It “was Against the Rule”: Secret Dragons at School
Tina L. Hanlon
Associate Professor of English
Ferrum College

Note: This paper was presented at Children’s Literature Association Conference in June 2002, at Wyoming Seminary, PA. The theme of the conference was School in Children's Literature.

See also:
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Dragons in Picture Books
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If Mary in “Mary had a Little Lamb” wasn’t allowed to take her little lamb to school, what would have happened if she had a dragon hidden in her desk? Or what would happen if Sendak’s Max took his Wild Things to school? It might make the children laugh and play, and that happens in some school stories with dragons, but it’s not likely that the teacher would appreciate the love shared by Mary or Max and the dragon or Wild Things. Moreover, you wouldn’t expect to find a dragon in a real schoolroom if you were familiar with dragons only through ancient legends and hero tales, or through modern writers that both adults and children read, such as J. R. R. Tolkien and Ursula K. Le Guin. In the Western world, dragons traditionally represented the darkest of evil, satanic forces, living in underground dens or remote wilderness lairs, until they invaded human society by laying waste the countryside, devouring farm animals and maidens. Then the bravest and strongest of warriors would do combat with the dragon. These ancient adult heroes, such as Beowulf and St. George, were not at school, but they were being tested in death-defying confrontations with dragons. Other ancient dragons symbolized the conflicts of warring imperial powers on earth, and Merlin set a precedent for the child hero with secret knowledge of dragons. As an unschooled young boy, he foretold that the battle between a white and red dragon represented the defeat of Vortigern and triumph of Uther Pendragon, King Arthur’s father.

Modern fantasy writers built on these traditional images, portraying hobbits, wizards and warriors whose inner and outer strengths were tested by confrontations with deadly dragons. When the plot focuses on the education of the hero, as in Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, going out to defeat the dragon is like a final exam with a pass or fail outcome—life or death for the hero and the community. In The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley, a princess in another fantasy kingdom is denied the education and mortal challenges that elite males experience, so she educates herself by studying ancient writings and conducting experiments in secret to prepare herself to sneak out and fight increasingly ferocious and deadly dragons It is clear by the modern age that dragons, like Satan, represent not only external evils, but also wickedness within humans—greed, malice, violence, treachery—and this appears in stories about children as well as older characters. C. S. Lewis turns a mean boy, Eustace, into a dragon in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, until he learns his lesson about how to behave like a responsible human.

When I began studying dragons in other children’s books, however, I was amazed to find that in twentieth-century literature there are also hundreds of tame and timid dragons, often appearing in very ordinary, realistic settings such as schoolrooms. At first I scoffed at almost all tame dragons as wimpy, watered-down images resulting from the attempts of modern Americans to protect innocent children from the violence in traditional literature. Making the dragon either a shy or frisky playmate, or even a self-deprecating servant in a familiar setting might bring a little mischief into a story, but it prevents child readers from dealing with darker or more powerful forces within and without. Picture books such as the Dragon series by Margaret Hillert show cuddly, docile dragons joining human or animal pals in everyday events and mild adventure. In Come to School, Dear Dragon (1985), Dragon goes to school with a boy, follows the rules, sees a dragon in a book, plays and holds a hoop for the children, and then eats dragon snacks at home—much like a puppy dog. It might be fun to pretend that one has a dragon as a buddy, but cute dragons that differ little from tame bunnies or puppies, stripped of their legendary magic and mystery, have little to teach human children.

Satiric dragon stories, which have been popular for over a century, often parody ancient dragon lore and the traditional education of heroes or heroines. Today’s wacky subversions of serious legends and fantasies include K. H. McMullan’s series, The Dragon Slayers' Academy. In these thin novels spoofing the school story, medieval romance, and contemporary popular culture, a trio of awkward pre-adolescents take courses such as Stalking a Fire-Breather, taught by Sir Mort under the watchful eye of the stingy headmaster, Mordred. Dragon images are stereotypes representing the greatest fears and aspirations of the young knights in training. In a song praising Sir Lancelot, the boys sing, “He slays dragons, if they’re evil/He makes us proud to be medieval” (Knight for a Day 34). Patricia Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles subvert stereotypes and parody traditional fairy tales and gender roles in more dramatic and complex ways. Dealing with Dragons (1990) introduces Princess Cimorene as she rejects the conventional training and duties of a princess; she prefers studying fencing, Latin, cooking, and sorcery to more frivolous lessons intended to prepare her for an arranged marriage. After running away, she develops her practical skills while living with a society of peaceful dragons, serving them at first as a cook and a kind of librarian.

