Tuesday, January 12, 2016
The Romantic Fable of the Dragon, article in The National Magazine 1852
Join my Facebook Group
You may also be interested in Over 250 Books on DVDrom on Mythology, Gods and Legends
The dragon is perhaps the most celebrated animal in ancient or modern fable. It has been represented by poets, painters, and romancers, as a gigantic and anomalous creature, bearing some resemblance to a serpent, with the addition of wings and feet. Most probably the idea originated in the East; for we find that the Chinese, Persians, and other oriental races, believed in the existence of certain monsters, which, as far as can be ascertained, did not in any way differ from the dragons of European fiction. From the East the fable may have found its way to Greece, in the mythology of which country it frequently appears; and thence, possibly, it was disseminated over the rest of Europe. But whatever spot may have been its cradle, or whatever the path by which it has traveled, certain it is that few countries in the civilized portions of the globe are without some traces of its presence. In the poetry and fairy legends of modern Europe, however, it has made the greatest figure. A dragon was the most terrific and dangerous enemy that the knight-errant of mediaeval romance could possibly encounter; and numerous are the narrations that have come down to us of battles between these mortal foes. The dragon appears, for the most part, as a lonely animal, living in obscure caverns among the clefts of mountains, or in morasses, and occasionally issuing forth to ravage the neighboring cities. His size is generally represented as gigantic, and his strength prodigious; his breath is poisonous, turning the country, for many miles round his abode, into a desert; his nature is remorseless and blood-thirsty; and, as if to render any attack upon him the more hopeless, he is completely eased in a species of armor, consisting of a succession of shining scales, of such adamantine hardness as to defy the sharpest weapon and the strongest arm. But he has one vulnerable point, which, like the heel of Achilles, eventually causes his destruction.
The finest and most elaborate description of a dragon in English poetry is to be found in Spenser’s Faerie Queene—see book i, canto ll—where the Red-cross knight contends for more than two days with one of these monsters. Dragon-encounters, however, had been rendered famous before Spenser’s time by the metrical romance of Syr Bevis of Hampton, which was held in great estimation as early as the days of Chaucer. In this poem— if such it may be called—the passage describing the dragon killed by Sir Bevis would seem to have furnished Spenser with some hints. Thus writes the old versifier:—
When the Dragon, that foule is,
Had a syght of Syr Bevis,
He cast up a loude cry
As it had thondred in the sky:
He turn’d his bely towards the sun;
It was greater than any tonne:
His scales were bryghter than the glas,
And harder they were than any bras:
Betweene his shulder and his tayle
Was forty fote, withouten fayle.
In another old metrical romance, chronicling the achievements of Sir Guy of Warwick, we have a dragon thus described:—
He is as blacke as any cole,
Rugged as a rough foal:
His bodye, from the navel upward,
No man can pierce, it is soe harde.
Pawes he hath as a lion;
All that he toucheth he slayeth dead downe:
Great wings he hath to flighte;
There is no man that bears him mighte.
There may no man fights him againe,
But that he slayeth him certaine;
For a fouler beaste than is he,
I wisse of none never herd ye.
The vulnerable part in the dragon was underneath the wings, the flesh there not being protected with scales; and by piercing this place, the heroes of the old romances generally obtained the victory. But the dragon in the Faerie Queene is killed in a different manner. On the morning of the third day of the combat, the knight rushes at his foe, sword in hand; and the monster advancing to meet him with his mouth “gaping wyde," the weapon passes down his throat into his vitals. The dragon in Guy of Warwick is slain in the same way. It is a curious fact that a method similar to this is often employed in South America in destroying the alligator; to which—or rather to its near relation, the crocodile—we shall presently show that the dragon of poetry and romance bears some resemblance.
We frequently find the dragon, both in ancient and modern fable, in the capacity of a guard to enchanted castles, subterranean abodes of magicians, hidden treasure, &c. Thus, in the Grecian mythology, the Golden Apples of the Hesperides are watched by a dragon that sleeps neither night nor day; so, also, is the Golden Fleece, which occasioned the Argonautic expedition. In one of the stories told by the Countess D’Anois, in her collection of fairy tales, the entrance to a dark and fearful cavern, through which runs a, fountain of inestimable virtue, is guarded by two dragons darting fire from their mouths and eyes; and in the romance of Tom a-Lincolne is a similar adventure to that of the Hesperian apples—a dragon being employed as sentinel over a Tree of Gold that bears golden fruit, and a knight being sent to slay him.
