The Penguin Book of Dragons is a fascinating collection of writing referencing this famous mythic beast, with examples dating from about 1500BC, to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
When I was at university in the 1980s, one of my courses covered what was called ‘agitprop’, a kind of aggressive, black and white theatrical style used to push a political agenda. Dragons started out in life with a starring role in what you might call religiously inspired agitprop. Heroes of all religious shades, wishing to acquire an impressive reputation, required a formidable enemy to defeat. The scarier the enemy, the more impressive the chosen one’s triumph. Drawing perhaps on an instinctive fear of snakes, a ferocious, fire-breathing serpent evolved to take on the task of symbolic enemy. For millennia this super snake was a tool, actually more a blunt instrument, used to build up heroes, run down opponents, or maintain discipline – in the ‘go to bed or the monster will get you’ sense. The Loch Ness Monster derived from accounts of this kind. In a more general context the dragon became a symbol of temptation or greed. While Genesis had a serpent persuading Eve to eat an apple from the Tree of Knowledge, later more secular incarnations were characteristically portrayed as guardians of cursed treasure hoards.
So pervasive was dragon imagery, so tied into primeval desires and fears, that early scientists bent themselves out of shape trying to make a mythic animal into a real one. In the case of the Loch Ness Monster, scientific investigations continued until quite recently – a 2019 DNA study of the loch showing a large eel population.
Slowly as the centuries went by, with people became at least a little more rational, these ferocious creatures began to lose their power. Though one scurrilous eighteenth century journalist suggested there were dragons living near Horsham, Sussex, their habitats were generally located in conveniently distant, inaccessible locations, the kind of places that were progressively squeezed away by the advance of knowledge and technology. By the early twentieth century, dragons had been tamed into cute characters in children’s stories, by writers such as Kenneth Grahame and Edith Nesbit.
And yet, all the human characteristics which gave birth to dragons still survive. People remain greedy, vulnerable to temptation, and are still prone to an irrational simplification of complicated situations into an easily digested agitprop. We might be more scientific these days, but irrationality in many ways is still a potent force, as seen in modern conspiracy theories and misinformation. Perhaps The Penguin Book of Dragons presents the trajectory of its narrative a little too neatly. There remain, after all, echoes of former dragon powers in Tolkien’s Smaug, and in the hatchlings of Westeros, which, in the Game of Thrones books, mark the return of a long-lost species of a fire breathing reptile to the world. Perhaps that return in George R.R. Martin’s hugely successful book series is instructive. Maybe dragons continue to lurk, not now in dark corners of the world, but in dark corners of the human mind from whence they originally emerged.