This week, we’ve got more than a meme for you. This is a meme that spanned two fandoms, got referenced on Sherlock, and grew into a universe. This week we’re taking on Dragonlock.
Haven’t heard of it? Have you ever seen anything like this embroidered Smaug by iggystarpup on DeviantArt?
This Smaug sports a Sherlock scarf and his instantly-recognizable catchphrase of “Bored”, on a background reminiscent of 221B’s wallpaper. There’s no doubt this adorable Smaug fanart is a Sherlock reference.
And it’s not alone. It’s not even close to alone. Dragons have done more than just cameo in our beloved Sherlock fanworks. They’re so prevalent in fanart and fanfiction that the Sherlock fandom has developed a whole dragon-based world of rules, trends, and terms to revel in – a fully fleshed out alternate universe of its own. We’ll dive into those trends and terms in a minute – but first:
Sherlock is a character-focused crime drama set in modern-day London that shuns the supernatural.
The foundation for Dragonlock emerged when the news broke in 2010 that Martin Freeman (John Watson) would be starring as Bilbo Baggins in the highly-anticipated film adaptations of Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Both Tolkien and Sherlock fans alike cheered the casting and Sherlock/hobbit crossover jokes started popping up.
That’s not the end of the story, though.
In May 2011, after winning a BAFTA award for Sherlock, Martin let it slip backstage that Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) had been cast as Smaug, the menacing dragon and star villain of The Hobbit. This set off a fandom frenzy for Dragonlock, fanned by the sheer crossover potential of the casting choices. Here yet again was Martin playing a small-but-brave everyman who gets in a bit over his head; here yet again was Benedict playing an intriguing, almost otherworldly character known for both stunning power and overconfidence. The Dragonlock posts practically wrote themselves.
Here’s the deal:
At one point Martin revealed that he initially had to turn down the role of Bilbo due to a conflict with Sherlock season 2 filming, but Peter Jackson (Director of The Hobbit), himself a big Sherlock fan, worked out a special production schedule so that Martin could fulfill both commitments.
How does that affect Sherlock? Well, it led to a few tight scheduling moments. Some eagle-eyed fans noticed Martin’s legs looked a little different in a scene in “The Reichenbach Fall” – he had to shave them in order to wear his prosthetic hobbit feet!
Since Benedict did motion capture and voice acting for his role as Smaug (and as the Necromancer, incidentally), he and Martin did not film their scenes together. However, Peter Jackson did share a picture of Benedict visiting the set with Martin in costume on his Facebook page in 2013 – a post that earned him more than 45,000 likes. (no longer available on Jackson’s Facebook page)
Why does that matter to Sherlock?
Updates like this during filming and the furor over each of the three movies as they were released between 2012 – 2014 stoked the fires of popularity for Dragonlock, and the meme truly began to grow. And grow. And develop a whole world and fanon rule set of its own, until it was an alternate universe of its own.
Many fans think that the exchange in the season 3 finale “His Last Vow” between Sherlock and Mycroft about Magnussen outside the Holmes family home at Christmas references Dragonlock:
MYCROFT: He never causes too much damage to anyone important. He’s far too intelligent for that. He’s a business-man, that’s all, and occasionally useful to us. A necessary evil; not a dragon for you to slay.
SHERLOCK: A dragonslayer – is that what you think of me?
MYCROFT: No. It’s what you think of yourself.
Okay, so this one dragon reference could just be a coincidence. But then, later in the same conversation, Mycroft drops the d-word again when discussing MI6’s proposal for Sherlock to take on some dangerous work in Eastern Europe:
SHERLOCK: Then why don’t you want me to take it?
MYCROFT: It’s tempting… But, on balance, you have more utility closer to home.
SHERLOCK: Utility! How do I have utility?
MYCROFT: Here be dragons.
So there you have it, the origins of what was to become a massively popular alternate universe that spanned two fandoms. Want to know the full scoop – the background to any modern Dragonlock?
Let’s dig in!
You can break up most of the Dragonlock AUs into three main concepts:
1 ) Sherlock is Actually Smaug
These are the most common types of Dragonlock works since most of the Dragonlock AUs were inspired by the casting of The Hobbit. Fans found that Smaug’s ultra-dramatic lines often worked very well coming out of Sherlock’s mouth.
And, of course, fanartists and fanficcers ran with that, mixing the show’s transcripts. This one by Tumblr user coolcollarpops is one of our favorites, pairing an image of Smaug saying “I am fire, I am DEATH’ with John telling Sherlock off for being a drama queen.
