God help us, once we get the facts straight!

Reality is the fiction; what we dream of has the ring of truth!


[Note: I suggest you read the story twice, once with all the "footnotes", and once without them. The story is in black ink, the footnotes in red.]


Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess, who lived in a marvelous palace [1] with her father, the king [2]. [1] The medieval European "palace", or more precisely, "castle", was actually only marvelous by the standards of its location and its time. There was no central heating: rooms were heated separately, each by its own fireplace or brazier. The castle was filled with cold drafts in the winter time, blowing through open windows (glass panes did not exist) and through imperfections in the masonry; and its large open corridors and halls were prone to dissipate the little heat which was generated from within. There was also poor natural lighting due to the nature of the window slits, which were narrow and buttressed in order to provide maximum security in the event of an attack, and due to the fact that in the winter these windows were often covered over with cloths and hides in an effort to keep out the cold. In the same vein, there was no running water and no plumbing, meaning that water must be brought in buckets from nearby wells and streams, or sometimes lifted from cisterns on the castle grounds which were used to gather rain water. Human wastes were gathered in chamber-pots which were emptied in adjoining refuse piles which bred disease and must, in the summer time, have turned the castle grounds into foul-smelling, fly-ridden dumps. [2] The King often appears in the medieval chronicle as a paternalistic father-figure, combining the aspects of power and justice, in the manner of any of the major masculine head-Gods handed down to us by the world religions. In reality, the medieval European King was often a ruthless and arbitrary figure, simultaneously a product of, and reaction to, his times. However, in stories of this sort, he is usually cast in the role of the stern but fair God-figure who must judge and reward the earthly actions of men. Worthy suitors [3] came from near and far to seek her hand in marriage – great lords [4], valiant and proven knights [5], wealthy, astute merchants [6], learned alchemists [7], and accomplished musicians [8]. [3] Suitors refers to those eligible men who seek marriage or some other form of coupling/partnership with a woman. It is a redundant and overused theme in the medieval chronicle and fairy tale, and is most likely historically inaccurate, due to the fact that the marriage of a princess was almost always determined by her father, and not by her affections, in the interests of forming valuable political alliances with other kings, lords, or men of stature. To invite a process of competitive suitors would be to risk damaging the pride of strong figures whose disaffection might not be withstood. So that no one need lose face, marriages of members of the ruling class were, therefore, usually decided without the kind of public contests which prevail in the literature, either by means of private assessments of utility, or behind-the-scenes negotiations which were not transparent to the public. [4] Lords were the ruling class of the feudal system which emerged in medieval Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire and the breakdown of higher-order forms of civilization. They were strongmen who, along with their armed followers, the knights, dominated large tracts of land which were tilled by the serfs, or the subservient peasant class. Kings were merely more powerful or influential lords, who provided some semblance of political cohesion to a larger territory. [5] Knights were the warrior class of the Middle Ages, men beholden to the lords. Although there were, indeed, codes of chivalry which existed during medieval times, they were more of an ideal than a reality, and more likely to be realized in the fabric of fairy tales and romantic literature than in the field. In truth, the knights - militarily superior to the peasant class in virtue of their superior resources which allowed them to possess armor, war horses, devastating weapons such as the sword, the lance, and mace-and-chain, and which also endowed them with the time necessary to train and develop their bellicose skills – were prone to be savage, proud, and violent-tempered, with little respect for those who did not belong to their class. In the class system of the day, they were positioned as armed guardians of the status quo, in opposition to any notion of social mobility which might have taken root in the peasant mind. [6] Merchants were important figures during the Middle Ages, especially during the later Middle Ages, but at the time of tales such as this, had not yet acquired the status and wealth necessary to coalesce into the "bourgeois class" which would eventually spell the end of the Feudal Age, and usher in the modern era of capitalism. In many cases, "merchants" at this time might refer to anything from local shopkeepers, to traveling salesmen bringing wares from other districts or even from other lands, thanks to the limited but sometimes robust commerce which existed in some ports, in spite of the drastic collapse of the international trading system which was formerly maintained by ancient Rome. [7] Alchemists refers to a not entirely well-defined or well-understood group of mystic philosophers, primitive scientists, and would-be magicians prevalent during the Middle Ages until the genesis (or recovery) of science, in its modern sense, during the Renaissance. When perceived in metaphorical terms, as philosophers seeking to promote human transformation via symbolic excursions into the transmutation of matter, or by means of the study of the imagined invulnerability of certain, unique creatures exposed to fire, their contribution to human intellectual development may be appreciated; otherwise, it seems that they were but one more fanciful chapter in the long and tedious story of human superstition and mythology. [8] Musicians, during the Middle Ages - especially the traveling troubadours - were important cultural figures, serving the vital purpose of overcoming the enormous boredom