Friday, August 19, 2011

The Reluctant Dragon

This story originally appeared in a book called “Dream Days” by Kenneth Grahame (best known today as the author of “The Wind in the Willows”). While the other stories in the book fell to obscurity, this one went on to become the author’s most famous short story, even going on to inspire one of my favorite (though not terribly well-known) Walt Disney films. This is also an important story, as it might be the first major work to depict the dragon as a sympathetic character, rather than a mindless killing machine, an idea which has inspired all manner of works about dragons from Jeff Smith’s graphic novel Bone to Disney’s Pete’s Dragon to the Academy-award nominated How To Train Your Dragon.

Quite a long way away and quite a long time ago, in a quite little village…no, a quiet little village…there lived a boy named James who was many years ahead of his time. You see, he lived in what we call “the dark ages” when people were a little bit stupid because they were more than a little bit afraid (which, let’s face it, is the most succinct explanation of that time period you are ever going to read). James, however, wasn’t all that afraid but was quite…quiet? No, quite…quite curious about the world around him. He wanted to learn as much as he could, which made him something of an outcast.

So, it’s nice to know that hasn’t changed.

One day he was out exploring, sketching wildlife, identifying plants, that kind of thing, when he heard a horrible sound. A truly terrible sound. A blood-curdling, heart-stopping sound that would’ve made a lesser man (boy) turn and run. But James had to know what was making that sound. Apart from anything else, he thought someone might be hurt. He followed the sound until he came to a sort of pool, surrounded by lush green trees and pretty flowers. And, in the pool itself, was the thing that was making the noise. It was quite big, far bigger than any animal James had ever seen, and seemed to be reptiliean, based on the scales. It was purple, had a long tail and horns, and the horrible sound it was making seemed to be singing.

James was looking at a dragon singing in the bathtub.

“Er…hello?” ventured James, somewhat nervously.

The dragon started slightly at this, then, when it saw the boy, heaved a sigh of relief. “You startled me, young man! You shouldn’t sneak up on a person like that.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to.”

“Oh, never mind. No harm done. As long as you’re here, would you care to join me for tea?”

James accepted and had the most pleasant tea he ever had with the dragon and the two parted as good friends. In fact, James found himself going back to visit the dragon every day from then on. The other boys in the neighborhood thought James was weird and didn’t like playing with him. The grown ups also thought his interest in knowledge was unhealthy and so he didn’t really get on with anyone in his village. But the dragon was very supportive. He was always up for an intellectual discussion about art, literature and politics and seemed very impressed by James’ maturity and wisdom, not to mention his innate curiosity, the same trait which led to his being ostracized by his own species.

Everything was going swimingly for James and the Dragon until one evening when James was at home and his father came in looking worried.

“What is it?” asked James’ mother.

“They’ve confirmed it. The scouts have reported in and they’re sure of it. There’s a dragon living in the downs beyond our village.”

“Oh no!”

“I’m afraid so. Tomorrow the mayor and his corporation will meet and we’ll decide what’s to be done about it.”

“I don’t know how I’m going to sleep knowing that awful beast is so close.”

“Everything will be all right, dear,” said James’ father. But James was not convinced. He knew that the Dragon was harmless, but he didn’t think he’d be able to convince the whole town. And how could he, without admitting that he’d been spending time with the Dragon, which, by itself, would’ve scandalized the town. They already thought he was a little peculiar. This wouldn’t exactly help disprove that.

Of course, being a social misfit does have its advantages. One of them being that nobody pays too much attention to what you do. That’s why nobody had noticed that James was disappearing every day at tea time. Today, however, they did notice. James’ mother dragged him along to the town meeting and refused to let her only child out of her sight until a solution to the dragon emergency was found.

The town meeting was an organized forum for every idiot with a pitchfork to yell out their paranoid superstition in front of the mayor and his corporation (what we could call his advisors or cabinet). When the meeting was finally called to order and nobody had said anything remotely helpful, the Mayor himself stood up.