Although Wrede’s dragons provide escape from a restrictive traditional education, her novels don’t deal with extensively with schooling, yet they represent an interesting trend—the portrayal of alliances and friendships between humans and dragons. Many children’s books don’t just use dragons as stand-ins for people or pets, but rework different themes from older traditions, infusing them with modern values while depicting people and dragons who help each other grow and learn. As Le Guin, Jane Yolen, Ruth Berman and others have observed in essays about fantasy, dragons serve a wide variety of symbolic functions in literature; stories in which they have ambiguous or reciprocal relations with humans have deep legendary roots. In two fantasy series set on other planets, Yolen’s Dragon Pit Trilogy and Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall Trilogy, young protagonists work closely with dragons as both are trained to fulfill their roles in intriguing fantasy worlds. Like McKinley’s and Wrede’s heroines, McCaffrey’s Menolley runs away from a repressive home in Dragonsong. She learns by trial and error how to raise a clutch of fire lizards in hiding before she finds communities that will accept and train her talents with music and dragons.

Secret relationships between dragons and young characters reflect some major themes of children’s and young adult literature since the Victorian period—the young find great pleasure in having secrets, they see things that adults overlook, they need to develop private lives that aren’t always scrutinized by parents and teachers, and their stories expose the shortcomings of adult behavior and educational practices, questioning conventional views of conformity, individuality and wildness. In a number of stories with dragons in realistic settings, adults are unable or unwilling to see the child’s dragon. In “The Secret in the Matchbox” by Val Willis, the children even warn their teacher that Bobby has a dragon in school, but she refuses to pay attention until the tiny dragon grows as big as an elephant. The joke is on the teacher and Bobby has the upper hand; when he makes the huge, hot, destructive dragon shrink back to fit in his matchbox, Bobby “smiled a secret smile” (in A Treasury of Dragon Stories 81). In June Counsel’s A Dragon in Class 4, Miss Green’s inability to consider that the friendly dragon in her classroom is real keeps her from seeing it throughout the school term. One mother sees the dragon toward the end but then decides not to try convincing other adults that it is more than a picture on the wall. In Eddie’s Blue-Winged Dragon by C. S. Adler, even Eddie and his best friend, who are sixth graders, resist believing the evidence that a brass dragon comes alive, although Eddie’s little sister realizes it fairly quickly and gives it back to Eddie. We don’t know whether the adults who are mean to these children and the school bully actually see the dragon that scares and even injures them, teaching the children that their angry desires for revenge can have violent results more destructive than they intended.

In Counsel’s book and other stories, the dragon helps children learn in ways the human adults cannot or will not. Scales the dragon befriends Class 4 when Sam needs help remembering spelling and coping with bullies. In a series of episodes the dragon provides bridges between the children’s imagination and school like a secret teacher’s aide from a magical, somewhat dangerous other world (where Scales’ father ravages, devours, and hordes); Scales leads Sam and his classmates to develop their academic and artistic abilities as well as their belief in magic, while they introduce him to some human traditions. Jane Yolen shows in Dragon’s Boy that the theme of dragon as secret teacher has roots in ancient legends. This book about the boyhood of Arthur (called Artos) sends the boy who does not know his father was Pendragon into a cave for private lessons away from Sir Ector’s castle, where he thinks a powerful huge dragon doles out stories, wisdom, and jewels. In the end he learns the dragon tutor’s secret—that the dragon claws and noises are a disguise rigged up by an aged Merlin figure called Old Linn. In these books, as well as Bruce Coville’s Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher, learners in the process of developing greater self-confidence and independence end their secret experiences when they must say good-bye to their dragons. In Adam Draws Himself a Dragon, a German story by Irina Korschunow, translated by James Skofield, Adam faces the same hard lesson after he and his dragon help each other with their learning problems and physical disadvantages during his first year of school. Like so many other magical helpers in folklore and fantasy, as well as realistic teachers and school friends, the dragons move on after certain phases of growth are completed, having established relationships that strengthen the protagonists and transform their lives.

