The Simple Things
Looking back Dragons
IN HOMAGE TO ST GEORGE’S FIRE- BREATHING FOE, WE LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS OFTEN MISUNDERSTOOD MYTHICAL BEAST AND ITS ROLE AS A THOROUGHLY BRITISH PHENOMENON
They say you’re never more than six feet away from a rat in Britain. But have you ever considered how closely you might reside to a dragon? Wherever you are, you can be sure a dragon has, at some point, shared your particular corner of the country.
They’re at the heart of our culture – from Merlin to the red beast on the Welsh flag to him of St George fame, a central part of religious plays in the late Middle Ages and stars of folk tales at fêtes and pageants up and down the land, particularly in spring, for May Day and St George’s celebrations.
Despite the species having a wide geographical and cultural history (see Eastern vs Western Dragons overleaf), there’s nothing so esoteric as the British dragon. Some tales are terrifying, told to keep children in their beds at night. Others, a warning to the irreligious – many a victim was out on a Sunday when they should have been in church. Other tales have a comic tone, great for telling in a rowdy pub.
From wyrms (serpents with legs) to wyverns (wings and just two legs) and winged ‘fire drakes’ (spiny with four legs) there is a dragon for every occasion.
‘ ALTERNATIVE FACT’ DRAGONS
Some folklore persisted as fact for centuries, while some seems always to have been accepted as myth. Jacqueline Simpson, author of British
Dragons (Wordsworth Editions) notes “a longlasting Welsh belief in the actual existence of winged snakes” with witnesses as late as 1900 remembering them described as a genuine phenomenon. Then there are stories she feels “owe more to catchpenny journalism”, such as the ‘flying serpent’ spotted in Essex in May 1669, which made an appearance every year – at least according to Poor Robin’s Almanac, a satirical annual that ran from 1661 to 1769, and was presumably rather short on news.
Several villages in England claim to be the site where St George slayed the dragon. In fact, the George in question was born in Turkey, died in Palestine and almost certainly never set foot on this island. But show the British a dragon and they’ll claim it for their own.
“Over 70 small towns and villages in Britain still have a tradition about a local dragon,” says Simpson. Horsham in West Sussex is a fine example, known as “the site of the last dragon in England”. Dragons feature everywhere from its old town hall to its maze, yet they’ve historically been something of a pest there…
In nearby St Leonard’s Forest, in the sixth century, a hermit saw off a raft of dragons. As reward for ridding the town of them, God banished the forest’s nightingales whose song distracted the hermit from his prayers. However, not ten centuries later, the fiery monsters were back. In 1614, an illustrated pamphlet published in London reported a dragon in the forest, killing people and animals: “This serpent (or dragon as some call it) is reputed to be nine foote or rather more in length… a quantity of thickness in the middest, and somewhat smaller at both ends…. It is of countenance very proud… and seeme to listen and looke about with great arrogancy.”
Dragon tales may abound but a historical document recording one is a delicious rarity. Jeremy Knight, museum and heritage manager of Horsham Museum, disappointingly says it was a hoax. “Two local men reported it, but
“Over 70 small towns and villages in Britain still have a tradition about a local dragon”
someone wrote this, marketed it and sold it to a London publisher. Interestingly, it was printed in black letter – a font reserved for law and primers – possibly to give it an air of gravitas. There was no dragon in Horsham.”
So, what was it? “Most likely a python,” says Knight (a fine name for a slayer of dragon myths). “The description of its shape suggests it had swallowed whole prey. The pamphlet says it spat ‘poyson’, often mistaken for fire on the woodcut illustration. It was probably either an escaped pet or had stowed away on a ship docked at nearby Steyning [now inland but once a river port].”
A few weeks later, a second pamphlet appeared, claiming the beast had been killed. The less romantic likelihood is winter came and it died. It sucks to be cold-blooded.
Elsewhere, dragons met far more exciting ends. The Lyminster Knucker was killed by a local man feeding it a poisoned pie. In Kingston St Mary, Somerset, the champion sent to see off a dragon rolled a boulder down a hill and into its mouth, choking it to death.
Then there’s a Middle Welsh prose tale, in which a red and a white dragon (representing England and Wales) are locked in battle so loud their screeches cause women to miscarry. Some locals dig a pit with a cauldron of mead and a satin cloth inside. The dragons tumble in, drink the mead and fall asleep in the cloth, which is then gathered up and buried. One can almost hear the medieval dusting of hands.
SHAPING THE LANDSCAPE
When they die, dragons tend to leave their print on Britain. Around the time of the Crusades, in Sunderland, the ‘Lambton Worm’ was rumoured to curl himself around Penshaw Hill each night, leaving ridges around it to this day. Likewise, when the Stoor Worm was killed, it’s said its teeth fell out and became Orkney, Shetland and the Faroes, and its body became Iceland.
If you live in a town or village that includes the words ‘drake’, ‘worm’, or ‘low’, chances are you’re in dragon country. In his book The Real Middle
Earth (Pan), Brian Bates notes how the town of Drakelow in Derbyshire, “reveals the brooding presence of a resident dragon. The ancient word ‘low’ originally meant both ‘to live under the ground’ and also ‘to flame, to blaze’.”
Their place in our maps and landscapes is one reason the stories have lived so long, but why are we so keen to still believe they might actually be real? “Romance!” says Jeremy Knight, back at Horsham Museum. “People assume ‘romance’ means ‘love’ but its origins are in storytelling*. Humans tell stories about everything. It’s how we communicate.” And never are stories told more than in times of crisis. Knight suggests that
the Horsham pamphlet dragon was in part a response to trying times: “1614 is post-Armada, post-Elizabeth’s death, a period of turmoil.” Does that explain the upsurge in popularity of dragons today, from Discworld to Harry Potter? Are we seeking solace in storytelling again? A collective wish to sit by the fire and be transported far from news headlines? Perhaps in this era of ‘fake news’ we fancy a bit of fake news we can control.
But more than simply ‘having a moment’, dragons are rebranding. Today’s dragons are ‘nice guys’. From Daenerys’s do-gooding chaps in Game of Thrones to Toothless, whose bravery in How to Train Your Dragon brings dragons and Vikings to live in harmony, there’s been a distinct swapping of sides. Perhaps we felt it was time to repay our dragons for the centuries of pleasure and wonder they’ve given us. One thing’s for sure: British dragons never really die. They just curl up inside a green hill somewhere for a long nap. And thereby hangs a tale…