Exploring the Classics of Dragon Lore

What is it about dragons? We read the My Father’s Dragon series last year. Junior now recommends it to his friends with the panache of a true enthusiast. At present, we’re two books into the How To Train Your Dragon series here, and we’re all completely captivated by Toothless, the hero’s small, lazy, crochety, and almost completely talentless dragon. In this week’s blog post, Michele Braun discusses her family's favorite (literary) dragons. Do you have a favorite?

The salesperson at our then-local bookstore recommended My Father’s Dragon, by Ruth Stiles Gannett (you can see a public domain edition of the first story in print and also listen to the audio recording), when my daughter was about three years old.  She fell so much in love with the baby dragon of the title that I painted his portrait on to the cake for her 4th birthday.  This baby dragon, named Boris, is ever cheerful and ever resourceful, as he and Elmer, the “my father” of the title, go adventuring.  Boris is the youngest in a family in which the markings on all the twelve dragon children are different combinations of blue and gold.  Boris is distinctive in his wide blue and gold stripes.  His dragon dad is blue, mom is gold, [or other way around?] and the other eleven siblings (6 girls and 5 boys) are beautiful patterns in gold and blue.  Somehow I managed to find a very small container of edible gold leaf and stayed up into the wee hours decorating that cake.  Boris became the first of many dragons that landed on birthday cakes in our house. My cake painting technique has improved over the years, but Boris had the honor of being the first.

What is it about dragons that are so captivating?  Ursula Le Guin, a favorite author because of the elegance of her prose as well as the content of her stories, observed that “It seems to be a fact that everybody, everywhere, even if they haven’t met one before, recognizes a dragon.”  I have been fortunate to meet many dragons.  With the exception of komodo dragons at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, however, I’ve never met one in person.  I have, of course,  frequently come to know dragons through the pages of beloved books.

Now, let me introduce you to a few favorite dragons, as well as to the books where you too can get to know them.

Unlike Boris, Smaug, the dragon in JRR Tolkein’s The Hobbit, is a nasty piece of work who sleeps greedily on his pile of gold and jewels.  Smaug is a wily character, who bedevils Bilbo Baggins, the book’s earnest but somewhat bumbling hero.  I’ve not seen either the animated or the live-action movie versions of The Hobbit, but reading about Bilbo, his love of adventure, and his attempts to outthink Smaug surely provides far more hours of pleasure than any two- or three-hour movie can.

Does this illustrator's style look familiar? Famous in her own right for The    Moomins    series, Tove Jansson also illustrated a Swedish edition of  The Hobbit . Tolkien also   created his own illustrations for  The Hobbit   --take a look!

Does this illustrator's style look familiar? Famous in her own right for The Moomins series, Tove Jansson also illustrated a Swedish edition of The Hobbit. Tolkien also created his own illustrations for The Hobbit--take a look!

Sometime in her mid-elementary school years, I took my daughter to see the new movie based on Eragon, by Christopher Paolini.  We enjoyed the movie, and Saphira, the dragon and co-lead character, was reasonably endearing.  But…, but…, but something was wrong.  On the way home, I informed my daughter that it was about time she read the classics.  More specifically, the classics of dragon lore.  I could tell that Paolini, who had been home schooled and had started writing while high-school aged, had himself read and reread these classics because Saphira so clearly drew on the world of Anne McCaffery.  

Dragonflight and Dragonquest, the first two books in Anne McCaffery’s Dragonriders of Pern series introduced huge dragons with telepathic powers that enabled them to communicate with the especially sensitive humans who ride them and with whom they create unbreakable life-long bonds.  Together, dragons and humans defend the planet Pern, which has been settled by refugees from intergalactic wars, from natural and human enemies.  Yes, I know this sounds hokey, but it works, especially because McCaffery created a complex world and, unlike much science fiction, her female characters are as strong leaders as the males.  Also, I think McCaffery’s Pern books were the originals, providing a set up on which other authors have drawn.

In a related series, McCaffery’s Harper Hall trilogy for younger and teen audiences, Dragonsong and Dragonsinger follow young teen Menolly as she hitches rides astride the huge Pernese dragons and impresses “fire lizards,” (miniature dragons).  Menolly struggles and succeeds in creating her distinctive place in an unaccountably male-dominated feudal society.  The third book, Dragondrums  focuses on Menolly’s friend Piemur, whose irrepressible good humor and insatiable insistence on breaking rules leads him into memorable adventures and unusual pets. 

Cover art for the 1970s edition of  Dragonsong . 

Cover art for the 1970s edition of Dragonsong

The dragons in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle fly among the lands of Earthsea and sometimes threaten human settlements but are not evil.  Rather, these dragons are descendants of an ancient race with their own language and ways of being.  The Earthsea books were for many years a marvelous trilogy about wizards, magic, and great, enigmatic dragons.  Over the years, Le Guin, a prolific author, turned to writing other books.  Then, she says that events had moved forward in Earthsea.  In the author’s words, “A mere glimpse at the place told me that things had been happening there while I wasn’t looking.  It was high time to go back and find out what was going on now.”  By including newly unfolding events plus dragon pre-history, the Earthsea serices expanded to six books—The Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs of Atuan (1971), The Farthest Shore (1972), Tehanu (1990), Tales from Earthsea (2001), The Other Wind (2001)—as well as several short stories.  (Spoiler alert:  There are no dragons in the excellent The Tombs of Atuan.)  Le Guin’s voice is that of a storyteller, so these are quite enjoyable to read aloud.

Finally, a favorite picture book about the sweetest dragons you will ever meet and their reluctant rescuer:  Good Night Good Knight, by Shelley Moore Thomas, pictures by Jennifer Plecas.  I leave you with the first page:

Once there were three little dragons.

They lived in a dark cave.

The cave was in a dense forest.

The forest was in a faraway kingdom.

The poor little dragons

were very lonely

in their deep dark cave.” 
— Good Night Good Knight, by Shelley Moore Thomas, pictures by Jennifer Plecas.

The rest you will have to read out loud, even if you are alone.



Michele says, “At bedtime, my mother would read to us. I favored Beatrix Potter and Madeline, while my brother requested the nonfiction Microbe Hunters. Summers during junior and senior high school, my mother would insist that I not spend my ‘down time’ sprawled on the couch; I should go outside.  So I’d take my book to the lounge chair out back, but never stop reading. Since my daughter was born, I’ve read thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of pages to her, rediscovering old favorites and exploring new stories and worlds together.”

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