Where Be Dragons?

Gentle reader, you may be surprised to learn that I have my faults; it’s true! While a casual perusal of this blog so far might paint me as a confident, debonair academic (no, don’t laugh), I am in fact, not The Most Interesting Man in the World. What I’m driving at here is that my research hasn’t been going well, and I find myself questioning the validity of my ideas for the upcoming thesis.

Not pictured: Me.

If you’ll recall, the genesis of my idea was to examine the connection between dragons and nature; more specifically those elements of nature which threatened medieval people with pestilence, famine, and death. The dragon as a wolf, the dragon as a rat, the dragon perhaps even as time. And while there is evidence of these connections, it’s scant and often inferred. Some of the most prominent literary dragons that survive instead have distinctly human symbolic associations; greed for Fafnir and Beowulf’s wyrm, Catholicism for Redcross’s dragon (it’s a long story). Actually, religion, evil, and Satan are by far the most frequent obvious parallels to dragons that appear in literature.

Yet this connection to nature nags at me. I was first put on this path by certain iconographical representations of dragons being wholly alien to our modern conceptions of them. Indeed, that clash between our modern conceptions of dragons and the great beasts as they actually exist in pre-modern texts is one of the sharpest contrasts in monster studies. But finding textual, rather than iconographical, evidence of this has proven difficult. Rats in particular seem to have had little bearing on the minds of medieval writers, which seems strange given their ubiquity and the constant threat of poor harvests and famine in the medieval world.

So, I must either broaden my scope or change lanes entirely. The latter option is unappealing, given how much the topic of monster studies appeals to me, so the question is how should I broaden my scope? Broadening it to examine the symbolic use of dragons in pre-modern texts generally seems too ambitious for a 15-20k word thesis. But even if it could be made to serve, I fear it’s ground already too well-trodden by generations of former travellers. My other, perhaps slightly riskier option, is to look beyond dragons at mankind’s relationship with nature in general, particularly the adversarial nature of that relationship. It strikes the same ganglion in my head as focusing on just the dragons and gives me greater scope to examine non-scaly texts…but at present I have no idea what such texts might be. Old English poetry has a lot of desolate natural imagery, and of course the beasts of battle feature prominently. Medieval writers seem to have skipped over rats for the most part, but wolves also feature prominently in many writings…how about weather? The vicious rainstorms of the early 13th century precipitated (ha!) the Great Famine, the precursor to the Black Death. Disease? But here we enter the realm of “practical” texts, the domain of the historian and not the English student. Can I find compelling evidence of the Man vs. Nature cage match that made up the first few hundred thousand years of our existence in medieval and early modern literature? And can I develop what I find into a thesis?

Reading week has been a little disheartening for all the above reasons. I feel a mite overwhelmed, I must confess. Time is so short. I’ll have to arrange meetings with some of my lecturers to have a chat about some of these topics. Their experience may suggest something I’m missing at present. I shall report back as soon as I can.

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