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    Reconsidering Kenneth Grahame’s The Reluctant Dragon*

    September 17, 2009 by Brandy Vencel

    Truth and goodness and beauty go together so tightly that if you lose one, you lose all three of them.

    –John Hodges,
    discussing Hans urs von Balthasar’s Seeing the Form: The Glory of the Lord: a Theological Aesthetics in his lecture Reflections on Classical Education

    Yesterday was the day on which I had planned to study the legend of Saint George and the Dragon. Or, actually, we were going to study Raphael’s famous painting, and I was going to read Margaret Hodges’ wonderful picture book to the children yet again in order to make sure that Neighbor M. also understood the legend.

    Raphael’s painting falls on deaf ears if one doesn’t understand the significance of Saint George.

    I was so excited, for I love reading this book to someone for the first time. I laid it proudly on my lap and announced that we were going to read Saint George and the Dragon. Neighbor M.’s face looked a little panicked, and she told me that her parents do not like dragons. She told me that dragons are bad {which they are}, and that they don’t let her have anything to do with them.

    Two things: {1} I was impressed with a little girl that obeys her parents wishes when they aren’t around. She very obviously wanted to read the book. {2} I was convicted that I should never violate the conscience of a child. Ever.

    So I told Neighbor M. I would write a note to her parents asking if we could read the book and study the painting. And I did. I tried to be brief in explaining the book and its significance to western culture, and how C.S. Lewis himself taught Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene and how I really didn’t want them to think that I was a crazy dragon-lady.

    Ahem.

    And today, a nice note arrived with Neighbor M. saying that of course I could read her the book and study the painting, and that this is the way that dragons should be taught. The letter briefly explained that many of the dragons they had met lately were supposed “good” and “friendly” dragons, and that this is what they were guarding against.

    This was a pin-prick of correction for me.

    It was then that I realized something about one book on my shelf, and that book is Kenneth Grahame’s The Reluctant Dragon illustrated by my beloved Michael Hague.

    But first, let me add into the mix a quote from Doug Wilson, who spent some blogging time lately discussing the wildly popular Twilight Saga in terms of the twisting of traditional cultural symbols:

    [E]verything in this fallen created order “answers to” something unfallen, with the possible exception of hyenas. In other words, the dragon is the archtypical emblem of sly, crafty, rebellion — and this goes back to the Garden. Satan is that ancient dragon. If we read our Bibles rightly, we will pay attention to the symbols. Honor the symbols, people.

    But of course Satan was a fallen something, and that something was, before he fell, an unfallen version of that same thing. My personal view is that he was one of the seraphim, which means that the seraphim are glorious, unfallen dragons, privileged to cry holy, holy, holy in the presence of God. But in this world, the one we live in, dragons still mean what they mean. That meaning was assigned to us. Shifting the meaning of everything around in this metamorphing way seems to me to be not so much a testimony to our literary prowess as to the continued craftiness of the serpent.

    Kenneth Grahame, whom we all rightly love for his best work, The Wind in the Willows was born only seven months before John Dewey, who almost single-handedly created the world as we know and experience it today through his experiment in rebellion which we call modern education.

    I think there is an interesting correspondence in the birthdates of these two men. They were contemporaries in a time that resulted in the world being turned upon its head.

    While Dewey managed to transform education from a study in the permanent things to a quest for societal change, here we see Kenneth Grahame recasting Saint George’s dragon as a, well, a reluctant one. He would rather read, truth be told.

    The story goes, however, that the common people believe that dragons really are bad, even though most of the stories they are telling are falsehoods. The Boy, who has a sort of “wisdom” about him, and is a great lover of books himself, befriends the dragon. The Boy becomes the mediator between two worlds–the people, who think the dragon is bad, and the dragon, his great friend who is so smart and lovable, but a little naive when it comes to understanding how serious the townsfolk are about eliminating him.

    When Saint George arrives on the scene, the Boy sits down with him and explains the truth: The dragon isn’t bad. But, the townspeople must be appeased. So, the Boy suggests a pretend battle, in which Saint George defeats the dragon, but in such a way that he survives and then Saint George, the dragon, as well as the Boy and all of the townspeople, can finally live in harmony together.

    When I consider that the original story of Saint George was considered by C.S. Lewis to be a great Christian classic, and that Spenser’s dragon tale, like all ancient dragon tales, was actually a retelling Christ’s once and final victory over that dragon from the Garden, well, I wonder just how much influence I allowed Michael Hague’s artistry to have over me.

    The book is full of lies, it seems: The dragon is real enough, but he’s actually a kindhearted old soul, and very intelligent. {The uneducated people are the ones who believe the dragon is bad.} Saint George’s battle with him is a ruse and also ineffective. The townspeople who think the dragon is bad are just silly and superstitious.

    Do you seem what I’m aiming at here?