of technologically-bereft times which provided few entertainment options; serving as mediums of communication connecting isolated districts with each other; and promoting social stability and the raw material of nation-building through the promotion of common values and the development of a unifying cultural lore. At the time, their instrumental repertoire would have consisted largely of flutes, recorders, drums, bells, lutes, and dulcimers. The human voice, in various arrangements, would have been central to the most socially-useful performances. In cases, as time went on, music also became a platform of subtle social criticism, but given the nature of the system, that role must have been fulfilled only with the greatest caution. But to the loving king, none of them was great enough for his daughter. To merit her, he set a great task meant to separate the merely worthy from the stupendous [9]; and this was the slaying of a fearsome dragon [10] who lived in the rugged mountains on the edge of the kingdom [11]. [9] This "great task" obviously embodies the concept of the heroic trial, a theme which has predominated in mythology and fairy tales since time immemorial. We all remember the episodes of Greek mythology, from the quest for the Golden Fleece, to the labors of Hercules, to the foot race between Atalanta and Melanion, as well as the stories of courtship from the Arabian Nights fantasies, such as the fabulous tale of Princess Nouronnihar and her suitors. However, the historical likelihood of a dangerous task being assigned to a legitimate suitor seems remote, as it would be the King’s wish to spare a politically valuable potential ally rather than to risk his life, and as such a request would be likely to be viewed by any legitimate suitor, in the first place, as an unacceptable act of hostility and manipulation, reflecting poorly on the character of the king. [10] The Dragon is a mythical creature found throughout much of the world’s folklore. The dragon of medieval Europe differed considerably from that of China and Japan, which was and is regarded as a force of good fortune, strength, and might, in that it was viewed as not only powerful, but also as an embodiment of "evil", sometimes linked to the serpent of the Garden of Eden, and to the very antithesis of God, as characterized by Satan. Some analysts seek to ground the medieval legends of the dragon in biological reality, by claiming that there was, even in those days, some collective human recognition of the ancient existence of the dinosaur, made tangible by the discovery of great bones occasionally turned up in the fields by the labors of the serfs: bones which, in those times, had no geological or paleontological context to explain them and were therefore naturally inserted into the prevailing mindset, which was rife with superstition. Other extremists wish to argue that there were, in fact, dragons in those days, meaning large lizards, perhaps of the order of the Komodo dragon; or at least tales of such menacing lizards trickling in from other lands. Most analysts, however, feel that the legend of the dragon was merely a creation of the collective "folk mind" of the period, a product of the tendency of the human imagination to concoct fantastic animal hybrids constructed from the available natural elements around them. In this way, the ancient Greeks had previously concocted the chimera, the hydra, the winged horse, and the harpy. The obvious elements incorporated by the dragon would be the serpent, long reviled by Christian tradition as a cold-blooded, deceptive, dangerous, alien (i.e., non-mammalian) creature; any of the powerful clawed beasts of the earth, such as the lion; and the eagle or the bat, with powerful wings. The fire breathed from the dragon would be symbolic of the flames of Hell, or merely reflective of the dangers of unchecked passion, escaped from the moderating influences of successful social conditioning, and an appropriate moral upbringing. The enormous challenge of the dragon would be the necessary border to frame the "goodness" and "connection with God" of the forces capable of defeating him, embodied by the "virtuous knight." The sheer technical unfeasibility of having a creature belch great masses of fire from its internal physiology does not seem to have phased the inventors of the dragon, although today, a large number of scholars, real-dragon believers, and fantasy writers have put their heads together to attempt to come up with a biologically plausible anatomical system for allowing the generation and safe emission of fire. Most such speculations conceive of the expulsion of a flammable organic substance, such as methane gas, produced by internal biological processes, as the key ingredient of the dragon’s flame, and either imagine that stream of gas as being ignited outside of the dragon’s mouth and nostrils, or else conceive of the dragon’s upper respiratory tract and mouth as consisting of a hardened protective layer of specialized tissue and/or being coated with some kind of flame-inhibiting secretion released at moments of stress. The key problem is the agent of ignition, which for some writers necessitates the mechanical production of a spark (via the striking together of stones held in the dragon’s claws, or else the striking together of exposed bone masses in its jaws). More sophisticated theorists postulate a system utilizing static-electricity charges gathered from the environment, or else the internal production of electric current as in the example of the electric eel, in which case an electric impulse would be used to ignite clouds of flammable gases as they were blown out of the animal’s mouth. In all events, thoughts of this type did not seem to trouble the people of the Middle Ages, and for the modern reader, it seems hardly necessary to conjure up plausible scientific explanations for obvious myths. [11] There is no way of knowing, for certain, what mountains are being referred to in this story. The language in which it is written, and other clues, point to a historical setting in England, in which case the mountains might refer especially to the rugged ranges of Wales, and Scotland, which would place the kingdom either in the northern or western part of England.

