Kyng Alisaunder and the dragonet

The Middle English Dictionary defines “dragonet” as “a young dragon.” I find this word absolutely adorable; if I were to define it myself, I might say “a little dragon,” as the French suffix “ette” typically suggests a smaller form of something (kitchenette, cigarette, etc.) The word has only one quotation listed along with it, from the early 14th century Kyng Alisaunder. This nearly 700-line poem is one of my favorites, and it joins a number of other Middle English texts in describing the marvelous deeds and feats of the Macedonian king, Alexander the Great. The tale begins with the anonymous author getting his audience ready for the wild tales ahead of them, promising that these tales will include “wondres of worme and beest” [wonders of dragons and beasts]. Spoiler alert: he delivers.

At the onset, we meet King Philip of Macedonia who is waging war against the magic-working astrologist, Pharoh Neptanabus. Neptanabus himself escapes the violence and decides the best place to hide is Macedonia itself, where he is struck by the beauty of Philip’s wife, Queen Olympias. Neptanabus sneakily works his way into Olympias’ good graces through his prophetic power, and repeatedly sleeps with her under the guise of the god Jupiter Ammon who appears in the form of—you guessed it—a mighty dragon.

Royal 20 A V f.7. Detail of a miniature of Nectanebus in the form of a dragon, kissing Olympias while she is at the table with Philip. 

Later, when Olympia inevitably becomes pregnant, Philip’s worried advisors contact their king. Ever-clever Neptanabus responds quickly, using spells to send a dream to Philip. In the dream, King Philip is throwing a feast when a grisly dragon appears:

545       For a dragon þere com in fleen,

            Swithe griselich on to seen.

            His tayle was fyve fadem lang;

            Þe fyre at his noseþerles sprang;

            By þre, by foure, myd þe tayle

            To þe grounde he smoot saunz fayle.

545       For a dragon came flying in,

            Very gruesome to see,

            His tail was five fathoms long;

            Fire sprung from his nostrils;

            By three, by four, with his tail

            He smote the ground, without fail.

This dragon wreaks total havoc on the feast and scares every guest in the hall, until he abruptly calms down and, miraculously, turns into an eagle. A host of animals arrive at the hall, including a pheasant that lays an egg. Before Philip’s eyes, the egg hatches and a dragonet crawl out. The little dragon tries to retreat to the safety of the egg, but it has split. With no shelter, the dragon quickly dies. The Philip’s clerk, Antyfon, interprets the dream, claiming that Philip will have a son who will conquer the world, but who will die, poisoned, far from his homeland. A few months later, Alexander is born, his life prophesied before his birth, already full of dragons. 

Alexander will go on to encounter other fearsome draconic beasts as he conquers the world, but I think these particular dragons at the beginning of the text are remarkable. They certainly set the stage for Alexander’s personality: fierce, ruthless, and regal. Even as a child Alexander exhibits these qualities—at one point he even throws Neptanabus into a hole, effectively killing him. The dragons also might draw a direct comparison between Alexander and King Arthur; Merlin also uses dragons in his prophecies, and the oldest version of Kyng Alisaunder appears in the Auchinleck manuscript alongside Of Arthour and Merlin. This link may help connect British heroes with those of ancient lore.   

I’m also interested in the fact that these dragons are used solely for deception; Neptanabus takes on the appearance of a dragon to seduce Olympias and then again uses them in the prophetic dreams he sends Philip. Could the dragons then be linked to the biblical snake of Eden? Or, maybe these creatures force us to consider historical perspectives and their inherent fraudulence. Alexander’s own conception and birth are clearly duplicitous, so how much of Alexander is truly real and how much is illusory myth? What parts of Alexander are real? Does it even matter that he is not a king by birthright? 

These are the questions that ricochet in my mind each time I read these dragons. Though, I suppose the dragons could simply be included to garner the reader’s attention. It really is hard to look away from such griselich beasts and delightful dragonets.

Where to read it:

Kyng Alisaunder, edited by G.V. Smithers (1969), via the HathiTrust Digital Library

or, try a modern English summary from the University of York’s Database of Middle English Romance

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