Dragons are often used in drawing the chariots of magicians and enchantresses through the air. Doctor Faustus accomplishes his aerial journeys by these means: "And behold, there stood a wagon, with two dragons before it to draw the same; and all the wagon was of a light burning fire; and for that the moon shone, I was the willinger at that time to depart. . . . . Hereupon I got me into the wagon, so that the dragons carried me up right into the air."
Dragons have also been employed by the poets to draw the chariot of the Moon, or of Night. Milton alludes to this fiction in Il Penseroso:—
While Cynthia checks her dragon-yoke
Gently o’er the accustom’d oak.
And Shakspeare, in Cymbeline (Act ii, scene 2):—
Haste, haste, ye dragons of the Night! that dawning
May bare the raven's eye.
In the early ages of Christianity, the dragon was introduced into religion as a type of Satan—a symbol which, in all probability, was suggested by the similarity existing between the dragon of fiction and the serpent, in which shape, as we are told, the Evil One first appeared upon earth. Phineas Fletcher, in his Purple Island (canto 7), when allegorizing the Vices, describes their king as a dragon; and Dante calls one of his devils Draghigazzo—a venomous dragon. The saints, both male and female, are often represented in old pictures treading upon the necks of these monsters, or quelling their fierceness by sprinkling them with holy water. St. Michael, the Archangel, is mentioned in Scripture by St. John, as fighting against “the Dragon” and his host,—which expression is, of course, to be received as typical of Satan and his temptations; and Guido has painted a picture, in which Michael is represented treading on the prostrate Fiend, who has a tail and wings resembling those of a dragon. Hence Milton, in his Ode on the Nativity (st. 18), writes:—
The old Dragon under ground,
In straighter limits bound,
Not half so for costs his usurped away;
And, wroth to see his kingdom fail,
Swinges the scaly horror of his folded tail.
Many other saints of the Roman Catholic calendar have been celebrated for overcoming dragons. Near the pillar on which St. Simeon Stylites is said to have dwelt from year to year, was the cave of a dragon, who was so exceedingly venomous, that he poisoned everything within a certain distance round his abode. This beast (according to the authority of the Golden Legend) having had his eye transfixed by a stake, came in his blindness—being now rendered meek and humble by pain—to the saint’s pillar, placed his eye against it, and so remained for the space of three days in all gentleness and devotion, and never did harm to any living creature: insomuch that Simeon, seeing the hand of God in this matter, ordered earth and water to be brought and placed on the dragon’s eye; which being done, behold! forth came the stake, a full cubit in length; and the people, seeing this miracle, glorified God; and the dragon arose and adored for two hours, and so departed to his cave.
The renowned hero of the Seven Champion: of Christendom, is not merely a creation of romance, but was worshiped by our Papistical ancestors as a veritable saint; and his contest with the dragon has been looked upon as nothing more than a type of his spiritual warfare with the powers of darkness.
The dragon fable appears to have been very current among the ancient Britons— the figure of a dragon, indeed was adopted by them as their national symbol. Uther, King of Britain, and father of the great Arthur, was surnamed Pendragon, from the circumstance of his wearing an image of a dragon upon his helmet—Pen being the British word for head; and Spenser has placed the same ornament on the helmet of Arthur himself. (See Faerie Queene, book i, canto 7, st. 31.)
The Britons may, perhaps, have been induced to assume the dragon as their; national symbol from a tradition which is thus narrated by Selden in his Notes to Drayton's Polyalbion (Song 10)—“ In the first declining state of the British empire, Vortigern, by the advice of his magicians, after divers unfortunate successes in war, resolved to erect a strong fort in Snowdon Hills, (not far from Conway's Head in the edge of Merioneth,) which might be as his last and surest refuge against the increasing power of the English. Masons were appointed, and the work begun; but what they built in the day was always swallowed up in the earth next night. The king asks counsel of his magicians touching this prodigy; they advise that he must find out a child which had no father, and with his blood sprinkle the stones and mortar, and that then the castle would stand as on a firm foundation. Search was made, and in Caer-Merdhin was Merlin Ambrose found:" [Merlin’s father was a fiend; consequently, speaking in an earthly sense, he had no father :] “he being hither brought to the king, slighted that pretended skill of those magicians as palliated ignorance; and, with confidence of a more knowing spirit, undertakes to how the true cause of that amazing ruin of the stonework; tells them, that in the earth was a great water, which could endure continuance of no heavy superstructure. The workmen digged to discover the truth, and found it so. He then beseeches the king to cause them to make further inquisition, and affirms that in the bottom of it were two sleeping dragons; which proved so likewise—the one white, the other red; the white he interpreted for the Saxons, the red for the Britons.”
