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Dragons Everywhere! Part 1: The Dragons of Wales

medieval_dragon

Medieval Dragon

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.

medieval_dragon

Legends of Dragons – Red Dragon of Wales

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.

winged_dragon

Winged Dragon of Southeast Asia

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

William Morris Tile: Red Dragon of Wales from the Coat of Arms o

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.

Welsh_dragon

The standard rendering of the Red Dragon of Wales. Cymru is what the Welsh call their country.

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

lambton_worm

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.

Lambton Worm

Cigarette card from the Churchman Legends of Britain series, early 20th century

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)

wyvern

Wyvern

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

Where most of the images here come from

Another great resource for Dragon images.

A brief history of Wales

“Here be Dragons!”, a novel about Wales in the 13th Century

Where to get a Welsh Flag

 

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There Be Dragons: Big, Dangerous and Sometimes Misunderstood

Medieval Lindorm Dragon, 15th century, from the alchemical scrolls of Sir George Ripley

Medieval Lindorm Dragon, 15th century, from the alchemical scrolls of Sir George Ripley

Of all the creatures encountered within the boundaries of Myth and Faerie, dragons are at once the most feared and the most admired. It is understandable that our relationships with them have not always been for the best since we, as well as our livestock and our maidens, have had to deal with issues ranging from prosaic matters, such as the avoidance of being eaten, to cosmic dilemmas involving the divisions between Heaven and Hell. Moreover, it does not help that certain dragons (and they are all individuals) tend to be rather large and powerful:

Leviathan - Arthur Rackham

Leviathan - Arthur Rackham

His scales are his pride, shut up together as with a close seal. One is so near to another, that no air can come between them. They are joined one to another, they stick together, that they cannot be sundered. By his neesings a light doth shine, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning. Out of his mouth go burning lamps, and sparks of fire leap out. Out of his nostrils goeth smoke, as out of a seething pot or caldron. His breath kindleth coals, and a flame goeth out of his mouth. In his neck remaineth strength, and sorrow is turned into joy before him. The flakes of his flesh are joined together: they are firm in themselves; they cannot be moved.
(Job 41: 15-23)

Debate continues to rage whether or not Leviathan was a true dragon although those on the dragon camp (and most of those are dragons) smilingly point out that no crocodile breathes fire. Indeed, one wishes to believe it since it is difficult to argue against fire-breathing beings. There is also no doubting the nature of Jörmungandr, the offspring of Loki and Thor’s dragon adversary:

Thor Slaying the Midgard Dragon - Henry Fuseli

Thor Slaying the Midgard Dragon - Henry Fuseli

…Then Thor was angered, and took upon him his divine strength, braced his feet so strongly that he plunged through the ship with both feet, and dashed his feet against the bottom; then he drew the Serpent up to the gunwale. And it may be said that no one has seen very fearful sights who might not see that: how Thor flashed fiery glances at the Serpent, and the Serpent in turn stared up toward him from below and blew venom.
(Prose Edda – Brodeur Trans.)

Thor defeats the serpent and drops it into the abyss where it grew great enough to encircle the earth. I feel it fair to point out however, that although Thor was credited with the deed, other mythologies compete for the distinction. Both Zeus and St. Michael claim similar feats. Zeus in order to defeat the Titans seized Typhon “from whose shoulders grew a hundred heads of a snake, a fearful dragon” and struggled with him until “…the earth melted in the glow of the blazing fire. And in the bitterness of his anger Zeus cast him into wide Tartarus.” (Hesiod, Theogony ll. 820-868)

St. Michael’s acts were similarly dramatic, though not as descriptive:

St. Michael and his angels fight Satan in the shape of a wyvern dragon. From the Liber Floridus, a Flemish manuscript from the 15th century.

St. Michael and his angels fight Satan in the shape of a wyvern dragon. From the Liber Floridus, a Flemish manuscript from the 15th century.

And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.
(Revelations 12: 7-9)

But let us not descend into that primordial abyss. This is not only about gods but also about those more familiar dragons we have to deal with on a more mundane basis. Fortunately for us, all of the old cosmically-sized creatures survived the wrath of gods, while the gods themselves seem to have devolved the duties onto heroes resulting in a wealth of tales about both. The most famous hero of them all was Siegfried (or Sigurd) and how he killed Fafnir:

Siegfried slays Fafnir with his father's sword - Konrad Dielitz, 1880

Siegfried slays Fafnir with his father's sword - Konrad Dieliz, 1880

Now crept the worm down to his place of watering, and the earth shook all about him, and he snorted forth venom on all the way before him as he went; but Sigurd neither trembled nor was adrad at the roaring of him. So when, as the worm crept over the pits, Sigurd thrust his sword under his left shoulder, so that it sank in up to the hilts; then up leapt Sigurd from the pit and drew the sword back again unto him, and therewith was his arm all bloody, up to the very shoulder.

