Dragon and Serpent

Sir Lancelot and the Dragon from the Tomb

Dragon and Serpent

CreaturesBackground Essay Author: Kara L. McShane
Dragons and serpents are very closely related in the bestiary tradition.  Dragons are described as the largest of serpents; allegorically, they are like the Devil, who is sometimes presented as a monstrous serpent (194).  Vipers, the type of snake given the most attention, are similarly described as wicked and cunning and are associated particularly with adultery.  (This claim is adapted largely from Ambrose's Hexameron (195).)  The classification of dragons as serpents is particularly interesting given that "dragon" and "serpent" are sometimes used interchangeably in medieval Arthuriana; it is sometimes difficult to know which creature is meant.
 
Dragons frequently appear in dreams or as part of prophesies. One of the earliest Arthurian narratives, Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, contains a particularly memorable dragon prophesy.  The king Vortigern is attempting to build a castle, but it has fallen several times.  When he asks his sages for an explanation, they say that the blood of a fatherless boy will make the castle stand.  The kingdom is searched until such a child, Merlin, is found.  However, Merlin demonstrates that the sages have lied and informs Vortigern that the castle he is trying to build will not stand because there is an underground pool beneath it, and under that there are two hollow stones containing sleeping dragons.  When the pool is drained and the stones moved, a red dragon and a white dragon emerge and fight until the red dragon is wounded.  After it is wounded, the red dragon forces the white dragon back – but Merlin still prophesies that "its death hastens" (131).  Merlin explains that the red dragon represents...

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