In this age of Disney remakes, I find I usually wait until just before the new film version of the story has been released before writing up a Fantasy Literature Rewind column. But, you know, I just don’t see Disney’s version of “The Reluctant Dragon” getting remade as a feature. Especially since they already did a dragon movie.
“The Reluctant Dragon” is a short children’s story by Scottish author Kenneth Grahame. The story was originally published in 1898 in a short story collection entitled Dream Days. Grahame himself is probably best known for writing the children’s story The Wind in the Willows (another story that’s been Disney adapted but which I can’t picture being remade any time soon). “The Reluctant Dragon” is one of Grahame’s more popular short stories. It’s been adapted a number of times for television. Rankin-Bass, famed for their many Christmas specials, even paired the dragon with another of Grahame’s popular characters for a cartoon titled The Reluctant Dragon and Mr. Toad Show.
The story starts out with a boy, simply called “the Boy” throughout the entire story who lives near the Downs in England. Now, this boy spent much of his time reading fairy tales and natural history, such that they ran together and he started to consider the two to be one and the same. This is why he isn’t all that surprised when his father comes home from herding his sheep talking about a terrible creature he saw in one of the caves nearby. The Boy figures it’s a dragon and goes to have a chat with it. Upon meeting the dragon he’s surprised to find that the dragon isn’t a desperate fire-breathing beast that likes fighting knights at all. Instead, he’s a polite, somewhat lazy homebody who enjoys writing poetry.
The Boy and the Dragon become good friends. However, it’s not really to last. The locals have found out about the dragon and have decided that something has to be done about it. This is partially because they think the dragon must be a monster and partially because they just want there to be a fight they can watch. The townsfolk don’t really have anything they can do about it until St. George comes to town (yes, that St. George). Upon warning the dragon that St. George is coming, the Boy gets roped into talking to George which in turn escalates into him setting up a meeting between St. George and the Dragon. That meeting leads to a rather humorous staged fight in which the dragon is supposedly injured and is then reformed, allowing him to take a place in society.
I usually don’t give away the endings of stories, but I kind of felt I needed to in order to give a full picture here. You can still read the story HERE. This version actually starts with a sort of framing device that my print copy doesn’t have.
Now, as is probably evident, this story is a take on the popular legend of “St. George and the Dragon” (a legend I talked about in The Stuff of Legends). Now, the thing to remember is that this legend is a huge deal in England. This is probably because St. George is considered to be the patron saint of England. Never mind the fact that the story of Saint George fighting the dragon supposedly happened in Libya.
It’s easy to just see “The Reluctant Dragon” as a spoof or satire of the popular “knight fights dragon” archetype. However, I also can’t help but think maybe it was also Kenneth Grahame’s way of poking some fun at the English society of the time period using one of their most beloved stories. While Grahame may have been Scottish it’s true, he did spend some time in England even going to university there. Also, with England being the seat of power for the United Kingdom, it was and still is a country that casts a long shadow over the rest of the British Isles. It’s really the contradictions within the story that bring up thoughts of Victorian England. The dragon is gentle and poetic while the townsfolk are more bloodthirsty and desiring for violent conflict, at least as spectators. Even the boy wanted to see a “proper fight”. Just as Britain was a big, warlike colonial power at the time that identified with the legend of the heroic Saint George while also in some circles being preoccupied with subjects like social class, propriety and civility. Maybe it’s a bit of a stretch. But what really gets me and makes me think the story is a poke at English society is the way that the concept of the fight is proposed to the dragon. Both Saint George and the Boy frame the idea of the battle as a matter of propriety. For a dragon to not fight a knight after the challenge is issued is simply not done. On top of that, the Dragon’s reasoning for agreeing to the staged fight is so that after he’s reformed he may enter society. In other words, it would help his social standing.
I could be completely off. I myself am not English and have not given a whole lot of time to the study of Victorian English society. So, if any of my readers are more knowledgeable about the subject, please let me know.
But still, “The Reluctant Dragon” is a fun story and might give you something to think about.