Realm: Roundbrook, England (Alternate Anthropomorphic World)
Featured in: Kenny & the Dragon by Tony DiTerlizzi
Based On: “The Reluctant Dragon” by Kenneth Grahame
For those unawares, “The Reluctant Dragon” is quite literally the first true story written wherein the dragon is an actual sympathetic character and one who best emphasizes the phrase to not judge a book by its cover. While I’m sure Disney’s animated retelling of the tale is more recognized by most, I happen to have a special place on my shelf for this written revision of the story due in no small part to the author’s marvelous word usage but equally fantastic illustrations.
In this story the dragon is named Grahame and the boy Kenny, both so named for the original writer of the tale who is given another tongue-in-cheek nod towards the end of the story. Much like their original counterparts, Kenny is first set to try and discover the dragon locals say has taken residence near his hometown of Roundbrook, even going so far as to wear a suit of pots and pans and armed with a broom. Grahame however is exactly as his original counterpart in that he is not only an erudite, or a well-educated scholar of literature if you prefer, who loves to recite long strings of poetry over dinner and makes a fabulous crème brûlée with his fiery breath. Needless to say, Grahame is a rarity amongst dragons and goes so far as to say so to Kenny though he also argues the validity of the bestiary the young lad.
Actually, that’s one of my favorite moments in the whole book. Kenny, freshly arrived in pans and pots, and somewhat surprised by Grahame’s behavior admits to not trusting the accuracy of the bestiary and hands it over to Grahame upon the dragon’s request. Grahame then pulls out a pair of spectacles and reads through the book via light of Kenny’s lantern and that, right there, was one of the best illustrations I’ve ever seen of a dragon. I’ve seen all manner of dragons in my life, but that’s an illustration that will always stick with me to my dying day. It may be but a simple pencil sketch, but it’s a sketch that has captured the very heart of the story it represents.
Grahame himself is rather interesting too as far as dragons go not just for his personality but his general appearance as well. Most dragons, especially of late, are based primarily upon dinosaurs in body structure and more often than I’d care to count, depicted as wyverns than full-bodied dragons. Grahame is not only a traditional dragon in form and function but is one that is wholly distinct. While he has the traditional batty wings, most of his body structure seems to be based on a rather large iguana with lengthy fingers and toes and a tail that could double as a whip if need be.
His head, while possessing the horns most often attributed to dragons, is more feline-like with bushy brows, fluffy ears, and a surprisingly genteel beard. There are few dragons that can compete with the likes of Toothless for sheer adorableness but Grahame comes remarkably close, particularly when he tries his hand at looking ferocious. I honestly wish that there had been a stuffed toy of the fellow when I was a young child. I assure you that you’d never see it outside my reach for longer than necessary if at all.
As to the town of Roundbrook, nay, the entire world that it resides in, is a world populated by anthropomorphized animals. Yet, far from the atypical depictions of such a world, no one animal seems to be assigned to a form of “stereotype” insomuch that the animal is almost a physical representation of the character themselves. The very king of the land, that I assume to be akin to England or someplace similar to the original story, is not a lion but an American Bison. Not necessarily a royal creature but quite so considering that the “common folk” are, quite literally, the everyday animals anyone can see in their front lawn never mind a local park.
Even the character of Saint George is made into an ordinary badger in this retelling of the classic tale and while it is most certainly a rather ferocious creature in its own right, it is one that immediately comes to mind when one thinks of an animal capable of challenging a dragon and winning. More to the point, up until his past is revealed as a former dragon slayer, George appears every bit the friendly old bookstore owner and maintains that image even in full knightly garb and riding, of all things, a mountain goat. In point of fact, I’d dare say the goat is more befitting than an actual horse, particular when ridden upon by an armored badger.
I also applaud Mister DiTerlizzi’s stance of breaking tradition in that while Kenny’s parents are both rabbits, the boy himself is rather smitten with a local squirrel girl who just so happens to work in the same bookshop as his friend George. It’s not often one sees animals of differing species being smitten with each other in works of fiction, even those aimed towards children, but it’s both a nice change of pace and a great subliminal message that states, to me at least, that love is not limited to such thing as physical appearances.
As the original story goes, so too does this one wherein George and Grahame decide to put on something of a performance for the town to try and trick them, and the king, into thinking that by defeating Grahame in single combat, that the dragon has become “reformed” and thus allowed to live. Of course, this plan only came about after the two became friends that was, in itself, no easy feat.
A dragon and a dragon slayer do not become friends so easily and while there was some name calling involved on Grahame’s part, the two quickly found a lot in common because of it. Rather ironic I’d say given that Grahame had called George “Beowulf” as an insult as both shared the opinion that Beowulf was more of a blackguard than an actual hero given his killing of the ogre Grendel rather see the beast punished for his crimes and possibly redeemed followed shortly with the butchering of the monster’s mother.
A little highbrow for a children’s book but you know what? I like it for that very reason. I’ve not read many of Mister DiTerlizzi’s works, myself only having recently purchased The Spiderwick Chronicles though I have long since own the bestiary of said book series, but he is quite easily one of the better writers for children I’ve read. While he does tone down the story for children and tries to keep it conformed to just enough pages that a child may easily read it, the book is written in a dumbed down fashion with plenty of new words and language that most children’s books don’t have. Heck, I myself have a literal library of books of all genres and ages and this is the only one I’ve ever read that makes use of the word “bantling.”