Here be Dragons

Despite a number of tales about Danish depredations, and their having a settlement of sorts in Scilly, Cornwall probably saw less of the Norsemen’s incursions than other parts of Britain’s main-land. This might, in a way, explain the absence of dragons in the county’s otherwise varied folklore. The dragon-headed prow of a Viking long ship must have been a great aid to what we would now term, raising levels of awareness with regard to dragons whether scaly, slimy or slithery. A bit thin on the ground (or flying above it ) hereabouts. Nor is it simply a matter of their being “vanished” by sword, spell or prayer, for they just seem never to have been around. Nowhere this side of the Tamar, has anyone pointed out to me some hill that was once a dragon’s lair, the denudation evidence of its coils being looped around its slopes. Before venturing further, we are looking at a time prior to zoology, let alone precise taxonomy and terminology associated with scientific systems. The casual reader, unfamiliar with folk-loric themes and motifs, learns of a “worm” being seen-off by knight or saint, and remains unimpressed: the blackbirds in his garden do the same scores of times a day. The terms “worm” and “serpent” in these accounts are pretty well synonymous with dragon. There’s, of course, the business of dragons themselves being something more than mere dragons, and personifications of every-thing evil. Drake’s surname was changed by the Spaniards to El Draco. and prior to that time, in Europe’s Carapathians dwelt a less-than-cuddly character, Vlad the Impaler, otherwise known as Dracul (in the novel the eponymous Dracula is a descendant of his). The term “dragon” was virtually interchangeable with “devil” as was “serpent”. All this detour and preamble merely emphasis-es that when we read of a worm being slain diligently breaking up the topsoil, its tastes running more to bolting down live stock or maidens. And at the end of all this, the dragon/worm/serpent is at best poorly represented in local lore. “In those days” runs a skimpy account, at best vague as to actual locality involved, “Tandarus reigned, a man of fierce and cruel ways, who in his savage tyranny, had gathered worms and all sorts of serpents into a pit of water”.

This was not by way of making a systematic collection, or some pioneering conservation measure, but “in order to punish and torture thieves there”. Tandarus sounds just the sort to have made a good pen-friend for Vlad the Impaler. Just as I had all but written off any chance of encountering a Cornish-based dragon, my researches, more dilatory than diligent, were rewarded, and although the Padstow Obby Oss is a subject for another season, that had suggested the link. There remained a memory persistent as the snapping of the Obby’s jaws, for there’s certainly something more dragon-like than equine about that swirling, cavorting monster. This, and a stray reference to some book. had me seeking and sniffing some tenuous connection with the good Petroc. after whom Padstow is, in a roundabout fashion, named. Meanwhile back at the snake-pit… Tandarus was in time
succeeded by his son who was either more humane or simply less interested in exotic pets. From whatever motive he “forbade the use of such tortures- so enjoyed by his parent. Commendable, yes. but. ahh. everything comes at a price, and the pit dwelling serpents/worms/dragons, deprived of their regular diet, “rose up in a tightly packed mass and gnashed one another with their vicious fangs”. The outcome was predictable: a sort of macabre version of the “Ten Green Bottles” theme, with a tag line running “and then there was one”. Only one, but bigger, stronger and presum-ably hungrier than those on which he had dined. No longer con-fined to the flooded pit, it ranged the Cornish countryside with dis-astrous results to both farm animals and populace. Fortunately Petroc had his cell nearby (a spot probably more abject than hum-ble) and finding prowling monsters anything but conductive to meditation, he lent his services. The saint “came to this place and after knelling to pray front of everyone, restored to life a man who had died, and ordered the monster to depart to a wilderness beyond the sea”. A bit anti-climactic alongside other accounts with some knight just returned from a crusade, hacking the beast into sections that were just as likely to join up again. The chronology is not clear but perhaps this was Petroc’s second run-in with a dragon, since there was also “a certain large dragon which used to come wandering around Petroc’s cell”, a somewhat pitiful one with a trouble-some splinter wedged in its bulging eye. In some way not made entirely clear, this impaired its venom-producing abilities. Neither tale, you will note, makes any reference to fire-belching. Again, no flourishing of a blade, no ramming of smouldering peats into the creature’s throat, for Petroc simply worked his own variation on the Androcles and the lion technique, removed the splinter, and after a sprinkling cere-mony, it simply went away healed changing both its ways and its diet.
There are obvious parallels here with other better known stories of saints dealing with troublesome beasts : Francis and “brother wolf’; Jerome and the lion; Patrick and the snakes (and despite the story’s wide circulation there never had been snakes in Hibernia). Again this leads us to view beasts or serpents in their strictly symbolic senses, being calmed or banished by, virtue alone. Less immediately apparent are some links with Padstow’s May Day celebrations, but that, as I’ve said, belongs to another season. It’s good to see the dragon get a mention even if he cuts a somewhat shabby figure in these stories. In tales of encounters with knights just back from hacking at Moors, Saracens and sundry other infidels, they’re allowed to put up something of a struggle, but up against holy men it seems as though they can dis-play only meekness. Given the amount of holy men in Cornwall, the dragon never stood much of a chance.

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