An unappetising mishmash


Explore Dragons
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?

Cockatrice or basilisk, another composite beast like the dragon

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.

14 thoughts on “An unappetising mishmash

    1. I’m sure there are some! One that I saw briefly years ago that I’d like to own is Peter Dickinson’s ‘A Flight of Dragons’ which pretends that flying dragons can be scientifically proven to have existed, evolved from dinosaurs; as a novelist he is best known for his excellent ‘Changes’ trilogy for children.

      Another fun treatment which, again, I don’t have is the picture book ‘Dragonology’ with pop-outs and extras, employing what I think is called paper engineering. It’s often found remaindered in The Works found on most High Streets…

      Today’s post, coming soon, will be about a real-life flying dragon, the archaeopteryx!


    1. No, sadly the bibliography was next to useless. I have seen better studies and, indeed, better fictions than this—in fact I shall continue looking out for a copy of Peter Dickinson’s classic creative nonfiction title A Flight of Dragons, long out of print. But that Lewis verse always makes me smile. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Somebody has to do it, I suppose! The artist used to illustrate for the magazine I once edited, the main (and in retrospect the only) reason for me to expect good things from this.

      Once upon a time I waded through large parts of Bernard Heuvelmans’ On the Track of Unknown Animals, he being the Father of Cryptozoology; there were lots of references to reports of anomalous creatures, for the most part from travellers’ tales, but precious little material evidence and much in the way of specious conclusions. If the writings of Heuvelmans can be compared to an epic fantasy then this work is akin to a limerick which doesn’t even scan. Best avoided other than for amusement value or an object lesson in how not to argue your case.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Always a pity when the execution doesn’t live up to the idea. Coincidentally I’m currently resisting temptation over a book in the OUP’s latest catalogue – The Dragon in the West. The blurb says: “The Dragon in the West is the first serious and substantial account in any language of the evolution of the modern dragon from its ancient forebears. Daniel Ogden’s detailed exploration begins with the drakōn of Greek myth and the draco of the dragon-loving Romans, and a look at the ancient world’s female dragons. It brings the story forwards though Christian writings, medieval illustrated manuscripts, and the lives of dragon-duelling saints, before concluding with a study of dragons found in the medieval Germanic world, including those of the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf and the Norse sagas.” Too early for any reviews, though, so I might hang off and see what other people think of it before deciding…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That looks good, except that by only beginning with ancient Greek dragons it neglects any antecedents such as Babylonian and Assyrian examples portrayed on middle eastern palaces. Still, probably a good catalogue, all the better for being scholarly!

      In the meantime a shortish essay by Carl Lofmark (reviewed here: covers much the same ground but focusing on the pedigree of the red dragon of Wales.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I wonder if the author, who has a host of academic and official sounding jobs, cannot risk losing any of them if he were to actually *say* there are dragons? So, instead, he uses folklore and “tall tales” to make his case? As they say, there is always some truth somewhere in myths and legends. I have always loved the thought that dragons are real and have a particular affinity with Smaug ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Laurie, I just don’t get it: he goes on expeditions all over the world; he is director of a well-resourced organisation; he appears on WebTV — and yet there seems to be nothing concrete to show for all this activity, and the cryptic animals remain … cryptic. I too am fascinated by myths and legends, for which there will undoubtedly be germs from which they grow, but cryotozoology is predicated on a physical reality being the germ, while in truth the germs of myths and legends are as likely (if not more so) to be insubstantial ideas, or mistaken beliefs, or even fabrications, as they are to be animal, vegetable or mineral.

      As for dragons, quite apart from the miracles of nature that are creatures like Komodo dragons, or chameleons, or iguanas, the sheer range of putative attributes — wings, fire-breathing, language, longevity, shape-shifting and so on — says a lot about human imagination but precious little about any physical reality they might have.

      Liked by 1 person

Do leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.