The Reluctant Dragon Essay - Critical Context

Kenneth Grahame

Critical Context

The Reluctant Dragon introduces what writer and critic Margaret Blount describes as the “prototype” of dragons in modern juvenile fiction whose “sting has been removed.” Grahame’s Dragon can be convincingly fearsome, and his contemporary E. Nesbit’s dragons are formidable, if redeemable, beasts. The trend in twentieth century fiction for children, however, was toward domesticating the dragon, such as in C. S. Forester’s Poo Poo and the Dragons (1942), Rosemary Manning’s Green Smoke (1957), and Margaret Mahy’s The Dragon of an Ordinary Family (1969).

The Reluctant Dragon also has the distinction of remaining popular while Dream Days, from which is excerpted, has not. Educator and critic Elizabeth A. Cripps traces this divergence to a difference in “implied readership.” Writing in the 1890’s, when a romantically tinged cult of childhood was at its peak in English literature, Grahame created a narrator in Dream Days whose dual perspective is that of a child and the adult he becomes. Such a state of mind is naturally foreign to children. In fact, adults were the most eager readers of Dream Days when it first appeared.

Contributing to the sense of nostalgia that infuses Dream Days, its narrator expresses himself with a languid, self-conscious lyricism that fails to engage most young readers. By contrast, the narrator of The Reluctant Dragon launches immediately into his tale. It is related with minimal reflection in a direct, conversational style that relies on simple, fluid syntax and vivid pictorial detail. Such a narrative approach is accessible to the young reader—as it most likely was, in the story’s initial context, to the two youngsters who heard it from “the funny man.”

Lois Kuznets credits the popularity of The Reluctant Dragon with children, relative to Dream Days, to the fantasy situation that it presents. Moving into the realm of fantasy not only lightens the story’s tone but also gives the Boy gratifying control over an adult situation, something that the orphans in the framing text sorely lack.