A Wilderness of Dragons

In the eponymous essay, reprinted in The Monsters and The Critics (2006), Tolkien cited the Beowulfian critic Professor Chambers’ phrase ‘a wilderness of dragons’ 298. Tolkien, punctilious as ever when it comes to language, queries the ‘Shylockian plural’, and yet it is clear he would prefer such a hazardous place to the bleak territory of the unimaginative critic. It clearly stuck in his mind, and perhaps acted as grit in the oyster for his creation of the ‘desolation of Smaug’, in the map for The Hobbit (1937) – a blasted wasteland on the edge of the cosy world of the hobbits.

This is a deliberate striking out into unchartered zones.

On the borders of medieval maps, where human knowledge ran out and reason slept, monsters stirred: ‘Here Be Dragons’ the legend read. This is the direct descendant of the primal fear which lurked outside the circle of firelight for our most ancient ancestors. Of course, some fears were very real, when ferocious predators roamed the world with early man. And the fear sometimes remains even when the threat has gone – or wasn’t even there in the first place – the glass ceilings of the mind that keep us prisoners.

A map is a snapshot of available knowledge. It says ‘this is where we are’, ‘this is how much we know’. It is a circle in the sand with man at the centre. This cartographical solipsism has continued well into the 21st Century, with OS postcode-centred personalised maps; and, on a larger scale, world maps which manipulate the landmass, showing the continents of the Northern Hemisphere far bigger than they should be: the classic North/South divide. A Peters projection depicts the landmasses in correct proportion to the surface of the Earth, and consequently Africa, South America and South East Asia dominate. Other maps depict our ‘Antipodes’, Australia, as the centre of the world, the Pacific Rim, or one of the Poles – a healthy shifting of perspective. Indeed there is no reason why North should be ‘up’ on our maps – we are living on a sphere after all, which doesn’t say This Way Up on it. But we feel, especially in the West, the world revolves around us.

There is nothing new in this.

The miraculously preserved 12th Century ‘Mappa Mundi’ (‘Map of the World’) in Hereford Cathedral, rendered on vellum with its hand-drawn detail looks, to modern eyes, like something out of a Fantasy novel that Tolkien & Sons might have fashioned. The world as we know it is virtually unrecognisable. Like many maps of the Middle Ages, it depicted the Holy Lands at the centre, and Jerusalem at the centre of those. This was and still is for many, the axis mundi of the human universe. The map depicted the whole of Christendom – then, the most successful of religious franchises – what lay outside that belonged to the Devil, that greatest of serpents. In Norse mythology it is the World Serpent who encircles Midgard, the Middle World, biting its own tail like Ouroboros. The dragon dwells where the known becomes unknown: the edge of the conscious world. It is the ultimate threshold guardian – often guarding untold riches, as in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, or in Sigurd and Fafnir, where the monstrous worm – once a covetous brother cursed for slaying his kin – guards a great treasure, Glitaheid: the glittering heath.

Seigfried and Fafnir

Tolkien had this to say on the subject:: ‘I find ‘dragons’ a fascinating product of the imagination. But I don’t think the Beowulf one is frightfully good. But the whole problem of the intrusion of the ‘dragon’ into northern imagination and its transformation there is one I do not know enough about. Fāfnir in the late Norse version of the Sigurd story is better; and Smaug and his conversation obviously is in debt there.’ 299

Dragons have haunted the human imagination for centuries – resolutely defying all probability of their existence. They are the kundalini serpent of the Collective Unconscious; our suppressed desires, lurking in the shadows of the Id; the Smaug Within, grafted to our own reptilian brain. We can no more banish the dragon than we can shake off the coils of our DNA.

These ancient and canny beasts loomed large in Tolkien’s febrile imagination, yet they seem hard-wired into the British psyche – certainly the Welsh and English soul – appearing on the Cymric flag and starring in many folk tales and legends (60 recorded in England300). The most well known, George and the Dragon, about England’s national saint, is only the wing-tip of these, and to this exotic import we shall return, but first let us consider his native cousins.

