Good Dragons are Rare
Good Dragons are Rare: An Inquiry into Literary Dragons East and West. Fanfan Chen and Thomas Honegger, eds. Arbeit zur Literarischen Phantiastik, Band 5. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2009. 439 pp. ISBN 973 3 631 58219 0. $116.95.
Reviewed by David Oberhelman
[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 30.3/4 (#117/118) (2012): 153–55.]
In his famed 1936 Sir Israel Gollancz Memorial Lecture “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” J.R.R. Tolkien writes of the dragon in the Old English poem, “one dragon, however hot, does not make a summer, or a host; and a man might well exchange for one good dragon what he would not sell for a wilderness. And dragons, real dragons, essential both to the machinery and idea of the poem or tale, are actually rare” (Monsters 12). From this dictum Thomas Honegger and his co-editor Fanfan Chen derive the title of their polyglot collection of essays on literary depictions of dragons in Western and Eastern traditions, Good Dragons are Rare. Honegger, a medievalist at the University of Jena and frequent author and editor of volumes on Tolkien, and Chen, a Comparative Literature specialist from the National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan, have compiled an ambitious, if somewhat disjointed, assortment of papers in English, German, and French on the figure of the dragon in mythology, the sagas, medieval European literature, Victorian fairy tales, Anglo-American fantasy ranging from The Hobbit and other works by Tolkien up to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Christopher Paolini’s Eragon. The book also touches upon Asian representations of the dragon from antiquity up through the contemporary era of globalization. The overarching theme of the volume is ongoing quest for Tolkien’s elusive “good” dragon—the wilder draco or draco ferox of the older mythological tradition versus the symbolic dragon or the more “domesticated” literary dragon of the nineteenth century and later periods.
The eighteen essays in this volume are not grouped into any particular order, but are roughly divided into clusters based on different literary periods and genres. The essays jump from one language to another, making this a volume useful to European scholars or the comparativist who is familiar with the literary history and fantasy fiction of several countries, but daunting to many other scholars of myth and fantasy studies, especially since classic and contemporary English-language works are covered in all three languages. For the sake of clarity, I have indicated the language of each essay in brackets after the author’s name in my appraisal of the collection.
Friedhelm Scheidewind [German] and Honegger [English] both provide broad overviews of the many aspects of the dragon in different cultures and literatures, and establish the dragon as a multivalent symbol of the human relationship to power, religion, and the natural world. Honegger’s discussion of dragons as literary characters in the works of the fantasists Edith Nesbit, Barbara Hambly, and Gordon Dickson culminates in a detailed analysis of Tolkien’s portrayals of Chrysophylax Dives from Farmer Giles of Ham and Smaug from The Hobbit. Using Smaug as the prototype for the “good” dragon, Honegger concludes that such a beast inevitably “carries the unmistakable stamp of ‘Faery’” (54). The next three essays focus on dragons in Western medieval literature. Anne Berthelot [French] looks at female dragons in medieval French and Italian romances and their relationship to attitudes towards women and sexuality. Maik Goth [English] studies dragons in Edmund Spenser’s Renaissance epic The Faerie Queene and Paul Michel [German] provides an overview of accounts of supposed dragon encounters in the natural histories of the seventeenth-century Swiss scientist Johann Jakob Scheuchzer. These essays document how the dragon appeared in European literary and scientific texts from the twelfth century through to the cusp of the Enlightenment.
The next set of essays turn to the dragon in children’s literature starting with Dieter Petzold’s [German] account of the dragons in Nesbit and Kenneth Grahame and Maren Bonacker’s [German] survey of the domestication of dragons in contemporary children’s fantasy. Tolkien’s dragons are the focus of essays by Patrick A. Brückner [German] and Anne C. Petty [English]. Petty’s comparison of Glaurung and Smaug is one of the more thoughtful contributions to the volume and one that would be of interest to readers of Mythlore. Roger Bozzetto [French] and Marie Burkhardt [French] both look at fantasy dragons and science fiction dragons, particularly the dragons of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books. The modern fantasy section concludes with Anne Isabelle François [French] on the fantasy of Walter Moers and Thomas Fornet-Ponse [German] on the somewhat parodic dragons of Terry Pratchett.
The four essays on Asian dragons include Fanfan Chen [English] on the Chinese dragons in Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story and Naomi Novik’s Temeraire novels. Chiwaki Shinoda [French] offers a summary of the traditions of the dragon in Japan; Nathalie Dufayet [French] investigates the dragon in Hayao Miyazaki’s anime film Chihiro; and Anna Caiozzo [French] examines dragons in medieval Arabic texts on astronomy, astrology, and magic.
The scope of this collection is vast, and, the linguistic challenges aside, researchers seeking a convenient handbook on images of the dragon in literature risk getting lost in the welter of facts and references to works from different nationalities. The contributors come from Europe, Asia, and some from the United States, and the level of scholarship and critical incisiveness of the contents vary greatly. The lack of an introduction (Honegger’s piece is a de-facto introduction, but its placement as the second entry in the volume dulls its effect) coupled with the lack of a cohesive structure apart from general through-line of the search for “good” dragons make this an occasionally enlightening but mostly frustrating compendium of fantastic dragon lore. Researchers may want to consult selected essays for the specific treatment of dragons by certain authors and in certain genres and periods, but Good Dragons are Rare as a whole is unfortunately one dragon that cannot fully take flight.
Honegger, Thomas. “A Good Dragon is Hard to Find: From Draconitas to Draco.” Good Dragons are Rare: An Inquiry into Literary Dragons East and West. Ed. Fanfan Chen and Thomas Honegger. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2009. 27-59.
Tolkien, J.R.R. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” In The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 2006. 5-48.