Fighting the Past: Medieval Dragons in Children’s and YA Literature

I presented this paper at the Pearl Kibre Medieval Society’s conference on “Pre-Modernisms” at the CUNY Graduate Center in October 2016. This is essentially the same paper, cleaned up slightly for written publication as opposed to oral presentation.


In the fields of children’s and Young Adult literature, there’s a lot of discussion about the appearance of dragons. Some focus on their playfulness, some on their uncanniness, some on the facets of Eastern versus Western dragons. In this paper, I’m focusing on a narrower set of dragons – defined first by their appearance in children’s or Young Adult texts, and next by their relevance or resemblance to medieval dragons.

From the very broad survey I did of children’s and YA texts, I found that in almost every case where the Middle Ages are evoked explicitly or via “medieval-feel” details, the dragons serve a similar symbolic function as their medieval counterparts. In the medieval texts, the dragons were themselves symbolic of something that needed to be eradicated. In contemporary texts, the dragon often functions as a character within a narrative about an unwanted social reality or ideology that must be eradicated.

I. The Anglo-Saxon Dragon as Pagan

In Anglo-Saxon literature, the dragon existed outside of society. It tended to live in prehistoric burial mounds, hoard treasure, and lead a solitary existence. In a discussion of the dragon in Beowulf, Sarah Semple argues that the fear of dragons and their imagined home in old burial mounds are due to the fear of a pagan past, and a desire to create distance between that pagan past and the Anglo-Saxon Christian present.

While early Anglo-Saxon culture included the creation of burial mounds, these were mostly reserved for victims of execution – goodness was not associated with burial mounds.

There’s other textual evidence that burial mounds were feared – like Aelfric’s warning against witches raising the dead near burial mounds, based on the pagan idea that the spirits of those buried there were always nearby.

The Anglo-Saxon dragon became associated with the fear of Britain’s own pagan past.

Of the contemporary texts I looked at, the dragon in Robin McKinley’s book The Hero and the Crown most closely fits this symbolism. One of the underlying themes of the novel is about separating oneself from one’s past, and recognizing one’s own goodness despite a terrible lineage.

Picture5To briefly outline the plot: Aerin is a princess of Damar, but there are rumors about her mother being a witch from “the North.” Northerners are known to Damarians all along as evil, and later in the book they’re revealed to be not quite human. Aerin grapples with this suspicion of having evil origins for a significant portion of the book. The form of the novel very much follows a typical adventure story, and as she embarks on her quest, she learns that the evil threatening Damar is actually her own uncle, a Northerner. But she also learns that Damarians came from the North too – they migrated south before the Northerners used their magic to become demonic and less than human.

Although Aerin is more closely related to the North than the rest of  her Damarian compatriots, they all have a connection to this evil – their own past contains the potential for the same evil, and they must continually prove that they have chosen a different path.

When the novel opens, dragons are a threat, but there are only smaller dragons who are mostly annoyances and not any real threat. The big, monstrous dragons of the past have been eliminated – though there is a legend that one or two of the old dragons are still alive, just sleeping, biding their time.

When the North begins to be a problem for Damar, the old dragon Maur wakes up. Later, it becomes clear that the Northerners actually used their magic to awaken the dragon. Thus Aerin’s fight with this great dragon, and her subsequent fights against humans and demonic Northerners, are representative of her fighting the past – her own more immediate demonic past, as well as Damar’s distant past potential for evil.

She has to go so far as get rid of the dragon’s skull, which had been kept as a trophy in the palace. Even the merest presence of a reminder of all this, weakens her people, puts them into a mood of despair. Only when she shoves the huge skull out of the city gates do the people regain hope and optimism.

II. The Anglo-Saxon Dragon as Anti-Social

The second reason to fear an Anglo-Saxon dragon, beyond its association with a pagan past, was its anti-social hoarding behavior. Anglo-Saxon society depended on the exchange of treasure and goods in order to create and maintain social bonds. We see this in Beowulf when Hrothgar distributes treasure to his men, and in the symbolism of Beowulf’s treasure being buried with him and not distributed to his men, who had been too cowardly to support him in his final battle against the dragon.

As a hoarder of treasure, the dragon was not just selfish or greedy – it was negating the methods of interaction essential to maintaining a well-functioning society. If one individual were to amass wealth and sit on it – literally, as the dragon does – the fabric of social bonds would be torn, and society would fall apart.

