Critics describe The Reluctant Dragon as a gentle satire in which structure and content conspire to mock, rather than openly defy, convention and prejudice. The centerpiece of the story—the “pretend” fight between the Dragon and St. George—epitomizes the theme that nothing is as seems. The Dragon prefers daydreaming and versifying to rampaging, St. George proposes a sham (if a humane one), and adults readily delegate responsibility to a child. Grahame playfully confounds fairy-tale convention to affirm a fairy-tale theme: that appearances can be deceiving, that a deeper reality lies beneath the surface.
This theme pays tribute to the imagination. In the story, it is imagination that bonds child and beast and that overcomes prejudice. A shared love of imagined adventure leads to friendship for the Boy and Dragon. The Dragon’s ability to amuse and entertain endears him to others; the imaginative playacting of Dragon and Dragonslayer serves to sublimate the townsfolk’s bloodlust.
The triumph of imagination is a theme that children readily embrace. Almost powerless in the real world, children rehearse ambitions and confront fears in the sphere of their imaginations. As theorized by psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, children make sense out of their emotions imaginatively, gaining access to meaning from the experience of literature. Fairy tales in particular take the predicament of children seriously, offering models for achieving self-determination....
(The entire section is 607 words.)