“Dragons” begins with Pierre Chaigne, a widowed carpenter in a small French village, constructing a four-sided lantern, including three wooden pieces to be inserted into the lantern to block out the light except for a single direction. Narrated in the third person, the story is presented through the thoughts and actions of Pierre.
Pierre reflects that everything bad comes from the north, from the tireless winds to the Beast of Gruissan, who consumes local livestock. The new threat from the north comes from the dragons. In spite of the toleration edict issued by an earlier king, the Chaignes’ religion is now threatened by the present monarch. Pierre considers himself a loyal subject, willing to live in peace with the king’s religion, but now the dragons are coming.
About forty dragons étrangers du roi, or foreign soldiers of the king, descend on the village. Three are housed with Pierre’s family, which includes his elderly aunt and his three children. The dragons will remain until Pierre pays the tax owed to the king. However, it is impossible to satisfy the authorities: If he pays, the tax will be raised, again and again, until the family abjures its faith.
Although he fears for thirteen-year-old Marthe at the hands of the dragons, he has a greater concern for his youngest son, nine-year-old Daniel. Previously the law of conversion had been set at fourteen because by that age an individual is mature enough to know his or her mind. Recently it had been lowered to seven, and Pierre worries that young Daniel might become susceptible to the church’s enticements. The dragons take over the house, even sleeping in the single bed. They ransack the premises looking for valuables, though they know that a poor carpenter would have none. They burn chairs in the fireplace though firewood is readily available. Pierre’s carpentry tools are sold to villagers who belong to the king’s religion. When Pierre’s coreligionists worship secretly, the dragons violently disperse them.
“What matter the road provided it leads to Paradise?” one of the dragons asks, justifying the torturing of an itinerant peddler to get him to abjure. The ill, aged, and very young begin to convert, but force and intimidation are used on the more reluctant. Pierre’s aged aunt, Anne Rouget, is the first of the family to succumb. After being told that his aunt awaits him in heaven but only if he abandons his father’s faith, Daniel abjures and is sent to a Jesuit college across the northern mountains. Months go by, with Pierre and his elder son Henri forced to scrounge food in the forest for the dragons. One day when they return, Pierre discovers that a dragon has forced Marthe to have sex. The following day another of the dragons has sex with her. After nine days, Henri abjures, but when the dragons continue to treat Marthe as a prostitute, Henri spits out the wafer and wine during the Mass. Convicted of blasphemy, he is burnt at the stake.
A dragon tells Marthe that she must convert as inevitably she will become pregnant, and the dragons will then claim that Pierre had sex with his daughter. They will then be burnt because of the incestuous relationship. When asked where they are from, the dragon replies from the north, Ireland. When she asks why they are persecuting the Chaignes, he refers to Oliver Cromwell, who had persecuted the dragons’ religion in Ireland. Marthe abjures and is also sent north to be raised in a convent. When the dragons move on to another village, only eight dissenters remain out of the original 176. Two nights later, Pierre replaces three of the lantern’s panes with the wooden pieces he shaped long ago. The remaining pane cast the lantern’s light in a single direction, the direction Pierre follows into the forest, where the remaining few are to pray.
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