Picture7.jpgC.S. Lewis’s series The Chronicles of Narnia features a dragon like this. Eustace Scrubb accidentally winds up in Narnia with his cousins, the Pevensies, in Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Eustace is a pretty terrible little boy, and everybody hates him. He undergoes a character transformation by the end of the novel, but there’s one point where he physically transforms into a dragon. Lewis explicitly draws a connection between Eustace’s character and this physical transformation.

Eustace is reluctant to join the others in an expedition, but he goes along because he’s in a strange land and has no hope of surviving on his own. But at one point he wanders away from the traveling group – a selfish act, because they can’t leave him there, so they can’t move on until they find him and bring him back. He comes across a dragon’s hoard, plays with the gold and puts on an armlet, and then falls asleep atop the pile of treasure.

As a result of sleeping on a dragon’s hoard and being filled with “greedy, dragonish thoughts,” Eustace changes into an actual dragon. This wouldn’t happen when any individual sleeps on the dragon’s hoard, of course. It only happens because Eustace has already proven himself to be greedy, selfish, whiny, and generally intolerable. He does not know how to behave as a member of society, so he’s the perfect candidate for turning into a dragon.

His time as a dragon, ironically, helps him learn to become a better-behaved member of society, and everyone likes him by the end, after he’s been turned back into a human. Interestingly, Eustace winds up attempting to bravely attack a sea serpent on their way back – and of course, serpents and dragons are closely related: Anglo-Saxon “wyrm,” used in Beowulf, translates to both serpent and dragon. It seems that once Eustace has shed his dragon-like anti-social tendencies, he can join the others in eradicating that threat.

III. The Middle English Dragon as Synchronic Other

Lewis was a medievalist, though he was not an Anglo-Saxonist – and this dragon is decidedly Anglo-Saxon. The Middle English dragon doesn’t lose the characteristic of being a hoarder or the symbolism of being somehow apart from society, though the stark connection to the pagan past and to anti-social greediness is muted.

The threat the Middle English dragon tends to symbolize is a synchronic Other rather than a diachronic Other or an anti-social member of one’s own society – not our own past or our own misfits, but our contemporaries who are “not like us.”

This is a very broad generalization, of course, and the dragon as symbolic of a pagan past doesn’t immediately fade away – versions of Guy de Warwick use the dragon to various degrees as explicitly symbolic of a pagan past. But this could be, as Rosalind Fields suggests, simply because the story is already set in the past (the Anglo-Saxon Athelston is king in Guy de Warwick). The versions which evoke the Anglo-Saxon symbolism of the dragon, she says, are capitalizing on the setting of the tale, not the period when the text itself was written.

But Middle English dragons tend to follow the pattern of St. George’s dragon – a knight rescues a princess from a marauding dragon.

The threat of the dragon was often symbolic of the Saracens. While medieval Europe was fighting the Crusades, the contemporary Saracen Other became more of a threat than the past pagan Other. The trend of dragons as religiously the opposite of Christianity continued into the Renaissance with Spenser and Milton. This is the dragon we know most familiarly from children’s and YA literature, which associate dragons with locked-up princesses, being rescued by brave knights.

But before I get to that, I want to trace the history of dragons a bit further.

After Spenser and Milton, use of dragons in literature peters out. By the nineteenth century, there’s a severe paucity of dragons in literature. According to some critics, dragons were too closely tied to themes of Christianity to allow for their use in secular literature. Another way of looking at this same analysis: their association with pure evil had rendered them useless for literary purposes. They were stock characters, and too flat, too tied up with pure unadulterated evil, to be of any interest to writers of secular fiction.

IV. The Children’s Dragon

When these dragons start showing up in children’s literature in the twentieth century, they’re more often than not parodies rather than serious stories about a knight rescuing a princess from a dragon. There’s E. Nesbit’s The Last Dragon and Kenneth Grahame’s The Reluctant Dragon, both often credited with igniting the rebirth of literary dragonsBoth of these take the basic framework of a dragon-princess-savior story and turn it on its head.

Picture1.jpg

In Grahame’s story, a boy finds a dragon and befriends it, but is told by the adults that he must call on St. George to come take care of the dragon. The boy is reluctant to do so, but he does – because that’s what the adults said he should do. St. George comes, but is reluctant to fight the dragon. Still, he prepared to do so because that’s what he’s supposed to do. But when he goes to fight the dragon, the dragon is reluctant to fight back.

Everyone is reluctant in this story – none of the main characters wants to fulfill their literary roles. St. George and the dragon agree to stage a fight, which satisfies the townspeople, and then St. George announces that the dragon is no longer a “bad dragon” or a danger to anyone.