Merlin, Myrddin Emrys, famously beheld a red and white dragon locked in combat beneath Vortigern’s Tower: he explained that the former were the British, the white, the Saxon – and while they fought no peace would be in the land. Merlin gave his name to the British Isles: Clas Myrddin, Merlin’s Enclosure – he is our tutelary guardian.

In another tale, ‘Ludd and Llevelys’, from the 13th Century Welsh cycle of ancient British oral tales, Y Mabinogi, a terrible scream is heard over the land every May Eve, which blights cattle, causes mares to drop their foals early, women to miscarry and milk to curdle. Llevelys tells Lludd, his brother, how to dispatch them: measure the land, and in its exact centre (which they decide is Oxford – X marking the spot) dig a pit and fill it with mead, covered with silk. This will lure the dragons down, they will drink, get drunk, fall asleep, wrapped in the silk. Then he needs to gather them up, (as they are now in the form of sticky pigs), lock them in a stone chest, and bury them in a hill near Snowdon called Dinas Emrys – where Vortigern’s tower was said to have been and Merlin beheld his two feuding dragons. Thus the stories overlap, biting each others’ tails.

The Lambton Worm and other similar folk tales seem to be morality tales, regardless of their claims to authenticity. There are often local features which ‘prove’ the veracity of the story, as in Worm Rock in Lambton. Beneath the highly stylised chalk figure in Oxfordshire, the White Horse of Uffington, which some interpret as a dragon, there is a conical shaped hill called Dragon’s Hill. It is claimed that the bare patches of earth found upon it were caused by the slain dragon’s blood – highly toxic, like that of the serpentesque Alien in Ridley Scott’s 1982 tech-noir film, which is essential a dragon-in-space horror movie with the message: we take our demons with us.

These, and many others, seem to create a British Dreamtime, with the equivalent of the windings of the Rainbow Serpent – as with the topographical narratives of Aboriginal Australia. Perhaps the large-scale legacy of glaciers in the British Isles suggested this, as they gouged out the valleys and shaped the rocks that stick out like the skeleton of a great land behemoth. With the last glacial period known as Wurm, it is tempting to link this to the being old English for serpent: ‘wyrm’.

Our most famous dragon culture tale is Saint George and the Dragon of course – the ‘pin ups’ of many eponymous pubs, which bear his sign. The dragon had, by this time come to represent the chthonic forces of the unChristian, be they Pagan, Muslim or heretic. The irony is Saint George seems to have started off as a pork butcher from Cappadocia, in what is now modern day Turkey. His grave is situated in Lydda, Palestine – near the area where the story of Perseus, Andromeda and the great Kraken played itself out. Our Saint George similarly rescued a damsel in distress who was going to be fed to the local dragon. Yet lately he gets martyred: forced to walk in red hot iron shoes, broken on a wheel, and immersed in quick lime by none other than Gevya Garsa, the ‘Serpent King’. Saint George’s grave was discovered by Crusaders who adopted him in their campaigns against the Saracen. He was brought home and his Feast Day was chosen as April 23rd, and this eventually became England’s national day of celebration, a reassertion of collective identity. In recent years the English flag – the very same colours the Templar Knights wore – has been re-appropriated as a positive image, out of the hands of the hooligans.

Tolkien’s folk hero ‘Farmer Giles of Ham’ – another kind of ‘pork butcher’ – shows how the chaos-dragon can be subdued by good old English commonsense and stubbornness. In essence, the dragon is any disruption to the status quo. For a full decade from 9/11 the world’s modern Grendel or Chrystophylax was Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda: a useful amorphous bugbear, with countless splinter cells. Like the Hydra of Leda which Herakles fights in one of his Twelve Labours – cut one head off and two more grow in its place: thus, a regenerating supervillain to keep the world’s Stars-and-Stripes-spandexed ‘Superpower’ and his weedy sidekick (e.g. his ‘special friend’, Britain) busy, and feeding the Culture of Fear, for as long as people swallow it. In this way ‘dragons’ can stop the populace from straying too far the white-picketed enclosure and for justifying draconian measures. We live in the Age of the Dragon it seems.

