It is a truth universally acknowledged that very few of the English can tell you when the feast day of their patron saint falls. St George’s Day is of course, for anyone who doesn’t know, 23rd April: the day the saint was martyred in 303 AD. (A handy way to remember the date is 23-4.)
George was not English. He was a Greek soldier of Palestinian descent in the Roman army, and although he has become one of the most venerated military saints in Europe there is much fantasy and little solid evidence about what it is he actually did. He is most famous for the legendary slaying of the dragon, a part of his mythology that became entangled in his hagiography around the 8th Century and was brought back to England from the Middle East by Crusaders.
As a child I loved dragons. I vividly believed in their existence and was as disappointed to find out that they were actually mythical beasts as I was to discover that my country’s patron saint was most famous for dispatching one. But I don’t think I’m alone. Dragons are the quintessential mythical monster, inspiring terror and devotion in equal measures throughout history. As J. R. R. Tolkien said in a 1936 lecture entitled ‘Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics’:
A dragon is no idle fancy. Whatever may be his origins, in fact or invention, the dragon in legend is a potent creation of men’s imagination, richer in significance than his barrow is in gold. Even to-day (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them, who yet have been caught by the fascination of the worm.
So to commemorate St George’s day – seeing as both of my rose bushes are looking pretty straggly and diseased and not likely to be producing any roses even come the middle of June – I’m going to digress from the more grounded writing of nature and place that I’m used to and celebrate the more fantastical side of English culture of place with ten favourite dragons for St George. As much as I’d love dragons and dragonlore to be specifically English phenomena, these are beasts with a worldwide mythological background: there’s not a part of the world without some form of ‘Great Wyrm’ beleaguering and wreaking its way into their folklore (one suggestion for this non-culture specificity is skeletons and fossils of whales, large sea creatures and of course dinosaurs inspiring ancient peoples to invent dragons to account for their presence). Therefore I’ve attempted to pick ten dragons (in no particular order) who are particularly English so as to imbue a sense of patriotism to my sheer calculated silliness.
1. Smaug the Magnificent from The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
Probably my first encounter with a dragon, thanks to my having a mother and brother obsessed with Tolkien. We had an audiobook of The Hobbit that was almost on a constant loop during my early years, so I was well indoctrinated in Hobbit-lore and the associated dragon-lore that comes with it before the age of five. (OK, three.)
Smaug is in many ways the archetypal dragon as far as Western folklore is concerned. He is a huge, winged, fire-breathing, treasure-hoarding lizard; greedy, vengeful, cunning, and dangerously beautiful. Tolkien also incorporates the idea of dragonspell – whereby the mighty beast can bewitch any who come too close through his uncompromising gaze and by the power of his voice.
2. Groliffe the Ice Dragon from Noggin the Nog by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin
Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin, the creators of classic British stop-motion animations such as Noggin, Ivor the Engine, and Bagpuss, clearly had been ‘caught by the fascination of the worm’ as dragons tend to be a bit of a recurring theme in their works. I wanted to include Idris (from Ivor the Engine), but he is so specifically a ‘small, trim, heraldic Welsh dragon’ that instead I thought Groliffe might be more appropriate. He is more of a ‘lumping great fairytale dragon’, who lives in a cave and is the appointed Treasurer of the Dragons’ Friendly Society. Groliffe is the antithesis of Smaug: green, peaceable, companionable, and shy but ultimately brave. He is also incredibly cold, and rather than burning his adversaries to a crisp as normal dragons are wont to do can use his icy breath to ‘turn them into a raspberry water-ice’.
3. The Hungarian Horntail from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling
The magical realm of witchcraft and wizardry brought to us by J. K. Rowling sits alongside our own, boring ‘Muggle-world’ without many of us ever finding out about it. Dragons, one can imagine, must be pretty hard to conceal, and in fact whenever they come in to the Harry Potter adventures there is usually a big cover-up involved to prevent us non-magical folk discovering their existence. There are several memorable dragons in the series, but it is in the fourth book that dragons take centre stage in the first challenge of the Triwizard Tournament, where the four contenstants have to get past a dragon and retrieve a golden egg which contains a vital clue to the second round of the Tournament. Each student faces a different species of wyrm, and as luck would have it Harry has to face the fiercest: the Hungarian Horntail, who is bad-tempered, fire breathing, and whose tail is barbed with razor-sharp spikes.
4. The Dragon of Earanaes from Beowulf
Although Smaug was my first dragon it is arguable that the unnamed Dragon in the epic Old English poem Beowulf is the forerunner of what is now perceived as a typical dragon. Originally dragons were more like giant lizards or snakes, hence the terminology ‘great worm’ or ‘wyrm’. The dragon encountered by Beowulf is one of the first recorded instances of a winged beast, and many of the character traits, and indeed story-arcs we now associate with ‘traditional’ dragons hail back to this one. Although the action is set in Scandinavia, the poem is one of the most important early English literary works. A single codex survives, written in a combination of West Saxon and Anglian at some point between the 8th and 11th century.