One lone knight, the courageous Sir Jonathon, set out to face the beast, and on a crisp autumn day, as cold winds blew through the barren mountains, he met the creature in single combat. [12] "Single combat" is a stock term utilized in the romantic tales of the knight, carrying with it, the connotations of courage, honor, and fair play. It is doubtful that such a spirit of chivalry would be accorded in combat to a monster associated, in the Medieval mind, with the Devil, who would more likely be subjected to hordes of attackers and to every conceivable trick and deception available to Man. However, this inconsistency is effortlessly overlooked by most readers, as it embellishes and promotes the heroic qualities of the knight which is, after all, the central purpose of all such stories. Some psychologists have noted the role of fairy tales and myths in boosting our collective self-esteem, and they theorize that in stories of this nature, we utterly sacrifice our powers of discretion, so as to leap over any obstacle which might get in the way of our psychical rebuilding. Thoughts of the beautiful princess sustained him as he risked his life. [13] This line, meant to enhance the romantic flavor of the tale is consistent with the image of platonic love and virtue associated with the Middle Ages, and yet, at the same time, subtly undermines that image by suggesting that the knight’s purpose in facing the dragon is actually to further his mating prospects with the princess. His heroic participation in the battle of "good versus evil" (Man versus Dragon) is, therefore, nothing more than the act of one stag lowering its horns against another stag in pursuit of a doe. His altruistic exertions on behalf of humanity are only the expression of his repressed and manipulated sex drive, disguised from itself by Christian values. The knight is at least as lustful as he is valiant. The creature roared [14], the good knight lowered his lance and charged in upon it on his trusted war steed, when the winds behind him had gathered into a mighty gust and swept past him, howling like a monster at the monster in front of him. [14] Whether a dragon would actually roar or not is a matter of debate. Given the serpentine/reptilian quality of its upper body, some analysts feel it is more likely that it would hiss, like a snake and some of the large lizards. But once again, the dragon is not a believable creature, and its hybrid parts seem to be called upon at will to produce the most terrifying effects possible. By means of this mighty wind, the flames of the dragon were blown back upon its face. [15] The plausibility of this facet of the story is called into question by meteorologists working in conjunction with physicists, who calculate that the force of the wind necessary to blow the fire back into the dragon’s face, after first assuming the considerable exiting force of the emitted gas jet, implied by descriptions in other dragon stories, would be so enormous as to blow the knight off of his horse and render the following sequence of events impossible. The great creature bellowed in pain, and jerking away from the fire engulfing its head, like a halo bestowed by Satan [16], it left itself utterly exposed to the onslaught of the good knight [17], who plunged his lance into the beast’s soft underbelly [18] and ran it all the way through to the dark pumping heart which gave life to the hellish demon. [16] Once more, the dragon is linked to Biblical forces of evil, as represented by Satan. This constant reminding of the connection is meant to preserve the essence of a morality tale, which might otherwise be undermined by its distracting presentation as an adventure story. [17] Here, we note a slight inconsistency in the spirit of the story, as the "perfect Christian knight" should defeat his enemy by means of valor and strength alone, and not by craft, and never by good fortune. In this case, however, we observe that the knight takes advantage of a weather condition, namely, the appearance of a strong wind at his back which he appears to wait for before charging, in order to neutralize the deadly fire of the dragon and unbalance its response to his attack. [18] The soft underbelly of the dragon is to the medieval legend what the "deus ex machina" was to the ancient Greek and Roman playwright. Why such fearsome and mighty creatures, endowed with heavy reptilian scales tantamount to body armor, should have this prominent weak spot, and how it should become exposed over and over again to badly overmatched knights in combat, in one tale after another, as though the dragon had no sound instinct to protect it, makes absolutely no sense at all, except for the fact that the knight must always win, and the dragon is so massively superior to him that he must therefore be endowed with a preposterous Achilles heel. Otherwise, the knight versus dragon tale becomes one more tale of limits, an ode to defeat rather than a paean to the human spirit. Screaming a terrible cry of death heard all the way back to the palace [19], the ruthless dragon fell, and left the world like a great cloud that had blocked the sun for years. [20] [19] Another obvious contradiction is accepted by the credulous reader at this point, for the mountains in which the dragon lived have been portrayed as though they lay at a considerable distance from the "palace"; and, indeed, if they did not, one imagines that the dragon would have come and destroyed it by now. Therefore, based on what we know of the cries of extant animals of both land and sea, including both trumpeting elephant and bellowing whale, the death cry of the dragon should not have been audible to residents of the castle. But the author cannot avoid succumbing to the lure of drama which this impossible detail evokes. One is reminded of the exaggerated Homeric descriptions of Stentor, whose voice was said to be able to carry for hundreds of miles, or the credulous pseudo-naturalistic reports of Pliny the Elder, who believed that the shout of a man with an extraordinary voice could carry from Carthage all the way to Italy. [20] From what meteorologists and physicists are able to tell us, if sunlight were to be blocked from reaching the earth for years, something akin to Carl Sagan’s "nuclear winter" would result; crops would perish, the temperature of the earth would change, and human life would be placed in the utmost jeopardy, if not extinguished forever. This metaphor, therefore, sacrifices scientific accuracy for literary impact. For those who are masters of scientific fact, however, the literary impact is diminished by the affront which this hyperbole represents to their knowledge. Once more, light shone down upon the earth.

