Argonautica, by Apollonius of Rhodes
This Greek epic poem tells the tale of Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece. The fleece is guarded by an unsleeping dragon; Jason enlists the help of the sorceress Medea, who gives him a magic potion with which to spray the dragon. It falls asleep on the spot. But then our hero has to repay her . . .
Dr Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe
Faustus sells his soul for superhuman powers: “sitting in a chariot burning bright, / Drawn by the strength of yoked dragons’ necks, / He views the clouds, the planets, and the stars”. Dragon-riding is his devilish privilege. “Mounted then upon a dragon’s back, / That with his wings did part the subtle air, / He now is gone to prove cosmography.”
The Faerie Queene, by Edmund Spenser
The Red Cross Knight (England) and his fair lady Una (the true church) are travelling through a blighted land, when they find the cause: “That dreadful Dragon they espide, / Where stretcht he lay upon the sunny side, / Of a great hill . . .” Spenser’s knight does battle for three days with the fearsome dragon (Rome? Spain? Satan?) before triumphing.
The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs, by William Morris
Morris’s cod-epic poem features a Norse hero called Sigurd who forges a mighty sword in order to attack the dragon Fafnir, who guards a priceless hoard of gold. “He laughed and smote with the laughter and thrust up over his head. / And smote the venom asunder, and clave the heart of Dread”. He kills the dragon and gets the gold, but there is, of course, a curse upon it.
The Hobbit, by JRR Tolkien
The ancient dragon Smaug lies amidst his wealth in his lair in the lonely mountain. He is not just fierce and fire-breathing, but cunning and witty too. Bilbo visits him with a company of brave but foolish dwarves and learns of the one weak spot on his jewel encrusted body. An archer does for the enraged dragon when he flies out to destroy a nearby town.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by CS Lewis
Grumpy, greedy Eustace Scrubb finds a dead dragon’s lair, with a hoard of gold and jewels. He puts on a beautiful bracelet and finds himself turned into a dragon. Thus transmogrified, he realises the error of his ways and does penance, though not before disgusting himself by eating the carcass of the dead dragon. Aslan forgives him and makes him human again.
Possession, by AS Byatt
Dragons keep appearing in this novel (Maud, the heroine, has one on her kimono). Randolph Ash writes a poem in which “The dragon Ladon crisped his jewelled crest / Scraped a gold claw and sharped a silver tooth / And dozed and waited through eternity / Until the tricksy hero, Heracles, / Came to his dispossession.”
Red Dragon, by Thomas Harris
Francis Dolarhyde, the psychopathic villain of the novel that came before The Silence of the Lambs, is obsessed with William Blake’s scary, apocalyptic paintings of the Great Red Dragon, representative of Satan. He has a huge tattoo of the dragon on his back.
Dragon Rider, by Cornelia Funke
No more dragon persecution! In Funke’s children’s fantasy the dragons are rather nice and have names such as Firedrake and Sorrel. The problem is horrid humans. But the dragons are befriended by a brave orphan boy called Ben, who gets to become the “dragon rider”.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson
The original Swedish title was Men Who Hate Women, but the English version takes its title from the heroine, private investigator Lisbeth Salander, a 25-year-old goth with a brilliant mind and a dragon tattooed on her back. What does it mean?