Academic journal article Folklore

Dragons in Twentieth-Century Fiction. (Topics, Notes and Comments)

Academic journal article Folklore

Dragons in Twentieth-Century Fiction. (Topics, Notes and Comments)

Article excerpt


A recent book, An Instinct for Dragons by David E. Jones (Routledge, 2000), argues that dragons came into the minds of humans as a combination of the images of the snake, eagle and panther, all predators of our ancestral primates, which trigger a fear response embedded in our brains from early in our evolution. Other theories have been considered by folklorists over many years (see, for example, Simpson 1978, 79). But whatever their origin, dragons today are not just a survival of beliefs and motifs from the past. They live on in popular culture and in fiction, not as a static symbol but as images which may be used in different ways and given different functions. In the twentieth century, many works of fiction have featured dragons, more so than ever since fantasy fiction became a successful publishing genre in the last thirty years. These dragons are not all alike. Some have obvious links with their literary predecessors or with traditional stories but use their materials in new ways. Others introduce new elements, sometimes borrowed from elsewhere in folklore or legend. Such changes can arise from a desire to develop fictional characters of greater individuality, whether for the dragon itself or for those who react to it, or just from a desire to write something new. But the ways in which writers choose to do this point to changes in the way they, and presumably their readers, think and feel about traditional stories and the traditional image of the dragon. They show how folklore material can be used to express changes in social attitudes and ideas, not merely to reflect the past.


In British Dragons, Jacqueline Simpson gives a brief account of dragons down the ages, from their part in cosmological myth and hero legends to their use in heraldry and folk plays. She also collects together the local stories from Britain which tell of the appearance of a dragon. In fiction in English, the usual picture of the dragon is the one taken from the hero legend, of the huge evil beast slain by a knight in shining armour. The story is so well known that people have been making jokes about it since the seventeenth century, and Simpson quotes John Aubrey:

   To save a maid, St George a dragon slew A pretty tale, if all that's told 
   be true. Most say there are no dragons; and 'tis said There was no George. 
   Pray God there was a maid (Simpson 1980, 9). 

There are many other allusions to dragons in poetry and fiction, whether comic or serious, but it is hard to think of a dragon who appears as a significant character in a work of fiction between Spenser's description of the battle with the Red Cross knight in Book One of the Faerie Queene and the end of the nineteenth century. Since then, the dragons have proliferated and diversified. It is impossible to keep track of them all but the following examples illustrate the parts they play in modern fiction and how they may differ from traditional dragons.

Early Modern Dragons

In 1898, Kenneth Grahame published "The Reluctant Dragon" (reprinted in Zipes 1991), one of a collection of stories in Dream Days. This dragon turns up on the downs above an English village and is befriended by a shepherd's son. The dragon is a large and impressive creature who only wants a quiet life. He makes up poetry and admires the landscape. When the Boy (so called throughout) says, "I can't help feeling you don't quite realise your position. You're an enemy of the human race, you see," the dragon replies, "Haven't got an enemy in the world. Too lazy to make `em ..." But the villagers want to see a fight and decide that the countryside must be freed from the scourge of the dragon, though not even a hen roost has suffered from his arrival. (We are not told what he eats.) They send for St George, who does not really like killing, though he usually has to do it, and is therefore willing to listen to the Boy's explanations. …

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