Emblematic of their genre (once used in libraries as a symbol to designate that category) in their overused unlikeliness, dragons have been a staple of Fantasy fiction since the earliest stories, and it looks like there’s no diminishing their popularity: Tolkien relaunched them in modern fiction and they haven’t gone away since – what with the endless Tolkien pastiches (even the anti-Tolkienian, ultra gritty, brutal, and massively popular series ‘Song of Ice and Fire’, by George RR Martin, has them – a whole dragon dynasty). The roleplaying system from TSR, Dungeons and Dragons, have allowed participants to bait dragons in their lairs, and even play them: they come in all shapes, sizes, colours and elements: earth, air, fire and water, bronze, silver and gold dragons. Some have portrayed dragons more positively. German author Michael Ende, in his Fantasy classic The Never-Ending Story (translated into English in 1983) has a luck-dragon (similar to the oriental species – long-necked and whiskered) help the boy hero. American author Anne McCaffrey has made them the key novum of her long-running Dragonriders of Pern series (initiated in 1967, and comprising 22 novels in 2011); a new kid on the block – mega-hyped wünderkind Christopher Paolini – has resurrected them yet again with Eragon, 2003 (first of the Inheritance Cycle): joining the long list of its movie cousins on the big screen: Fritz Lang’s silent double-bill Die Nibelungen (1924); Disney’s Pete and the Dragon (1973); and Dragonslayer (Robbins, 1981); Dragonheart (Cohen, 1996); Shrek (Adamson/Jenson, 2001) and its sequels; Reign of Fire (Bowman, 2002); Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Newell, 2005); the How to Train a Dragon animation (Deblois, 2010); and the Merlin BBC TV series (2008-2012). The second part of Peter Jackson’s extended Hobbit ‘trilogy’, The Desolation of Smaug (2013) is the latest to flap its wings and breathe fire over the heads of movie-goers. 

No doubt more will be on the wing.

It seems many people still desire dragons. We simply cannot take our eyes off of them…

The Spell of the Dragon

A dragon’s gaze was said to be mesmeric – once we fell under it, we were hypnotised and at its mercy. Those who ‘desire dragons’ had better watch out! Dracophilia can become an all-consuming passion, a burning obsession, which can cloud our judgement and drive us to extremes. Tolkien, who knew this fever more than most, describes the hero of The Children of Hurin (2007), falling under the spell of the Fāfnir-like fire-drake, Glaurung:

Then Turin sprang about, and strode against him, and fire was in his eyes, and the edges of Gurthang shone as with flame. But Glaurung withheld his blast, and opened wide his serpent-eyes and gazed upon Turin. Without fear Turin looked in those eyes as he raised up his sword: and straightway he fell under the dreadful spell of the dragon, and was as one turned to stone.’ 301

Dragons could be interpreted as symbols of the chthonic forces of the subconscious, which we should bait in their lairs. It is far healthier to assimilate the Shadow than deny it. Jung, who wrote extensively on the Shadow, referred to it as: ‘the thing a person has no wish to be’ 302. Jung defined the Shadow as: ‘…that hidden, repressed, for the most part inferior and guilt-laden personality whose ultimate ramifications reach back into the realm of the animal ancestors…’ 303. Failure to recognise, acknowledge and deal with it led, in Jung’s mind, to problems in the individual, in groups, and organisations. Yet the influential psychoanalysist believed it had positive spin-offs: ‘If it has been believed hitherto that the human shadow was the source of evil, it can now be ascertained on closer investigation that the unconscious man, that is his shadow, does not consist only of morally reprehensible tendencies, but also displays a number of good qualities, such as normal instincts, appropriate reactions, realistic insights, creative impulses, etc.’ 304By embracing the energy of our ‘animal ancestors’ we can tap into deep springs of creativity.