“My friends,” he began, though this was a complete lie as he was the least popular mayor in the village’s five hundred year history. “I have in my hand a letter which shall be dispatched at once to that greatest of warriors, Sir George himself! If anyone can rid us of this horrible beast, it is Sir George!” This was met with hearty cheers from the villagers, so loud that they totally eclipsed James cry of “Oh no!” He wanted to go to see the Dragon at once and warn him, but his mother was still keeping a close watch on him. Under cover of darkness, James snuck out of his house and went to see the Dragon who was sleeping across a large patch of hydrangea bushes.

“Dragon? Dragon, wake up!”

“James? What do you mean going around waking people at all hours of the night? I was having the loveliest dream, too. There was this monkey, you see, and he and I were—

“You’ve got run, Dragon! Run away from this place!”

“Run? James, whatever are you talking about?”

“The villagers know you’re here! They’ve sent for a knight to come and exterminate you. You have to run away or else fight him to the death.”

“Fight? Death? What are you going on about, boy? I haven’t done anything to offend this village of yours, or this knight fellow. I refuse to run when I have committed no crime, and I refuse to fight. So you’ll just have to tell everyone to call the whole thing off. Now, if you don’t mind, I want to get back to my dream.”

James tried to convince the Dragon of the seriousness of his situation, but the stubborn old lizard wouldn’t listen and fell back to sleep, where he and the monkey doubtless had a wonderful time. James, on the other hand, went home, very worried about his good friend.

A few days later, the town was abuzz with the news that Sir George had arrived. He had been given rooms at the local inn, where it was said that he was strategizing and determining how best to vanquish the dragon. James managed to get away from his mother and sneak into the inn to have a word with the knight. Sure enough, the great hero (who was getting on in years) was sitting at his table perusing a map of the area where the dragon was known to be.

“Excuse me, Sir George. I have to tell you something important about the dragon.”

“I appreciate the thought, boy,” said Sir George, “but I assure you, I know all there is to know about dragons. I have fought more dragons than I can count,” (which was substantially true, as he had fought four dragons, and education was not a quality favored in knights at this time), “so I think I can handle yours just fine, thank you.”

“No, this dragon is different. He’s good.”

“Good? Good? My boy, there is no such thing as a good dragon. They are beings of pure hate and hellfire! They exist only to burn and devour. Why, I remember when I faced Trogdor the Burn—”

“You’re wrong, Sir George! This dragon is my friend!” And James told the knight all about how he had been spending his tea times for the past month with the Dragon and they had discussed history and literature and even composed and recited original poems. The boy even recited one of the Dragon’s compositions:

Why does the sun live up in the sky?
And when it looks down below
Does it think of how lovely the land seems to be?
I think we shall never know.

And if it does think our land is a beautiful sight
Does it know that it wouldn’t be so
If it weren’t for the sun shining up in the sky
On our beautiful country below?

“You say the dragon wrote that?” said Sir George, who was not much for poetry, but had to admit that it wasn’t bad. “I’ve heard of dragons who rampage, dragons who burn, dragons who eat people and livestock, dragons who pick their teeth with the bones of their enemies, but I’ve never heard of a dragon who writes poetry.”

“I’ll be honest, it was a little strange to me, too,” said James.

“Well, I’ve slain dragons who were causing harm to others. I don’t think I could slay one who was minding his own business and writing poetry.”

“Yes, but it’s worse than that. These people will never accept him for who he is. They think all dragons are evil. They won’t give him a chance to prove them wrong. They’ll never be satisfied until you bring back his head!”

“Then what’s to be done?”

“I have a plan that should fix everything, but we'll all have to be in agreement.” He explained his plan to Sir George, who thought it was excellent. Then he snuck away to see the Dragon, who was, at the moment, making a light salad from the various flora that grew around his cave. Then he explained his plan to the Dragon and he too agreed. Everything was in place and one way or another, it would all end tomorrow.

So the next day, Sir George stepped out of the inn in full battle armor and announced that he was going to slay the dragon. He marched toward the dragon’s cave, accumulating a crowd of onlookers as he did so. James’ parents were also in the mob who wanted to see this for themselves. And, of course, so was James, though he was the only one of the spectators who knew what was really going on.

