It’s Nielsen November!
At their most typical, dragons tend towards multi-limbed varieties; the most typical variation being four legs and pair of wings. Others tend towards a pair of wings with one or no pairs of legs (wyverns) or no legs or wings (worms). Whatever their configuration, two things are certain about dragons: (1) they are reptilian and (2) they are magical.
So whatever lizard, snake, crocodile, or basilisk you encounter in the course of your day, be assured that unless you observe them doing magical things they are unlikely to be true dragons. For example, Drac’o Volans, the flying “dragon” of Southeast Asia, was mistakenly designated as a “dragon” despite its lack of magical properties… that we know of. (The flying dragon to the left, is however, the flying dragon of Wales, so chosen because William Morris was of Welch descent). So too the draconist must take care in handing out the designation “draco” as new varieties of flying reptiles are encountered.
At any rate, many draconids with configurations other than as described above also exist. Moreover, it is important for draconian scholars to understand that the definition allows for non-flying varieties. Here I introduce some from an authoritative bestiary of dragon types with their accompanying legends. It’s important to note that unless a dragon bears its own myth and legend, it’s unlikely we have ever heard about them. While that is also true for many things, it’s also poignantly true for dragons.
The Red Dragon of Wales
Two of the most famous dragons are described in Geoffrey de Monmouth’s history; and since this story includes the great magician Merlyn, the story is obviously true.
When the warlord Vortigern usurped the throne of Roman Britannia, he promptly caused the building of a great tower. Despite having hired the greatest of Roman architects, no matter what structure was built it would be torn down by the next day. Having heard of a young magician who seemed to understand architecture (the reader will recall that Merlyn would later build Camelot), Vortigem consulted with the magician on how to solve this dilemma.
The young Merlyn explained that all attempts to build a tower would fail as long as two dragons were fighting under the ground. As the builders dug deeper into the earth, to their amazement they discovered that Merlyn was right, a red dragon and a white dragon were fighting in a subterranean pool underneath the location. Now liberated from their watery tomb, the two dragon continue their fight until the red dragon defeated the white dragon. Merlyn explained that the red dragon represented forces that would overthrow Vortigern. As it turns out, Uther Pendragon, the legitimate heir to the Emperor Constans in Britain and Arthur’s father, raised a dragon banner and overthrew the tyrant. Ever since then the Red Dragon has been the standard of Wales and its most readily recognizable symbol, especially since it appears on the Welsh flag and on license places.
Strangely enough, there are no more dragons in Wales. Here is the story about the last one. This is a story about a “worm,” as wingless, legless dragons are typically called. But let the reader be warned, as the Lambton family learned, that they are magical nevertheless.
The Lambton Worm
John Lambton was a rebellious fellow who skipped church one Sunday to go fishing. While enjoying this break from devotion, he fished out a small dragon no larger than his thumb (some say it was much bigger). An old man passing by saw this and told the recalcitrant John that he had caught the Devil. John believed him and threw the creature down a well. In order to make up for his rebelliousness, John then left for the Crusades, forgetting all about the dragon.
As the years passed, the dragon grew larger and poisoned the well, because that is what worms magically do when left in water. The villagers noticed that livestock were missing and in the process of looking for the missing livestock, discovered the traks of the dragon all over a nearby hill. Alas, John’s family became destitute as the dragon ravaged the Lambton estate.
Many years passed. John returned from the Crusades and was distraught to learn of the troubles at home. Upon consulting a witch, he learned that he was the one responsible for the Worm and therefore it must be he who would kill it. But the witch also warned him that because of the dragon’s magic, John must also kill the first living thing he encounters after killing the dragon or else the Lambton family would be forever cursed! So John told his family that upon killing the dragon, he would sound his horn three times, after which they must release a hound for John to kill and ward off the dragon’s curse.
John fought the dragon near a river and cleverly chopped it into pieces so that it could not heal itself (this is also part of the worm’s magic) and in so doing, he vanquished the dragon. However, on sounding his horn three times, his family members were so happy that the dragon was vanquished that they forget to free the hound. Instead they all ran out to John to congratulate him on their newfound freedom. The first person John saw was his father, who of course John could not bear to kill. This is why all the Lambton’s seemed to die either tragically or in battle from then on.
Welsh Wyverns (Gwiber)
Although some scholars claim that Wyverns aren’t dragons, people who have experienced them know better. This was especially true for the people of Emlyn, a town in Wales. On a fine summer’s day, and for no apparent reason, a two legged dragon, that is to say a wyvern, landed the town’s tower breathing smoke and fire and making threatening glances at the townsfolk. After some minutes of this, the wyvern promptly went to sleep. This was, as you might imagine, very disturbing for the townspeople. The mayor called a meeting to decide what to do as the wyvern slept. One soldier devised a plan to lure the gwiber (which is Welsh for wyvern) off the tower in order to kill it. He floated a large red cloak down the river and asked the townsfolk to wake the wyvern up. Most of the townsfolk were not soldiers and their courage failed them. They refused to wake the wyvern. So the soldier climbed the tower and stabbed the gwiber in the belly and then ran away to safety!
