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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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Severed Limbs and Vivisection: Those Gruesome Grimms

Little Red Riding Hood by Adrienne Ségur

Little Red Riding Hood by Adrienne Segur

Since most of us first encounter classic fairy tales as children, we are often fed a more palatable (as in one can still have dinner after reading) version of these tales. Folk-tales in general, and fairy stories are just a branch of these, were originally stories told by adults to each other, and as a result, the entertainment value often depended on a fair bit of gruesomeness to make the horror often associated with magic and moral lessons more interesting. The Grimm Brothers had originally meant their stories to be read by adults, but by the time of its original publication in 1812, “Children’s and Household Tales” had already undergone a transformation to make the stories more acceptable for a childhood audience. Notwithstanding that however, the stories retained much of their original gruesome folk story details.

Cinderella by Maxfield Parrish

Cinderella by Maxfield Parrish

Most of us best recall the versions from Charles Perrault, and it is these versions that contain all the elements we are familiar with on film and in children’s books, making him (justifiably) the inventor of the modern fairy tale. His version of Cinderella, in particular, included elements he devised on his own such as the fairy godmother and her effects like the glass slipper and the pumpkin turning into a carriage. Of course the essential plot element of the prince searching for his mysterious dancing partner by looking for a girl whose foot would fit the slipper remains, and the irony of his finding a princess who had been abused by her step-family members is no less meaningful in his version where the stepsisters’ feet merely fail to fit the slipper.

The Grimms’ version is closer to its sources, thus certainly more adult, and in the process a more profound statement of human nature as the stepmother chops off one daughters big toe, and a portion of the heel of the other in order to make it possible for the shoe to fit; and in either case the prince is fooled momentarily until it is revealed to him that blood is flowing from the shoe.

Parallel versions of Red Riding Hood also share most elements between Perrault and Grimm. Perrault’s is still relatively violent by today’s standards; both the grandmother and the protagonist are eaten by the wolf, but does not delve into details and merely mentions these facts, almost in passing, which suited his purpose since he intended this story, like all his others, to contain a moral lesson.

Red Riding Hood by Warwick Goble

Red Riding Hood by Warwick Goble

The Grimms get a bit more explicit in their version “Little Red Cap” when it comes to the resolution once the additional character of the huntsman shows up and sees the sleeping wolf.

He took aim with his gun, and then it occurred to him that the wolf could have eaten the grandmother and that she could still be saved. So he did not shoot but took some scissors and started cutting open the sleeping wolf’s belly. After he made a couple of cuts, he saw the little red cap shining forth, and after he made a few more cuts, the girl jumped out and exclaimed. “Oh, how frightened I was! It was so dark in the wolf’s belly.”(1)

The grandmother is (of course) also saved as a result and the wolf’s belly filled with stones, and unable to get up, he eventually expires.

Despite the gruesome imagery, the Grimms’ versions of these stories seem more satisfying because while the moral focus of is still accomplished (if we don’t bemoan the torture of the stepsisters and the wolf) but with of a sense of justice; that evil is not only unrewarded, but eventually punished and the evil doer suffers. This is a truer sense of what both children and adults want in a story. The expurgation of morbid unpleasantness in order to avoid offence is always less satisfying than an attention to the reason for it in the first place.

Cinderella by Ann Anderson

Cinderella by Ann Anderson

Image Credits:
Adrienne Ségur
Maxfield Parrish
Warwick Goble
Ann Anderson
Notes:
(1)  Zipes, Jack . Brothers Grimm The Complete Fairy Tales.  London: Vintage Books, 2007

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How Did Fairies Get Their Wings?

Mr. Salford and the Albert Memorial in Kensington Garden

"Mr. Salford and the Albert Memorial in Kensington Garden" by Arthur Rackham

Search Google images for “fairies” and you find pages of diminutive human-like magical creatures with insect wings, often with pointed or animal ears and occasionally with antennae. Too often, this stereotypical fairy is at odds with the literature that produced her. No mention of such features appears in any literature preceding Elizabethan England, nor in Shakespeare, nor Spenser and both used fairies in the same manner as greek mythology did, as either nature spirits (nymphs and satyres and the like) or gods rather than magical creatures.

Not that mythical worlds could not conceive of winged beings, but these are in fact quite rare. The only winged beings among the Greeks were Nike and various monsters including Pegasus, and these are individuals rather than classes of beings, and almost none of the anthropomorphic beings prior to the Christian era sprouted wings, though these were found frequently in Etruscan tombs which probably contributed to the popular concept of angels and demons throughout the middle ages up to today. But these are not fairies in the literary tradition, and it is only in that tradition where this image of fairies seems to exist.

The appearance of winged fairies seems to have coincided with the industrial revolution, by which point the concept of the fairy story had been relegated to the nursery since adults were supposed to be rational and no longer deal with such matters, so by the Victorian era the concept of fairy became more childlike, and also linked to formal gardens, and these nature spirits of mythology evolved features drawn from children, insects and flowers. These are certainly very much in evidence in todays popular art of fairies.

Fairy Song (from A Midsummer Night's Dream) by Arthur Rackham

Fairy Song (from A Midsummer Night's Dream) illustrated by Arthur Rackham

It was in keeping with this style that Arthur Rackham provided wings for some of the fairies in his illustrations for A Midsummer Nights Dream. Shakespeare makes no reference in any of their speech. It is, after all, a tale blending greek mythology and English oral tradition of fairy beings so his inclusion of these seem fitting somehow, at least to his Edwardian audience who grew up with Victorian sensibilities.

"The fairies have their tiffs with the birds" from Peter Pan in Kensington Garden illustrated by Arthur Rackham

"The fairies have their tiffs with the birds" from Peter Pan in Kensington Garden illustrated by Arthur Rackham

As well in Peter Pan in Kensington Palace, Rackham also provides these generously even though there is no reference to any of the fairies having wings, but plenty of references to the dealings of these with the birds, who are the only truly winged creatures in the story. Although there is no mention of wings, Barrie’s narrative style is more suggestive than explicit and probably expected this feature of fairies to be assumed by his audience.

Edmund Dulac, Sulamith Wulfing and others also contributed many fairy images, but they were less likely to provide them with non-human appendages, but they certainly did provide them with that necessary magical quality to grant us the sense of wonder that fairies are known to bestow.

Image sources: Rackham gallery at Artsy Craftsy

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