At the mouth of the cave, Sir George stopped, turned to his admirers and said, “Now, to battle!” The crowd cheered and Sir George charged into the cave, sword drawn. The spectators heard roars and saw smoke and flame erupt from the mouth of the cave. They heard Sir George cry “Take that! And that! And this! And some of these! How 'bout a couple of those? Do you have change for one of these?!?” and similar expressions. They also heard the loud clanking of metal on rock and the occasional roar which could only be coming from the beast himself. Their view was obscured by the dragon’s flaming breath, but it sounded like an epic battle was going on inside. James couldn’t help but smile, since he knew that Sir George and the Dragon were actually just banging pots and pans together and shouting a bit. Finally, the smoke died away and the sounds of the Dragon panting and begging for mercy could be heard. Then the battle stopped entirely and all was silent. After an amount of time that both parties agreed was realistic, Sir George stepped out of the cave…followed closely by a limping Dragon.

“No! Do not be afraid!” Sir George said quickly as the sight of the dragon had caused panic in the crowd. “You see, I have spared this beast’s life on the condition that he will be a good dragon from now on! I have reformed him!”

The plan worked perfectly! The townspeople were convinced that the knight had tamed the dragon and he was allowed to stay in the cave from then on. James was still his closest friend, but others followed in time. Soon, the dragon was a part of the community. As for Sir George, he decided he was too old for this kind of thing, so he retired and became a permanent resident of the village. Which is how these three unlikely friends, the knight, the boy and the dragon, lived happily ever after.


If You Liked My Story, You Might Enjoy:
  • The Reluctant Dragon (1941) This live action Disney movie stars noted humorist Robert Benchley, who is wandering around the Disney animation studio to pitch Walt the idea of making a movie based on this story. The film ends with a lavishly animated adaptation of Grahame’s story which apparently was made long before Robert even showed up! Other animated highlights include Goofy's How to Ride a Horse and the story of Baby Weems, which is presented in the style of an animation storyboard.
  • "The Shirley Temple Show" (1960) Ms. Temple presented a weekly television series which depicted famous children's stories acted out by a cast of guest stars. This one starred Shirley, John Raitt and Jonathan Harris.


"Hans In Luck"

Friday, August 12, 2011

Hansel and Gretel

It has been said before now that the so-called "original" versions of many fairy tales (if my research has taught me anything, it's that there's no such thing) are not suitable for today's children. A very good argument in favor of this is the version of this story made famous by our German friends, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. In their version, the children's mother decides to abandon them in the woods so as to have fewer mouths to feed. Their father, though resistant at first, eventually gives in.

Another interesting thing about this story is what happens after the two escape from the witch's house. In the Grimm, they are running home, carrying precious stones and gems they have stolen from the witch, when they come across a large lake and they take turns crossing on the back of a duck...the answer to the question you are now asking is, "I have no earthly idea." This reminds one of "Iron Henry" from the end of the Grimm version of "The Frog Prince," in that it is a completely unnecessary, frivolous and entirely pointless element which every subsequent adaptation has, wisely, jettisoned from their tellings.

Finally, and this isn't exactly relevant to the story, but today just happens to be my kid brother's 25th birthday. So, HIPY PAPY BTHUTHDTH THUTHDA BTHUTHDY, Dash!

For some reason, the logic behind which is now, sadly, lost to us, people used to live in cottages in the middle of the woods. This allowed for some very nice scenery, but made it difficult to get anything done. The nearest village was usually quite a hike (or, in the Yiddish, “schlepp”) and more time was lost in commuting than anything else. Not to mention the constant fear of your kids being eaten by some manner of predator.

But, foolish though it may seem to you and I, it was the norm Once Upon a Time and Long Ago (see how I did that?), so let’s just get on with the story. Which is about a wood-cutter, his wife, and his two children, called Hansel and Gretel.