The story is obviously a critique of the expectations embedded in this traditional tale of slaying dragons.

Picture4.jpgNesbit’s story features a prince and princess, and parodies the concept even more than Grahame. Not only is the dragon reluctant to fight, the whole setup of the dragon threatening a princess is arranged by the princess’s parents in order to allow the prince to rescue her and thus have a respectable betrothal. The princess at first tries to convince her parents to tie up the prince and let her rescue him. Her parents don’t agree, because that’s not what’s done. But her prince isn’t exactly interested in fighting dragons either, so they team up and go to fight the dragon together, only to discover that the dragon doesn’t either want to fight – he hates that they tie up princesses near him as if he’s a threat, he doesn’t even like eating princesses!

Nesbit critiques the narrative expectations just as Grahame does. She also explicitly critiques gender expectations – why can’t the princess rescue the prince? – and she critiques the image of the dragon as threatening. Everyone assumes it’s a dangerous threat, it will eat princesses if the prince doesn’t rescue her in time (after her parents left her in that position, of course…) But in fact, the figure taken for granted as a threat is just as tired of the whole charade as the hero and heroine.

These are the trends that take hold after this point: using the dragon as a critique of ingrained assumptions and expectations. And in a way, this is simply a continuation of the Anglo-Saxon dragon’s symbolic importance – it allows us to have tales about fighting our past.

By now, the past we are fighting is not pagan but is built upon expectations about gender and about “monsters” that the present has moved away from.

One of the most defining features of folklore is its ability not to simply reflect the past but to express changes in social attitudes and ideas. The figure of the dragon is a part of this – it can be used to reflect values which are in fact medieval, as McKinley’s dragon reflects the theme of breaking from an evil past and Lewis’s dragon reflects the theme of greed as anti-social.

But then the dragon is perfectly situated to also express changes in social attitudes and ideas, as Nesbit and Grahame’s dragons scoff at numerous expectations.

Ruth Berman claims that the comic dragons of Nesbit and Grahame helped dragons lose their Satanic identification, and this released a flood of dragons in literature, especially children’s literature. But she argues that the comedy of the dragons is dependent on the softening of their evil to a more amusing naughtiness, which allows for their comedic taming.

And that’s partly true – but although humor does dominate in children’s texts about dragons, the dragon is not always merely naughty – sometimes it is evil, even if its evilness is funny. And the dragon is not always tamed – sometimes it’s killed, sometimes it doesn’t need to be tamed because it wasn’t naughty or evil in the first place!

As an example, I’ll take a look now at The Dragon Book, a collection of dragon stories from E. Nesbit, and The Dragon Slayers’ Academy, a currently ongoing Middle Grade series by Kate McMullan. (Middle Grade is sort of “older children’s literature” – not teen literature, but not picture books. It’s aimed at children about 8-13 years old.)

Both texts feature children who use ingenious methods to conquer dragons – Wiglaf kills his first dragon in Dragon Slayers Academy by telling terrible jokes. Nesbit’s characters use similar humorous methods in a few stories. The comedy is not dependent on dragons being less evil and more naughty – the humor is dependent on the methods the children use to slay the dragons.

Picture3.jpgIn Nesbit’s book, the dragons are threats that need to be eradicated. But in McMullan’s series, the dragons aren’t even really a threat – the boys slay dragons for the simple goal of gaining gold for their headmaster and parents. The whole series is about a group of children who are being taken advantage of by the adults.

Everything is funny in this series, and there’s clearly an attempt to make the atmosphere medieval – but the pejorative “medieval” here is about how the adults take advantage of the children, and how the kids use their wits to navigate this world and to survive and thrive.

These parodies are not explicitly critiquing expectations, although they’re a fascinating subset of how dragons are used in children’s literature – as a kind of marker between children and adults.

Picture8.jpgKate Klimo’s Dragon Keeper series, which begins with The Dragon in the Sock Drawer, makes a clear connection between dragons, imagination, and children or childlike qualities. The adults can’t adjust their already-formed ideas about what constitutes a threat or a monster, but as with Grahame and Nesbit, the children can take the time to interact with the dragon long enough to know it’s not actually a threat. These texts use the medieval symbolism of a threatening Other to critique what we label as threatening and Other.

And then there are parodies which don’t necessarily trivialize the evil of the dragon, but they do critique social expectations.

