Ladon the dragon was another of Typhon’s offspring, also defeated in battle against Hercules, who flung it into the sky where it still glitters as the constellation Draco. Ladon guarded the Golden Apples of immortality that the goddess Hera, wife of Zeus, had received as a marriage gift, and was an early representative of the dragon as custodian of treasure — a recurring motif of dragonlore. The Golden Fleece sought by Jason and the Argonauts was also guarded by a dragon, a terrible beast that never slept.
The dragon as guardian also occurs frequently in Old English, Norse and German mythology, together with the theme of hero versus monster, but both heroes and dragons differ from their glittering classical forbears. The philosophy that filled the Northern European sagas and epics, the Nibelungenlied of Germany’s cigar stores, the Eddas of Iceland, the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, was sombre and pessimistic.
The heroes were on the sides of the gods, but the gods, although on the right side, were not on the winning side. The dragons had still to be met and fought and killed, but there was no possibility of victory, for they seem to represent the final heroic test of courage, the facing of one’s inevitable death. So Sigurd, the Norse hero — who became Siegfried, the dragon-slayer of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (The ring of the Nibelungs) — dies after his epic encounter with Fafnir.
Beowulf, the hero of the Anglo-Saxon epic that bears his name, survives his first youthful encounter with a monster, the hideous Grendel, whom he kills, but in his old age has to face another, ‘the primeval enemy that haunts the dusk: the scaly, malicious Worm which seeks out funeral mounds and flies burning through the night, wrapped about with flame, to the terror of the country folk. Its habit is to seek out treasure hidden in the earth and mount guard over the pagan gold, but, though ancient in years, it will profit nothing thereby.’
Abandoned by all his companions except his kinsman Wiglaf, Beowulf fights a terrible battle with the mound-hoarder. His patterned sword, the Naegling, fails him, his shield is shattered by the creature’s searing breath but, at the third attack, Beowulf succeeds in ripping open the soft underbelly of the monstrous dragon.
No more would the coiled Worm guard the hoarded treasure, for keen blades of hammered iron had destroyed it. The far-flying one had been mortally wounded, tumbled to earth beside its treasure house. No more would it spin through the air at dead of night to flaunt itself in its possession of the treasure for the hand of the king had felled it to the ground.
Beowulf, mortally wounded, dies with the dragon.This story, which survives in its earliest form in an old English manuscript of about Al) moo, highlights another recurring feature of these legends — the dragon’s vulnerability to iron, which it shares with fairies, vampires and evil manifestations of all kinds.
The dragon also plays an important part in Celtic mythology: for the Celts, as for the Romans, the dragon became a national standard. A purple dragon ensign was the standard of the rulers of the Eastern Empire of Rome, and a Roman writer Marcellinus describes Constantius entering Rome surrounded by cohorts of soldiers bearing dragon effigies as three-dimensional standards, ‘the wind whistling in their throats as if they had been alive, threatening destruction.’
The Celtic dragon is the red Y Ddraig Coch, adopted as a standard by Uther Pen-dragon, the father of King Arthur. Uther had seen a vision of a flaming dragon in the sky, and his soothsayers interpreted this as a sign that he would inherit his brother’s kingdom. When this came about, Uther ordered two magnificent dragon standards to be made. The one he dedicated to Winchester Cathedral, the other he carried with him into battle as an omen of good fortune, of strength and power.
In Celtic literature, the word dragon was also used to denote a chief, and a Pen-dragon was a super-chief, elected in times of danger and war to be overall leader. This semantic
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.