    Now, let’s return to Hans urs von Balthasar via John Hodges. If beauty is subjective {and Hodges says it isn’t}, then I can say that Grahame’s writing is so lovely and skillful, and Hague’s paintings are just gorgeous.

    However, comma.

    If beauty is objective, because it is characteristic of God Himself, then Balthasar has something to say about this book. For it has lost its truth; as Wilson exhorted us, we must honor the symbols. And if dragons represent Satan, and Saint George represent Christ, then the message of Grahame’s work is untrue in the sense that it is a rejection of ultimate reality. And if the work is not true , then it is a lie, which means that it is not good. And if it is untrue and double-plus ungood, then its beauty is a deception, an instance of darkness masquerading as light, and, like the adulteress in Proverbs 7, it looks pretty good initially, but her house is a highway to the grave.

    All of this is to say that I’ve rethought the position which The Reluctant Dragon currently has had upon my shelf. Hodges says that true education rightly orders the affections. Children who are educated rightly, he says, don’t just learn about Truth, but they learn to love Truth. If this is so, I have to ask myself the question, Am I encouraging a right ordering of affections if I hold up this book as something to love?

    *Thanks to CiRCE and Cindy, I will probably go crazy in the near future, but pleasantly so.

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    14 Comments

  • Reply Jacquelyn Beaumont September 14, 2018 at 6:30 pm

    Although I have not read it, I have heard that The Wingfeather Saga has both good and bad dragons. You have been reading these books, if I remember correctly. I’d love your take on that?
    I had read My Father’s Dragon to my kids before thinking about the harm of inverted archetypes.

    I’ve heard such good things about Wingfeather Saga, but want to stay clear until I hear more about it.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel September 21, 2018 at 2:00 pm

      I think The Wingfeather Saga did a good job, actually — and I was hesitant because of this issue! The dragons are presented as also being in need of redemption, which I think helps a lot. The saga creates its own world, and the “rules” are a little different than our world, but I think the underlying principles are solid. Honestly, we spent the last year reading a lot of the newer fantasy writers — Jonathan Rogers, ND Wilson, Andrew Peterson, etc. Peterson is my favorite and his Saga is truly fantastic.

  • Reply Jeanne April 26, 2012 at 9:41 pm

    Argh! Posts like this do my head in! I’ll have to pull out my copy of The Reluctant Dragon now for a critical reread as well.

    I love Michael Hague too.

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts April 26, 2012 at 9:51 pm

      Sorry to spin your brain around. πŸ™‚

      Isn’t Hague wonderful? My friend bought me a journal that he illustrated and I don’t have the heart to write in it. Instead the girls and I flip through it like a wordless book. πŸ™‚

  • Reply Brandy September 21, 2009 at 11:09 pm

    Mystie,

    I need to read that essay. Wish I had a PBS credit right now! Maybe soon, right?

    Saying that Tinkerbell was disapproved of was helpful to me. She always disturbed me, with her foul language and impish stunts. Actually, “impish” is a good word for her!

    One of our children has a name which references fairies, but we were thinking in a Tolkienish way at the time–these powerful, beautiful beings who were exceedingly wise and had a supernatural perspective.

    No, by the way, I do NOT have a daughter named Arwen. I just realized that could be what people thought. I just mean that the meaning of one of the children’s names references fairies.

  • Reply Mystie September 19, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    Tolkien has the best essay on “Faerie” and the creatures that live therein. It is “On Fairy-Stories” (here is a summary: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_Fairy-Stories) and found in either Leaf and Tree or The Tolkien Reader (I have two copies of The Tolkien Reader and one is available on PBS). Tinkerbell-like fairies disgust him; faerie is more like his elves or Lang’s fairies — more “terrible” in the awe-inspiring way. I know C.S. Lewis also wrote defending magic. Both Tolkien and Lewis defend it as a better way of really knowing, understanding, and loving a world under providential care. Our rationalistic worldview sees the universe like a clock, whether we believe God made it or not; it runs like an impersonal machine. Magic in faerie is analogous to God’s sovereign control of the world — in faerie you feel the numinous (Tolkien’s favored word), the wonder, the danger that we should sense if we fear God and understand His personal control of everything.

    Chesterton wrote a short article too, defending fairy-land: http://www.pelennorfields.com/mystie/2009/chesterton-on-faerie-tales/

  • Reply mtwiss September 19, 2009 at 3:11 pm

    I meant “girls’ things.” I hate it when I don’t proofread! M

  • Reply mtwiss September 19, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    Brandy

    Your Socratic discussion was wonderful! Great idea to keep the book under lock and key. (Kind of reminds me of my old pastor’s “heresy shelf”).

    Mystie

    I’ve never considered your perspective, probably because I don’t really ‘get’ fairies/faeries. Can you point me in the direction of a “primer” on fairies? Up to this point I’ve just been irritated by all the girls things with fairies on them (I know, I know…).