Coville’s Jeremy Thatcher is also in the tradition of modern stories about people who hatch dragon eggs, and then must learn by study and experience how to cope with the challenges of nurturing a growing dragon in their home or school. Two recent picture books in which child and dragon teach each other outside the classroom after the child mysteriously acquires an egg are Raising Dragons by Jerdine Nolan and Elise Primavera (1998) and The Egg, by M. P. Robertson (2001). Robertson shows a boy hatching a giant egg in his bedroom after finding it under his mother's chicken. Doing "his motherly duty to teach the dragon dragony ways," George instructs him in flying, fire breathing, distressing damsels, and defeating knights. Then a bedtime dragon story makes the dragon miss his own kind. Seven nights after leaving George, the dragon returns to take his friend on a night-time flight to visit the cave of his family. Bright illustrations of different sizes use lighting effectively to convey the drama and mystery of finding a giant egg in the hen house and developing a dragon friendship in realistic and fantastic settings by sharing knowledge and experiences. In Raising Dragons, a little African-American farm girl with a talent for bringing up dragons tells how her parents gradually accepted her first dragon. In return for the girl’s affectionate care, the dragon that grows bigger than her house takes her flying, and helps with the crops in amazing ways. When the dragon produces too much corn, it makes enough popcorn for the family to sell the surplus. With gentle humor this fantasy shows a child learning that her own talents are a little different from those of her traditional farmer parents who must also accept this lesson, since she gets more eggs to hatch after the first dragon goes on to live with his own kind.

In novels about older children, the problems that come with raising dragons secretly are more complex. J. D. Stahl’s essay on “The Imaginative Uses of Secrecy in Children’s Literature” provides an excellent overview of the way secrets help children “seek a knowledge of their own which is sometimes forbidden or in danger of being abused by adults” (40), solve the puzzles of realities outside themselves, form their group identity when they share secrets, and “create a meaningful sense of self, frequently in productive, not necessarily hostile, opposition to grown-ups or rivals” (44). But how is it productive to depict dragons, fantastic creatures that were traditionally so destructive, as the secret friends and allies of children in realistic settings? Lois Kuznets points out in When Toys Come Alive that toys can function as transitional objects through stages of childhood development, consoling children and encouraging creativity, and that even socially approved playthings can be subversive. Some of the dragons in these stories begin as inanimate objects and consumer goods like toys, or seem like pets, but they are certainly not socially approved possessions. Perhaps these plots with secret dragons are appealing because preteens, especially, find themselves hovering between two worlds, clinging to the magic of childhood while learning to accept mundane realities of adult life, yet also rebelling against ways adults want them to conform. Relationships with dragons can symbolize the difficulty and excitement of struggling with changes in themselves they have little control over, experimenting with dangerous secrets, and facing new challenges alone.

