Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame

An oldie moldie. But goodie. Ew... we have some really old books in our library. First published in 1898, "The Reluctant Dragon" shows how Kenneth Grahame was influenced by Victorian writers with voice. The humorous and stuffy narration reminds me of Lemony Snicket in his Series of Unfortunate Events, Lois Lowry in "The Willoughbys", and Pseudonymous Bosch in his Bad Books series, poking fun at Victorian narrators. "The Reluctant Dragon" starts out like a fairy tale, "Long ago..." and ends happily ever after. Graham creates a pastoral setting that has parents who are shepherds raising a boy who is given no name in the story. The boy has an idyllic life where the narrator says, "his parents were very fond of him, and rather proud of him too, though they didn't let on in his hearing and ...treated [him] more or less as an equal with his parents." He solves their problems and gets to read for they supplied  "...the practical knowledge, and he the book-learning." A familiar trope in children's books is the wish for power. Children have even less power than adults so it is a prevalent theme. The boy gets responsibility and authority over the adults who do not talk down to him. The Victorian age gave rise to children's book and was a time when content shifted from being mostly didactic and condescending to a celebration of the innocent and imaginative child.

This book parodies the legend of St. George and the Dragon where the dragon is vicious and St. George cuts off its head rescuing the villagers. This short story with its high vocabulary is layered with meanings and satire. The shepherd father of the boy runs home to tell his family he spied a dragon in a cave. They boy reacts with no fear and says that he'll go talk to the dragon and sort it out. The dragon is a peaceable fellow who loves poetry and refuses to fight. The boy tries to convince the dragon to flee because he knows that the villagers will want the dragon killed. He tries to hide the dragon and makes friends with it. Their friendship is one of the forces that pushes the action forward.

The boy fears are realized when the villagers discover the dragon and they hail St. George to come and slay the dragon. The villagers dangerous views  and their mob mentality is prejudiced toward the dragon just because he is different. The boy seeks an audience with St. George to convince him to give up the quest. The boy heroically stands up for the dragon convincing St. George that killing it is a senseless deed; however, St. George is duty bound to fight the dragon and tells the boy to figure out a solution. The boy comes up with the brilliant idea of staging a mock fight. Both dragon and St. George ask the boy to figure out a solution which he does; thus giving Boy control over everyone's destiny. This empowers the young reader into what it is like to making his or her own decisions and grow toward independence. The three agree on the solution and in the end everyone is happy. The boy wants a fight. The dragon wants to recite sonnets. And St. George doesn't want to kill anyone. The ending provides a typical fairy tale wish fulfillment fantasy where the characters get what they want and are happy with it.

Fairy tales leave out motivation, rounded characters and background explanations. "Long ago..." there was a boy who lived with his parents that were shepherds. That's all that is needed and then the conflict is introduced. The fairy tale traipses from one crazy event to another and I think it is the sheer simplicity and headlong rush into action that makes it so popular with kids. There is usually a moral and it requires use of one's imagination. The boy and the dragon bond through telling each other stories and using their imagination. The boy doesn't have prejudices toward dragons like adults. Here the fairy tale pokes fun at the attitudes of the villagers by revealing their quick judgement of the dragon and is used to question the world around them. It puts the child in control, as well as, subverts the existing St. George and the dragon legend.

This mocking of prejudice and convention is central to the story. The pretend fight shows that appearances are deceiving and that the villagers misguided. St. George doesn't even like to kill dragons; his intentions bound only by duty rather than bloodlust. The adults give the boy responsibility and the dragon is more interested in performance than being violent. At the end he draws all the attention away from the boy and St. George adding to the irony of the situation, creating sympathetic characters, and adding to the plot's tension.

This pastoral work creates a nostalgia for a simple and innocence past. The idyllic setting and happily-ever-after ending establish a utopia that doesn't really exist in the real world. Characters can be presented as pure representations of feelings and somewhat unsophisticated. The boy does not think about the dangers to himself at confronting the dragon when his dad first tells the family about it. He does feel pain that his dragon friend might get killed and through a series of solutions grows as a boy. However, there is no real sense of danger and shows self-preservation above all else. If you are looking for Smaug, then you'll be disappointed with this Shakespearean sonnet-spewing dragon. But if you want some smart satire and humor, then I highly recommend it. As a read aloud you could have some good discussions. And phew! Yes, I ordered a new book to replace the library's 1966 copyrighted one.

5 Smileys

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