British Dragon Slayers are the original bad-ass action heroes, says JON KANEKO-JAMES
I feel that I should start by explaining that Dragons have been following me for the last few weeks: I just two weeks telling kids stories about Dragons at the Globe Theatre, just as I got a short story accepted into a collection about dragons… so I’m hoping that this article will make it a triptych and appease my draconic masters.
Also, I feel the need to make a disclaimer here: usually when I write these I try to use four or more sources, but although I was familiar with these stories, the versions I’ve used for this article were all collected together in Daniel Ogden’s amazing book Dragons, Serpents and Slayers in the Classical and Early Christian Worlds.
If you’re interested in the history of Dragons as literature and folklore, I can’t recommend a better book.
Despite the fact that one of the countries composing the United Kingdom has a Dragon on its flag, British Dragons aren’t what you’d expect. The four legged lizard-dragon of the popular consciousness appears in only one of the stories collected in Ogden’s book: The Blacksmith of Dalry.
All the other dragons are serpentine: the Lambton Worm is described as literally “an ugly little worm”, the Worm of Wormiston is “a voracious worm”, the worm of Cnoc-Na Cnomih is a serpent, and likewise the Stoor Worm is a “Monstrous Sea Serpent.”
Furthermore, although the dragon of popular mythology is large, British Dragons are of, if the reader can forgive the pun, legendary proportions.
The Stoor Worm of Orkney “girds the earth with its length”, and when it suffers it’s fatal injury, it shoots it’s tongue out in agony and manages to wrap it around the moon. The Cnoc-Na-Cnoimh dragon wraps itself around a whole hill, leaving spiral indentations with its death throes (pedestrian next to the Stoor Worm’s death throes, which created the Iceland, the Orkneys and the Faroe Isles).
The Wormiston and Lambton Worms are of similar size, which makes the White Snake of Mote Hill one of the smallest, only being able to wrap itself around a burial mound.
Not only that, but none of the dragons breath fire (in fact, all through folklore, the fire breathing dragon is a relative rarity). Only the Cnoc-Na-Cnoimh and Wormiston have a breath weapon, and in both cases it’s poisonous gas rather than fire.
The classic image of the brave knight in armour tends to do badly in British dragon legends.
Of the collected dragon legends I’ve read, only two, Sir John Lambton and the Laid of Lariston are knights at all.
John isn’t just a knight in the sense of aristocratic entitlement: he’s a devout crusader, returned from the holy land. The Laid of Lariston is the closest thing to a vanilla knight in armour that you find in the whole set.
Other knights who get involved tend to come out badly. The knights who try to challenge the Lambton Worm are killed so easily that they don’t even warrant individual description. The knights who come before the Blacksmith of Dalry are just pathetic: one being devoured still sitting on his horse; the other calling it quits when he gets a fountaining nosebleed while mounting up for the battle.
However, dragons are slain in British folklore, it isn’t by knights in shining armour.
Killing a Dragon
So, there’s more to slaying a British dragon than snicker-snack with a vorpal blade. Broadly speaking there are two methods, and both of them involve gastrointestinal horror.
The first method comes on a path from the days of the early church: feed the dragon something deadly. Sadly, this isn’t just poison, which would still be bad if you were a dragon. In the text from the Eastern Church St. Daniel feeds a dragon cakes made from pitch that make it explode.
The early version of this myth takes advantage of a cultural survival from Roman paganism: feeding monstrous serpents cakes as a form of offering. British mythology, particularly in the North, tends to come from a Scandinavian root, which means that they don’t have that.
Therefore, when a British dragon eats something deadly, it tends to be force-fed. Assipattle, the son of a farmer, steals some pitch from an old woman’s fire and sails a boat down the Stoor Worm’s throat. It swallows him whole, and he sails “…down the serpent’s gullet as if down a tunnel for miles on end and is able t obeach his boat by its liver.” He then cuts a hole in its liver and puts the burining peat inside and sails back out again.
The Sutherland farmer Hector Gunn sticks his spear through a chunk of peat and sticks it down the beast’s throat, where it suffocates from the fumes of the burning pitch. The Laird of Linton does exactly the same thing to the Wormiston dragon after abandoning conventional knightly weapons and exercising some lateral thinking.
The second technique is to cover yourself in spikes. Sir John Lambton does this, but without any great gastroinestinal horror: he makes a suit covered in spear blades to shred the Lambton Worm, whose regenerative capabilities have led to the deaths of so many other knights. He kills the beast in a fast-flowing river, which carries all its missing pieces away.
The true horror of dragon slaying comes from the Blacksmith of Dalry, where the Smith of Dalry makes his own special suit of dragon-body-horror-armor with retractable spikes.
When the dragon (the only one with limbs) starts clawing at his dead wife’s grave, the smith persuades the dragon to swallow him whole, at which point he allows himself to pass into its bowels and pops his spikes out, ripping his way through it’s innards and into the outside world.
After the dragon dies of injuries that would fit perfectly into a Saw movie, the river runs red with its blood for three days.
So there we have British dragon slayers. Most of them aren’t knights in shining armour, and except for Sir John Lambton they don’t defeat dragons by force of arms. British dragon slayers are a better kind of hero: intelligent and ingenious, with an utter disregard for whether they kill their enemies in horrible ways.