Dragons A Natural History

by Dr. Karl Shuker
Simon and Schuster, New York, 1995, 120 pp., hardcover, $22.50.

Reviewed by Douglas Chapman

Karl Shuker has done right by dragons, filling the need for a comprehensive book on the subject, from the fanciful dragons of Chinese myth and western chronicle to the Komodo dragons and the African “living dinosaurs.”

Readers of Strange may gravitate to the more fortean ideas covered by Shuker, who is a contributing editor of the magazine. Yet hopefully they will take in the full variety of this lavish offering.

Fellow dragonophile Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape, contributes a brief foreword which shows this diversity.

The production values of this book are amazing, with colorful reproductions of artworks—from the past to the present day—that depict dragons and their kin. Even if Shuker had not here retold the original versions of the famous legends, the illustrations would, by themselves, be worth the price of this book. But since he does so, the volume is invaluable. Most fascinatingly eccentric of the legends related by Shuker is “The Embarrassing Exit of the Wantley Dragon,” which demonstrates the efficacy of a well-placed kick in the posterior, no matter what the endeavor. Most of the stories are more serious, and include: “The Curse of the Lambton Worm,” “Jormungander, the Midgard Serpent,” “St. George and the Dragon,” “The Elusive Tatzelworm,” and “Siegfried and the Slaying of Fafnir.” (The latter story has been adapted to classic opera and film.)

In addition to dragons, the animals chronicled here include the basilisk, the cockatrice, the Mordiford wyvern, the sirrush, and the perhaps actually surviving serpent whales. All in all, a bestiary to rival the best.

One of Shuker’s intentions with this book is “to present a vivid retelling of some of the most spectacular, and also some of the less familiar, dragons legends—all too often relegated to a meagre, lifeless summary.” His versions are anything but lifeless—and add spice to a book both informative and dramatic.

Review originally published in Strange Magazine 16, Fall 1995.

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