Now when that mighty worm was ware that he had his death-wound, then he lashed out head and tail, so that all things soever that were before him were broken to pieces.
(The Volsungsaga, William Morris trans.)

There’s no doubting that swords are very useful things when dealing with dragons, but it must be a special sword. Siegfried’s was called Gram and could cut through an anvil. In another story, The Two Brothers, the Grimm brothers reported how another sword was used to save a maiden from a dragon.

The Two Brothers - Kay Nielsen, from Grimm's Fairy Tales: The seven-headed dragon came and breathed fire,  setting all the grass ablaze...

The Two Brothers - Kay Nielsen, from Grimm's Fairy Tales: The seven-headed dragon came and breathed fire, setting all the grass ablaze...

The huntsman said nothing more to this, but next morning took his animals, and with them ascended the dragon’s hill. A little church stood at the top of it, and on the altar three full cups were standing, with the inscription, “Whosoever empties the cups will become the strongest man on earth, and will be able to wield the sword which is buried before the threshold of the door.” The huntsman did not drink, but went out and sought for the sword in the ground, but was unable to move it from its place. Then he went in and emptied the cups, and now he was strong enough to take up the sword, and his hand could quite easily wield it…
…Said the dragon, “Many knights have left their lives here, I shall soon have made an end of thee too,” and he breathed fire out of seven jaws. The fire was to have lighted the dry grass, and the huntsman was to have been suffocated in the heat and smoke, but the animals came running up and trampled out the fire. Then the dragon rushed upon the huntsman, but he swung his sword until it sang through the air, and struck off three of his heads.
(The Two Brothers, Children’s and Household Tales, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm)

Multi-headed dragons are apparently fairly common (as far as dragons can be considered “common”) since these have been appearing since the Chimera of Greek mythology, so it is not surprising that our unnamed huntsman hero had rather more difficulty. Unfortunately, he was killed treacherously soon after by the king, even though the princess was more than willing to marry him. However, this is quite unusual since in most cases the slayer of the dragon survives to either marry the princess, as Perseus did with Andromeda, or go on to a distinguished career as St. George proved was possible.

In fairness to dragons, their relationships with maidens were not always predatory:

"And I should look like a fountain of gold."  - illustration by Warwick Goble to The Mermaid, by Alfred Lord Tennyson

"And I should look like a fountain of gold." - illustration by Warwick Goble to The Mermaid, by Alfred Lord Tennyson

And I should look like a fountain of gold
Springing alone
With a shrill inner sound,
Over the throne
In the midst of the hall;
Till that great sea-snake under the sea
From his coiled sleeps in the central deeps
Would slowly trail himself sevenfold
Round the hall where I sate, and look in at the gate
With his large calm eyes for the love of me.
(Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Mermaid)

But while that is a mermaid rather than a human, the theme of sympathetic dragons is not uncommon. In Kenneth Grahame’s “The Reluctant Dragon” the serpent is now a mushroom eating innocent who must convince St. George (who had been called out of retirement) to stage a mock fight to satisfy the superstitious townsfolk holding on to cliche stories about how dangerous dragons are.

The Reluctant Dragon - Maxfield Parrish

The Reluctant Dragon - Maxfield Parrish

In general though, it is best to assume dragons are dangerous, but sometimes not as dangerous as those who control them:

 Medea (Tanglewood Tales, The Minotaur)- Edmund Dulac: "Medea shook her hands over the multitude below."

Medea (Tanglewood Tales, The Minotaur)- Edmund Dulac: "Medea shook her hands over the multitude below."

“But when her witch’s poison had consumed the new wife, and the sea on either side had seen the royal palace all in flames, her wicked sword was drenched in her son’s blood; and, winning thus a mother’s vile revenge, she fled from Jason’s sword. Her Dracon team, the Dracones Titaniaci, carried her away to Palladiae.”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses 7, tran. Melville)

Since Medea was a witch, we can forgive the dragons for being accomplices to her murder of Jason’s wife Glauce. It’s not always their fault that dragons are misunderstood, not minding the occasional mayhem they might cause, as we can see from Sulamith Wulfing’s depictions of dragons precariously embracing, beautiful human maidens in apparent safety, though the sexual overtones of the idea are quite obvious.

The Big Friend - Sulamith Wulfing

The Big Friend - Sulamith Wulfing

Sulamith Wulfing - The Dragon

Sulamith Wulfing - The Dragon

Overall though, if you are a young man and encounter a dragon in the woods, it would be helpful to have a magical sword with you – just in case.

John Bauer - The Dragon: "He gave the dragon a mighty blow."

John Bauer - The Dragon: "He gave the dragon a mighty blow."

Image Credits: Dragon Art Prints and Posters: Dragons, Lindorms, Wyverns

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