I remember, aged about nine or ten, seeing the film “Dragonslayer”, with its splendidly named dragon, Vermithrax Pejorative. I’ve been fascinated by these mythical creatures ever since. The origins of the dragon myth are often unclear – in medieval England, it’s not difficult to see how dinosaur fossils and other natural phenomena, like comets, could be misinterpreted:
“Here terrible portents came about over the land of Northumbria, and miserably frightened the people: there were immense flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air…”
This entry from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, for 793, appears to presage the coming of the Vikings later that year, and all the havoc they would wreak on the English.
Nowadays we don’t tend to believe in dragons as literal creatures – yet there is literal truth and symbolic truth, and many of our great dragon stories, like much of folklore, tell us deeper truths about ourselves without being “true” in the strictest sense.
The standard of the old Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex is of a wyvern (a type of dragon with only one pair of legs) on a red background, and the flag of Somerset, my home county, and once part of Wessex, also bears the image of a dragon. Interestingly, in Wales, in the Mabinogion, the Historia Brittonum, and The History of the Kings of Britain, the red dragon of the Welsh fights and finally defeats the white dragon of the invading Saxons.
Why do dragons still hold an important role for us in the post-Enlightenment age? And how has that role changed over the years? These are questions I want to explore further in Part Three.