Now, the wood-cutter was a good man with a good heart, a keen mind and a solid work ethic. Unfortunately, what he didn’t have was customers. He chopped down lots of wood and got a lot of work done, but nobody bought his firewood. And since cutting wood was all he really knew how to do, it looked for certain that he and his family would starve to death.


But Hansel and Gretel would not let that happen. The good news is that they loved their parents and very much wanted to help. The bad news is that, being children, they were easily swept up by fantasy. Hansel read a book about a buried treasure being deep in the forest, and assumed that there must be a similar treasure in their forest. Once he had convinced Gretel of this, the siblings set out into the woods with only a loaf of bread between them as rations.

Hansel led the way with Gretel bringing up the rear. He blazed a trail with his wooden sword while Gretel was busy tearing pieces of bread from the loaf they had brought. She dropped them as they walked so as to provide a trail they could follow back to the house. Many hours later, the intrepid duo stopped in the middle of a clearing.

“I think we’re lost,” said Hansel. “I don’t even know how to get home.”

“I do,” said Gretel. And she told Hansel about the trail of breadcrumbs. So they started to follow the trail home, vowing to continue the search tomorrow.

But the birds, unlike Hansel, hadn’t needed an explanation of the trail of breadcrumbs. They just ate them. With the trail gone, Hansel and Gretel were more lost than ever. They wandered through the night, trying to find something familiar. Around midnight, they were too tired to go on and went to sleep. A few hours later, they awoke and continued trying to find their way home. At length they came to a meadow, hidden from the rest of the forest by a thick outcrop of trees. Here they found, not the clear path home they were hoping for, but something far more remarkable.

It was a house. Just an ordinary house in every respect except for one: It was made entirely out of sweets! The walls were gingerbread, the roof tiles were fruit pies, the windows were clear, spun sugar, the flower box was frosting, the cobblestones were gumdrops, the doorknob was a candy apple, the insulation was…well, okay, you get the idea.

Now, for two small children who have just spent the night in a scary forest with no food, there are very few sights more welcome than that of an edible house. Gretel suggested they knock on the door and ask the person who lived there for a bite, but Hansel just tucked in immediately and began devouring the house. Gretel shrugged and joined in. It must’ve been half an hour before they even thought about the owner of the house, and that was just because she spoke to them.

“Well, well, well,” she said. Hansel and Gretel looked around, their mouths still dripping with sugary sweets and saw a little old woman with warts on her nose, long shriveled hands and a black robe. Recognizable to any sentient being on the planet as an evil witch. Needless to say, but I will anyway, Hansel and Gretel were a little frightened.

But the witch smiled at them and said, “Oh, you poor dears, you must be starving to death. If you come inside, I have some more food for you.”

Of course, we all know better than to go into a strange woman’s (witch’s) house and accept her offer of food. But between being scared to death, homesick, hungry, a mild sugar buzz, and the fact that Hansel was not the cleverest of little children, he completely forgot this very basic rule of safety and followed the Witch into her house. Gretel shrugged and followed him as well.

Once inside, as promised, the Witch gave Hansel and Gretel heaps of food. And not just sweets, but real food. Chicken and ham and beef and vegetable soup and mashed potatoes…I could go on and on, but I won’t, because I’ve wasted enough time on needless exposition. And everything was delicious. Like you imagine food tastes when you see it on TV. Hansel and Gretel felt they’d never get enough.

Especially Hansel, who was already on the portly side.

After they’d had enough to eat, the Witch asked if they’d like to go to sleep?

“No, thank you. We need to get—” began Gretel, but Hansel blurted out, “Sure!”

So, the Witch led them to a special room that looked as though it had prepared for just such an emergency. She led them each to their beds, tucked them in very gently and wished them good night…

But the next morning Hansel found himself suspended in the air in a large wooden cage! Suddenly the Witch’s intentions were abundantly clear. She was going to fatten up Hansel and eat him! Gretel, who was more on the petite side, would have the unpleasant task of serving her brother the food he was to eat in order to get fatter quicker.

