by Richard Freeman,
illustrated by Ian Brown.
Heart of Albion Press 2006
There is a universal fascination for dragons that is hard to quantify: they seem to appeal to folklorists, fantasy fans and fossil hunters alike. C S Lewis famously wrote a short piece of alliterative verse which neatly encapsulates the kind of reaction that discussion of dragons can give rise to:
We were talking of DRAGONS, Tolkien and I
In a Berkshire bar. The big workman
Who had sat silent and sucked his pipe
All the evening, from his empty mug
With gleaming eye glanced towards us:
“I seen ’em myself!” he said fiercely.
Whether you’ve seen ’em or not, you will no doubt have something to say about them, whether they exist, let alone existed, what size or colour they were, whether they breathed fire or merely had a poisonous bite, or if they had wings.
And any book about dragons therefore raises expectations in all of us; will Explore Dragons fulfil those expectations for anyone?
Richard Freeman’s CV includes graduating in zoology, a spell as Head of Reptiles in a British zoo and, as a crypto-zoologist, zoological director of the Centre for Fortean Zoology. (Cryptozoology is the study of unknown creatures, while Fortean Studies are dedicated to the research of unexplained phenomena.) He describes some of the research he has engaged in, particularly in the Far East, and in this book gives a detailed account of dragon-lore and dragon theories from around the world.
This, however, is a very frustrating study which, while it paints a fascinating picture of eye-witness encounters, folk beliefs and modern hypotheses, fails to deliver any real measured judgements.
For instance, his British bestiary lists worm, wyvern, basilisk, gwiber, serpent and so on as examples of dragons, but no zoological classification could include so many variations in wings, limbs, tails and other physical attributes. His chapter on clues and relics cites no instances of the survival of bones or skin that could be scientifically investigated. His overview of dragons around the world, compiled essentially from travellers’ accounts and local lore as well as his own expeditions, emphasises that there is a large disparity between various sightings of apparently anomalous beasts and Freeman’s confident identification of them all as dragons.
His final ‘conclusions’ are not conclusive at all but rather a short wishlist. Apart from Ian Brown’s handsome line drawings and a useful bibliography of works cited there is little to wholeheartedly recommend. Yes, this is an exploration of dragons, but it’s hard to believe that a zoologist (or even a crypto-zoologist) could come up with such an unappetising mishmash.
Expectations? Mine were certainly dashed.
Repost of a review first published 19th January 2013.