In this cute comic-style drawing by DeviantArtist Allison-beriyani, a scarf-wearing Smaug wallows in his gold and complains about being a “high-functioning sociopath” while a tiny John-as-Bilbo reminds him that actually he’s a “bloody dragon.”
Not all fics and fanarts listed ‘Smauglock’ are like this, however. The term came to apply to the next type of dragonlock as well:
2 ) Sherlock is an actual dragon, but not Smaug
Direct crossovers make the most obvious references, but many artists, writers and readers wanted to branch out from the character of Smaug, to play with Sherlock Holmes in dragon-form. This connected and resonated well with a trend already popular in the Sherlock fandom to turn Sherlock and John into otters, sharks, hedgehogs and more. It was only a matter of time for fanartists to bring dragons into the mix.
You can spot these Sherlock-dragons by looking out for Sherlock’s trademark blue scarf as in this incredibly detailed drawing by DeviantArt user monokromerain:
Check out The Dragon’s Soldier by twistedthicket1 for a multi-chapter, incredibly detailed WIP about an alternate universe where human mutants can “shift” into a dragon state and John, a soldier in The Queen’s Army, chooses Sherlock, a deadly Northern dragon, to be his battlefield partner.
In these, Sherlock is still mostly human with some reptilian features. Ah, it wasn’t until this trend became common that we (personally) started calling this a fully established AU. There’s some crossover here with fics that imagine Sherlock, with his near-supernatural powers of deduction, may be some kind of demon or fallen angel who hides fangs, wings, or a tail under his sharp suits and dressing gowns.
Either way, the same trends and rules apply.
There are a ton of tropes to engage in as a Dragonlock writer to subtly reference other fics’ beloved universes or bring old dragon lore to fanfiction. Some of these tropes and preferences caught hold, developing into a general consensus on what to expect in the Dragonlock AU universe.
So here’s the deal:
By which we mean scales, wings, and often, fire-breathing. That makes sense, given Smaug as the meme’s forefather.
Not always, of course: Dragon Blood by VincentMeoblinn gives Sherlock the ability to transform into a pale green eastern-style dragon: twelve feet long, resting partly on its belly, mustached, with four horns and elongated canines.
These fics often play with the beloved Shifter trope which gives characters an animal identity that they can shapeshift into and share physical and mental traits with. So in many fics humanoid-dragon-Sherlock can shapeshift into the form of a full dragon! But, in almost all of them, when Sherlock is in ‘human’ form, he’s not fully human looking.
This usually entails cat-like eyes and often a tail, small horns, or sharp teeth. Benedict’s features work well with some draconic touches.
Of Scales and Flesh by PinkGloom gives Sherlock a humanoid dragon appearance including catlike eyes, horns, and red scales.
This beautiful tumblr post by skywolf25 gives Sherlock dragon eyes and some subtle sharp fangs.
Dragons are often either persecuted by or hidden from the human world. This includes a ton of different tropes, but they’re usually established in each fic for itself and there isn’t much general consensus.
Sometimes dragons have custodians, as in recreational’s fanfiction Volatilis, or Captains, as in O, Captain My Captain by Gothams Only Wolf.
Sometimes dragons are second-class citizens or slaves, as in Twisted Thicket’s The Dragon’s Soldier. Sometimes, alternatively, they’re royalty and treated as such, like in VincentMeoblinn’s Dragon Blood. But in almost every fanfiction, you’ll find out what the societal system is.
This isn’t always true, of course, but it’s definitely a well-accepted trope that can be added to a fanfic without any explanation needed. Common superpowers are telepathy, truth-seeing, camouflage/invisibility and/or hypnotism.
All of these tendencies have a host of exceptions as fanfiction writers and fanartists explore and expand the edges of the Dragonlock AU’s possibilities, experimenting with unusual dragons, physical traits, social structures, and superpowers. Want to explore more on your own?
Sites like Fanfiction.net and Archive of our Own have an abundance of Dragonlock fanfictions. Archive of our Own even has a Dragon Sherlock section. To increase your chances of finding Smaug-specific fic, try using the #smauglock or #johnbo hashtags in addition to #dragonlock or #dragonsherlock. If you’re looking for artwork, there’s an abundance of beautiful Dragonlock pieces on Deviantart.
So that is Dragonlock: the casting choice that became a meme that became a universe.
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