Friday 17 April 2015

Here Be Dragons...

There's something about dragons - those mythical beats that inhabit the farthest reaches of the map, that lurk in deep caverns, snoozing on piles of golden armbands and glittering jewels, that flit across the night sky roaring flames.

Dragons are cool.

Their appeal works for all ages - from picture books to the epic world of  G.R.R. Martin - but their true home, I think, is in children's books - the Narnia stories, The Hobbit, Cressida Cowell's How to Train Your Dragon, the Harry Potter series, Dragon Rider, Chris d'Lacey's The Fire Within and sequels, Rosemary Manning's Green Smoke, Kenneth Graham's The Reluctant Dragon, the Earthsea books, Templar's fabulous Dragonology books.... the list could go on and on.

Dragons are fascinating to read about (and to write about) partly because they are strongly embedded in our culture, with a long history and endless stories attached to them. They have deep cultural resonances which writers can draw on, yet they are also capable of endless reinvention - as friendly, as foolish, as young and inexperienced, as old and worldly-wise, as powerful or as helpless.

The classic dragon, of course, is the one defeated by St George (and that's a story that has been jubilantly reinvented in numerous picture books, like The Paper-Bag Princess or George and the Dragon). In the legend, of course, he doesn't get much more than a walk-on part as the embodiment of evil, just ripe for a kicking by the noblest knight in the land. His direct descendant, Smaug, gets a chance to show what evil looks like up close and personal: sarcastic, vain, clever and ruthless, playing lazily with his hobbit visitor before setting out to scorch and level the whole of Lake Town.

But although evil dragons have their place, we're much more fascinated by the idea of good ones - particularly dragons as companions and helpers. Wise dragons. Magical dragons.

Much of the appeal of Eragon, for example, is in the thrill of imagining what it would be like to have your very own dragon - all that power, beauty and danger, yours to command. Cressida Cowell gives us the same thrill in the more light-hearted How to Train Your Dragon and its sequels. Both these books enjoy creating esoteric dragon lore - species and typologies, feeding habits, how to approach and bond with dragons, how (ideally) not to die...

Of course, any Harry Potter afficionado knows their Welsh Green from their Hungarian Horntail, but Templar's brilliant Dragonology books create a set of resources on the wildlife and science of raising or studying dragons to gladden the heart of any would-be student of these magnificent creatures. Dr Ernest Drake gives us all manner of fascinating details on habitats, temperaments and training regimes, which play into that greatest of desires for children (and let's be honest, many adults too) - that dragons might really exist.

One of my favourite dragons from children's literature is not really a dragon at all - it's the hapless Eustace Scrubb, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, who is turned into a dragon when he puts on an enchanted gold armband from a dragon's hoard. Eustace's greed and fascination with gold traps him in the body of the creature most associated with those moral failings - and it's not until he learns to be humble, brave and selfless that he's turned back into a boy. But never mind the moral lesson (and I didn't much mind it as a child) - Eustace soon realises the power he has as a huge creature with great wings and claws, and as a dragon he has a considerably more interesting time than he did as a reluctant sailor. I was glad for Eustace when he was returned to his old self, but sad, too, that he had to give up that amazing other life.

When I wrote my own Arthurian fantasy for younger readers, Frogspell, I included a dragon pet for my protagonists almost as an afterthought - yet Adolphus the dragon quickly grew into one of my favourite characters. Adolphus has no magic, and is rather small and clumsy - he's in the tradition of dragons we need to look after rather than ones who look after us (or indeed, eat us...) Yet I've lost count of the number of children and parents who told me how much they love the dim-witted but enthusiastic Adolphus. Dragons, it seems, even the really un-dragon-like, touch a chord in all of us.

Adolphus with his mistress, Olivia Pendragon - illustration by David Wyatt
Long may dragons continue to inhabit children's stories. They are creatures that, just as they inhabit the edges of maps, also inhabit the edges of our subconscious. They can mean many things and take on many roles. They are the monsters who turn out to be friends, the huge fears that can be tamed or defeated, the powers that we can find in ourselves when we need to stand up for what's true or right, the magical, strange other we need to find our way to if we want to escape our everyday constraints and find ourselves in the world of imagination. They are, as anthropologists might put it, 'good to think with'.

So hurrah for dragons in all their forms!


  1. R Dragon in Rosemary Manning's Green Smoke (and the sequels) was always my favourite!

  2. Great post - brilliant scope. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Ta!

  3. I love them too! I have a dragon book out next month called The Storm Dragon! Strictly speaking it's a chapter book rather than middle grade though.