      I agree about being aware of the modern implications of this archetype, while also keeping in mind the basis of the deeper symbolism.

  7. Wow. “ it is perhaps interesting to consider that the Dragon appears as such a practical foe in the Hero Arc in part because youthful protagonists tend to view good and evil in very simple and practical terms—as another living entity that simply needs to be vanquished.” This is a juicy nugget of storytelling wisdom just tossed off as an aside.

    Also the realization that the arc is about the hero gradually realizing he fights for the village as a whole and not as an individual is an important one.

    Stellar insights as always.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks! And, yes, one of the biggest things I personally got out writing this follow-up series about archetypal antagonists is the realization that it is only the younger archetypes who view their antagonists as “evil others.” This view becomes progressively less dualistic in the mature archetypes, as I’ll get into in later posts.

  8. The dragon is a cross-cultural symbol, popping up in many mythologies, and that makes sense. What could be more terrifying than a flying snake with talons and claws? Add in a deadly breath, and you’ve got one serious monster. A dragon can be seen as a rampage force of chaos, destroying the proper order of the land. That is certainly what Smaug did, and the symbolism there is surprisingly deep. What did Smaug do after his rampage. He slept, leaving things in disorder. What’s the temptation when facing a dragon? Sleep on it, back away, let someone else deal with all those sharp teeth! Dragons also sometimes have strong powers of temptation. Satan is sometimes portraited as a dragon, and Satan is pretty much the ultimate antagonist.

    I’ve rambled (what a surprise). I think where I was heading is the dragon as a symbol of chaos, can be any disordering force that places the hero’s quest under a dire threat. It matches nicely with the sick king seen as a symbol for the proper order corrupted or just grown lazy.

    Thanks again for making me think, even if it does hurt this poor old head.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, the Dragon and the Sick King, like most of the archetypal antagonists, ultimately represent two sides of the same destructive or stifling force.

  9. Carl Kjellberg says

    In The Hobbit, Bilbo has to contend with both a dragon and a sick king. Smaug is of course the dragon, but having dealt with Smaug, Bilbo must now deal with Thorin Oakensheild who has become so driven by greed and power that he turns against his own. It is only through Bilbo’s sacfricial act that things are saved. In addition, throughout the story we see Bilbo having to contend with his own doubts and fears.

  10. I am very glad that I found my way to your website. Stay blessed, and thank you!

  11. It’s interesting to me that the younger archetypes have more black-and-white antagonists like the dragon. I feel like this can go one of two ways with world-building. One possibility is that the world the protagonist occupies has strong good-vs-bad dichotomy, like Luke in the Star Wars universe of the original trilogy or like heroes of classic Disney animated musicals. Another possibility is that the young protagonist perceives the world on good-vs-bad terms but develops a more complex worldview as he/she ages and as more complex political and ethical realities about the world are revealed.

    In my opinion, some stories don’t quite work when they try to demonstrate that “orcs aren’t really bad” or “the bully had a point” if that’s not the arc the protagonist (or the audience) is up to yet. On the other hand, I have enjoyed series in which characters develop more nuanced interactions with “dragons,” (“bullies” “criminals,” “orcs” “vampires” or “cylons” depending on the genre) as they gain more experience. Done well, this creates the experience of growing up alongside the characters. Done poorly, however, this can make the world-building seem inconsistent, like the rules about the sentience levels and motivations of the antagonists are constantly shifting.

    Do you have any thoughts about syncing up world-building to the maturation process of the protagonist? If characters are on different stages, could the younger characters learn to defeat “the dragon” while the older characters learn how to live with “the dragon” as part of the overall ecosystem of world for instance?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Great points. I think it really depends on how the symbolism is used within the story. If the author has a solid hold on the history and deeper nuances of the symbolism, then it’s easier to either uphold that symbolism within the story *or* riff against it. It’s difficult to simply “flip the script” on certain symbolic archetypes, but if the maturation of perspective is accounted for in the narrative, then, as you say, then the exploration of more nuanced symbolic antagonists can grow into very rich conversations.

  12. Emily Eytchison says

    I was beside myself with joy at the Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell shout-out. One of my all-time favorites. So in your mind, is the Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair the vicarious Dragon of Mr Norrell’s Sick King, blighting the kingdom to which Norrell gave him access via Lady Pole?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ah, I hadn’t even thought about Norrell being a Sick King, but you’re right. I was thinking of the Gentleman With the Thistledown Hair as such, but (as far as my memory serves) he was, in fact, being a *good* king of his own people. He wasn’t king in England, over the protagonists, but he absolutely *does* function as a predatory Dragon, especially in stealing away Arabella Strange from her husband.

      • Emily Eytchison says

        I love that. The same characters can function as different archetypes in the same story, depending on the point of view/plot point being discussed. Also, thank you for this series, just in general: I’m completely obsessed with all of these archetype posts/podcasts, and find them immensely helpful in clarifying my work!!

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