The following is the contribution of Sarah Pedzinski, a PhD candidate in English Literature at Indiana University. Her dissertation focuses on Old English dragons as marvelous creatures existing in between the natural and the supernatural. Her other research interests include legendary heroes and monsters in Old English, Old Norse, and Early Middle English literatures. You can follow her adventures with dragons in her newly minted blog at readerofdragons.home.blog.
The best way to raise the stakes in any situation is to throw in a dragon. We see this tactic in Beowulf, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain, and even Christian hagiography. However, the authors of these medieval texts were doing more than simply upping the ante. For pre-modern peoples, dragons were not beasts of fantasy, but very real and very frightening creatures. They appear in encyclopedic entries in both Pliny the Elder’s The Natural History (c. 77CE) and Isidore of Seville’s The Etymologies (c. 615-630CE). Later, we see dragons in Old English epics, Middle English romances, and the margins of medieval manuscripts.
In my dissertation research, I focus on reexamining the Old English dragon; I argue that the dragons in this corpus can be understood as natural creatures rather than supernatural monsters. The dragon in Beowulf, after all, only attacks when an unnamed thief invades his hoard. Many assume dragons are the antithesis to heroes, but I ask: what if these creatures simply demonstrate man’s engagement with the hostile world around him?
Dragons are not only my research focus. They are also beloved frequent flyers in my undergraduate classroom. Like many medieval authors, I raise the stakes for my students by throwing in dragons. Most composition courses do not feature dragons, but in my course conversations about how fantasy and reality intertwine, how we use monstrosity to establish borders, and how traditional canon decides what texts (and what creatures) merit further analysis have been prompted by inviting dragons into the room. The power of the dragon’s presence in my composition classroom encouraged me to design an entire course centered on the Western dragon.
The course aims not only to give students a greater understanding of Western dragons, but also to catalyze them into questioning the cultural and historical significance of mythic figures. In the first unit, “Archeological Fragments,” students define the dragon through select mythologies, early works of literature, and the biblical Book of Revelation. The second unit, “Seeing Green,” looks at dragons within medieval bestiaries and natural histories (like Pliny and Isidore) as well as medieval travelogues, asking students to compare the dragons in these texts to those of mythic lore. In the final unit, “Where are they now?” students delve into modern dragons in adult media, such as Game of Thrones and Skyrim, as well as those in children’s media, such as How to Train Your Dragon and Dragons Love Tacos, to assess how dragons have become the pulpy, stereotypical leviathans we know and love. Throughout the course, students present response papers and, in the latter part, take on the role of author to craft their own dragon short story, mockumentary, or board game.
As Dr. Gina Brandolino smartly points out in her recent contribution to this blog, medieval studies struggles to maintain its relevance in modern undergraduate classrooms. Dragons provide an opportunity to invigorate student interest in the field. Our students, like many before them, hunger for fantasy. In a world that (dangerously) borders on the over-rational, it is worthwhile to free those beasts that both terrify and delight us, those dragons that force us to reckon with our own humanity–to invite them to help us raise the stakes.