Page images
PDF
EPUB

It is, however, much more difficult to account for serpents of a magnitude to require the intervention of a hero to rid the country of their terrors. These became magnified into dragons, which are thought to have been an exaggeration of the crocodile by old naturalists ; for the pictured dragon resembles a huge lizard more than any other animal. In the Apocalypse the devil is called the dragon, on which account St. George, the patron saint of England, is usually painted on horseback, and killing at a dragon under his feet, as emblematical of the saint's faith and fortitude. The term Dragon was often applied allegorically, as to a Danish rover, a domestic tyrant, or, as in the well-known case of the Dragon of Wantley, a villanous overgrown lawyer, endowed with all the venom, maw, and speed of a flying eft, whom the gallant More of More Hall • slew with nothing at all' but the aid of a good conscience, and a fair young maid of sixteen, 'to 'noint him o'ernight when he went to fight, and to dress him in the morning.' Of him we shall presently speak more at length.

How the idea of the crocodile could reach our villages centuries ago is a mystery ; but it has been surmised that the real history of these crocodiles or alligators, if they are such, may be, that they were brought home by crusaders as specimens of dragons, just as Henry the Lion Duke of Brunswick brought from the Holy Land the antelope's horn, which had been palmed upon him as a specimen of a griffin's claw; and that they should be afterwards fitted with appropriate legends, is not surprising. At the west door of the Cathedral of Cracow are hanging some bones said to have belonged to the dragon which inhabited the cave at the foot of the rock (the Wawel) on which the cathedral and royal castle stand; and this creature is said to have been destroyed by Kratz, the founder of the city. Others think that the dragon of the Crusaders must have been the boa constrictor. St. Jerome mentions the trail of a dragon seen in the sand in the desert, which appeared as if a great beam had been dragged along. Now, it is not likely that a crocodile would have ventured so far from the bank of the Nile as to be seen in the desert.

Recently an ingenious attempt has been made to identify the dragon with the crocodile. M. de Freminville cites many known facts of natural history, to prove that there is no reason to believe that crocodiles never inhabited Western Europe, merely because we do not now find them there. And, above all, he adduces the fact that, in the sand at the mouth of the Seine, at Harfleur, and Quillebæuf, entire skeletons of crocodiles have been found in a state only half fossilized. From all which he concludes, that the continual battles of the heroes of the middle ages were, in truth, real encounters with crocodiles.

A correspondent of Notes and Queries, No. 61, passing through the city of Brünn, in Moravia, had his attention drawn to the Lindwurm, or Dragon, preserved there from a very remote period. This monster, according to tradition, was invulnerable, like his brother of Wantley, except in a few well-guarded points; and from his particular pre

dilection in favour of veal and young children, was the scourge and terror of the neighbourhood. The broken armour and well-picked bones of many doughty knights, scattered around the entrance to the cave he inhabited, testified to the impunity with which he had long carried on his depredations, in spite of numerous attempts to destroy him. The lindwurm at length fell a victim to the craftiness of a knight, who, to deceive his opponent, stuffed, as true to nature as possible, with unslaked lime, the skin of a freshly killed calf, which he laid before the dragon's cave. The monster, smelling the skin, is said to have rushed out instantly, and to have swallowed the fatal repast; and feeling afterwards, as may be readily expected, a most insatiable thirst, hurried off to a neighbouring stream, where he drank, until the water, acting upon the lime, caused him to burst. The inhabitants, on learning the joyful news, carried the knight and the lindwurm in triumph into the city of Brünn, where they have ever since treasured up the memento of their former tyrant. The animal or reptile thus preserved is undoubtedly of the crocodile or alligator species, though any attempt to count the distinguishing bones would be fruitless, the scaly back having been covered too thickly with pitch as protection from the weather. May not the legendary dragons have their origin from similar circumstances to those of this Brünn lindwurm ?

Of all dragons, that of Wantley is the most celebrated. *This famous monster had, according to old story, fortyfour teeth of iron ; and some historians say he used to

swallow up churches full of people, fat parson and all, and pick his teeth with the steeple; but this was probably only scandal. Little children, however, it is certain, he used to munch up as we would an apple. He had eyes like live coals, with a long sting in his tail; and his sulphurous breath poisoned the country for ten miles round. The knight who went to fight this monster very wisely got himself a suit of armour stuck all over with iron spikes, so that he looked like a great hedgehog; and when the dragon tried to worry him, he was obliged to leave go again. Then the knight gave him some proper kicks in the ribs with the spikes at the end of his iron boots, and once ran his sword right into him, and killed him; but the dragon, forgetting he was dead, still fought on, till a great part of his tail being lopped off, and his blood pouring out by bucketsful, he cried out “Murder !” most lustily, and afterwards fainted away, and groaned, and kicked, and died. But, after all, the knight ran his sword into him several times, rightly conceiving that such a villain could never be too dead ! If this story should not be true, it's founded on truth, and that's all the same thing. An overgrown rascally attorney at Wantley, near Rotherham, in Yorkshire, cheated some children out of a large estate; but a gentleman in the neighbourhood, arming himself with the spikes of the law, recovered their property for them; and the attorney having lost it and his character for ever, sickened, grieved, and died. But what would such a dry, every-day story of villany be worth without some poetical flourishes about it? or, as

Flutter says, “Really the common occurrences of this little dirty world are hardly worth relating without some embellishment.” : 1

• Old Wortley Montague (Lady Mary's husband),' says Walpole, “lived on the very spot where the dragon of Wantley did,-only, I believe, the latter was much better lodged: you never saw such a wretched hovel—lean, unpainted, and half its nakedness barely shaded with harateen stretched till it cracks. Here the miser hoards health and money-his only two objects; he has chronicles in behalf of the air, and battens on tokay, his single indulgence, as he has heard it is particularly salutary. But the savageness of the scene would charm your Alpine taste : it is tumbled with fragments of mountains, that looked ready laid for building the world. One scrambles over a huge terrace, on which mountain ashes and various trees spring out of the very rocks; and at the brow is the den, but not spacious enough for such an inmate. However, I am persuaded it furnished Pope with this line, so exactly it answered to the picture :

“On risted rocks, the dragon's late abode.”'

St. Leonard's Forest had, some two centuries and a half since, a prodigy which ranks amongst Sussex traditions. Concerning this monster there was published a tract, entitled True and Wonderful: a discourse relating to a strange and monstrous serpent or dragon lately discovered,

Percy's Reliques of Ancient Poetry.

1

L

« PreviousContinue »