The Reluctant Dragon;
Or, Book-Learning Often Comes in Useful at a Pinch

h1 August 20th, 2013 by jules

“The dragon, on hearing the approaching footsteps, made the beginning of a courteous effort to rise. But when he saw it was a Boy, he set his eyebrows severely.
‘Now don’t you hit me,’ he said, ‘or bung stones,
or squirt water, or anything. I won’t have it, I tell you!'”

(Click to enlarge)

Here’s a quick art stop to say that this year marks the 75th anniversary of Kenneth Grahame’s The Reluctant Dragon, illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard. Holiday House is marking this occasion with an anniversary edition of the book, complete with an introduction from Leonard S. Marcus. If you’ve never read this, Grahame’s most famous short story, it’s the tale of a young boy and a peaceful, sonnet-loving dragon. The dragon is hiding out near the boy’s home, which is “half-way between an English village and the shoulder of the Downs.” The boy and dragon become friends, but when St. George arrives, summoned by the town to destroy the dragon, the boy steps in. Instead, a fake joust is staged, and … well, I won’t tell you the entire story, should you want to read it on your own.

As Marcus explains in this edition, Helen Gentry, the cofounder of Holiday House, discovered this story in Grahame’s Dream Days, published in 1898, a series of what Marcus calls “wistful, late-Romantic essays about childhood.” Gentry then decided to seek publication for this story — with its own illustrations. She first offered the assignment of illustrating the book to Francis D. Bedford, the illustrator of J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy from 1911. When Bedford turned down the job, Gentry then turned to Shepard. The story was then published in 1938.

Marcus goes on to note:

“Reviews and holiday demand were both strong. Writing to Shepard in January with the good news, Gentry also ventured a request regarding one of the illustrations: ‘I should like,’ she wrote, ‘to use your boy reading the book on some of our letterheads and advertising matter.’ With Shepard’s consent, Holiday House acquired the elegant logo with which it has ever since been identified. As cofounder Vernon Ives remarked at the time, ‘The boy has come to stay.'”

The boy who became the logo is pictured above. He appears in the opening chapter, as Grahame describes how voraciously the boy likes to read:

And his parents were very fond of him, and rather proud of him too, though they didn’t let on in his hearing, so he was left to go on his own way and read as much as he liked; and instead of frequently getting a cuff on the side of the head, as might very well have happened to him, he was treated more or less as an equal by his parents, who sensibly thought it a very fair division of labour that they should supply the practical knowledge, and he the book-learning. They knew that book-learning often came in useful at a pinch, in spite of what their neighbours said.

Here’s a bit more of Shepard’s art from the book:

“‘Oh, dear!’ cried the Boy, ‘I wish you’d try and grasp the situation properly. When the other people find you out, they’ll come after you with spears and swords and all sorts of things. You’ll have to be exterminated, according to their way of looking at it!
You’re a scourge, and a pest, and a baneful monster!’
‘Not a word of truth in it,’ said the dragon, wagging his head solemnly. …”

(Click to enlarge)

“‘Well, according to the rules I suppose I shall lead you in triumph down to the market-place or whatever answers to it,’ said St. George. ‘Precisely,’ said the dragon. ‘And then—‘ ‘And then there’ll be shoutings and speeches and things,’ continued St. George. ‘And I shall explain that you’re converted, and see the error of your ways, and so on.'”
(Click to enlarge)

“So they set off up the hill arm-in-arm, the Saint, the Dragon, and the Boy. The lights in the little village began to go out; but there were stars, and a late moon, as they climbed to the Downs together. And, as they turned the last corner and disappeared from view, snatches of an old song were borne back on the night-breeze.
I can’t be certain which of them was signing, but I
think it was the Dragon!”
(Click to enlarge)

* * * * * * *

THE RELUCTANT DRAGON. Copyright © 1938 by Holiday House, Inc., renewed 1966 by Ernest H. Shepard. Introduction copyright © 2013 by Leonard Marcus. Illustrations used with permission of the publisher.

3 comments to “The Reluctant Dragon;
Or, Book-Learning Often Comes in Useful at a Pinch”

  1. Oh, dear–another book to track down. 🙂 Lovely!

  2. I still have my copy that I had as a child. I never read the story, only looked at the pictures.
    I guess I should read it.

  3. About a decade ago, I started researching classic children’s literature and reading as much of it as I could. This book was absolutely one of my favorites, delightful in every way (illustrations, language, and sentiment.) I did also appreciate Tony DiTerlizzi’s retelling in Kenny and the Dragon. The simplified language and less sophisticated humor made for a very enjoyable, more accessible book for today’s children. But nothing beats the original. I highly encourage everyone to read it!

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