On waking, the gwiber saw the cloak floating down the river and rushed off to attack it and tore the cloak to shreds. Alas! the gwiber had been so wounded by the stab in the belly that she lost so much blood and then died. The gwiber turned over on its back and floated down the river, its venomous blood turn the river red, killing all the fish in the river. Despite the loss of the fish, the townspeople were overjoyed at the death of the dragon and celebrated. No one knows what became of the soldier who ran away after stabbing the dragon, but no dragon has ever been seen in Wales again.
For more on Dragons and Wales
Pre-raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones was fascinated with two mythic subjects: Sleeping Beauty and the Days of Creation. He revisited subjects over and over spanning a period of decades and across several media: in oil and gouache, and in designs for stained glass, tile.
The Days of Creation, done in oil and gouache and gold paint is considered one of his greatest works.
Nearly all mythologies have a creation story, one that tells us where humankind comes from and lays the scene for our place in the world. When this plays out in art, it can be particularly fascinating.
Burne-Jones Days of Creation painting has a colorful history, one with bigger-than-life friends, their children. It is a story with crime and mystery, and a hero’s journey of getting back to wholeness and completeness.
In 1870, Burne-Jones designed six stained glass windows for Morris & Co.; these were installed in the west window of All Saints Church. This was very early in a period during which Burne-Jones withdrew from exhibition, a period that would last seven years. Days of Creation designs were thereafter executed in stained glass, in oil, gouache and gold paint. Additionally,. cartoons were made for tile. Morris and Co. later created tiles based on the original cartoons, but those executions differ considerably from the original designs and appear to have been derived more from the stained glass implementation as an intermediary step. A later ceramic version made by Morris & Co ceramic workshops in Birkenhead for the Dyfrig Chapel at Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff, was completed after Burne-Jones’s death in 1898 by Harold Rathbone.
In 1871,Burne-Jones began work on a study for the Days of Creation oil and gouache panels. He worked on the angels off and on through 1876. The series consists of six panels, one for each day, with an angel at rest seated at the bottom of the sixth panel for the seventh day.
Jenny, William Morris’s elder daughter who was 15 at the time the series was completed, was the primary model for the angels, although her younger sister, May, also appears in some panels. The last of the Days of Creation panels was completed in 1876, the same year that Jenny’s life was changed forever when her health began to deteriorate giving way more and more to epileptic seizures. Jenny and her father were very close; Jenny had just passed her Cambridge Local examinations and would most likely have attended one of the women’s colleges at either Oxford or Cambridge, had her health permitted it.
Each angel panel is approximately 42 inches. A custom frame was designed by Burne-Jones specifically to hold all six angels.
It was shown in May 1977, as the central piece at his celebratory comeback show at the Grosvenor Gallery in London. The painting met with rave reviews. Oscar Wilde detailed his visit in an article for the Dublin University Magazine:
The next picture is divided into six compartments, each representing a day in the Creation of the World, under the symbol of an angel holding a crystal globe, within which is shown the work of a day. In the first compartment stands the lonely angel of the First Day, and within the crystal ball Light is being separated from Darkness. In the fourth compartment are four angels, and the crystal glows like a heated opal, for within it the creation of the Sun, Moon, and Stars is passing; the number of the angels increases, and the colours grow more vivid till we reach the sixth compartment, which shines afar off like a rainbow. Within it are the six angels of the Creation, each holding its crystal ball; and within the crystal of the sixth angel one can see Adam’s strong brown limbs and hero form, and the pale, beautiful body of Eve. At the feet also of these six winged messengers of the Creator is sitting the angel of the Seventh Day, who on a harp of gold is singing the glories of that coming day which we have not yet seen. The faces of the angels are pale and oval-shaped, in their eyes is the light of Wisdom and Love, and their lips seem as if they would speak to us; and strength and beauty are in their wings. They stand with naked feet, some on shell-strewn sands whereon tide has never washed nor storm broken, others it seems on pools of water, others on strange flowers; and their hair is like the bright glory round a saint’s head.
*The Fourth Day was cut from its frame during a dinner party in Dunster House at Harvard University in 1970 where the entire series on loan from the Fogg Art Museum. It has never been recovered. The restored fourth angel is derived from black and white platinotypes done by Frederick Hollyer at the end of the nineteenth century, 1934 photos from the Harvard Art Museums archives, and extrapolated from the description of Oscar Wilde and other critics of the day.
Why does this matter? But it does! In Part II, we will look each of the angels and why any of this matters.
The artpassions blog is back! New announcements will be made here and on our Facebook page.
