Teaching Dragons

While we normally begin every other Friday with a look at a particular dragon within the medieval corpus, today I’m going to take a moment to describe how I integrate medieval dragons into my modern classroom. While medieval peoples likely categorized dragons as real albeit wondrous beasts, my students understand them as fantasy creatures that live in creative tomes like Harry Potter or Game of Thrones. And, in a world that primarily prizes fact over fiction, demonstrating the multi-faceted purposes of fantasy creatures in centuries-old texts is no light challenge.

A few years ago, I developed a course that explored perceptions of the Western dragon in order to highlight the dragon as a creature worth our time and research. My “focus questions” for the course include some of same ones that I attempt in this blog (Why are we fascinated with the dragon? What does it represent?) situated alongside primary texts from Scandinavia, the British Isles, and continental Europe. We explore dragon texts from the Middle Ages to the 21st century, with the primary aim of catalyzing students into questioning the cultural and historical significance of mythic figures and analyzing the historical circumstances and contexts in which these figures both arise and maintain reputation throughout millennia. In short, I want my students to see the same things in dragons that I do: creatures capable of inciting provocative thought and discussion.

“Dragonology,” as I dubbed it, is a course that walks students through three units with related, but different goals. In our first unit, we explore mythic and religious representations of dragons. By thinking through this “source material,” students can track the constant (re)churning of material within dragon texts and attempt to “define the dragon.” Next, we move to eye-witness accounts of dragons in natural histories and medieval travelogues to explore genre: where and why does the literary merge with the historical to create such horrific and lifelike representations? Finally, our last (and longest) unit focuses on modern dragons. Students think through those fantasy dragons that dwell in our popular media, from Game of Thrones to Skyrim. This section also includes a subsection on children’s literature, because somehow dragons have moved from terrifying reptiles of myth into friendly beasts that entertain our children. Assignments throughout my course include short response papers and creative representations; at one point, students become authors and craft their own dragons through short stories, board games, or mockumentaries. While this course has yet to find a home (though I’m hoping Indiana University’s Collins Living Learning Center picks it up), students in my composition and fiction courses are always excited by the prospect. Despite what bystanders may assume, students want to learn about dragons.

Just a few of the texts that inspired and are used in “Dragonology.”

Here’s the thing: dragons are fun. As I explained in my introductory post to this blog project, we love dragons just as much, if not more, than medieval peoples. We loved to be thrilled and terrified. University students are no exception, and a classroom filled with dragons provides them with a fantasy land begging for creativity and critical thinking. Dragons are an entry point for important discussions about genres, beliefs and world-views, intercultural perspectives, and how the medieval becomes the modern. For those who believe more in “fact,” it’s only in this low-stakes fantasy environment that the value of fiction becomes apparent.

Where to read it:

See more about “Dragonology” from my 2021 blog post for the Medieval Studies Institute at Indiana University, or view the whole syllabus via my teaching portfolio.

Alternatively, skim through the Dragonology reading list here.

Why dragons?

a page from the author’s childhood notebooks, c. 2005. Text reads: “Well,” she said, “of course I believe.” “Why?” I asked. “Why? There’s proof all around us! How do you think the best artists get the color for their paint? Crushed dragon scales. How do you think I–” she stopped, mid-sentence. “You what? I asked. All she did was wink. The silver dragon flashed before my eyes. Then I knew.

I have been following dragon lore my entire life. Even as a child, I found myself captivated by their graceful beauty, their iridescent scales, and their frightening power. More pragmatically, I suppose it could have been my young love of the PBS children’s series Dragon Tales that ignited this attention. Regardless of its beginning, my enthusiasm allowed a number of fearsome, scaly beasts to live alongside me: in the gritty, fantasy novels I penned on bumpy school buses, in the blue-lined margins of my medieval lit notebooks, and now, in the nervously typed-out pages for my doctoral dissertation. Despite my own continuous fixation on dragons, I was surprised when many of my students showed interest in them as well. You could argue that their appearance in popular culture, such as in the bloody HBO series Game of Thrones (based on George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire saga) or the adorable DreamWorks films How to Train Your Dragon (based on the series of the same name by Cressida Cowell) reinvigorated a long-forgotten excitement for dragons, but I would argue that these works, in fact, capitalize on a preexisting and far-from-dormant interest. My students, like me, were nourished with diverse stories boasting giant dragons, from Disney’s animated Sleeping Beauty to Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series. They pledge their allegiance to the House Targaryen with laptop stickers and buckle their seatbelts to face the dragon in Universal Studios’ thrill ride Escape from Gringotts. Our love of dragons hasn’t faded; it has simply retreated to the place where all childhood fantasy waits patiently, like Beowulf’s own dragon, to be awakened once again.  

The truth is this: we love dragons. They excite and terrify us, and through firey breath and beating wings, they demand our attention. It is here, at that precise moment of demand, that I begin this online journey to document my research with these awe-inspiring beasts. Join me for the marvels, the wonders, and the truly terrifying.