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Good Dragons are Rare

An Inquiry into Literary Dragons East and West


Edited By Fanfan Chen and Thomas Honegger

Dragons are a universal phenomenon and have fascinated humans since the dawn of time. Yet whereas we have numerous studies into the origins of these fantastic creatures, there have been very few attempts at discussing their appearance, function and development within literary texts. The eighteen essays collected in this volume (8 in French, 6 in German and 4 in English) – written by an international cast of scholars – try to fill this gap by looking at dragons in literature East and West, contemporary and past.


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A good dragon is hard to find: From draconitas to draco 27


A good dragon is hard to find or, from draconitas to draco Thomas Honegger Summary Prof. Tolkien noted: ‘There are in any case many heroes but very few good dragons.’ (Monsters 17) Modern readers may wonder what he meant by ‘good dragons’ – certainly not virtuous or ‘morally good’ dragons, which are, basically, a modern invention. As Tolkien himself points out, a ‘good dragon’ is a beast that displays the typical characteristics of draco without becoming a mere (allegorical) representative of draconitas (i.e. the vice of avarice). Yet ‘death by allegory’ is not the only danger literary dragons have to face. My paper looks at the symbolic and narrative functions of dragons in Germanic literature throughout the ages. As will be shown, most dragons before (but also after) Tolkien do not live up to their full literary potential as protagonist, but remain either allegorical figures of evil, devices for testing the hero’s qualities, steeds, or Disney-pets. It is only such dragons as Smaug in The Hobbit or Chrysophylax Dives in Farmer Giles of Ham who live up to Tolkien’s idea of what a ‘good dragon’ should be: a dangerous protagonist in its own right partaking in the rich symbolism of the different traditions without being reduced to these ‘symbolic’ functions only. Then an old harrower of the dark happened to find the hoard open, the burning one who hunts out barrows, the slick-skinned dragon, threatening the night sky with streamers of fire. People on the farms are in dread of him....

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