Trigger warnings for this article: description of violence in a folktale about the slaying of a dragon. Safe for work.
May 27, 2009: In South Yorkshire, England, a new statue of a famous dragon was unveiled.1 It stands in a forest across from the cavernous crags (Wharncliffe Chase) that were said to be the home of the Dragon of Wantley, from a 17th century comedic play.2
The statue’s serpentine body is similar to an old-fashioned dry stone wall, meandering 15 meters (16.4 yards)3 before terminating in a large elm-wood head. (See a photo of the statue4 on the site of Stone To Steel, a project working to preserve the region’s history.) The wall portion was assembled by John Alston, and the head was carved by Mark Bell.5
To begin with, the Dragon of Wantley seems to have been a resident of folklore, not of myth. Folktales are stories considered to be fictional by their culture of origin, whereas myth and legend are those stories thought by their tellers to be true. (Myth is religious, and legend is historical.)6 The dragon’s tale was written to make fun of other dragon-slaying stories, as well as to mock contemporary figures; the contemporaries who understood this never believed that it was real. In meaning, the play The Dragon of Wantley is now thought to have been an unflattering caricature of a current politician, or a satire of a recent court case in which a much-loathed lawyer was defeated. However, when this context was later forgotten, the story was taken seriously, and so passed into legend.
The story of The Dragon of Wantley originated in 1685 as a burlesque opera. Its satirical tone is clear: unlike dragon-slayers who are usually written as pure and holy, this knight is hedonistic, a drunk and a womanizer. More of More Hall defeats the dragon not in the manner of saints and heroes (by the sign of the cross, a lance in the throat, or decapitation) but in an undignified manner: by wearing spiked armor, and kicking the dragon to death.7
Specifically, More kicked the dragon’s behind, as shown in the woodblock illustration that usually accompanies the poem (shown to the right). The version most commonly reprinted now is the censored one published by Thomas Percy, which says this dragon’s one vulnerable place was instead its mouth, and omits several verses of base humor. You can read the poem in both its permutations, being forewarned that even the cleaned-up one retains enough of its comedic character that it has the ability to offend (for example, with the terrible rhyme “Do but slay this dragon, who won't leave us a rag on”).8
In 1892, The Dragon of Wantley was loosely adapted into an illustrated novel, similarly irreverent in tone, although the dragon expires in an altogether different manner. By its vintage, it has passed into the public domain, so you can read the novel9 through Project Gutenberg, an online library of free public-domain e-books.
It’s appropriate that there is a statue of the Wantley Dragon on the very site described in its story. The new statue of the Dragon of Wantley is different from other statues of famous dragons. Take a look at it,10 it’s no delicate-featured bronze. However, a folk craft such as chainsaw sculpture perfectly suits the character of the story it celebrates.( Sources )
- O. Scribner