In their subsequent contests with the Saxons, our British ancestors always had a red dragon painted upon their standards; while the colorless banner of their opponents bore the figure of a white dragon. It is a fact worthy of record, as showing the long-enduring influence of popular superstitions upon imaginative races, that when the Earl of Richmond, afterwards Henry VII, (who, it will be remembered, was of British descent,) landed on the Welsh coast in his insurrection against Richard III., he displayed to the people a flag emblazoned with a red dragon; upon which large numbers immediately rallied round him, thinking they were about to vanquish their old enemy, and regain their lost dominions. Henry’s design, however, was totally different; but, on succeeding to the throne, he still further flattered the vanity of the Welsh, by placing the Cambrian dragon in his arms, and by creating a new poursuivant-at-arms, entitled Rouge-Dragon.
One of the most remarkable features of the dragon fable is its universality. In the romances of the oriental nations—in the mythology of the Greeks and Romans— in the traditions of the Gothic and Celtic races—and in the fairy tales of the nursery,—a creature having in all cases the same general characteristics, may be discovered. Difference of climate, of religion, of national origin, or of national peculiarities, seems not to affect this omnipresent phantom of the imagination. We find it among Pagans, Christians, and Mohammedans: in the north, among the modern descendants of the Goths and Celts; in the south, among the Persians and Indians; in the east, among the Chinese; and in the west, among the aboriginal Americans. In every quarter of the globe, and over almost every race, has this terrible chimera spread the shadow of its fancied presence; though whether it has been propagated from people to people, or whether in each case it was a spontaneous birth of the imagination, it would be impossible now to determine. It must, however, be admitted that the first is the more probable supposition.
The Chinese believe in the existence of a monstrous dragon who is in hot pursuit of the sun, with intent to devour that luminary; and whenever an eclipse of the great orb occurs, the people assemble in vast numbers, beating large gongs, and making the most discordant sounds, in hope of frightening the ravenous beast from his prey. A green dragon is one of the characters introduced into a Chinese street-exhibition, similar to our “Punch;” and we may discover, in the ancient traditions of the same nation, a fable of a great dragon which spread terror between heaven and earth, and which was destroyed by one of the five celestial spirits who were supposed to govern the world under the Supreme Being—which fable, by the way, is probably another version of the insurrection of Satan and the rebel angels. The ancient Persians, likewise, believed in winged dragons; and the Indians, as appears in the Life of Apollonius of Tyana, hunted dragons of awful size by the help of magic—a species of amusement in which Apollonius himself participated, as, according to his biographer, it was a chase “at once manly and divine.” The eyes and scales of these creatures shone like fire; and the former had a talismanic effect on all who were not inducted into the mysteries of magic. "All India," says Philostratus, in his Life of Apollonius, “is girt in with dragons of a prodigious bulk, as it were with zones. Not only the marshes and the fens, but the mountains and the hills, abound with them.” The dragons dwelling in marshes, having no crests on their heads and not many scales on their bodies, resemble female dragons: their color is generally black, and in their nature they are sluggish, like the places in which they have their abode. Shakspeare makes Coriolanus allude to these animals (Act iv, scene l.):—
I go alone
Like to a lonely dragon, that his fen
Makes fear’d,—and talk’d of more than seen.
