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Comps + Dragons = Awesome

May 30, 2008 at 2:24 pm
By Margaret Taylor '10

The end of 8th week produced a flurry of comps talks from the English and SoAn majors. When perusing the NNB for talks of choice, it was hard to miss Amanda Smith's '08 presentation "Befriending Dragons" that was, in fact, entirely about the evolution in the portrayal of dragons in literature. Pretty snazzy idea, we think.

Smith came to the presentation appropriately dressed in a t-shirt with a cartoon knight pulling a thorn out of a cartoon dragon’s foot. A stuffed dragon plush toy adorned the table next to the podium. Her comps presentation was a study of dragons as they appear in English literature and how their portrayal has shifted with time. In the earliest mentions of dragons, such as in the Bible, Beowulf, and The Faerie Queene, the dragon is a force of evil and chaos that comes from outside society. The beast is often a symbol of the wilderness, and the hero must go out and conquer the dragon in order to preserve order within society.

But, Smith says, a shift happened in our thinking about dragons right around the Romantic period (Frankenstein’s a good example of a novel from this period). By this point in history, we’d run out of wilderness to conquer! We began to have a problem with the simple good versus evil dichotomy, worrying much more about the evils that come from within society. In the literature, dragons became much more complicated figures.

Smith focused on three modern works of literature about dragons as examples. Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy, the oldest, features a dragon that eats people. Ged, the main character, negotiates a truce with the dragon instead of simply killing it. Patricia C. Wrede '74 wrote the Enchanted Forest series in which traditional fairy tales are turned on their heads--the Princess Cimorene deliberately leaves home to ask the dragons for a job, and finds that they are much friendlier people than the humans are.

And who could forget Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance trilogy? Smith begins with the caveat that “these books were written by a 17-year-old,” but points out that Saphira, the dragon, is Eragon’s best friend. The elves, who are considered models of behavior, are one with nature rather than attempting to conquer it. “They don’t cut cucumbers off the vine, they sing cucumbers off the vine.”