The Book of Dragons by Roger Lancelyn Green, illustrations by Krystyna Turska, Puffin Paperback (1973)
Roger Lancelyn Green is more famous for his collections, similar to this one, of Greek myths, stories of Ancient Egypt, Robin Hood legends, and Arthurian tales. His work was not part of my childhood, but from what I have read, many children who grew up in the 60s and 70s recall these books with fondness.
I can see why this one perhaps does not have the same level of fame. Bringing together dragon stories and trying to present them with any cohesion is a difficult task. The very act of defining what a dragon is fiendishly complicated (more so with European dragons) and further difficulties arise deciding what stories to leave out because of the plethora of myths. Where does a collector being? By geographical location? By era? By type of myth i.e. similar thematic elements?
Lancelyn Green tries for a mix-and-match approach, ostensibly in chronological progression, with sections as ‘Dragons of Ancient Days,’ Dragons of the Dark Ages, Dragons of Folklore, and Dragons of Later Days. This does work quite well – when you read the later stories and folktales, the influence of the older legends and myths is apparent. However, aside from the first section (for ‘Ancient’ read ‘Greek’) the stories are skewed heavily towards the British Isles (and Ireland), with a few others from Europe, and a three-and-a-bit page chapter and one ‘just so’ style story about Chinese dragons. The book ends, oddly to my view for something that was overall quite light-going, with an except from the Revelation of Saint John; oddly, to me, because of the lack of discussion of the religious aspect of the dragon in Western culture. The result is a book that feels like a curiousity, a series of interesting stories without a central, underlying theme; apart from ‘dragon’, that is, and I suppose that could just be me as a reader and researcher of dragons, wanting more than just interest, but something a bit meaty and thoughtful to ponder. Yes, the book is more intended for children, but I don’t think that means it can’t offer insight.
These criticisms aside, the stories Lancelyn Green presents are well-worth reading. What’s more, he has a delightful ability to retell stories from the barest of information: The Boy and the Dragon is based on a paragraph-long mention from Aelian’s Of the Nature of Animals, which Lancelyn Green extends to a very sweet, moving story of friendship.
His research provides some juicy bits of dragon-related ‘facts’, such as Pliny’s Natural History which declares dragons and elephants to be mortal enemies. And despite my earlier complaint regarding the very British selection, the last section ‘Dragons of Later Days’ show some wonderful 20th century spins on the dragon myth, my favourite being L.P. Hartley’s Conrad and the Dragon, which marries stories of dragon slayers and dragon-women in a most intriguing fashion.
Also, Lancelyn Green’s retellings are particularly good, most of which appear in the first two sections. I suspect this is what contributes to the unevenness of the book – half the stories are in Lancelyn Green’s voice, while the other half are in many other voices and styles. He is also aided by lovely illustrations by Krystyna Turska, some of which I’ve scanned and inserted throughout this post.
So with all this, can I recommend the book for a dracophile or a general, curious reader? Definitely. The curious nature of it can be forgone easily, and the desire for that extra depth is mostly my own research related concerns. I still enjoyed reading it, took notes as I did, and I learned something from it. if you know nothing about dragon myths beyond a half-remembered story about St George slaying the dragon, it is a worth while introduction.
For a blog post with other illustrations scanned, see Folly’s Follies Fotos.