The dragons of the mountains are large, fierce, and magnificent in their appearance. “They have a crest which is small when they are young, but increases with their growth till it becomes of considerable size. Of this species of dragons, some are of a fiery red, having backs like a saw, and beards: they raise their necks higher than the others, and their scales shine like silver. The pupils of their eyes are like stones of fire, and possess a virtue which is all-powerful in the discovery of secrets. Whenever the dragons of the plains attack the elephant, they always become the prey of the hunter, for the destruction of both generally terminates the contest.” Others of the mountain dragons “have scales of a golden color; beards yellow and bushy; and eyebrows more elevated than the others, underneath which are eyes of a stern and terrible aspect. In their tortuous windings under the earth, they make a noise like that of brass: their crests are red, and from them flashes a flame brighter than that of a torch. These dragons conquer the elephant, and in their turn are conquered by the Indians in the manner following:-— They spread a scarlet cloth before their holes, embroidered with golden letters, which, being charmed, bring on a sleep that at last subdues those eyes which would be otherwise invincible. Other spells, consisting of many words extracted from their occult philosophy, are used, by which the dragon is so fascinated, that he puts his head out of his hole and falls asleep over the letters. Whilst he remains in this situation, the Indians rush upon him with pole-axes, and after cutting of his head, strip it of all its precious stones. The stones found in the head of these mountain dragons are said to have a transparent luster, to emit a variety of colors, and to possess that kind of virtue attributed to the ring of Gyges, [which could render the wearer invisible] But it often happens that these dragons seize the Indian in spite of his pole-ax and his cunning, and carry him off to their dens, making the whole mountains tremble. We are told of their inhabiting the mountains near the Red Sea, from which are heard terrible hissings; and that they are sometimes known to go down to the sea, and swim to a great distance from shore." (Book iii, chapters 6, 7, 8.—We quote from the translation made in 1809 by the Rev. Mr. Berwick, who observes in a note, that he believes the dragons described by Philostratus to he the same as the basilisk or cockatrice, which has fiery eyes, a sharp head, and a crest like a cock’s comb, and the very sound of whose voice puts all other serpents to flight, forcing them at the same time to relinquish their Prey)
The “precious jewels” which the “ugly and venomous” dragon of the mountains “wears in his head,” are said by some writers to be an antidote to poison; but, according to Pliny, they must be extracted from the creature while he is alive, for “his envy and malice is such, that the moment he perceives himself dying, he takes care to destroy their virtue.”
Even among the aborigines of America, who were long cut off from all communication with the Old World, we may, as before remarked, discover the existence of this prodigious fable, which has furthermore taken root in the minds of the learned of all ages, and been curiously exhibited in the frequent use of the word “Dragon” in Astronomy, Natural History, and other memes. Thus, in Astronomy, we have the terms Dragon‘s Head and Dragon’s Tail: and a constellation of the northern hemisphere is called Draco or Dragon. Among meteorologists, the appellation Draco Volans is applied to a certain meteor appearing in the shape of a flying dragon. In Ichthyology, a fish, known in England by the name of “the weever,” a denominated Draco Marinus, or the Sea Dragon. A particular kind of crystal is called in Latin Dracontia lapis, or Darconitis: we have already mentioned it as being thought to exist in the heads of dragons. The Dragon-fly, that radiant and delicate haunter of our summer gardens, will immediately suggest itself to the minds of every one. In Botany, we have Dragon’s Head, Dragon-wort, Snap-Dragon, and Dracontium; and a species of palms is called the Dragon-tree, from a fable, current among botanists, of the figure of a dragon being discoverable beneath the rind of its fruit. This tree yields a gummy or resinous juice, much used in medicinal preparations, and known by the name of Dragon’s blood, from the redness of its color. In Architecture, we have Dragon-beams; and, in military affairs, the word dragoon, as applied to a certain division of cavalry, is said by some to have been derived from dragon, “because,” says Bailey, “at first they were as destructive to the enemy as dragons.”
But this fiction has left its stamp on other things as well as on science. It has imbued the minds of men in all ages, and been reflected by them on many of the objects which surround us.
Sometime we see a cloud that’s dragonish.
