Dragonslayers from Beowulf to St. George
by Joseph A. McCullough
illustrated by Peter Dennis
Dragons have plagued humanity for as long as we have told stories. Giant serpents, creatures with wings, creatures with poison breath or creatures that breathe fire – they are threats to humanity. And as long as dragons have attacked, heroes have risen to stand against their evil and chaos.
McCullough’s book, the second book in Osprey Adventure’s Myths and Legends series, offers a survey of dragonslayers from a variety of cultures and time periods. After retelling each myth, the author examines what we know historically about each hero as well as tracing some of the evolution of each tale.
The last volume in the series, Jason and the Argonauts, promised a retelling of the ancient myth. I felt it was reporting about a story rather than retelling it. This volume, though, makes good on its promise. Dragonslayers avoids many of the pitfalls that I noticed Argonauts fell into: McCullough makes use of dialogue. He takes time to describe not only the action, but the setting as well. Characters have character! He also seems to assume little prior knowledge, but avoids infodumps.
McCullough devotes between one and five pages for each dragonslayer. There’s a marvelous variety, giving a good survey of European and middle-eastern dragons. We get Hercules and Daniel of the Lions Den, Beowulf and Sigurd, St. George and Pope Sylvester I, Dobrnya and John Lambton. The author is very clear that he’s focusing on one type of dragon, but the last chapter gives a brief survey of other cultures, including Native American, Maori, and Japanese dragonslayers. Each story presented is unique and adventurous; I never got bored reading. These pages flew by.
I wish McCullough had spent a little more time on the historical notes, though. Early on, he devotes a page or more on the historical development of legends like Cadmus or Beowulf, but the last chapter gives no notes whatsoever. I suspect part of that comes simply from more existing critical research on the “big” dragonslayers like Beowulf and not as much on others, but it still left me feeling a little underwhelmed after such great notes at the beginning.
I will admit that after the amazing illustrations of Jason and the Argonauts, the paintings for this book come off as workmanlike. They serve their purpose perfectly well, but they don’t invoke the magic the last volume’s did.
However, I’m not after these volumes for the illustrations. They help and illuminate (as they’re intended to), but they’re not my goal.
Dragonslayers delivers on the promise of the series. It provides great retellings of a number of myths, along with historical notes. It gives a great survey of legends, whetting the appetite for more. If the rest of the Myths and Legends series is closer to this, I know I’ll be buying more for myself.
Legal nuts and bolts: I received this book from Osprey Publishing for the purposes of this review.