In Lord Dunsany's fantasy stories "Miss Cubbidge and the Dragon of Romance" and "The Hoard of the Gibbelins" from The Book of Wonder, Miss Cubbidge and the knight Alderic travel to other worlds borne by dragons. Although the dragons in these two stories both execute a similar physical task in carrying a human, there is a stark contrast between the dominance of Miss Cubbidge's dragon and Alderic's dragon's subordination.
Miss Cubbidge, a young lady dissatisfied with her life and current position (she desired to "lose the sight of that unshapely oblong that was so long her home"), is unexpectedly carried away by a "loathsome" dragon as she screams, "but to no knight, nor knew what knight to call on, nor guessed where were the dragons' overthrowers of far, romantic days." The dragon flies with Miss Cubbidge to the lands of Romance, where she gradually becomes a timeless figure of fairy tales, forgetting all about England, under the dragon's spell:
We are led to believe Alderic will succeed; we view his plan as fool proof and even to the last few lines, we anticipate, even long for, his success. But, just at the moment of his triumph, Alderic's victory is snatched away by Lord Dunsany.
It was not by chains that the dragon kept her there, but by one of the spells of old. To one to whom the facilities of the daily Press had for so long been accorded spells would have palled — you would have said — and galleons after a time and all things out-of-date. After a time. But whether the centuries passed her or whether the years or whether no time at all, she did not know. If any thing indicated the passing of time it was the rhythm of elfin horns blowing upon the heights. If the centuries went by her the spell that bound her gave her also perennial youth, and kept alight for ever the lantern by her side, and saved from decay the marble palace facing the mystical sea. And if no time went by her there at all, her single moment on those marvellous coasts was turned as it were to a crystal reflecting a thousand scenes. If it was all a dream, it was a dream that knew no morning and no fading away. The tide roamed on and whispered of master and of myth, while near that captive lady, asleep in his marble tank the golden dragon dreamed: and a little way out from the coast all that the dragon dreamed showed faintly in the mist that lay over the sea. He never dreamed of any rescuing knight. So long as he dreamed, it was twilight; but when he came up nimbly out of his tank night fell and starlight glistened on the dripping, golden scales.
Dunsany's repetition of "if" in describing the passage of time in the lands of Romance lends a hypnotic quality to the passage, reflecting Miss Cubbidge's spell-bound state. The dragon's will completely dominates her and her surroundings, and since he does not dream of any knight, no knight can rescue her.In "The Hoard of the Gibbelins", the knight Alderic decides to travel to the Gibbelins' world in an unconventional method by flying over the Forest Unpassable on a dragon. He provokes a notorious dragon that has been killing maidens and burning the countryside:
He took horse and spear and pricked till he met the dragon, and the dragon came out against him breathing bitter smoke. And to him Alderic shouted, "Hath foul dragon ever slain true knight?" And well the dragon knew that this had never been, and he hung his head and was silent, for he was glutted with blood. "Then," said the knight, "if thou would'st ever taste maiden's blood again thou shalt be my trusty steed, and if not, by this spear there shall befall thee all that the troubadours tell of the dooms of thy breed.
And the dragon did not open his ravening mouth, nor rush upon the knight, breathing out fire; for well he knew the fate of those that did these things, but he consented to the terms imposed, and swore to the knight to become his trusty steed.
By confronting the dragon and essentially bringing him to shame, Alderic exerts his power as a knight and can therefore tame the dragon. No physical struggle takes place in the encounter between human and dragon in either of these stories; rather, strength of will determines the dominating force.
1. In the above passages, the dragons never speak outright, but the reader has a clear understanding of the dragons' intentions via stage directions and descriptions. Is this an effective technique? In many fantasies animals and other creatures directly speak to humans, for example in The Hobbit by Tolkein (who was influenced by Dunsany). Consider this exchange between the protagonist Bilbo Baggins and the dragon Smaug:
We came over hill and under hill, by wave and wind, for "Revenge". Surely, O Smaug the unassessably wealthy, you must realize that your success has made you some bitter enemies?"
Then Smaug really did laugh — a devastating sound which shook Bilbo to the floor, while far up in the tunnel the dwarves huddled together and imagined that the hobbit had come to a sudden and a nasty end.
"Revenge!" he snorted, and the light of his eyes lit the hall from floor to ceiling like scarlet lightning. "Revenge! The King under the Mountain is dead and where are his kin that dare seek revenge? Girion Lord of Dale is dead, and I have eaten his people like a wolf among sheep, and where are his sons' sons that dare approach me? I kill where I wish and none dare resist. I laid low the warriors of old and their like is not in the world today. Then I was but young and tender. Now I am old and strong, strong, strong, Thief in the Shadows!" he gloated. "My armor is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!"
2. These stories indicate that, for all their power, dragons continue to fear knights. Does Lord Dunsany simply attempt to convey the old chestnut that the good cannot be bullied by the powerful, or does he explore any other themes?
3. In Phantastes, Anodos encounters the knight with a slain dragon, described as having beautiful features:
The horrid, serpent-like head, with its black tongue, forked with red, hanging out of its jaws, dangled against the horse's side. Its neck was covered with long blue hair, its sides with scales of green and gold. Its back was of corrugated skin, of a purple hue. Its belly was similar in nature, but its colour was leaden, dashed with blotches of livid blue. Its skinny, bat-like wings and its tail were of a dull gray. It was strange to see how so many gorgeous colours, so many curving lines, and such beautiful things as wings and hair and scales, combined to form the horrible creature, intense in ugliness.
The dragon from "Miss Cubbidge and the Dragon of Romance" is also described as being "golden" and "glistening." What is the significance of the contrast of the dragons' beauty and monstrosity?
4. How would Victorian medievalism and Arthurian legend have contributed to Lord Dunsany's employment of dragons and knights in his stories?
5. What is the significance of dragons carrying humans? How are steads usually portrayed in Victorian fantasy?
Dunsany, Lord. Fifty-One Tales. Project Gutenberg.
Dunsany, Lord. The Gods of Pegana. Project Gutenberg.
Last modified 15 May 2008