Catherine Olver is a 1st year PhD student studying the personification of places in contemporary young adult fantasy.
I don’t like St George’s Day. It’s uncomfortable, the nation giving itself a pat on the back for — what, exactly? It ought to prompt discussion of Englishness but, predictably enough, no one wants to talk about the violence of the crusades, the heritage of the British Empire, the difficulties of multiculturalism, the blood-red cross and the whiteness that comprise that English flag. The day tastes of smugness, complacency and an underlying confusion.
The other thing that ruins St George’s Day is the story. The earliest extant version is from an 11th century Georgian text, and it was popularised by Voraigne’s Golden Legend (1260s), attaching itself to the festival of the Christian martyr and military saint. Essentially, an overeager young man in armour is riding through the countryside hoping to happen upon an adventure and prove himself. He sees a well-dressed girl tied at the edge of a lake, about to be eaten by a dragon. He wounds the dragon with his lance and makes the girl’s girdle into a leash, which tames the dragon (because she’s a virgin). The princess leads the dragon back to her city and the young man blackmails its people into getting baptised (because he’s Saint George). Then he kills the dragon.
None of the characters are likeable, as U.A. Fanthorpe conveys brilliantly in ‘Not My Best Side’. The poem gives them each an appropriately unattractive voice while making fun of Paolo Uccello’s painting.
As a six-year-old, though, my very favourite fairy tale was in fact a sequel to this legend, from Edith Nesbit’s Book of Dragons. The story stars the nauseatingly good (and ever so white) but delightfully hands-on Princess Sabrinetta, granddaughter of St George and the rescued princess, who lives locked in a dragon-proof tower by her cousin, Prince Tiresome. The prince likes to stroll around town or go hunting with his pack of hippopotami, but hippopotami turn out to be no good against a dragon. The princess is the one person who isn’t in danger. So, together with a knowledgeable and brave pig keeper, she traps the dragon in a bottle. As if to make up for this narratively hard-to-avoid violence against animals, Nesbit transforms the tale’s denouement into a paean to pigs, whom the princess feeds
every day with her own hands, and her first edict on coming to the throne was that the word pork should never be uttered on pain of death, and should, besides, be scratched out of all the dictionaries.
As Nesbit’s collection demonstrates, dragons make clear, memorable villains for children’s stories. Symbolically, good characters triumph over greed and unjustified violence, and it appeals to a child’s sense of fairness that a dragon who stole things from others and hurt people should have its treasure requisitioned and be wounded or killed itself.
My problem with such stories is that for me a dragon is, overwhelmingly, a symbol of loneliness. He is the last of his kind. His happy times are past, his place in the world has vanished, and he is suffering from loneliness so deep it sometimes turns into misanthropy. So if he consoles himself with piles of gold and goes to sleep in a mountain, people should have some respect and leave him alone.
Take Smaug, from The Hobbit. He’s a nasty piece of work, but look how empty the vault seems in Tolkien’s drawing — I can’t help feeling sorry for him. He rather enjoys meeting the invisible Bilbo, who entertains him with riddles; as the narrator tells us, ‘No dragon can resist the fascination of riddling talk and of wasting time trying to understand it.’ Smaug certainly seems starved of company, living down at the root of — subtle hint coming up — the Lonely Mountain.
There’s the episode in C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader when Eustace wanders off on his own, gets caught in a rainstorm and so takes shelter in a dragon’s cave, but his ‘greedy, dragonish thoughts’ transform him into a dragon while he sleeps. His first reaction is relief that he needn’t be afraid of anything any more — up to this point he has been an awful coward, partly because books about ‘exports and imports and governments and drains’ are poor preparation for adventures in Narnia. Next, he thinks:
He could get even with Caspian and Edmund now — But the moment he thought this he realised that he didn’t want to. He wanted to be friends. He wanted to get back among humans and talk and laugh and share things. He realised he was a monster cut off from the whole human race. An appalling loneliness came over him. He began to see that the others had not really been fiends at all.
As a dragon, Eustace becomes a helpful part of the team, catching goats, lighting fires and flying high to scope for other islands. The episode effectively cures him of his co-constitutive nastiness and loneliness.
Remember this still from Mulan, with the lonely hero singing about how no one understands who she really is inside? In this case the problem is not that the dragon is a relic of a bygone age, but the inverse: Mulan is a modern adolescent girl struggling with her disempowerment in 5th century China. As the Emperor tellingly points out to General Shang (before sassily putting his imperial hat back on),
‘You don’t meet a girl like that every dynasty.’
Happily, Mushu the dragon is trying to reverse his demotion from a pedestal in the family shrine, so he goes along and keeps Mulan company, relieving her isolation throughout the film (since she can’t tell any other characters she’s a girl). Mulan saves China, and Mushu gets restored to his pedestal in the family shrine.
There’s a good handful of children’s and YA texts which, like Mulan, pair the lonely dragon with the misfit adolescent. Hiccup meets Toothless in Cressida Cowell’s How To Train Your Dragon. Saphira hatches for Eragon in Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle. In both, there are some exciting dragon-riding sequences (the How To Train Your Dragon films are a great antidote to feeling cooped up), and dragon and boy together save the village / fantasy world. These bonds aren’t always happy, though. In the BBC’s Merlin, the frustrated sorceress Morgana forms a strong bond with the dragon Aithusa when they are chained in a pit together for two years; without enough room to grow, the dragon becomes twisted and doesn’t develop its ability to speak, symbolically mirroring Morgana’s suffering rather than mending it.
Coming back to St George’s Day a bit more positively, since Scotland, Wales and Ireland have their national days, it seems only fair that England has one too. I don’t mind a bit of patriotism if it means amusing re-enactments of English history and cheap drinks at the pub, served with healthy lashings of Shakespeare.
This year, I was waiting for a bus by the Thames when something red came into view not on the road but on the river: an oddly shaped boat, higher at the back, that caught the light and caught the eye with colourful flags and shining, twisty, remarkably golden gilding. It was getting closer at a steady pace, but with no noise of a motor… It took me a minute to believe that the barge really was skimming along the Thames powered by no fewer than eighteen rowers. It was like stumbling into very high budget episode of The Tudors. The traffic was still running behind me, but here was Gloriana, the royal rowbarge made for Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee, on its way from Hampton Court to the Tower. It was a bizarre but cheerful relic of a bygone age — a dragon in good company, enjoying a bit of sun.