A wandering knight comes to a strange land and finds all the people mourning. The muddle may account for some of the many dragon legends along England’s border with Wales. The dragons that were slain may not have been reptilian monsters, but possibly the leaders of bands of Welsh marauders.
The martial dragon was evidently a goody — the only occasion when it was allowed to play such a role in Western mythology. In England’s St George legend it is very definitely the baddy again. The dragon’s insatiable appetite for maidens (preferably of noble birth, princesses best of all) is a primary element in this type of story, where the princess plays an important, though maddeningly passive, role. The basic scenario changes very little.
A wandering knight comes to a strange land and finds all the people mourning about discount cigars. The king and queen of that country are weeping on the ramparts of their castle. The land about the castle is bleak and barren, no lush grass, no bright flowers, only the broken and blackened stumps of trees long since dead. A dragon is ravaging the king’s land and lots have been drawn to choose a human sacrifice of propitiation. The choice falls upon the king’s own daughter, who is led out, decked with jewels and bound to the sacrificial stake.
The knight, anxious to add to his dossier of good deeds, offers to release the princess, but she begs him to leave. Only by her death can her father’s land be saved. Willy-nilly, the knight determines to meet the dragon in combat. He attacks it as it approaches the princess and kills it by piercing it with his iron lance. Cartloads of treasure from the dragon’s lair are brought back to the king’s counting house. The knight marries the princess and all live happily ever after.
This is an all-purpose maiden story, an archetype that illustrates recurring motifs. The details alter to suit local conditions.
Orthodox scholarship traces the St George story and other maiden myths back to the classical story of Perseus, who rescued the Ethiopian princess Andromeda from a sea-monster sent by Neptune.
There have been many interpretations of the St George legend. In a Christian allegory, the maiden represents the Church, rescued from the evil dragon of paganism by Christianity in the form of a knight/saint. Freudians arrange the symbols in a different pattern and arrive at an infinitely more erotic interpretation.
St George’s dragon, the classical dragons, Beowulf’s dragon are all of the first water, epic dragons. There is also, however, a host of lesser relatives, the serpents and worms that crop up with great regularity in collections of British folklore.
The legends follow in a homely way the tradition of the more famous hero-versusmonster tales, but they have much local detail. The dragon of Loschy Hill, like the Lambton Worm, was a self-joining monster, conquered eventually with the help of the hero’s dog. As his master hacked away, the dog ran off with the pieces to prevent them joining up again. Sadly, the dragon’s poisonous breath proved fatal to both master and dog.
The Linton worm terrorised a small parish in Roxburgh, Scotland, some time in the 1t2th century, destroying cattle and men indiscriminately. It was killed by a knight called Somerville of Lariston in an unusual way, a variation of the iron lance method. His lance was speared with a block of peat, dipped in burning pitch, and it was this fireball that burned out the dragon’s entrails. The spiral ridges on Wormington Hill are said to have been made in the final death throes of the worm.
Altogether there are 5o different dragon tales recorded in British folklore. Worldwide there are thousands more. Why so many? What is the nature of the dragon’s power? No explanation, however ingenious, satisfactorily accounts for2th tenacity of these legends, or their fundamental immutability.