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The Scrivener: Of Dogs And Dragons

...if you look up 'dragon' in the first edition of Encyclopædia Britannica, 1771, you are referred to a factual zoological entry for draco, dragon, an amphibious reptile with wings and a cylindrical tail. The flying variety was found in Africa and the East Indies...

Intrepid columnist Brian Barratt takes us within singeing range of the fiery breath of dragons.

'No creature is cleverer than the dog; they have more intelligence than any other beast. They know their names and love their masters. There are various kinds of dogs; some track wild beasts in the forests, others guard flocks of sheep from the attacks of wolves...'

That is just a short extract from a wondrous Bestiary which was produced in the 13th century. So far, so good. It seems to be pretty factual. But move to another section. Dragon, for instance:
'The Dragon is larger than all other serpents and animals... It has a crest, a small mouth and narrow nostrils, through which it breathes, and it sticks out its tongue. It harms more by its tail than by its teeth, with forceful blows. It does not need poison to kill, because it kills anything which it embraces...'

The Bestiary also includes such creatures as the Leucrota, Manticore, Basilisk and Gryphon.

In the saga written around 700–750, the hero Beowulf slaughters three beasts. The third is a dragon. It is variously described as:
- wyrm (a worm)
- byrnende (burning)
- nacod niðdraca (smooth night-dragon)
- nihtes fleogeð fyre befangen (flies by night encircled by fire)
- ðeodsceaða (people-spoiler)
- fyre gefysed (fire at the ready)
- lað lyftfloga (hateful/hostile air-flier)
- ligdraca (fire-dragon)
- widflogan (widely flying)

The Saxon Chronicle for AD 793 records that the people of Northumbria were terrified when great sheets of lightning and 'fyrene dracan on tham lyfte fleogende', fiery dragons flew across the sky. Famine followed very soon afterward. Comets and welkins — great cloud formations or light displays in the sky — were both regarded as portents of disaster akin to dragons. Perhaps simple peasant folk thought they really were dragons.

Shakespeare mentions dragons nearly 20 times in his plays. He seems to indicate that, whereas he himself might not have believed in them, some of his characters did. He alluded to the superstitious belief about clouds in 'Antony and Cleopatra':
Sometimes we see a cloud that's dragonish;
A vapour sometime like a bear or lion,
A tower'd citadel, a pendent rock,
A forked mountain, or blue promontory
With trees upon't, that nod unto the world,
And mock our eyes with air: thou hast seen
these signs;
They are black vesper's pageants.

In 'King Lear', the king says to Kent, 'Come not between the dragon and his wrath', meaning, 'Do not get in my way when I am angry'. Dragon could also denote a fierce and violent person.

Another great book from the past is Layamon’s Brüt, written soon after 1200. It is a history of Britain drawn mainly from myth and legend. Among its tales, it recounts that 'twein draken stronge', two dragons strong, were revealed by Merlin to live in a pool beneath a huge stone beneath the ground.

One of these dragons is 'milc-whit', milk white, and the other is 'ræd alse blod', as red as blood. They were constantly fighting each other, making the ground rumble and shake above them. When they fought, 'flugen of heore muðe fures leomen', flying from their mouths shining fire, i.e., they breathed fire.

Geoffrey of Monmouth had told the same story in his earlier Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain, around 1136), adding full details of the prophecies which Merlin spoke after the dragons had fought bitterly.

There is another rather important dragon in British myth — let's not overlook St George, the patron saint of England, and the dragon he slew. Encyclopædia Britannica informs us that very little or nothing is known about him as a real historical person but legends about him grew from about the 6th century.

On the other hand, Wikipedia tells us that he was Greek and fought in the Roman Army, around the 4th century. In a long and detailed entry, Wikipedia tells how the story of the dragon developed. It was originally a legend brought back from the Middle East by Crusaders. By about the 11th century, it had become a fully Christian myth. And then by the 14th century he had been declared the patron saint of England.

By the way, if you look up 'dragon' in the first edition of Encyclopædia Britannica, 1771, you are referred to a factual zoological entry for draco, dragon, an amphibious reptile with wings and a cylindrical tail. The flying variety was found in Africa and the East Indies. The 2011 edition of the encyclopædia confirms this in a more up to date and scientific entry about small gliding lizards.

One aggressive dragon, of course, still roams the earth. Well, a small part of the earth in Indonesia. Growing up to 3 metres long, the Komodo Dragon, a type of lizard, has no natural predators and has itself become a fearsome predator. 'No creature is cleverer than the dog', true, true, but should a dog 'track wild beasts' in the vicinity of a Komodo Dragon lying in ambush it will rapidly meet its end.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2013

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