“And if you don’t eat every morsel she serves you,” the Witch warned, “I will kill your sister right in front of your eyes!” Here she let out a loud cackle, an evil laugh that shook the rafters. It shook the walls. It shook the cage Hansel was hanging in and it swung into the Witch’s head, knocking her spectacles off her face. “Blast! Now I won’t be able to see a thing. But that’s all right. I’ll be able to tell whether you’re getting fat enough. I’ll just feel your finger every day, and when it feels thick enough…suppertime!”

Hansel (the portly, Not Very Clever one) was scared to death that he was going to be eaten. Gretel (thinner, Cleverer), took a moment to think it over. Hansel wanted to find treasure in the woods. Gretel thought to leave a trail. Hansel started eating the house without permission. Gretel suggested they ask first. Hansel ran into the stranger’s house and accepted her offer of shelter. Gretel was apprehensive about both. Sure, she was stupid to follow him all this time, but she was still one heck of a lot smarter than Hansel! She could get them out of this mess easily.

“For once in your life,” she whispered to Hansel, “listen to me!”

The next morning the Witch came to feel Hansel’s finger. “What?” she exclaimed. “You need to eat more, child. Your hand feels as thin as a bone.” The reason for this was simple enough: His finger was a bone. At Gretel's suggestion, Hansel had saved a chicken bone from the previous night’s meal and stuck it out pretending it was his finger. With no glasses, the Witch couldn’t tell he was faking. Gretel helped him maintain the illusion for about a week. Hansel could eat as much as he wanted without gaining an ounce, as far as the Witch thought.

Then one day, the Witch felt Hansel’s finger again. Frustrated that he wasn’t gaining any weight, she had decided to go for a fly around the forest on her broomstick. But before she could leave she heard a loud snap and a crash. Even without her glasses, she could see what had happened: Hansel had gained so much weight that he had gotten too heavy for the cage to hold him and it had fallen.

“A ha!” cried the Witch. “So you have deceived me! Just for that I’m going to cook and eat both of you!” She dove at Hansel and Gretel, but they were smaller and faster (even the now Somewhat More Than Portly Hansel) and got out of the way just in time. Unable to stop herself, the Witch dove into the oven, which had been lit to cook Hansel’s breakfast, and burned herself alive…


The fire spread. It caught the walls, the windows and everything. Gretel dragged her heavy brother out of the house just as the whole place was going up in smoke. In a matter of seconds, the gingerbread house was an enormous bonfire that was visible for miles…

Even at the home of the wood-cutter and his wife.

Well, from there it was an easy matter for Hansel and Gretel’s parents to find them and bring them home. Nothing was left of the witch's house, except for what she kept in her basement: Diamonds, jewels, gold coins, treasure beyond belief! Hansel and Gretel and their parents were now wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. And, from that day on, Hansel always took the advice of his clever sister, Gretel. 

Oh, and they lived happily ever after, in case you  hadn’t guessed.


If You Liked My Story, You Might Enjoy:
  • Babes in the Woods (1932) An early Disney Silly Symphony which, while clearly based on this story, seems to go out of its way to distract you from the fact. Here the children have no names and befriend a band of dwarfs (early prototypes for Snow White) before being set upon a by a witch (likewise) whose house is made of sweets, but who turns children into horrible creatures instead of eating them.
  • "Hansel and Gretel" (operetta) The most famous composition by English composer Englebert Humperdink whose name is much better than his music could ever be...although his music is still pretty good.
  • "Fractured Fairy Tales" (TV) I mention this because their version of this story is one of the few to actually use the duck bit I mentioned earlier. 
  • "Faerie Tale Theatre" (TV) Here, Joan Collins is the wicked stepmother and the witch, Paul Dooley is the kindly father and a very young Rick Schroeder is Hansel.
  • Bewitched Bunny (1954) This one starts as Hansel and Gretel, but Bugs Bunny saves them and takes their place as the witch's intended victim. The best part, though, is that, for some reason, everyone refers to the boy as "Haaaaansel" which is a great running gag in a cartoon, but which would never work in text.

"The Reluctant Dragon"