The pictured dragon beneath the rind of the fruit above alluded to, is only another instance of the facility with which any idea, however fantastic, may be realized to the bodily sight by those whose minds are prepossessed by that idea. Stanislaus Lubienetski, a Polish author, has left us an account, in his Theatrum Cometicum, of a comet which appeared in the shape of a dragon, with its head covered with snakes; and we have already seen how a meteor is made to assume—in a great degree from the imagination of those who behold it—a similar form. The Italians, we are told, call the “old, crooked, and decaying branches of a vine" dragoni, from some fancied resemblance in them to dragons; and in the same nation a superstition is current concerning a plant called Dragonvalo or Serpentaria, “which," says Florio, in his dictionary before cited, “groweth two foot high when snakes begin to appear in springtime, and vanisheth in the beginning of winter; and at its vanishing, all snakes hide themselves.” This mysterious sympathy, as it is supposed to be, between the plant and the animal, is very grand; but a little reflection shows us that it is but a poetical interpretation of a simple and natural fact. The plant spoken of is probably one of those which die down to the earth at the approach of winter, and shoot up again in the spring; and the same “skyey influences“ which cause the vegetable dragon to “vanish,” as Florio finely expresses it, at one season and reappear at another, induce the snakes—which, as we all know, are hibernating animals—to look out for places of shelter during the cold weather, and issue forth when it has passed.
Before we conclude, it may be as well to glance at the probable origin of the fable under consideration.
Upon a careful scrutiny, it may be discovered that the dragon is a compound of the serpent and the crocodile; a circumstance which, more than any other, tends to confirm the supposition that the fable originated in the East, where such animals are common, and was propagated thence over the rest of Europe. If the reader will turn to any picture of a dragon which he may have in his possession, he will perceive that the head, the legs, and the scaly appearance of the back, bear a great resemblance to the current representations of the crocodile; while the long and interwreathed tail, and the power which the creature evidently possesses of winding itself round any other animal and crushing it to death, is as manifestly derived from the serpent. The word “dragon” is defined by Bailey, “a sort of serpent,” and by Johnson, “a kind of winged serpent, perhaps imaginary.” In Virgil‘s poem of “The Gnat,” as translated by Spenser, we have a description of a serpent, in which many of the characteristics of the dragon—such as its natural armor of scales, eyes that throw forth flames of fire, and blood-besprinkled jaws—are included; and in many old writers the words “dragon” and “serpent” or “snake” appear to be synonymous. Thus, in the early English romance, entitled The History of the Renowned Prince Arthur, King of Britain, Sir Launcelot is requested by the people of a certain country to deliver them from a serpent that is in a tomb; and immediately after, the same creature is alluded to as a dragon. (See chap. i, part 3.) Pliny has left us an account of some Indian and Ethiopic dragons, in which, though largely mixed with fable, we may clearly perceive that the boa-constrictor is the animal really alluded to. “India,” says he, “brings forth the biggest elephants, as also the biggest dragons, that are continually at variance with them, and evermore fighting; and of such greatness are they, (i. e., the dragons,) that they can easily clasp and wind round about the elephants, and withal tie them fast with a knot.” Modern travelers affirm that, in their combats with tigers, the boa-constrictors of the Indian jungles disable their enemy precisely after this fashion. Diodorus Siculus, too, testifies to the circumstance of “frequent and terrible scuffles” happening between elephants and serpents in the Indian deserts, whenever they meet at a spring. What Pliny goes on to state, however, is evidently a fable, having no foundation at all in fact; but it is a fable which could only be told of serpents. “In Ethiopia there be as great dragons bred as in India: to wit, twenty cubits long. It is reported, that upon their coasts they wrap themselves, four or five of them together, one within another, like to a hurdle or lattice-work, and thus pass the seas to find better pasturage in Arabia, cutting the waves, and bearing up their heads aloft, which serve them instead of sails."—-(Old folio translation, 1601.) Milton, in book 10 of Paradise Lost, describes the transformation of Satan into “a monstrous serpent” (v. 514); and in a few lines farther down (v. 529), he alludes to him as a dragon—
Larger than whom the sun
Engender'd in the Pythian vule on slime,
Another instance in Milton, to the same effect, occurs in Samson Agonistes (verse 1692), where, though the word “dragon” is used, the ordinary serpent is evidently meant:—
And, as an evening dragon, came,
Assailant on the perched roosts
And nests in order ranged
Of tame villatic fowl, &c.
It is a well-known fact that serpents are frequently in the habit of devouring domestic birds.