Geat warrior Beowulf wins reknown slaying monsters. Fifty years after defeating Grendel and Grendel’s Mother Beowulf takes on the dragon of Earanaes, who has become enraged after someone steals a cup from its hoard. The dragon proves too strong even for mighty Beowulf, who only manages to defeat it with the aid of two of his faithful friends, becoming mortally wounded himself in the process.
5. The Soup Dragon from The Clangers
Another peaceable dragon from the great English genius of Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin, this time a dispenser of green soup to the mouse-like extra-terrestrial Clangers, which it sources from their planet’s volcanic soup wells. As with much dragonlore, this tale evolved from a previous tale, spawning a new dragon in the process: the Clangers initially appeared in an episode of Noggin the Nog, and Postgate and Firmin developed them a series in their own right from this guest appearance. As with the best of dragons inspiring fascination and obsession this one has its own cult following, and even inspired the name a Scottish rock band.
6. The White Dragon of the English
The White Dragon was the totem of the Anglo Saxons whilst the Red was for the Britons. In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s version of the Arthurian legends we are told of the strife between the two dragons who slept undisturbed in an underground pool. When King Vortigern drained the pool in order to build his castle the dragons awoke and began to fight. Merlin foretold the defeat of the Red Dragon (the Britons) by the White (the Anglo Saxons). In other versions of the tale the red dragon is for the Welsh – hence the flag, and also why Idris couldn’t be on this list – and the white for the English. A white wyvern (two-legged dragon) is depicted as Harold II’s emblem on the Bayeux Tapestry.
7. Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis
There was once a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it.
Eustace is insufferable and badly behaved but not actually evil. He and his cousins get sucked into the magical world of Narnia through a painting, and Eustace becomes enchanted into a dragon for thinking ‘dragonish thoughts’ – the Smaug sort of dragonish thoughts rather than the Groliffe sort, ie. greedy, selfish, vengeful. It is not clear whether Eustace is bewitched by another dragon (who then dies) or by an enchanted treasure hoard which he attempts to plunder, but he is only able to become undragoned by proving himself better for the experience. Incidentally when he first becomes a dragon Eustace sees a reflection of himself and realises what has happened, but has no idea that he is a dragon because he doesn’t know what one is, having read all the wrong sort of books as a child.
8. The Dragon in Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
This children’s book would not have been condoned by Eustace’s parents Harold and Alberta Scrubb. From the creators of The Gruffalo, this dragon is possibly the most English on the list for its penchant for the draconian equivalent of the classic English favourite fish and chips:
“I am a dragon as mean as can be / And I’m planning to have witch and chips for my tea!”
“No!” cried the witch flying higher and higher / The dragon flew after her, breathing out fire.
9. Glaurung from The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien
I intended not to have two English dragons from the same author on the list, but I figured if Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin were allowed two entrants then I could also allow two from Tolkien, and if I were going to include another Tolkien dragon apart form Smaug, it had better be this one. Glaurung was the Original Dragon: the first to emerge from Angband and the father of many lesser dragons. He was created by and was a servant of the supreme dark power Morgoth and was extremely powerful in his own right, commanding armies, defeating Elven hosts, sacking, enslaving, slaying, bewitching. Parts of Glaurung’s tale, in particular his defeat by Turin Turambar, echo that of the dragon in Beowulf – but that’s hardly surprising given that Tolkien was a professor of Anglo Saxon.
10. The Dragon of Dragon Hill, Oxfordshire
Dragon Hill stands next to the Uffington White horse on the Berkshire Downs on the border between Berkshire and Oxfordshire. Seen from the top of the slope the sculptural hills – a combination of nature and man’s handiwork – appeared to me to form a dragon’s head, with the White Horse on the ridged slopes of its brow, the flat-topped rounded hill (in the centre of the cobbled-together picture above) forming the eye, and the grassy promontory to the left its snout. In fact my imagination had gone much further than the legend behind the name. Dragon Hill is the small, round, flat-topped hill on which St George is said to have slain the beast itself. The bare patch of chalk on the summit is where the dragon’s venomous blood was spilt, preventing the grass from growing. There is some debate as to whether or not the White Horse itself is meant to represent the dragon: in fact dragons were customarily referred to as ‘horse serpents’ long ago, and are often depicted with rather a horse-like head.
This is a place where legends abound, and is worth a post of its own which would barely scratch the surface. Other theories behind the strange shaped hill with its bare patch of chalk include its being a burial mound. One suggestion, made by antiquarian John Aubery in the 1670s was that it was the burial place of King Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon. Uther was killed in battle against the Anglo Saxons. The Anglo Saxons – whose emblem was the White Dragon – were the founders of the English, particularly linguistically – the language of Old English developed from the Saxon as documented in the poem Beowulf.
All the English dragons I’ve come up with seem to be related, worming their way in and out of English culture throughout history from the earliest English texts through Mediaeval folklore to twentieth century fantasy, children’s fiction and popular culture. A fitting tribute then, I hope, to not only George and his dubious hagiography, but England and Englishness?
This is not an exhaustive list. I’m sure I’ve missed many important and memorable dragons. Of course there are lots more that I left off in order to retain a semblance of ‘Englishness’ but I’m open to suggestions and corrections on this one. If any of your favourites didn’t make the list, or if you’d like to put in a vote for your favourite dragon from my ten suggestions then please feel free to comment.
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