Literature Review

Searching for scholarly publications having to do with literal dragons has proven to be tricky for an amusing reason I did not foresee; China. The dragon looms so large in the popular consciousness that geopolitical commentators and other political scientists use it as shorthand for the ever-rising Chinese economy. An auspicious sign, theoretically, but also an irritating one, as the Belt and Road Initiative is not terribly likely to appear in my dissertation.

Still, my search has not been entirely unsuccessful, thanks in part to some helpful suggestions from my teachers. What follows is the best of what I have found.

The Penguin Book of Dragons

Not the most impressive title, I admit. It brings to mind something bright, colourful, and printed on cardboard. But this collection, printed in 2021 by Penguin Books and edited by Scott G. Bruce, provides quick access to dozens of carefully selected texts pertaining to the reptiles of choice. These texts range widely in time period and point of origin, but their most important feature is that they are each sourced in the collection’s bibliography. While The Penguin Book of Dragons may not itself be a scholarly edition, it is an excellent and accessible source of sources. Not only that, but its brevity and breadth make it useful to dip in and out of during research when a particular sentence sparks the memory in another text. For my purposes the first half of the book is the most useful, dealing as it does with European and early Christian dragons from antiquity right up to the early modern era. In particular, the sources have helped me sort through versions of The Golden Legend, which I cannot write on in any more detail yet as it is still in the post. Moving on…

Introducing the Medieval Dragon

Published in 2019 by the University of Wales Press, Professor Thomas Honegger’s Introducing the Medieval Dragon is a concise, accessible, and handsomely illustrated volume that succinctly (and I feel slightly silly as I type this) introduces the medieval dragon. He achieves this in a neatly categorised fashion, discussing the dragon in terms of medieval scholarship (as an actual animal which authors believed to exist), in medieval religion (as an allegory for the devil, primarily), in medieval folklore (vanishingly rare, but infinitely fascinating), and finally in medieval literature (that is, those broadly secular texts that mostly come from a Germanic origin). It is a slim volume, obviously intended as a gateway to a deeper world of literature than definitive tome, and Professor Honegger facilitates this with not only an extensive bibliography, but an intriguing ‘further reading’ section which points to some of his own key favourites from said bibliography. In particular, I am interested two works he mentions by the folklorist Jacqueline Simpson, whose work I have enjoyed elsewhere. I wonder if they will be hard to find, published as they are in 1978 and 1980…I fear so, but will definitely check.

The Dragon in the West: From Ancient Myth to Modern Legend

2021’s The Dragon in the West by Professor Daniel Ogden, published by Oxford University Press, is a weightier tome for a more specialised audience. It traces the evolution of the dragon from Greco-Roman serpent to the winged, gold-hoarding firebreathers we have today. Indeed, much attention is paid to Greco-Roman dragons as they are evidently Professor Ogden’s speciality subject (he published two volumes previous that tackle this type of dragon specifically; Drakon and Dragons, Serpents, and Slayers, both from 2013). However, The Dragon in the West also engages with the later dragon fights found in Christian hagiographies and the Norse/English dragons that come down from Germanic Europe to mix with their more southerly cousins. The book’s tracing of how the traditions met and fused makes it particularly compelling for comparative analysis. After all, how a culture deals with a dragon tells us much about their values and how they would approach other seemingly insurmountable tasks.

The Beowulf Manuscript

There is a translation of Beowulf out there to suit every temperament and purpose, from Seamus Heaney’s beautifully paraphrased verse to Felix Nobis’s snappy one-man show stage adaptations. But for scholarly purposes, the edition that recurs most frequently in both my teacher’s recommendations and the bibliographies of the above-mentioned critical texts is the 2010 Dumbarton Oaks edition, translated by R.D. Fulk and published by Harvard University Press. Not merely an accurate scholarly translation of the big-ticket headliner, the volume also includes translation of the texts from the surrounding manuscript as well as a translation of the Finnsburg Fragment mentioned in Beowulf. As it contains, in my own subjective opinion, the most dramatic confrontation with a dragon in literature, a solid edition of Beowulf is a must on my list of texts and the Fulk is as solid as they come.

Beowulf and the Dragon: Parallels and Analogues

2000’s Beowulf and the Dragon: Parallels and Analogues by Dr. Christine Rauer, published by D.S. Brewer, was the best sort of surprise discovery; I stumbled upon it in the library while searching for an adjacent topic. Examining how various cultures have portrayed their dragon-slayers as I am, Dr. Rauer’s study, which examines the relationship between the Germanic-influenced Beowulf and more traditionally Christian hagiographical showdowns, is a lucky find. The circumstances of its discovery mean I have not yet had the chance to dive into it properly, but it covers the battle of both St. Samson and St. Michael against their draconic adversaries and should prove most helpful in aiding me to understand early Christian dragon texts, which I confess to finding a trifle homogenous.

I’m sure that as I have the opportunity to devote myself to the dissertation more full-time, I’ll discover even more useful texts, and may add them on here as I do.

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