The classic images of a knight struggling in the coils of a serpent seem to represent the armoured identity of the Ego fighting for dominion over the Lower Self: this crops up time and time again in world myths, e.g. Apollo and Python. The serpent is often depicted as being impaled by a spear or lance – in geomantic terms this is the ‘fixing the spot’ of the earth dragon energy. This seems to have been done quite deliberately within Christian temples on pagan sites (the prevalence of St Michael – the dragonslayer – churches on hilltops has been noted by the likes of John Michel, Paul Broadhurst, etc). St Patrick was said to have cast out all the serpents in Ireland from the top of Croagh-Patrick, a mountain on the West coast originally named after Crom-Croagh, the bent-backed one, a chthonic deity vanquished by the usurper priests. The lance, the standing stone, the cross or the spire acts like an acupuncture needle and channels the telluric currents. It is a way of conducting chaos.

There is a sense in which a writer does this every time he picks up a pen, or a musician his violin bow. We tap into the field of potential, give voice to it, craft it. This lateral approach has proved to be very effective, from the Dadaist automatic drawings and writing, to popular self-help books on creativity such as Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain (Betty Edwards, 1983) and The Artist’s Way (Julia Cameron, 1992). It is a rich repository of creativity.

Similarly, the serpent can be seen as the libido, which can be channelled positively – as in the Tantric practice of raising the Kundalini, the serpent energy which dwells in the lowest chakra and snakes up the spine during lovemaking. In the East, the dragon is seen as a positive force, in the human body, in the land. It is worked with in acupuncture and in feng-shui. The Imperial Dragon in Chinese dynasties, and the presence of it in Oriental astrology (as one of the 12 zodiacal signs) shows a qualitatively different status than in the west.

Ophialatry, the worship of serpent deities is prevalent in several ancient cultures. In India the serpent is especially important in Hindu and Buddhist mythology – in the form of the snake god, Nāga; in Voudou the serpent is very important also. Serpent Magic seems to be regaining popularity in the occult circles. As with any sacred knowledge, however, it can be misappropriated, e.g. the Nibelungen Hall (built in 1913), an astonishing serpent temple at Konigswinter, North-Rhine-Westfalia, at the foot of the Seibengebirge range – the seven hills said to have been created by the thrashings of Fāfnir’s tail – depicts a giant serpent interwoven with a pentacle on the floor of a dark shrine to the myth of Seigfried and Fāfnir (the temple is built near the ‘Drachenfels’ – Dragon Rock, the site of a former castle associated with the legend – where Siegfried was said to have slain the dragon and bathed in its blood). Made world famous (and notorious) by Wagner, it was used by the Nazis in the Second World War – a perverted symbol of national pride. These days, it has become a creepy tourist attraction with a reptile zoo, and a ‘Dragon’s Lair’, complete with a long stone serpent, built in 1993 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Wagner’s death.

Generally in the West the idea of the serpent being the Evil One, the seducer, the tempter, is hard-wired into us from an early age. Many people have unnecessary phobias of snakes – exploited by such low-grade schlock as Snakes on a Plane! (Ellis, 2006); and Q, the 1982 monster flick directed by Larry Cohen – a spurious spin on the ancient icon of the Winged Serpent (the Meso-American Feathered Serpent, Quetzcoatl, transposed improbably to New York, in King Kong-like fashion). Yet fear and desire are often closely linked, and what is forbidden often becomes more appealing. The much maligned dragon has gained new fans over the years, and some feel protective towards such unlikely creatures as though they were endangered species. Their very ‘existence’ challenges the consensus reality. And a world which can accommodate dragons can also accommodate heroes, heroines, villains and a whole cast of magical beings. Suddenly the world seems less lonely. The mysterious is possible, and not everything is explained away or tidied up.