A recent commentator on the first chapter of Genesis conceives that the twenty-first verse (“And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth,” &c.) should be translated thus:—“Then the Word and Power of God also created dragons, which could only suffer by being crushed,” &c. His remarks upon this new reading are so curious, that they must be transferred to the present place. “Dragons, which could only suffer by being crushed, were created before any of the land animals. Geologists name this creature the plesiosaurus,“ [a kind of sea-serpent of enormous dimensions;] “and its remains are found in the shale or slaty clay which, at a remote period, was the mud of vast tracts over our globe. Its most remarkable characteristic is the great length of its neck, Which contains forty-one vertebrae, while in all other reptiles there are only from three to eight. It was capable of paddling through mud, and could repose at the bottom of a shallow bog, with its head high above the surface. At what period in the history of the earth these creatures ceased to exist, we have no record; but a passage in Goldsmith’s Roman History is so forcibly descriptive of some monster of which we have no other account (being serpentine, and so scaly as only to suffer death after being crushed), that we may be permitted to consider it the dragon of Genesis, the leviathan of Job, and the plesiosaurus of the geologists. Goldsmith states that Regulus, while leading his forces along the banks of the river Bagrada, in Africa, had his men attacked, as they went for water, by a serpent of enormous size, which placed itself so as to guard the banks of the river. It was one hundred and twenty feet long, with scales impenetrable to any weapon. Some of the boldest troops at first went to oppose its fury; but they soon fell victims to their rashness, being either billed by its devouring jaws, or crushed to pieces by the winding of its tail. The poisonous vapor that issued from it was still more formidable,' and the men were so much terrified at its appearance, that they asserted they would much more joyfully have faced the whole Carthaginian army. For some time it seemed uncertain which should remain masters of the river, as. from the hardness of its scales, no ordinary efforts could drive it away. At last, Regulus was obliged to make use of the machines employed in battering down the walls of cities. Notwithstanding this, the serpent for a long time withstood all his efforts, and destroyed numbers of his men; but at length a very large stone, which was flung from an engine, happened to break its spine, and destroyed its marrow. By these means, the soldiers surrounded and killed it. Regulus, not less pleased with his victory than if he had gained a battle, ordered its skin to be sent to Rome, where it continued to be seen till the time of Pliny.”
If the reader will compare the sentences in italics in the above passage, with Spenser’s description of a dragon, previously referred to, he will perceive many points of resemblance; such as, the scales which were “impenetrable to any weapon"—the “devouring jaws”—the length and perpetual involutions of the creature’s tail—and “the poisonous vapor” which it had the power of casting forth. Who does not perceive in these details (themselves, in all probability, exaggerations of the truth) the germs, not only of Spenser’s dragon, but of every other in the range of poetical fiction?
There can, however, be no doubt that the crocodile has had its share in the origin of the fable now under consideration. “Scales impenetrable to any weapon” are not a characteristic of serpents generally speaking, though the particular serpent encountered by Regulus may have been thus protected: crocodiles, on the contrary, are invariably provided with a defensive armor of such closeness and hardness as to blunt many of the weapons employed against it. The head, also, has evidently suggested that of the dragon: the similarity indeed, is so great, that for a long time a large fossilized crocodile’s head was exhibited at Aix as a veritable relic of the dragon vanquished by St. Martha. Mr. Hurdis, and other commentators on the Bible, are of opinion that the dragon of Scripture is nothing more nor less than the crocodile; and have supported that idea with a very close chain of reasoning. Thus, Isaiah (chap. xiii, 22) says, speaking of the approaching desolation of Babylon: “And the wild beasts of the islands shall cry in their desolate houses, and dragons in their pleasant palaces.” “It is worthy of notice,” says Mr. Hurdis, “that the crocodile was always considered as an inhabitant of the wilderness; and such he might well be deemed: consequently it will not appear wonderful that he should choose the ruins of old deserted towns and cities, which were near rivers and lakes, for his especial abode when out of the water. Of Babylon, therefore, it might properly be said that, when she became desolate, "the crocodile should cry in her pleasant palaces;" and (Jeremiah chap. 51, 37) that she should be "a dwelling-palace for crocodiles." The dragon in the Apocrypha, worshipped by the people of Babylon, and which Daniel is reported to have killed by forcing it to swallow lumps of pitch, fat and hair, seethed together, whereby it "burst in sunder," was probably a crocodile. And Linnaeus places the dragon of Scripture under the scientific head of "Crocodilus Africanus."
For a list of all of my disks, with links, click here