The Reluctant Dragon

by Kenneth Grahame

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 607

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.

Bettelheim’s theories are based on Freudian psychology, which analyzes the personality into conflicting modes: the ego, which is rational and enterprising; the superego, which is rigid and convention-bound; and the id, which is sensual and unbridled. At least one critic, Peter Greene, interprets The Reluctant Dragon as a reconciliation of Grahame’s conflicting selves: the Boy as ego, balancing fantasy and disillusionment; St. George as superego, upholding a Victorian sense of duty; and the Dragon as id, anarchistic and pleasure-loving—described in the story as a “happy Bohemian.”

It is significant for the young reader that the Boy represents the ego, arguably the “hero” in Freudian psychology. The ego has the task of integrating the personality, of bringing the self into alignment and negotiating among competing realities. In the story, the Boy is enlisted to resolve conflict: between the Dragon’s reluctance and the dragonslayer’s reputation, between the responsibilities of friendship and the demands of convention, between knowledge and ignorance. He, more than the Dragon or St. George—who at least publicly must adhere to their expected roles—is able to “arrange” things. That he does so successfully engenders confidence in readers who are themselves young.

A major conflict that the Boy faces in the tale involves his friendship with the Dragon, which brings him comfort and happiness but anxiety as well. As he invests in the Dragon’s safety and well-being and acts on behalf of their friendship, he is drawn into further conflict: with the narrow-mindedness and inflexibility of others and also with his own resistance to shouldering the burden of “arranging” things. The need to resolve the escalating conflict challenges the Boy to be ever more resourceful and, ultimately, to grow. The friendship also contributes to the Boy’s range of experience, and thus his growth, when he must rely on the Dragon to keep his word about restricting his deadly powers during the fight.

Grahame builds the tension in his story by raising the formidable obstacles of custom and prejudice, as well as the natural urges toward preservation and the avoidance of pain. Moreover, he has created appealing characters in the Boy, the Dragon, and St. George, their vulnerability effectively increasing readers’ affection for and sense of identification with them. Consequently, their victory is all the more satisfying.

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Critical Context