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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Magical Monday: Here Be Dragons

Since it's St George's Day, I thought I'd celebrate with some dragon lore.
How cute are these wallpapers?
The story of St George and the Dragon is very similar to that of Perseus and Andromeda. A beast (in this case the dragon) is appeased by the people by means of a regular sacrifice. In the St George story, this was a sheep, then two sheep, then eventually humans were offered, chosen by lots. When the Princess was selected to be offered to the dragon, the King pleaded for it not to be so, but it had been his decision to use lots and the people were unsupportive, since many had lost their own children. It is at this point that St George appears and steps in. Some stories simply state that he killed the dragon and the people then converted to Christianity, (presumably since George was such a great example) but in some versions he requires people to be baptised into Christianity before he will slay the dragon, effectively holding them hostage to his demands. The dragon can therefore be seen  as an allegory the devil, or of the 'false' way of paganism. This religious appendix is not present in the Perseus and Andromeda myth.

I suspect that for most Westerners, dragons are fire-breathing winged lizards with four legs, but there are also stories of water dragons, often known as 'worms' (or wurms, or wyrms), which are more snake- or eel-like and are not credited with fire power. In stories like that of the Lambton Worm, such creatures can emerge from water and attack livestock and children. In this legend, John Lambton caught the worm when he was fishing and was warned not to throw it back, but he dropped it down a well instead. Trapped, the creature grew huge and the well water became poisoned and murky. Eventually, it grew to full size, left the well and wrapped itself around a hill, leaving only to attack livestock until the villagers realised that they could appease it with a regular offering of milk. After seven years of this, John Lambton returned from the Crusades to be told by a wise woman that he was the only one who could kill the worm. He had to get special armour made, covered in spikes, and was warned that once the worm was dead, he must also kill the "first to cross his path" to avoid cursing his family. He arranged to blow his horn three times as a cue for his dog to be released so that he needn't kill a person. Of course, this didn't work out as he planned and his father ran out to greet him before the dog was released. He killed the dog rather than his father and seems to have triggered the curse, as many generations of Lambtons after met unnatural ends.

In a lot of recent fantasy literature, dragons are portrayed as wise creatures with positive attributes. I haven't read much with dragons lately. Anyone got any good recommendations for dragon novels?

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