The common species of dragon, Draconem Drakontos to give the full title, has actually been in decline since the days of Job. Indeed, it is a considerable time since I have glimpsed one in the wild. Are they perhaps already almost extinct?
I well remember those sweet months in my youth, now long gone, when I lay back, eyes closed on a summer’s afternoon in the sweet perfumed valleys of Crete, Kerkira or Rhodes, listening to a mother dragon crooning to her young. Those less aggressive species – the Popinjay Drakon for instance, or the smallerMagentium Grekos – once nested in large numbers in the foothills, hunting in the warm evenings when the thermals lifted their lazy wing beats.
But no more. I have again tramped the primrose fields, the buttercup slopes, and the forests of wild thyme beneath autumn’s saffron birches. I have stood amongst the foothills and whistled, waiting for the young ones to chirp in answer. I have even climbed the crags, cautiously peering into the mouths of the darkest caves. But there are no rumblings, no smoky breath rising from the shadows, and no sudden glint of a heavy lidded golden eye. I fear the worst.
There are warnings of climate change. For a thousand years the weather has been mild and even the mountains have shone in the sunshine up to their highest points. The snow bright tips have long glimmered, melting into fast rivulets in the spring. These were the dragons’ favourite haunts, offering balmy pastures for sun-soaking, and giving clean water for drinking and bathing. No respectable lizard of any size would flash his tail unless it dazzled, nor present grubby scales to the dawns’ pastel rainbows. Each species needs these sparkling springs, and each species loves the heat, for their chilly blood needs warming throughout the daylight hours.
But now the freezes are longer and more severe, the ice creeps down as far as the tree line and the villagers go hungry in winter. They protect their domestic stock more fiercely, and so have made war on the dragons. The great beasts of the skies are not easy to kill, but the younger ones, more used to man’s friendly wave than the aim of his arrows, have become easy targets. Yet who can blame a shepherd desperate to save his flock, or a new husband eager to provide a better living for his bride?
The last dragon I ever saw in the wild was a huge black Serpentium Drakos, flaming the tops of the trees as he swept towards the cliffs. He disappeared over the ocean, a vast shadow rippling the Adriatic’s turquoise swells. I still dream of that final sighting, wondering if it will ever be repeated.
There are still a few sorry creatures in captivity of course, though taming them is not easy. George, patron saint of the Rus and of England, kept an elderly female I believe, which was permitted to scavenge after the candles were extinguished in the family kitchens in ancient Rome. This was probably one of the smaller Zmey Gorynych. But we all know dragons do not breed at all when kept confined, and although their natural lifespan is extensive, no eggs have ever been laid unless both male and female are permitted to fly free. Their aerial courtship is indeed wondrous, and the roars of a mating male can be heard for many miles. But will that majestic cry ever be heard again?
There are islands in the east where a lesser species, Varanus Komodoensis, is said to exist in plentiful numbers, and young Marco Polo has described the beasts in some detail. But evidently this poor animal is dull coloured and has no wings. Although beautiful in its own way, it can only plod the hillocks and beaches, spitting venom as it lumbers along. I have heard it cannot even breathe fire, but I doubt that is true. What sort of dragon is it that cannot set alight to its own nest to warm its toes each night? Perhaps, rather than a true dragon, this is a form of giant monitor lizard, which, as everyone knows, is an affiliated species of inferior appearance. For instance, they seem to be mainly ambush predators, ungainly since they are confined to land, and are understandably bad tempered.
There are, I admit, some European dragons of a particularly vicious character. Dragon-lover though I am, I should not wish to come face to face with a full grown Smithsonian Wilberforce on a dark evening, or the even more fearsome Izzyontus Floentius, which is a night prowler with an enormous appetite. Indeed, I once knew a pleasant young man who lost three wives to one such specimen of this particular species. I found it a little surprising that this bereft husband had not taken better care of his family – nor had removed his household to a place somewhat more distant – but I sympathised with him for all that. He never seemed especially heartbroken to me, but then I cannot judge the difficulties of others. I only know I would not build my own home within the confines of a small valley directly beneath such a creature’s nesting cave. However, I was not amused when one other young man, when hearing that I feared dragons were in sharp decline right across the mainland, announced loudly that he believed the sooner they died out, the better. I challenged him over this, but he explained that in his childhood he had lived in a small kingdom far to the west where dragons had terrorised the inhabitants until finally they left out food for them each week. The occasional sheep – bales of nesting hay – sometimes an inadvertent virgin (when one could be found) – were chained to the town’s maypole and then everyone retired to their homes, locked their doors, pulled their shutters tight, and listened in terror to the dragons’ screeches and their wretched prey’s screams.
Islands of England and the Nor-Way sightings were never plentiful. Once, long ago, according to the story of Beowulf, there lived a dragon which the men of the viks eventually slaughtered. It had been a bad tempered creature by all accounts, hardly surprising given the chilly weather conditions in that area, but then the men of the Viks always did enjoy a good bloody murder to keep themselves warm. The English Isle is no better and they say a large fat red haired king now rules there, and without dragons to slaughter, he kills off his wives instead. Those people do at least celebrate the great stories of the past, for they paint dragons on their helms and pennants, and one small dark tribal culture adorns their castle doors and sword hilts with the dragon’s familiar shape, referring to the once local species
And so there we have it. Draconem Drakontos will soon be no more. What will future generations of animal lovers think, I wonder? They may hardly even believe in the existence of dragons, and call it a fantasy or a myth. Of course such an idea may seem ludicrous to us now – and anyone absurd enough to deny the existence of dragons might just as well deny the existence of giants, monopods or the phoenix. And after all, we will at least leave behind us plenty of stories and paintings of our glorious wildlife. But then, with the decline of the dragon, and the equally obvious decline of standards, manners and education in the younger generation, the children of the future may prove ignorant indeed.