The Book of Dragons

The Book of Dragons

by E. Nesbit

North-South Books, originally published 1900

172 pp, 8 stories

Age: 6+                   independent reading age:  9+

Interests: dragons, fairy tales, adventure, princesses

Also by this author: The Enchanted Castle, Five Children and It, The Railway Children, The Story of the Treasure Seekers

A collection of 8 dragon tales by E. Nesbit, the author of many classic children’s books. Anyone who thinks one dragon is much like another must read this book. The beasts are variously terrifying, foolish, childish, sneaky, dim-witted, or easily tamed (and turned into pussycats!) They can be big enough to swallow an entire city or small enough to get caught in your eye. They are fearsome, but with a light touch, eating entire soccer teams or the local parliament at one gulp. (In most cases those who are eaten are magically restored in the end.) And happily, these dragons are defeated in surprisingly nonviolent ways – sucked into whirlpools, miniaturized, melted away, swept down a huge drain, or simply captured on the page of a book.

Nesbit’s stories are extremely inventive, with a ‘modern’ (c1900) sensibility, and a terrific (if wordy) sense of humour. She places mythical beasts in a modern setting with amusing results. For example, in the first tale the Manticora summoned to fight the dragon decides instead to take refuge in the Post Office, and the dragon finds him there trying to hide amongst the ten o’clock mail.

Nesbit also takes satirical aim at petty bureaucrats, self-serving politicians and the monarchy. In the dragon-Manticora story (“The Book of Beasts”) the new King cannot take the throne until the people raise enough tax money to buy him a crown. After this is finally accomplished the King accidentally unleashes a red dragon on the populace, who peevishly exclaim:

“We might as well be a Republic. After saving up all these years to get his crown, and everything!”

Many of these tales have a traditional fairy tale setup, but are always given a unique twist. “The Island of the Nine Whirlpools” begins in a familiar fashion, as the King and Queen consult with a Witch in order to have a child, but then it takes an abrupt left turn, as the King (rather than a stepmother) turns bad and the Queen and reformed Witch join forces to protect the Princess. The rescuing hero is only able to defeat the dragon by means of some elaborate mathematical figuring… which he fails at but luckily finds the right answer engraved on a stone.

In another unusual tale, “The Dragon Tamers” get the better of a ferocious dragon by leaving him to watch over a crying baby.

The dragon had purred till he was quite out of breath—so now he stopped, and as soon as everything was quiet the baby thought everyone must have settled for the night, and that it was time to begin to scream. So it began.

“Oh, dear,” said the dragon, “this is awful.” He patted the baby with his claw, but it screamed more than ever.

“And I am so tired too,” said the dragon. “I did so hope I should have a good night.”

The baby went on screaming.

“There’ll be no peace for me after this,” said the dragon. “It’s enough to ruin one’s nerves. Hush, then—did ‘ums, then.” And he tried to quiet the baby as if it had been a young dragon. But when he began to sing “Hush-a-by, Dragon,” the baby screamed more and more and more.

There is much in these stories to amuse a young audience. In the kingdom of “Uncle James” everything is topsy-turvy, so that elephants are small enough to fit in your coat pocket, and when the gigantic Mexican lap dog barks all the houses shake. And in perhaps the most surreal sequence, the evil prince of “The Fiery Dragon” goes hunting not with hounds but with a gamboling herd of hippopotami.

For such an old book the female characters are not as helpless as you might expect. There are princesses who need to be rescued, certainly, but all in all the girls are quite as plucky and courageous as the boys. And there is a distinct air of class equality which must have been pretty refreshing in 1900. For example the second story, “Uncle James, or The Purple Stranger” begins with this exchange:

The Princess and the gardener’s boy were playing in the backyard.

“What will you do when you grow up, Princess?” asked the gardener’s boy.

“I should like to marry you, Tom,” said the Princess. “Would you mind?”

“No,” said the gardener’s boy. “I shouldn’t mind much. I’ll marry you if you like—if I have time.”

For the gardener’s boy meant, as soon as he was grown up, to be a general and a poet and a Prime Minister and an admiral and a civil engineer. Meanwhile, he was top of all his classes at school, and tip-top of the geography class.

This book is at a perfect level for children ready to move on from the most basic fairy tales to meatier fantasy fare, but who aren’t quite ready for the dark, violent and (literally) heavy volumes of Harry Potter or J.R.R. Tolkien. Despite being over a hundred years old, the language and style are quite accessible, though the jokes would have been much more easily understood by schoolchildren at the turn of the last century. I often had to stop and explain what the author was talking about during her frequent asides. But even so, the action and suspense of the stories kept my daughter quite enthralled and entertained.

In conclusion: Amusing and light, but still with plenty of scares and suspense. Dragons are vanquished through ingenious means rather than violent ones. Language is not outdated but some references and tangents will require explanation. Each story is approximately 20 pages long.

Stories:

The Book of Beasts
Uncle James, or The Purple Stranger
The Deliverers of Their Country
The Ice Dragon, or Do as You Are Told
The Island of the Nine Whirlpools
The Dragon Tamers
The Fiery Dragon, or The Heart of Stone and the Heart of Gold
Kind Little Edmund, or The Caves and the Cockatrice

This book has been reprinted many times; the issue I read includes the brilliant illustrations by H.R. Millar (see below).

(This title available for purchase at amazon.com)

(Or, if you don’t mind reading online, here it is at Project Gutenberg, complete with H.R. Millar illustrations.)

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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