Coville’s Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher is more interesting than the other books I’ve mentioned about schoolboys with secret dragons in the complex way it develops these psychological themes through a blend of traditional lore and contemporary realism. Although Eddie in Adler’s book is deserving of magic help because of his valiant struggles to overcome disabilities and social problems caused by cerebral palsy, neither Eddie nor the reader ever learns very much about his secret dragon. The beauty of its blue wings and red eyes, the comfort of its night-time snuggling, and the actions that link it with his family’s bad temper are not connected with each other or with Eddie’s personal development in very satisfying ways. Eddie gains confidence when he wins a writing contest about books, yet he does not read books about dragons or learn ancient dragon lore as Jeremy Thatcher and other characters do. Jeremy, while literally running away from some social problems after school, mysteriously ends up in a magic shop where he buys a shimmering multi-colored ball. It turns out to be a dragon egg that was meant for him. Jeremy follows instructions for the hatching, care and feeding of his baby dragon until it grows too big to live in his bedroom. It becomes increasingly clear that the dragon which departs on Midsummer Eve—his last day of elementary school—was sent to help Jeremy cope with turbulent emotions as his childhood ends. He names his female dragon Tiamet, after the mother dragon who created the world in Babylonian mythology. Like legendary dragons, Tiamet has another secret name, eats meat and drinks milk, sheds her skin and teeth (which have magical purposes later on), weeps diamonds, is sensitive to Jeremy’s emotions, and communicates without words. It is especially interesting, since Jeremy is an artist whose creativity is not always appreciated by his teachers, that he must learn to communicate with Tiamet mentally through colors and pictures.

Experiencing the divided loyalties common in early adolescence, Jeremy must keep the dragon secret even when he would like to confide in his parents. Surprisingly, the only other person able to see Tiamet is a girl who would make a good friend if Jeremy could forget his boyish biases and the other kids’ teasing. Tiamet helps him deal with violent bullies and unfair teachers in some dramatic school scenes. There are humorous touches in the awkward scrapes caused by the invisible dragon, and in supporting characters such as the librarian Hyacinth Priest, who turns out to be a former dragon hatcher hiding a secret dragon book for Jeremy. In the end, flying with Tiamet over the town gives Jeremy new appreciation for the beauty of his home, while the necessity of sending Tiamet on to her own dragon world through a magic ritual breaks his heart. Later she returns in his dreams and Jeremy’s spirit is restored when he resumes his drawing. Coville has skillfully integrated modern psychology with enchanting ancient dragon lore, as the psychic connections between boy and dragon represent the boy’s growing ability to develop his individual talents, to be more independent but also more nurturing, and to learn how to love, accept love, and lose loved ones outside the security of his family home and familiar environment of his childhood school.

Perhaps it brings this discussion full circle to compare Jeremy’s experience with Harry Potter’s dragon encounters at Hogwarts Academy. More dramatically than Jeremy, Harry begins with personal problems and learns mysteriously that he is destined to play a special role in a magic world. While Jeremy never enters his dragon’s world, Harry travels to a world in which dragons are not helpful companions; they have more traditional roles as fierce antagonists from remote wild places, especially in Book 4 when Harry must face an awful Hungarian Horntail in an international wizard tournament at Hogwarts. Harry’s main antagonist among the students is named Draco (meaning dragon) of Slytherin House. Within Rowling’s particular blend of medieval and modern details, serious fantasy and boarding school parody, school authorities and other adult wizards have structured a society which tries to keep tight control over external powers such as dragons that threaten wizards and Muggles, but they are thwarted in both amusing and deadly serious ways by disobedience within the school and treachery from without. The theme of rule-breaking, which Lucy Rollin discusses in a recent article as a part of the school story tradition adapted in Rowlings’ novels, plays a major role in the dragon episodes in Books 1 and 4; Harry is even told that cheating is traditional at tournaments and adults give him secret help.

At the center of these episodes is Hagrid; he is both the adult who is trusted with everything and the perpetual adolescent who was expelled from Hogwarts and can’t keep secrets. Hagrid, not Harry, is a voluntary dragon hatcher who “desires dragons with a profound desire,” to paraphrase Tolkien, but Hagrid literally wants dragons in his own back yard in a way Tolkien did not. He’s the gentlest of friends to the students—like a loving house mother in some boarding schools, and the most foolhardy lover of dangerous beasts, more impulsive than the youngsters. Instead of following the magical world’s rules as Jeremy Thatcher does, Hagrid not only hatches his dragon Norbert illegally in Book 1, but he tries to keep him until he’s much too big and destructive. Harry and friends risk their own school careers and lives by insisting on sending Norbert away secretly. Hagrid’s weakness for dragons and his comical indiscretions make these episodes into a kind of parody of the modern tame dragon story by combining his nurturing personality with violent dragons from the ancient mythological traditions. Elizabeth Schafer writes that “the dragon Norbert is Harry’s alter ego, . . .. sent to safety in a crate much like toddler Harry was exiled in a bundle of blankets” (p. 68). It remains to be seen whether Harry will experience another kind of relationship with dragons in later books, whether dragons as foes or allies will have roles through his remaining school years as he develops his own individual blend of loving humanity and mysterious kinship with dark forces that his wise headmaster Dumbledore may not always be able to help him control.

