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Friday, April 25, 2014

Chesterton's first essay published in The Debater, written when he was 16

-The Debater, March-April 1891

The dragon is certainly the most cosmopolitan of impossibilities. His eccentric figure has walked through the romances of all ages and of all nations. It is a noticeable fact that many races, far separated by oceans and by ages and differing in language, customs, and surroundings, have nevertheless evolved similar creatures in the realm of the imagination. In nearly all legends, Greek, Norse, Celtic, Semetic, Mediaeval, and Japanese, this clay intruder has appeared from the earliest times, and appeared apparently with the sole object of being killed, whether by the lance of St. George, the club of Herakles, the sword of Siegfried, or the arrows of Hiawatha. We have even seen a dragon, together with some other dubious looking quadrupeds, in the arabesques of Mohammedans, who have usually, as the reader doubtless knows, a religious objection founded on the literal interpretation of the Second Commandment, against "making to themselves a graven image" of life in any form. The worthy Moslems had, however, doubtless something to say for themselves, for we will willingly acquit the quadrupeds thus represented from being "the likeness of anything that is in heaven above or in the earth beneath or in the waters under the earth."

As to the traditional exterior of this attractive creature, there are remarkably few discrepancies. The Darwinian theory of physical adaptation to surroundings may have acted to some extent in the fanciful as well as the natural world, and produced local varieties of the dragon suited to local scenery and tradition, but, on the whole, he remains the same when writhing under the red cross of St. Michael in a Gothic stained glass window as when he wriggles blue and complicated on the
golden banner of the celestial empire.

We will not attempt to explain the popularity of this strange conception. We will not undertake to say whether the Dragon is simply an exaggerated serpent, the Python and Hydra of Hellenic myth, or whether his widespread prominence be due to some dim, pre-historic recollection of those dragon-like ptero-dactyles and ichthisauri, who were the placid spectators of the creation of Adam; all these are questions for more abstruse discourses than this our humble contribution.

But whatever its origin, the dragon usually consists of the body of a lizard, the claws of an eagle, the wings of a bat, and a tail ending in that singular broad-arrow formation which seems to be reserved for the tails of dragons and the clothes of convicts. The head of this animal resembles to some extent that of an intoxicated crocodile. I do not mean to so far insult that excellent and respectable class of reptiles as to say that I ever saw a crocodile in an inebriate state. I simply mean that the few crocodiles I have seen were so inexpressibly wooden and dingy in appearance that I can imagine nothing but the cheerful glass that could excite them to the state of leering malignity which is the recognized expression of dragons under all circumstances.

But though we cannot give an explanation of the union of the external peculiarities of the dragon, the spirit and meaning of the conception is obvious. The idea of a huge, hideous, and powerful incarnation of evil, desolating countries and devouring
populations, is a conception that has been an important moral influence in poetical mythology, particularly in that of the earlier and purer Greeks, as is finely expressed in Charles Kingsley's poem-
"Heroes who dare, in the God-given might of their manhood,
Bravely to do and to suffer, and far in the fens and the forests
Smite the devours of men, heaven-hated brood of the giants,
Twy-formed, strange, without like, who obey not the golden-haired rulers;
Vainly rebelling they rage, till they die by the swords of the heroes.
Thus the archaic poet pictured, and thus the legendary hero sought him in the black depths of dark and mystic forests, in twilight fens, and on burning sands, lifting his horrible crest over dismal turrets, or lurking in gloomy caverns heaped with bleached bones.

He has grown more prudent now.

He doesn't see the good of going about as a roaring lion, but seeks what he may devour in a quiet and respectable way, behind many illustrious names and many imposing disguises. Behind the scarlet coat and epaulettes, behind the star and mantle of the garter, behind the ermine tippet and the counsellor's robe, behind, alas, the black coat and white tie, behind many a respectable exterior in public and in private life, we fear that the dragon's flaming eyes and grinning jaws, his tyrannous power, and his infernal cruelty, sometimes lurk.

Reader, when you or I meet him, under whatever disguise, may we face him boldly, and perhaps rescue a few captives from his black cavern; may we bear a brave lance and a spotless shield through the crashing mele'e of life's narrow lists, and may our wearied swords have struck fiercely on the painted crests of Imposture and Injustice when the Dark Herald comes to lead us to the pavilion of the King.




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