St. George and the Reluctant Dragon

St. George and the Dragon is an old story. I mean, it’s really old. It’s the conglomerate of all the stories we know where a dragon is terrorizing the country and a knight risks life and limb to save them all and do away with said dragon. It’s rather marvelous in the way of classic fairy tales, and stands up brilliantly whenever someone tries to allegorize it.

Then along came Kenneth Grahame in 1898 and wrote another, delightfully askew version: The Reluctant Dragon. (To be accurate, it was originally a chapter in his book Dream Days. It horrifies the purist in me a little bit that a book would be dissected, but that’s neither here nor there. The whole thing is available for free here. You’re welcome.) Disney turned it into a short film at some point, but that was in 1941 and not many people are acquainted with it now. Allow me.

A smart little shepherd boy who reads books (his parents don’t) isn’t at all afraid of acquainting himself with a dragon when it moves into the neighborhood because he’s read about them and he knows. Very soon, the village knows about the dragon and a knight, St. George, is enlisted. He is armed with all sort of horrifying tales of the dragon’s evil deeds to spur him on to victory. Except none of them are true.

The dragon will not, has not, nor ever does wish to fight. The knight fights for a living but has been lied to. The boy becomes a mediator between the two of them to come up with a solution to the problem that now faces his two friends: everyone expects them to bow to convention and duke it out.

“Oh, you’ve been taking in all the yarns those fellows have been telling you,” said the Boy impatiently [to St. George]. “Why, our villagers are the biggest storytellers in all the country round. It’s a known fact. You’re a stranger in these parts, or else you’d have heard it already. All they want is a fight. They’re the most awful beggars for getting up fights—it’s meat and drink to them. Dogs, bulls, dragons—anything so long as it’s a fight. Why, they’ve got a poor innocent badger in the stable behind here, at this moment. They were going to have some fun with him today, but they’re saving him up now till your little affair’s over.”

Upon re-reading this little story, I had a pause over those lines. It felt a little like the story-teller talking to the audience just then. It was like it wasn’t the Boy so much as Kenneth Grahame talking about people. Everyone wants a fight. Anything, so long as it’s a fight.

But it’s still a children’s tale. It soon becomes clear that there must be a fight. The villagers will keep calling for one until they find a knight who will make it happen, and anyway, the dragon wants to join society, and in the current state of things, he can’t. He must be defeated first. But the dragon simply doesn’t want to.

“Believe me, St. George,” he [the dragon] went on, “there’s nobody in the world I’d sooner oblige than you and this young gentleman here. But the whole thing’s nonsense, and conventionality, and popular thick-headedness. There’s absolutely nothing to fight about, from beginning to end. And anyhow I’m not going to, so that settles it!”

“But supposing I make you?” said St. George, rather nettled.

“You can’t,” said the dragon, triumphantly. “I should only go into my cave and retire for a time down the hole I came up. You’d soon get heartily sick of sitting outside and waiting for me to come out and fight you. And as soon as you’d really gone away, why, I’d come up again gaily, for I tell you frankly, I like this place, and I’m going to stay here!”

He’s right, of course. No one can make him fight. In the end, though, they convince him that it really is the only way for everyone to get what they want. St. George and the dragon set up the choreography for a grand mock battle. They duke it out with a wonderful bit of staging, pretend stabbing, and writhing of scales. Then the dragon pretends that the wound has tamed him so as to join society and he, St. George, the Boy, and all the villagers have a grand feast after. We are led to believe that just perhaps, the dumb, duped villagers become a little better. Maybe they are a skosh less fight-oriented.

But it is still an excellent fairy tale. It is not meant to be allegory and let’s not muss it up by pretending that it means a lot more than what it says. But a thought for the new year. Let’s you and me not be villagers, yes?

P.S. The badger is set free.