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Literature / The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant

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The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant is a short story written by Nick Bostrom. It follows a Kingdom whose people are regularly eaten by a tyrannical dragon, and how the people of that Kingdom rose up to slay it. The Dragon is a metaphor for Death.

It can be read here. An animated(albeit truncated) version, narrated by CGP Grey, can be seen here.


  • Armor-Piercing Response: After two royal officials openly praise the dragon as an important part of society and the natural order, one boy in the crowd mentions that his grandma was killed by it. This gets other people to realize that, no, the dragon is not something they should put with for much longer.
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  • And There Was Much Rejoicing: Everybody is happy that the Dragon is dead.
  • Badass Boast: The King gives one at the end of the general meeting.
    King: "Let us kill the dragon!"
  • Belief Makes You Stupid: Zig-Zagged. Religion is, at first, depicted as just one more coping mechanism regarding the seemingly-invincible dragon, and the King's Chief Adviser for Morality calls it "presumptuous" to try and kill the dragon, and all but claims that it's "playing God". That said, a Spiritual Sage (who is noted as being widely respected for his kindness and gentleness as well as for his devotion) encourages a child who calls the dragon bad. Further still, when the dragon-killing missile is finally launched several people - the King included - are praying.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Dragon is slain and will never kill anyone ever again. But it is too late for those he already devoured, and many died needlessly due to initial hesitation.
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  • Brutal Honesty: At the open hearing, held to decide whether or not to kill the dragon, the leading Dragonologist did not downplay the risks of the plan or hype it up. Instead she described how her plan would work, how long it would need to be completed, and admitted that there was no guarantee. Her plan might have been rejected had it not been for the child in the hall who declared the dragon bad.
  • Blue Is Heroic: Appears a few times.
    • The mineral capable of piercing dragon scales, upon which the plan to kill the dragon hinged, is bright blue.
    • The leading Dragonologist is first introduced wearing a blue sweater
    • The child who says "The Dragon is Bad!", and who gets the ball rolling towards the plan to kill it, is also wearing blue.
  • Children Are Innocent: The socio-economic implications of killing the dragon, sited as a reason why it should continue to live, fly right over a young boy's head at the open hearing. All he knows is that it killed his grandmother, and this opens the floodgates that allow everyone to realize that any benefits the dragon grants aren't worth the massive cost.
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  • Conditioned to Accept Horror: All of humanity has adapted to cope with the horror of the Dragon. That said, it wasn't very deep seated, since a few lines from a young child are all it takes to get the ball rolling for everyone to realize the true weight of the pain the Dragon has inflicted.
  • Dawn of an Era: How the story ends. With the Dragon dead, the Kingdom will need to reshape its society. However they now have time to do things right and the great specter that hung over them all is gone.
  • Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?: The plot of the story.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?:
    • The Dragon is a metaphor for death. It destroys an increasing number of people every year, those whose loved ones are taken away from it suffer immense anguish, and most accept it as natural and good until it comes for them.
    • While preparing the dragon-killing missile, the King promises to complete it before the decade is out. An obvious allusion to President Kennedy's moon landing promise.
  • Eldritch Abomination: The Dragon. It demanded human sacrifices since the early days of humanity, and for a long time everyone was too afraid to act against it.
  • The Good King: The King legitimately cares about the well-being of his people, and once it becomes clear how much they hate the dragon he throws all his power behind killing it.
  • The Heart: Once the King is convinced to support the dragon-killing efforts he helps by praising and encouraging the scientists as well as by donating money and liquidating some of his assets. He can not help directly as he lacks the expertise in that field.
  • Hope Springs Eternal: Early attempts to slay the Dragon initially failed, so all but a few outliers gave up. However as technology improved a breakthrough was discovered allowed the Kingdom to kill the dragon.
  • Human Sacrifice: The people of the kingdom have to feed ten thousand humans to the dragon every day, or else he will take them by force. This number grows to hundreds of thousands per minute as the kingdom's population grew.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: The King orders the trains carrying the human sacrifices to continue to the bitter end, even after research to kill it has begun. When faced with choices that could save additional humans(first an early launch, then stopping the final train before the launch), he decides doing so isn't worth the risk that the missile would fail to hit it's target.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: For a final battle against the worst evil humanity has ever known, one would think one-hit killing it with one missile would be anti-climatic. However, the long build-up to that moment, combined with the description, make it far more awesome than some drawn-out battle.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: When the Dragon is finally about to be slain, a man begs him to stop the last train because his father is on board. The King can not do this, as he does not want to risk the dragon stirring before it can be struck by the missile, but he deeply regrets that he didn't start the decades long research process sooner. He states that if he had started sooner then the man's father, along with many others, would have been spared.
  • Sadistic Choice: The King faced two of these. The first one was to either launch the dragon-killing missile at the earliest time (which, if failed, would force the kingdom to start the decades long process from scratch and cause a reprisal) or to delay so the missile can be tested first and any potential flaws can be found (during which time thousands more would die). He decides on option B. The second is when he's begged by someone to stop the final train before launch before the man's father could be eaten. The King opts against it because doing so would risk alerting the dragon and causing it to dodge the missile.
  • Science Hero: The scientists who developed a material that can pierce dragon scales and who later built the dragon-killing missile. They succeeded in slaying the beast where armored knights failed. Of special note is the leading Dragonologist, who pursued the killing of the dragon since the earliest discovery of a mineral that can pierce dragon scales.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Subverted. While the wealthy can bribe the press-gangs for a time to avoid being eaten by the dragon, they can not do so inevitably.
  • Screw the Rules, I Make Them!: Double-subverted. Early on it is stated that the rich and powerful can avoid being fed to the dragon temporarily, but sooner or later all of them - the King included - will get fed. However eventually the King gets fed up with this and throws all his efforts behind a project to kill the Dragon.
  • Skewed Priorities: Some of the King's advisers think the Dragon should be allowed to live because killing it would cause social unrest and destroy dragon-supporting industries. The King himself ignores anti-dragon petitions on two occasions to hunt much less menacing threats like Tigers and Snakes.
  • Tragic Keepsake: In the animated version, when reflecting on all those the Dragon killed, the King looks at a locket with a picture of a woman with a crown. The implication is that the woman, his wife or daughter, was among those eaten by the dragon.
  • Wham Line: One comes near the end of the story.
    Narrator: "The ball of fire enveloped the launch pad and the missile shot out. The masses, the King, the low and the high, the young and the old - that white flame, shooting into the dark, embodied the human spirit, it's fear and it's hope. It struck the heart of evil."
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: Deconstructed. This trope is described by the story as a coping mechanism because there was never a choice, and as a dangerous obstacle responsible for death and suffering now that living forever might be possible.
  • You Are What You Hate: The child at the public hearing who shouted "The Dragon is Bad" went on to be an official who ran the train that fed people to the Dragon, one of whom was his father.


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