On a warm autumn day in November, I visited the Wawel Castle in Krakow. Built as the mediaeval seat of Polish kings, Wawel sits at the very centre of the city’s historic districts, overlooking the River Vistula. Legend has it that an ancient king of Poland, Krak, killed a dragon on the site and freed up the surrounding area for his capitol. Today, visitors looking to encounter their own dragons must come in the summer, when a fire-breathing statue designed by Bronislaw Chromy wows crowds of families.
Dragons strike at the very heart of what many people consider mediaeval, and yet one of the most famous dragon-slayers of all, St. George, came by his career rather late in his history. Recorded as a martyr from the Roman period, George was famed not for his dragon, but for the three deaths he suffered during his torture by a pagan emperor. England, which recognises St. George as patron, did not even seem to know about George until around the eleventh century, when the Crusades familiarised many Western knights with the saints of the Orthodox Church.
His association with dragons seems to have grown, then, out of the increasingly popular genre of romance, which liked to set stories of moral conduct against a fantastical landscape of creatures and courtly culture.
Another famous mediaeval hero, King Arthur, appears in the earliest Welsh stories not as a dragon-slayer, but as a killer of giants. A number of dragons were reputed to live in the mountainous region of Snowdonia, however, so perhaps Arthur’s encounters with dragons simply did not survive for us to read about.