BMCR 2022.04.43

The dragon in the West: from ancient myth to modern legend

, The dragon in the West: from ancient myth to modern legend. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. Pp. 480. ISBN 9780198830184. £30.00.

Historians in some far future may be forgiven for inferring that the early twenty-first century was an age of dragons. Throughout the modern period, authors of fantasy literature borrowed and repurposed historical depictions of dragons to serve as the antagonists and allies of the heroes in their tales. The translation of these stories from books to film allowed digital artists to render and reinterpret these monsters in dynamic and memorable ways, while the global popularity of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice (better known as HBO’s A Game of Thrones) put the word “dragon” on the lips of a new generation of fantasy enthusiasts. The book under review explores the premodern roots of the monster we all know so well. Daniel Ogden has already produced two books on the ancient representation of the dragon: a wide-ranging descriptive handbook of serpents in Greek and Roman culture and a companion volume of Greek and Latin sources in translation.[1] One may ask why we need another book by Ogden on premodern dragons. As he explains in his introduction to The Dragon in the West, his earlier works concentrated primarily on the literature of ancient world and its afterlife in medieval Christian hagiography. In this new book, he explores how the ancient representation of the creatures proceeded “to modern notions of dragondom” (p. 1). In doing so, he steps outside of his comfort zone to consider the representation of the dragon in Old Norse and Old English sources from early medieval England and Scandinavia, but otherwise he does not stray very far from the ancient and hagiographical materials already treated at great length in his two previous books.

Dragons of the West has three parts, each comprising several chapters. Part One (“Heroes”) provides a catalogue of descriptions of the physical attributes of dragons in ancient Greek literature (Chapter 1) and Latin sources (Chapter 2), where they are depicted as colossal snakes. After a digression on female monsters, some of whom are designated by the rare term drakaina (Chapter 3), Ogden traces the evolution of the representation of the dragon’s form through “centuries of Dr. Moreau-like experimentation” from antiquity to the European Middle Ages (Chapter 4), when it cross-pollinated with the iconography of the ancient sea-monster (kētos) and the winged early Christian demon to produce the two-legged wyvern and eventually, by the fourteenth century, the four-legged creature recognizable as a dragon to modern viewers.

Part Two (“Saints”) examines the structure and literary motifs of dragon-battles in Greek and Latin hagiography. A prefacing chapter catalogues the scriptural antecedents for the hagiographical tradition and provides a summary of the attributes of dragons in medieval saints’ lives (Chapter 5). Ogden then lays out the “principal narrative course” (p. 165) of the saintly dragon-fight from the monster’s initial threat to a community, the preparation of the saint for battle, the confrontation at the dragon’s lair, the defeat of the monster and its disposal, and finally the results of the saint’s victory (Chapter 6). A coda to this chapter identifies “some important narrative subroutines” (p. 233) in these literary traditions, including dragons accompanied by a brood of young or appeased by the sacrificial victims of a fearful populace (Chapter 7). After a brief interlude to examine a very early parody of a saintly dragon-fight recorded in Lucian’s late second-century Philopseudes (Chapter 8), this section concludes with a discussion of two later Byzantine narrative traditions regarding the warrior-saints Theodore Tyron and George, who, unlike other holy men, actually do battle with the dragons they vanquish (Chapter 9) rather than subduing them through the power of God.

Ogden turns to northern medieval vernacular literature in Part Three (“Vikings”), which is much shorter than the preceding sections and comprises only two chapters. The first (Chapter 10) describes the form of the Germanic dragon, which tended to be either wingless and serpentine (Old Norse ormr and Old English wyrm) or winged and multi-legged (Old English draca, from the Latin draco) and offers some examples of their depiction in Norse iconography. The second (Chapter 11) reviews the most common motifs of the Germanic dragon-battle. The origins of dragons as shaped-shifted humans or as creatures generated from human corpses or as small, harmless reptiles that grow to monsterous size with human help occupied northern medieval authors much more so than their Mediterranean counterparts. There follows an inventory of literary motifs typical of these stories, including accounts of the hero’s motives and weapons of choice, the setting of the battle, and the dragon’s vulnerabilities.

The Dragon in the West presents a robust inventory of ancient and medieval stories about giant snakes and winged reptilian monsters in Greek, Latin, and northern European vernacular literature. Each section boasts long translated excerpts from the stories in question, many of which will be familiar to readers of Odgen’s earlier studies. The book is primarily an index of tale types and recurring motifs, similar in form and function to early twentieth-century folklore catalogues, like Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk Literature (Helsinki and Bloomington, IN, 1922-1936). As a reservoir of information, it is an impressive achievement, but the lack of historical context for the creation and reception of these dragon stories and images makes it difficult to explain the reasons for the many variations apparent in these otherwise conservative literary and artistic depictions of the most popular monster in the human imagination.


[1] Daniel Ogden, Drakōn: Dragon Myth and Serpent Cult in the Greek and Roman Worlds (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), reviewed by Laura Gawlinski in BMCR 2013.11.21; and Dragons, Serpents, and Slayers in the Classical and Early Christian Worlds: A Sourcebook (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).