Of all the mythical creatures we humans have ever chosen to distract, divert and unnerve ourselves with, around the campfire, after lights out, through the long winter nights – the basilisk, chimaera, phoenix, unicorn and their like – it seems none has made such an impression on us as dragons. From Greek myth through Chinese legend, Norse epic to Gothic romance, dragons have hooked their talons into our collective imagination and – judging by the many successful dragon books of the last twenty years – they’re not ready to let go yet.
For centuries, we knew where we were with dragons – the Western variety, at least: predatory, winged, fire-breathing reptiles; partial to cows and sheep, but even more so to maidens and princesses; hoarders of treasure, and ruthless destroyers of most knights bold enough to challenge them. The legend of St George, most likely appropriated from the Greek myth of Perseus and Andromeda, set the pattern and was quickly adopted across the Old World and then the New: St George is patron of not only England but also Ethiopia and Georgia, the region of Catalonia, the cities of Beirut and Moscow and the Sao Paulo Corinthians football club. (It must have helped that dragons were such satisfactory creatures to paint and carve: dragons found their way into illuminated manuscripts, jewellery, gargoyles, coats of arms and all kinds of decorative art.)
Along the way, they gained a reputation for long life, great cunning and the gathering of treasure in vast underground hoards. Smaug in The Hobbit is pure classic dragon: immensely old, wicked and greedy, brooding over his stolen treasure, chatting lazily to the intrepid hobbit who has found his way into the heart of the mountain. J R R Tolkien was steeped in Old Norse myth and Anglo-Saxon legend, and drew from them all the dragons, heroes, wizards and dwarves he needed, brilliantly bringing them to life alongside his own creations, the comfort-loving hobbits and eerie, light-starved, riddling Gollum. I’m looking forward to Peter Jackson’s film, although it seems we’ll have to wait until the second instalment to see whether the film Smaug is as mesmerising as Lord of the Rings’ Gollum. In the meantime, I notice there are some particularly handsome clothbound editions of the book to be had, discounted in a friendly way by those nice Book People amongst others.
Around thirty years before the Hobbit, a rather different kind of dragon made his appearance in Kenneth Grahame’s Reluctant Dragon. Discovered and befriended by a shepherd boy, this dragon is peace-loving and poetically-minded, mildly pompous, excellent company and somewhat lazy. He’s delighted to have a sympathetic audience and to tell his new friend stories of older, wilder times; but when the local villagers hear about him, they assume the worst and send for everyone’s dragonslayer of choice, St George himself. The shepherd boy is horrified, especially as the dragon wouldn’t dream of fighting. The dragon must be saved, but St George and the villagers must have their fight, too – what can the boy do to protect his friend and keep all parties happy?
Grahame’s dragon is surely related to Rosemary Manning’s in Green Smoke, a 1950s classic reissued by the wonderful Jane Nissen Books. Susan is a little girl on holiday in Cornwall, who is startled one day by a sneeze and a puff of green smoke emerging from a cave. The sneeze is followed by a voice, and the voice is followed by a dragon – a 1500-year-old dragon, tamed long ago by St Petroc and now a wonderful confection of endearing vanity, fondness for almond buns and exhilarating stories of his youth at the court of King Arthur. Susan rides to Tintagel on the dragon’s back, and is introduced to his friend the mermaid, and altogether has such a magical and unforgettable holiday that one can only hope she really, really liked school and didn’t too much mind going back there. It’s something of a surprise to find that Rosemary Manning was herself the headmistress of a girls’ prep school – but if she ran her school with the warmth and humour and wisdom of her Dragon books, it must have been a happy one.
In the more traditional camp, Christopher Paolini (still only nineteen at time of publication) made a stunning writing debut some ten years ago with Eragon, the first of a quartet set in the Tolkienesque land of Alagaesia. I must admit to not having read beyond the prologue (time pressure, distractions) but the resident nine-year-old tore through all four volumes, a missile-worthy five hundred pages each at least in hardback, and couldn’t praise them more highly. Paolini’s dragons are not brutes like Tolkien’s Smaug, but rare and mystical creatures, under threat from an evil king, and finding an unlikely saviour and protector in callow farm boy Eragon. Like Tolkien, Paolini imagined his world in such minute detail as to provide maps and even glossaries to the languages…
…although sneakily I don’t find them as much fun as Cressida Cowell’s Dragonese, in the How to Train your Dragon series first published around the same time. Cowell’s Toothless is a resolutely unheroic dragon – most of the time – and his master Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III certainly isn’t his friends’ or his father’s idea of a hero. In my post on Cressida Cowell a few weeks back, I neglected to mention the excellent www.howtotrainyourdragonbooks.com website (with a particularly good interactive map, not to mention games and a guide to writing Dragonese for yourself). Ten books in, Hiccup and Toothless have escaped certain death countless times, and the situation is apparently bleaker than ever. Can Hiccup possibly live to triumph in the eleventh instalment?
I’m saving until last my two favourite dragon books of the past few years. Carole Wilkinson’s Dragonkeeper series is set, unusually and persuasively, in ancient China. Its beginning couldn’t be bleaker: a filthy unnamed slave-girl, reluctantly caring for the neglected beasts her drunken master can’t be bothered with, in a forgotten mountain outpost of the empire. When the next-to-last dragon dies, the two captives have a sudden, scarcely believable chance to escape, taking with them the precious Dragon Stone. The dragon, Long Danzi, gives the slave girl her name, Ping, and as Danzi regains his strength, Ping becomes steadily braver and more determined. Strength and bravery are needed as they find themselves pursued by Imperial guards, a greedy dragon hunter and dangerous necromancer across the vast empire to the eastern ocean. What’s really captivating, though, is the vividness of the half-mythical ancient Chinese setting, and the growing spirit and friendship of Danzi and his keeper on their long and dangerous journey.
Philip Reeve’s No Such Thing as Dragons plays out in more familiar European terrain, around the early Middle Ages, and finds mute servant boy Ansel following the flamboyant Johannes Brock (or Von Brock when he needs to impress people), travelling dragonslayer. Except that, as Ansel believes and Brock soon assures him, there’s no such thing as dragons. Slaying non-existent dragons provides a comfortable way of life and an ever-impressionable audience in every new village and town they visit. However, there are rumours of a dragon in the north country, and in the hard land below the mountains, Brock and Ansel find people living in real fear. Could Brock’s confidence be misplaced? Reeve combines an exhilarating plot with writing of real quality, pin-sharp description and beautiful style. (He also drew the delicate, woodcut-style chapter headings.) It’s rare and heartening to find a children’s writer who not only tells a terrific story and is brilliant at conjuring up a setting, but uses language with such care and craft. A really outstanding read.