Jorge Luis Borges, in his preface to The Book of Imaginary Beasts (1967) calls dragons ‘a necessary monster’: ‘We are ignorant of the meaning of the dragon in the same way that we are ignorant of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon’s image that fits man’s imagination, and this accounts for the dragon’s appearance in different places and periods.’ 305 The Mappa Mundi is like a retinal scan – around its periphery strange creatures flicker, as in Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood cycle (1984-2009). Monsters and wonders await at the edge of consciousness, at the edge of knowledge, at the edge of the known.British Fantasy author Alan Garner, argues that it is intrinsic to our nature to explore these littoral zones: ‘Man is an animal that tests boundaries. He is a ‘mearcstapa’, ‘boundarystrider’, and the nature of myth is to help him to understand the boundaries, to cross them and to comprehend the new; so that, whenever Man reaches out, it is myth that supports him with a truth that is constant, although names and shapes may change.’ 306 Garner dramatises this concept most directly in his extraordinary 1996 novel Strandloper.

Author Moyra Caldecott, in her memoir, A Multi-Dimensional Life (2007) describes this process: ‘In writing a novel one can play with ideas and concepts that hover on the edge of one’s belief and, while doing so, consider seriously one’s attitude to them.’ 307

This is the liminal territory the Fantasy writer explores. The twilight threshold, where humanity meets the unknown, the Fey, the divine or diabolic – a place we travel to every night in our dreams. Yet the Fantasy writer must be fully awake in this world of dreams, so as not to miss anything. He or she is the lucid dreamer, a Neo of The Matrix (Wachowski Bros, 1999), the one-who-is-awake. In his haunting classic Voyage to Arcturus (1920) David Lindsay has his protagonist Maskull say: ‘I dream with open eyes … and others see my dreams, that is all’.308

In his robust defence of dragons in his influential essay on ‘Beowulf’, Tolkien wrote: ‘A dragon is no idle fancy. Whatever may be his origins, in fact or invention, the dragon in legend is a potent creation of men’s imagination, richer in significance than his barrow is in gold.’309

The dragon is, if nothing else, a potent symbol of the human imagination. The glittering treasure that it hoards could be seen to be the treasures of the subconscious, waiting to be unearthed. By tapping into our own creativity, we are disturbing our own dragon from its slumber. Something old and noble inside us is stirred. Something that has the memory of the Earth and fire in its belly.


Extract from Desiring Dragons: creativity, imagination and the writer’s quest by Kevan Manwaring, published by Compass Books 2014. Available direct from their website here


2 thoughts on “A Wilderness of Dragons

  1. nevil warbrook

    Hi Kevan
    I didn’t know you had a wordpress site. I’m going to enjoy reading through all this. I’m currently reading/browsing John Rateliff’s ‘The History of the Hobbit’. Dare say you’re familiar with it: if not, it analyses JRR’s first draft(s) in some detail (almost in a sledgehammer to crack a nut way) and is mainly interesting because Nevil W (my alter ego) is doing much the same analysis of Sir Tamburlaine’s ‘Acts of the Servant’, albeit with rather less insight than Rateliff manages.

    2013/14 I had a year at Ruskin College taking English Studies with creative writing. Frustratingly, the creative writing teaching is aimed at beginners and the academic side is heavily politicised, albeit it was very useful on technique. Alas, no funding to carry on at Ruskin but I’m planning to get on an MA creative writing course come Autumn. Meantime, I’m working on getting ‘Acts of the Servant’ (which is now divided into three bite-sized volumes) ready for self epubbing next year.

    Hope all’s well, Colin Smith, ex Bath Writer’s Group


    1. Kevan Manwaring

      Hi Colin
      nice to hear from you. Looks like you’re having lots of literary fun.
      I’ve started my Creative Writing PhD at Leicester and really enjoying getting into the research.
      Also now a p/t lecturer in creative writing at Portsmouth – so all go at the moment.
      Like you have contracted Caledoniaphilia!
      Good luck with your projects – let me know how you get on.
      all the best,



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