Returning with the dragon’s head to prove the feat [21], the good knight came back to the palace as joyous throngs [22] surged around him. [21] It is hard to reconcile the image of chivalry of the knight with the seemingly barbaric act of bringing back the severed trophy head of his fallen foe. However, by dehumanizing the enemy, and transforming all who oppose one into a non-human, serpentine-like beast, it is possible to unleash all manner of ruthlessness and savagery against him. This capacity for barbarism exhibited against the dragon was applied, by medieval Christian warriors, at other times and in other places, against both Cathars and Muslims, who were perceived as human incarnations of dragons, as it were, and therefore disinherited from the laws of pity and fair play which governed combat "among righteous men." For the still human enemy, war took the form of the tournament joust; for the demonized, dragonized adversary, war swiftly and easily degenerated into slaughter and genocide. (Witness the fall of Jerusalem, 1099, in the First Crusade.) It is also interesting to note that, in spite of the principles of honor and truth-telling implicit in the codes of chivalry, to which the medieval knight was supposedly bound, the king would require, or be thought to require, tangible evidence of the killing of the dragon to back up the word of the knight. This is one more reminder that chivalry is more a myth than it was a reality, and that there must have been many knights who lied, and advanced themselves by means of deception. Besides this, we have, in this incident, another matter of physics – the weight of the head involved, the carrying capacity of the knight’s horse, already weighed down by his armor, and the actual means of hitching the head to the saddle gear or affixing it to a harness or in some other way transporting it back to the king. For this action to be plausible, it seems that the dragon must have been considerably smaller and, therefore, considerably less threatening than imagined. As a consequence, the heroic performance of the knight is also devalued. [22] "Joyous throngs" seems to convey the idea of a great multitude of supporters and well-wishers coming out to greet the victorious knight, but this is more consistent with the descriptions of the great cities of the Roman era, or the Renaissance, and not the decentralized and primarily rural settings of medieval Europe, in which it would have taken some time for a great crowd to congregate from the fields and from their widely-dispersed homes. "Good sir," the king told him, embracing him without reservation, "welcome to my palace. My daughter is yours." [23] With no apparent reservations or social comprehension, the tale portrays an absolutely patriarchal society, and event, in which a young woman is treated as the absolute property of her family to be given, in marriage, to whomever it pleases. It is strange that in a tale such as this, classified as "romantic", one finds that love is utterly secondary to considerations of power and politics. And within the week, wedding bells were ringing. The most beautiful of women and the bravest of men [24] took vows of holy matrimony [25], and as all wished, and as they deserved [26], they lived happily ever after. [27] [24] There seems to be no objective criteria, here, for determining the "most beautiful" of women or the "bravest" of men; it seems likely that the powerful were merely able to dictate their own tastes and to impose their own values upon history, in accordance with their needs and predilections. [25] "Holy matrimony", as meant in that place and time, referred to a strict monogamous relationship experienced within an inflexible patriarchal context, which was frequently devitalized by the Christian equation of sexual pleasure with sin. [26] There is no precise and mutually-agreed-upon philosophical means for making sense of the concept of "deserving" – what does it mean to "deserve" happiness; by whose standards is the right to be happy gauged and awarded? [27] There is, in the real world, no such thing as "happily ever after." The likelihood of marital difficulties in a society of that nature, so bare in material possibilities and so emotionally cramped and inhibited, is sure to have been immense. Domestic violence and abuse must have been rife, and where active conflict was lacking, the passive woes of neglect and frustration must surely have been present. Meanwhile, the possibility of the knight’s death in war could not be discounted, and the likelihood of his wife dying while giving birth was also high; besides that, many of their children would be likely to have died from disease at an early age. In all events, there is no "ever after", no matter how desperately stories of this nature cling to that cliché; there must one day have come bodily decline, illness, death, and grieving to the beautiful princess and the valiant knight.


Short Fiction Contents

Creative Safehouse Contents

Site Contents