I think I’m like Tolkien and most of Rowling’s wizards. I am fascinated by dragons, but I don’t exactly want a live one in my own backyard or school. I’m still uneasy with some of these tame dragon stories. It is interesting, nevertheless, to see how some authors associate dragons with parts of the child’s psyche that adults cannot tame or teach. These modern writers are brave enough to acknowledge that dragons are within us all, that children and young adults have much to learn outside the family and school structures adults create for them. They have their own lives in which they may teach and be taught by a dragon. Like Max and his Wild Things, they must learn to tame and be tamed by their dragons on their own.


Works Cited

Adler, C. S. Eddie's Blue-Winged Dragon. New York: Avon Camelot, 1990.

Berman, Ruth. “Victorian Dragons: The Reluctant Brood.” Children’s Literature in Education 15 (1984): 220-33.

Counsel, June. A Dragon in Class 4. London: Faber and Faber, 1984. With B/W drawings by Jill Bennett.

Coville, Bruce. Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher. New York: Pocket Books, 1991.

Hillert, Margaret. Come to School, Dear Dragon. Illus. David Helton. Cleveland: Modern Curriculum Press, 1985.

Korschunow, Irina. Adam Draws Himself a Dragon. 1978. Transl. James Skofield. New York: Harper and Row, 1986.

Kuznets, Lois. When Toys Come Alive. New Haven: Yale UP, 1994.

Lewis, C. S. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. 1953. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.

Le Guin, Ursula K. “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992. 34-40.

McCaffrey, Anne. Dragonsong. New York: Atheneum, 1976.

McKinley, Robin. The Hero and the Crown. New York: Greenwillow, 1984.

McMullan, Kate H. Knight for a Day. The Dragon Slayers’ Academy Series, No. 5. Illus. Bill Basso. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1999.

Nolan, Jerdine. Raising Dragons. Illus. Elise Primavera. New York: Harcourt, 1998.

Robertson, M. P. The Egg. New York: Phyllis Fogelman, 2001.

Rollin, Lucy. “Among School Children: The Harry Potter Books and the School Story Tradition.” The South Carolina Review 34 (2001): 200-208.

Rowling, J. K. Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them. New York: Scholastic, 2001.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic, 2000.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. New York: Scholastic, 1998.

Schafer, Elizabeth D. Exploring Harry Potter. Beacham’s Sourcebooks for Teaching Young Adult Fiction. Osprey, FL: Beacham, 2000.

Stahl, J. D. “The Imaginative Uses of Secrecy in Children’s Literature.” Only Connect: Readings in Children’s Literature. 3rd ed. Ed. Sheila Egoff, et al. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996. 39-47.

Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Fairy-stories.” Tree and Leaf. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1966.

Willis, Val. “The Secret in the Matchbox,” 1988. Rpt. Margaret Clark, ed. A Treasury of Dragon Stories. Illus. Mark Robertson. New York: Kingfisher, 1997. 76-81.

Wrede, Patricia. Dealing with Dragons. 1990. Searching for Dragons. 1991. New York: Harcourt.

Yolen, Jane. Dragon’s Blood, 1982. Heart’s Blood, 1984. A Sending of Dragons, 1987. New York: Delacorte/Dell/Harcourt Brace.

Yolen, Jane. The Dragon’s Boy. New York: Harper, 1990.

Yolen, Jane. “Dealing with Dragons.” The Horn Book 60 (1984): 380-88.

Yolen, Jane. "Here Be Dragons." 2000. Available online at http://www.janeyolen.com/essays.html.


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