I am absolutely ecstatic that I found this book at the thrift store yesterday. Jubilant. I had a copy as a kid, and a few years ago I noticed that my copy had gone missing. Okay, I thought, how hard could it be to find online and replace? I admit I'm not the best googler on the planet, but after several days of trying to find a book called simply Dragons
, with no idea of the author's name or anything else - this search ended in failure.
This book is just as wonderful as I remember. Probably because I was kid then, I have a bunch of these late-70s beastieries: Unicorn, Faeries, or Gnomes. This book and the unicorn one are more academic in tone, acknowledging their subjects as unreal and charting the ways the idea or the image of these beasts changes through art history and culture. The other two are more folkloric, with a wink and nudge, and the art is by only one or two artists. What they all have in common are unbelievably cool art. I can't say I've ever read more than half the words in any of these books, but I spent hours pouring over the images. (And, I think the -ology books are the more contemporary version of these bestiaries - books like Dragonology: The Complete Book of Dragons. While I like these books fine, they are more high design/low content. They're really attractive, but not as compelling.)
The dragon in the West is usually depicted as a chaotic force, the leviathan, and later in Medieval Christianity, The Devil. There's a ton of religious subtext, and the medieval images are really gloriously perverse and have that high-on-ergot hallucinatory insanity that is the best thing about the Dark Ages. The following image has something to do with Protestant depictions of the evil of papacy, but it's so nuts I just want to stare. Observe:
I showed this to the kids last night, which prompted a long discussion about whether it would be barf or poop that came out of this devil's second face. I'm happy to be exploring the important questions with the kids.
Mostly this book is concerned with the European dragon, though there are brief forays into the Chinese, Hindu, and Native American monsters. I don't really mind this brevity, because I think that dragons like the one on the cover here have a really specific cultural construction in the West, and equating that with Classical chimera like the hippogriff or Mesoamerican monsters like Quetzalcoatl is a little inaccurate. The Chinese dragon - that is probably a more culturally robust figure than the European dragon is for the West, and really needs its own book to work out how exactly the dragon functions through Chinese history and art. That said, tokenism is always a bummer.
Anyway, point being, this is like one of the books on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, filled up with crazy beasties in the corners, chock full of massacres and monsters and the end of the world. I'm going to put in one more image, one of my favorites, a Renaissance saint stomping on a dragon. (I'm putting it in the spoiler tag because it's a big image.)
Do you see his incredibly cool knee-plates? I know I'm supposed to take away from this image that the Renaissance de-emphasized the dragon, focusing on the reason of man and stuff, but knee-plates is what gets me. And the kids said this guy looked like He-Man. Fair enough.