The Reluctant Dragon

The Reluctant Dragon

by Kenneth Grahame

originally a chapter within the 1898 novel Dream Days; later published on its own

Holiday House: 1938

1966 edition: 55 pp.

Age: 6+ (read to); 8+ (independent reading)

Interests: dragons, knights, revisionist fairy tales, non-violence

Also by this author: The Wind in the Willows

Next: The Book of Dragons by E. Nesbit

A boy discovers a very personable dragon living in a cave near his farm. The dragon likes nothing better than to sit in the sunshine meditating and composing poetry, and the boy enjoys his company. Trouble arrives however when the nearby village learns of his presence. Assuming the dragon will have a violent nature, the villagers call in St. George to do him in. The boy warns the dragon, who insists he will not fight. The boy then visits St. George, who turns out to be a sympathetic person. Neither he nor the dragon particularly want to fight, but the townsfolk must have their battle. The two decide to have a mock fight, to keep everyone happy. The excited crowd gathers, the knight pretends to spear the dragon, and then announces that the dragon is reformed. That night there is a splendid banquet with the dragon in attendance and everyone leaves happy.

This is a rather delightful story about the peaceful pleasures of life – foreshadowing the “messing about in boats” of the author’s most famous work, The Wind in the Willows, which appeared ten years later. Interestingly enough, this story first appeared as a chapter within a novel written for adults, Dream Days. This book, and Golden Years (1895) were Grahame’s reminiscences of childhood, written for adult readers but with children as the main characters. The grownups on the periphery are depicted as being entirely out of touch with youth and the true concerns of their children.

The Reluctant Dragon is the prototype of the sympathetic dragon character, which in later years became a staple of modernized, revisionist fairy tales. His shyness and pacifism leads him to depend on the boy to solve his problems: “Just run down, there’s a dear chap, and make it all right. I leave it entirely to you.”

A lot of the humour of the story lies in its clear-headed view of human nature. The townsfolk want a fight, they need a fight, they insist on a fight. Even the boy, as fond as he is of the dragon, desperately wants to see a good fight. Nobody wants their fun spoiled. And everyone is acting in good faith upon the expected storybook formula. As the boy puts it, “You’ve got to fight him some time or another, you know, ‘cos he’s St. George and you’re the dragon. Better get it over, and then we can go on with the sonnets.”

The big surprise is that St. George turns out to be just as sensible as the dragon is, and he also looks to the boy to fix things.

“… I don’t see any way out of it, exactly. What do you suggest? Can’t you arrange things, somehow?”

“That’s just what the dragon said,” replied the Boy, rather nettled. “Really, the way you two seem to leave everything to me- I suppose you couldn’t be persuaded to go away quietly, could you?”

“Impossible, I fear,” said the Saint. “Quite against the rules. You know that as well as I do.”

The only characters who don’t want to follow typical fairy tale protocol are the two main actors!

The story proceeds nicely, with a lot more talk than action, much negotiating and discussing, and the two new friends finally hatch their plan. They fake the fight, to the great entertainment of all. By the time everyone is seated at the grand banquet that evening, everyone is happy…

St. George was happy because there had been a fight and he hadn’t had to kill anybody; for he didn’t really like killing, though he generally had to do it. The dragon was happy because there had been a fight, and so far from being hurt in it he had won popularity and a sure footing in society. The Boy was happy because there had been a fight, and in spite of it all his two friends were on the best of terms. And all the others were happy because there had been a fight, and – well, they didn’t require any other reasons for their happiness.

The story ends on a lovely note, with the knight and the Boy walking the tipsy dragon home from the banquet, heading up the hill in the moonlight.

A funny and peaceable tale, written so well with such endearing characters, is a pleasure to read. If the language and verbosity at times bewilders your listener, just slow down and explain, but it’s definitely still worth a read.

My edition, from 1966, features wonderful illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard, of Winnie the Pooh fame – see examples below.

NB. Disney made an animated short film of this story in 1941, which I have yet to see.

(full text of Dream Days at Project Gutenberg)

(The Reluctant Dragon at amazon.com)

shepard_0002 shepard_0001 shepard

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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.