    We, as a family, don’t totally avoid magic (as in sleight-of-hand or even “it was a magical evening…”) but, when it comes to witches, we tend to steer clear of what we don’t know. KWIM?

    In Him

    Meredith in Aus

  • Reply Brandy September 18, 2009 at 11:03 pm

    By the way, here is a portion of an email that I sent to someone earlier today, so you can know what we ended up doing about The Reluctant Dragon:

    “Last night, we (my husband and I) ended up having a sort of Socratic discussion with our 7-year-old. He just recently recognized the symbols in the Saint George legend. So we reviewed with him: who or what does Saint George represent, who or what does the dragon represent, etc. Then we went to Grahame’s book, and asked the same questions. By the end of the conversation, he declared that Grahame was deliberately telling lies about Christ! It was such a great exercise, that we have decided to keep The Reluctant Dragon in our closet and pull it out for each child when they are at the right stage to discuss it. It was a great chance to introduce the concept of wisdom when it comes to reading our books.”

  • Reply Brandy September 18, 2009 at 10:59 pm

    Mystie,

    Glad we can go crazy together. πŸ˜‰

    KM,

    I remember you reviewing “A Landscape with Dragons,” and I’m going to put it on my PBS wishlist and see if I can’t obtain a copy. I agree with you: dragons in their proper place. That is what we’ll be doing, too.

    Meredith,

    Okay, your comment about the Ishtar Gate was too curious to pass up. I did a bit of googling, and I came up with a link for anyone who is interested. Looks like this IS very significant. To boil it down, yes the gates were covered in dragons and bulls, which symbolized Babylon’s false gods, Marduk and Adad. The Ishtar gate was the starting point for the war processions, and it was through this gate that the army which brought an end to Judah had marched out.

    This got me thinking: dragons really ARE a traditional symbol of Satan and his minions. For instance, we are told in our history books this year that the pagan Vikings came down to fight the Christians in Britain carrying bright red flags with a golden dragon on them, and sometimes dragons on their shields. They also sometimes put dragon heads on the front of their ships. My guess is that the dragon was somehow connected with their worship. St. George had the red cross on his shield, don’t forget.

    Anyhow, the contrast is striking, and the consistency of the tie between the dragon and false gods is very compelling.

    I have to admit: I’ve never thought about the good witch in Wizard of Oz. I’ll agree with Mystie that she seemed very fairy-like, but then why call her a witch? Something I’ll have to think about.

  • Reply Mystie September 18, 2009 at 4:06 pm

    Would a “good witch” be a fairy, if it’s a supernatural creature? Witches I generally think of as being people seeking magic, whereas fairies are created fairies with inborn magic.

  • Reply mtwiss September 18, 2009 at 3:32 pm

    Hi Brandy. Great post. Very articulate. You are one of the reasons I don’t have my own blog ;oP – it would take me SO long to be this eloquent (if at all).

    I am glad to see though, that I am not the only one who looks at underlying current. I remember reassessing “The Wizard of Oz” in the same vein; what IS this with a GOOD witch.

    I saw Doug Wilson’s quote on his blog the other day. Very good. Reminded me about something I had read about seraphim and the Babylonian dragons on the Ishtar Gate etc. I’m sure I picked up a whiff of this relationship but can’t quite remember where. Interesting.

    Sounds like Josiah is doing well. I am very happy for you all.

    In Him

    Meredith in Australia

  • Reply Kansas Mom September 18, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    I have recently read and rejected “The Reluctant Dragon,” but you have articulated it so much better than I. Reading “A Landscape with Dragons” was an eye-opener for me. (You can read what I had to say about it here: http://ourhomeontherange.blogspot.com/search?q=dragons.) We’re not avoiding dragons entirely here on the Range, just trying to keep them in their proper place.

    That said, we are also interested, especially as the children grow, in showing them how to engage with the world while rejecting that which is not from God. I believe we will make room in our reading for a few selected works that are on the edge (perhaps with high school students). I think it’s important for young adults to be able to discuss some of the popular culture and explain coherently why that culture can be destructive. It may be easier for them to defend themselves against peer pressure and, more importantly, it arms them for the battles they face when they have left our home to make their own way. Even then, though, I think we must choose the bulk of our books to bolster our faith and proper growth. I know myself I cannot read too many of the books on the edge or I begin to lose sight of where the line must be drawn. (The same goes for movies and music, of course.)

  • Reply Mystie September 18, 2009 at 6:09 am

    *Applause* from the peanut gallery! πŸ™‚

    I haven’t read Reluctant Dragon, actually. Perhaps it would be an interesting book to pull out in the logic years to see if they can catch what’s wrong beneath the good writing.

    Yes, I’m going to go crazy, also. Oy!

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