Picture2.jpgRobert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess features a dragon who kidnaps a prince, burns down everything in sight, and leaves the princess with nothing to wear but a paper bag. In this story, the prince and princess don’t protest their gender roles – they’re forced into this reversal by the dragon snatching the prince rather than the princess. But Princess Elizabeth takes charge of her life when Prince Ronald is disgusted by her lack of fine clothes and cleanliness – after she’s just defeated a dragon to rescue him, he might have been a little forgiving of her stinking… So she calls off the wedding.

It’s again a critique of expectations – Nesbit’s The Last Dragon did so by allowing the prince and princess to express their own distaste with the roles expected of them. Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess executes the critique by putting the prince and princess in reversed roles and only pointing out the sexist assumptions at the end of the story.

All of the texts I’ve mentioned here so far – Grahame, both of Nesbit’s, McMullan’s Dragon Slayers Academy, Klimo’s Dragon Keepers – are children’s or Middle Grade texts. The only Young Adult text I mentioned was Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, which uses medieval dragon tropes authentically, not as a critical parody.

The novel, as I mentioned earlier, is in fact a typical adventure story. Of course, Aerin is a female dragon-slayer/adventurer, but the book doesn’t use medieval tropes in order to demonstrate how a girl can be a hero too. In fact, one of the criticisms of McKinley is that although she claims to write books in which girls can see themselves as heroes “just like boys can be,” her heroines are basically just boys – they’re not feminine heroines.

Kara Keeling and Marsha Sprague write about “Dragon-Slayer vs Dragon-Sayer,” and discuss fantasy texts in which female heroines are nurturers of dragons rather than slayers of dragons. The books they discuss don’t fit my criteria of featuring authentic medieval connections – although books like Eragon and Dragons of Pern have that “medieval feel,” they don’t draw on medieval symbolism.

Picture6.jpgPatricia C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons both draws on medieval symbolism and features a nurturing heroine. There’s the dragon-princess-savior trope of Middle English: Princess Cimorene becomes the “captive” cook and caretaker for the dragon Kazul. But she does this voluntarily, in order to escape a marriage she has no interest in, and is annoyed that she continuously has to beat off princes and knights who want to rescue her – she doesn’t need to be rescued, because although she’s technically a captive, she’s a volunteer captive.

The rest of the series has Cimorene and Kazul working together, as Kazul becomes king of the dragons and Cimorene becomes queen, and even has a baby. Wrede’s series very skillfully portrays a feminist character who follows the supposedly sexist narrative arc of marriage and babies. Cimorene is an adventurer, absolutely – but she’s also a nurturing woman, someone who enjoys taking care of other people, and who isn’t chafing against her ultimate role as queen and mother.

The series uses humor and a parody of the expectations of the dragon story to critique both gender role expectations and monstrosity or Otherness.

V. Conclusions

The medieval dragon began as a symbol of the past, and the hero’s slaying of the dragon was representative of fighting his own past. When contemporary children’s and Young Adult books evoke the medieval dragon specifically, they tend to follow that symbolism of fighting the past – although that past is now the very root of this symbolism.  Contemporary texts use the dragon for the same underlying purpose as the medieval texts, but in order to critique elements of the dragon’s very origins as a symbol of danger, threats, and Otherness. In other words, contemporary children’s and YA texts fight the past by using the past’s very own tools.

4 thoughts on “Fighting the Past: Medieval Dragons in Children’s and YA Literature

  1. Interesting! I read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy as a teenager, and I think I read all of the books you have here that were published before the late ’90s. I definitely never picked up on these themes, but now that you point them out, they seem obvious.

    The Dragonriders of Pern is psuedo-medieval, and is more science fiction than fantasy. The dragons are bio-engineered, and In one of the books, the dragons teleport a spaceship into an asteroid. Are there any other books with the same kind of symbiosis between dragons and humans that would fit your criteria? Maybe the How to Train Your Dragon books?

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    1. Yes! That would be a fascinating addition to this argument – What happens to the “dragon as social critique” when the dragon is itself a product of society? And what happens when dragons are an essential part of the society? Love it.

      That’s the joy of literary scholarship – you get to revisit old favorites in brand new ways each time you return to them with a new lens 😊

      Like

  2. One of my favorite parts of dragon literature–that should be a thing–is that regardless of how the dragon is portrayed its personality seems to always be a magnified expression of something going on with those around it, and a reflection of the beliefs of the writer and the society she belongs to. It might be one of the reasons why discussing dragons can offer so much light into the origin of good and evil and what the two really mean.

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