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.

THE END

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.




NEXT WEEK: 

"Hans In Luck"

No comments:

Post a Comment