"May I come in, St. George?" said the Boy politely, as he paused at the door. "I want to talk to you about this little matter of the dragon, if you're not too tired of it by this time." — Kenneth Grahame, The Reluctant Dragon, 1898
Susan here, with a few thoughts on dragons and dragonslayers — what we call a Wench Classic Post, but revisited and refreshed with new thoughts. I wrote my dissertation study on the iconography of St. George in medieval art, so for years I was surrounded not by stacks of historical romance novels in my office, but by images of St. George – alone, with the princess, on a horse, off a horse, with and without patrons, and of course – images of the dragon.
While I was working on the paper, I kept two Gary Larson Far Side cartoons near my desk as inspiration, along with an assorted collection of postcards and dragon miscellany. And dragons feature on the covers, and in the titles and the stories, of many of the books on my bookshelves. I particularly love them. But what is it about dragons that fascinates us? Dragons and dragon-like monsters
exist in nearly every culture and occur in innumerable myth cycles from cultures all over the world.
Here’s a look at some of the symbolism and a few thoughts on why that dragon has so much appeal – St. George too, who was pretty hot in the 14th century. A major hero and the subject of many paintings, sculptures, stained glass panels, reliquaries, tokens and other art objects, as well as stories and poems, and of course, intercessory prayers. If St. George could defeat the dragon – and therefore the devil – he was certainly a saint to appeal to in times of trouble.
In most images, St. George is in the act of killing the dragon–-thrusting the spear into its side (religious connotations there), or more commonly, down the poor creature’s throat “to breke its harte” as one medieval text put it. One could feel sorry for the poor dragon, just being its draconian self, doing what it must do, and along comes this guy on a horse . . . St. George was well established early on as a martyred saint, his martyrdom involving not dragon-slaying, but various tortures and multiple executions that included fire, drowning, beheading, and even being rolled downhill in a flaming barrel.
Somewhere around the 6th century, in Byzantine imagery, he begins to appear with a dragon. In England, he quickly becomes an early favorite saint. Soon images of Saint George contain not only the dragon, but a princess, particularly one in need of a rescue. St. George also pops up in medieval literature, again with the princess. George was a superstar in medieval England and parts of Europe. He’s sometimes paired with the Virgin Mary in images, and sometimes he marries his princess, who, according to one epic medieval French tale, was pregnant before their wedding. In that same account, George is secretly the twin brother of the dwarf Oberon, king of the fairies.
George was one of the few saints, perhaps the only one, to cross over into the truly secular arena. He was the movie star hero of his day, killing dragons and rescuing princesses for the sake of chivalry and adventure rather than religious fervor. Very likely the Saxon English responded to him early on because St. George reminded them of Beowulf and Grendel, and the various Viking and Germanic/Saxon tales that include dragons. They understood and enjoyed George, with his dragon and his princess and his many heroic deeds. Newly Christian Britain retained a pagan flavor in their beliefs (and that still exists today). There are plenty of classical ties too—Bellerophon and Chimera, and Perseus and Andromeda, that can be factored in to the mythic origins of this very old tale.
George was not the only dragonslayer, though perhaps the best-known: there was also Beowulf, as well as Siegfried and Fafnir, Lancelot, Sir Guy of Warwick, Sir Bevis of Hampton, the Archangel Michael –- the list goes on, and expands greatly as one looks at other cultures, Germanic, Norse, Celtic, Chinese, Japanese, and so on. Dragons sometimes appeared, along with sea-monsters, on early medieval maps.
To the medieval mind, dragons represented evil, the devil, sin – negative, frightening, powerful forces to be vanquished and conquered. St. George and other dragonslayers had to call up within themselves the strength, discipline, virtue, faith, and purity necessary to defeat the dark forces of evil. That’s a large part of the dragon mythology, that dark side of the self. Like vampires, werewolves, and so on, dragons too can be what Joseph Campbell called the shadow side of our inner self:
“The nature of your shadow is a function of the nature of your ego…It is the backside of your light side…the monster that has to be overcome, the dragon. It is the dark thing that comes up from the abyss and confronts you the minute you begin moving down into the unconscious.”
But dragons can have a positive side too. They have some flexibility. They can even be cute ‘n cuddly—like a stuffed toy dragon. They’re often depicted in stories as wise, even humorous, and as guardians and protectors rather than chaotic destroyers.
"Never laugh at live dragons, Bilbo you fool! You aren't nearly through this adventure yet." —J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
This positive side of the dragon is easy to respond to, and perhaps most fascinating. The dragon, though it seems evil and violent, has enormous potential for greatness and goodness. Across cultures, dragons represent unlimited power, wisdom, knowledge, the unconscious, the potential of the soul. To tame or possess that power and wisdom is a true achievement, spiritually, mentally, physically – it is truly a magical, mystical power. Dragons may hoard gold and treasure — the treasure of the Self, the powerful life force. And dragons are not to be trusted because they also dwell on the dark side, yet still retain a transcendant power.
Daenerys, Mother of Dragons, in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, is a St. George figure – the feminine equivalent, but rather than defeat dragons, she goes for a greater challenge – she tames them, parents and controls them, bonds with them emotionally despite their fiercely dangerous nature. Part of Dani’s story arc is a truly fascinating dragon mythos.
The dragon, says Campbell, is the shadow–- “the landfill of the self…also a sort of a vault that holds great, unrealized potentialities within you.” The dragon hoards potential in that pile o’ gold – and it is up to the hero, or heroine, to salvage and release it somehow. Like St. George, like Bilbo Baggins, like Daenerys, like us — no one comes away from a dragon encounter unchanged.
So the dragon has strongly positive, ideal, sublime qualities as well as the deepest, darkest stuff, all combined in one entity. Stories about dragons -– dragon quests, meeting dragons, befriending them or defeating them, stealing their treasure or receiving a gift from a dragon, taming or learning from them, are often symbols and metaphors of delving deep within ourselves, learning more about ourselves and about life. To read about dragons – or to write about them – can explore the darker, mysterious side of the soul. Vanquishing or befriending them means we emerge from the cave a bit wiser than when we went inside.
Even those who might not prefer dragon or fantasy stories have read and enjoyed characters that have all the qualities of the dragon persona: Ebenezer Scrooge, for example, is a prime dragon character. He hoards gold, he snarls and spits fire, he goes down deep into the cave over one long night and emerges changed for the better, wiser, and willing to release that hoarded potential within himself.
Some of my favorite dragon stories, beside Tolkien, are those by Gordon R. Dickson – I love his Dragon and the George series – and Mary Brown’s The Unexpected Dragon, and other titles – Jane Yolen’s Dragon’s Blood … and many others. I’ve got a longer list, and I’m always willing to try a good dragon book (or dragon movie!).
Are you a fan of dragons and dragon tales? What would you recommend?