I’ve added more than 50 new John Bauer images to the Bauer Art Passions page, making just over 100 Bauer images scanned and posted –The new images come mostly from Bland Tomtar Och Troll, but also the cover of Till Sagolandet (which needed much repair!), and some later paintings and even a design for a stamp. (via John Bauer Art: Trolls, Fairy Tales and Folk Tales – Swedish (1882 – 1918))
Coming soon: Gone are the Sun, Moon and Stars : Edward Burne-Jones’ Days of Creation Angels (a history and meditation)
We see them only at the edge of sight, in dreams, so it’s no wonder that we are often confused by them. But the Bard did a turn with dreams of various sorts, and in his sight was keener than most others. See how he did his research:
“O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep;”
— William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio’s Speech
But Mab, she seems to have been plucked out of that nowhere we visit each night (which is her realm). But it was good enough for at least one other poet with a gothic tale.
Behold the chariot of the Fairy Queen!
Celestial coursers paw the unyielding air;
Their filmy pennons at her word they furl
And stop obedient to the reins of light;
These the Queen of Spells drew in;
She spread a charm around the spot,
And, leaning graceful from the ethereal car,
Long did she gaze, and silently,
Upon the slumbering maid.
— Percy Bysshe Shelley, Queen Mab; A Philosophical Poem; With Notes
Perhaps even the Bard was confused for there is another with that title named Titania. Or perhaps Faerie is broad enough for multiple monarchs. At any rate, more celebrated than Mab, and older than any modern literature, is Oberon’s consort, whose dreams are made from fairies’ lullabies:
Weaving spiders, come not here;
Hence, you long-legg’d spinners, hence!
Beetles black, approach not near;
Worm nor snail, do no offence.
— William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
But it’s well she were asleep, for in other forms that goddess is also the huntress we dare not bother as she bathes:
While Titania is bathing there, in her accustomed place, Cadmus’s grandson, free of his share of the labour, strays with aimless steps through the strange wood, and enters the sacred grove. So the fates would have it. As soon as he reaches the cave mouth dampened by the fountain, the naked nymphs, seeing a man’s face, beat at their breasts and filling the whole wood with their sudden outcry, crowd round Diana to hide her with their bodies. But the goddess stood head and shoulders above all the others. Diana’s face, seen there, while she herself was naked, was the colour of clouds stained by the opposing shafts of sun, or Aurora’s brightness.
— Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 3
Since Theseus is also referenced later in tale, it seems Ovid and Shakespeare had the same dream (or perhaps Shakespeare read rather widely, but that’s between us). At any rate, sweet dreams.
The Tale of the Firebird – Gennady Spirin
translated by Tatiana Popova
Art Passions, the website, focuses primarily on late 19th century and Golden Age illustrators. However, I sometimes run across a contemporary children’s book that is both well-written and whose illustration I want to share. I’ve run into a few recently and I will try to review them here.
Such a sharable book is The Tale of the Firebird by Gennady Spirin.
In this version of The Firebird Tale, Spirin combines three stories – The Firebird, Baba Yaga, and Koshchei the Immortal. I have some reservations about mixing the stories because they are classics and, although there are variants, I’d rather have seen the three stories kept separate within one book. Whether he should have combined the stories or not, Spirin does it well. There are no questions left hanging.
This is a book to make children love books before ever learning to read. Each page is generously illustrated and the illustrations are exquisite, down to the page numbers.
The illustrations do not tell the story but beautifully make you wonder, “Oooh, what’s happening here?”
The characters are gentle without being sentimental. I even find myself liking Baba Yaga:
and Koschei the Immortal seems more of a rogue than an evil adversary:
As the spirit moves me, I’ll do a short review of the book here and share some of the pictures. You can list the reviews by selecting the “picture books” tag.
I bought and paid for this book myself. Reading level is Grades 2 through 5, but it’s the sort of book you read to younger children so often that they learn the words by heart. You can find The Firebird at Amazon.
Bulfinch returned; now he was wearing medieval jousting armor instead of his banker’s wools. He explained to me the story of how Sir Launcelot remained the queen’s lover, his forswearing after his failed quest for the Sangreal notwithstanding.
He intimated that there had been a plot instigated against him by the rumors of Mordred and his half-brother Sir Agrivaine, to entrap Launcelot while he was with the queen.
Launcelot escaped but the queen was caught and put to trial and then sentenced to burn for her crime. He then told of how Guenever was rescued. Placing one leg upon a stone he declaimed:
Then when Sir Launcelot had thus done, and slain and put to flight all that would withstand him, then he rode straight unto Dame Guenever, and made a kirtle and a gown to be cast upon her; and then he made her to be set behind him, and prayed her to be of good cheer. Wit you well the queen was glad that she was escaped from the death. And then she thanked God and Sir Launcelot; and so he rode his way with the queen, as the French book saith, unto Joyous Gard, and there he kept her as a noble knight should do; and many great lords and some kings sent Sir Launcelot many good knights, and many noble knights drew unto Sir Launcelot.
This was not, of course, the end of the story. But that was all Bulfinch had for me that day. I spun around three times to find myself back in my own time. So putting on my running shoes with dove wings, I began to write this report.
Image Credits: Victorian and Preraphaelite Art, Emma Florence Harrison