Rumer Godden, The Dragon of Og

Rumer Godden by Jillian Edelstein, 1990 (National Portrait Gallery)

In 1978 Margaret Rumer Godden, author of many novels for adults and children including Black Narcissus (1939), The Doll’s House (1947) and The Diddakoi (1972), moved to the Dumfriesshire village of Moniaive to be near her daughter. Three years later she published this novel: a charming meditation on the experience of moving houses, a process she knew better than most, having moved between England and India since early childhood as well as flitting from London to Sussex and back again for much of her adult life. The central figure in the book, however, is not the house-mover but the creature that stayed at home: a Dragon who has lived in a pool in the Water of Milk since prehistoric times but finds himself unwillingly drawn into conflict with the new owner of Tundergarth Castle, an incomer who has no sympathy with the local legend that the Dragon brings luck to the community, being concerned solely with the financial losses he sustains through the Dragon’s habit of eating a bullock of his each month. The book traces the rise and eventual resolution of the feud between Lord and Dragon, a struggle that accentuates the divisions between members not only of the local community but of the lands of England and Scotland more generally, both in the twelfth century or so, when the book is set, and in Godden’s own lifetime.[1]

Nearly everyone in the book is an outsider of one sort or another: the Dragon, by virtue of being one of the last of his kind; the Lord of Tundergarth, Angus Og, because he has moved with his followers from the Highlands to the disputed country near the English Border; and Angus’s young wife Matilda, partly because she seems to be English (she shares a name with the first Queen of England and is said to have brought her horse from that country – see p. 18)[2] but chiefly because she has received an excellent education (she speaks French and knows about Anglo-Norman culture), yet finds herself surrounded by combative highlanders with nothing but contempt for the refinements she proposes to introduce into their lives. In addition, class conflict makes outsiders of the local people. Angus Og is fond of children, we’re told, but not the children of the indigenous cottars or cottagers, who are so filthy that they permanently put the Dragon off the notion of feasting on human flesh:

They usually ran about almost naked, not only in summer but in the bitter winter cold, so that their skins were like leather, thick and grimy; their hair was matted – it was never brushed – their eyes always red because, in the huts where they lived, the one room had no chimney so it was full of smoke from the hearth and cooking fires. Their noses were always running from the cold and they often had sores. (p. 14)

Angus’s disgust at these unkempt children is a little hypocritical given that his own dwelling-place, Tundergarth Castle, is no model of cleanliness and good order. Its interior is as dark and smoky as the single-roomed huts, the courtyard choked with the dung of beasts while the absence of privies or toilets means that the occupants relieve themselves by squatting against the walls. Angus Og’s arrival at the castle with his retinue is announced by an influx of dirt: the hooves of the cavalcade’s horses churn up the Water of Milk until it turns ‘murky, more like ale than milk’ (p. 19), and this sullying of the river heralds the transformation of Tundergarth from a feminized space (‘the Water of Milk’ conjures up maternal nurturing) to a site of masculine conflict (ale traditionally accompanies and triggers violence between men). This change is also signaled by Angus’s decision to change the castle’s name from Tundergarth (which means something like ‘the castle with a garden’) to Og, which means ‘young’ in Irish and Scottish Gaelic and hence might refer to the Lord’s infantile disposition, though the name also associates him with a popular comic strip from the Daily Record, as well as with one of Robert the Bruce’s staunchest allies and a succession of prize bulls[3]. Angus’s link with bulls (reinforced by his excessive concern for the loss of his bullocks) certainly identifies him as extravagantly male, and his domineering maleness helps to isolate him further from his wife, the cottars’ children and the Dragon.

The Dragon of Og is male, but he is feminized throughout the story – first by his long association with his mother, who raised and taught him, and later by his link with Matilda, the first human being he has seen who is as beautiful as he is. His home in the maternal Water of Milk and his fondness for flowers (he weeps when Matilda leaves him a nosegay as a gift when she first meets him), and for spontaneous displays of emotion, help to feminize him further. Angus Og, however, is inclined to treat him as a rival, like the chieftains he defeated in laying claim to the demesne of Tundergarth. He considers the Dragon’s consumption of the castle bullocks as an act of aggression and assumes that the creature can spout murderous flames, unaware that it is his own acts of hostility that have aroused the local legend to ignition for the first time in its life. At the same time Angus’s masculinity soon emerges as a performance rather than a stable identity. His warhorse and battle-axe are ineffectual against dragons, and he is forced to hire another outsider – the Norman knight Sir Robert le Douce – to kill the Dragon for him. And Robert turns out to have more in common with Matilda and the feminized Dragon than with Angus. He shares Matilda’s delight in beautiful clothes; his horse is ‘white as milk’ (p. 43), his pages have ‘short red velvet cloaks, feathered hats, and their hair was in curls’, and even his name identifies him as a milder alternative to the Robert the Bruce of Scottish history. ‘Douce’ means gentle or well-mannered, virtues supposedly shared by women and well-bred gentlemen, although Angus underlines the fictional nature of his own brand of masculinity by mistaking the word for ‘Deuce’ or devil (Robert the Devil was a legendary Norman firebrand who ended up as a saint) (p. 42). Angus, it is implied, despises Robert when he first meets him for his overtly feminine displays, despite the knight’s self-evident efficiency as a dragon-slayer, and refuses to pay him the agreed price for putting an end to the neighbourhood monster. In response Robert returns to the corpse of the dead Dragon and reverses the dragon-slaying process by putting the head and body of the creature back together again, so that it comes back to life. Dealing in life rather than death is another trait commonly associated with femininity. Another is cunning. Robert ensures that he is well paid for all his trouble by collecting the dragon’s blood, which is more precious than the gold he originally asked for: ‘it can cure blindness and other ills’, he tells his pages, ‘and it can dissolve gold’ (p. 49). If Robert is Angus’s rival there is no question about who comes out on top, economically speaking.

Angus’s enmity for the Dragon is based, in fact, on a false set of values; and the book demonstrates this rather neatly by almost bringing the highland chieftain to financial ruin. Even after the Dragon’s revival the Lord continues to refuse to give him bullocks; but Matilda’s efforts to feed him end up by costing far more than a bullock a month. The demesne’s cows are drained by the need to supply him with milk, all the honey from the hives is used up to make the mead that will keep him happy in the absence of meat, all the eggs are broken to provide the Dragon with possets, and the turnips that would keep the sheep alive through the winter are turned to mash for the Dragon’s meals. All the salmon and trout in the Water of Milk are cooked alive by the dragon’s rage when he finds himself deprived of beef. Angus’s meanness not only uses up his resources as a landowner but erases the distinction between the classes that meant so much to him; his servants the henwives and Donald McDonald, the castle seneschal or steward, rebel against him, while the cottars’ children feast on the salmon cooked by the Dragon’s rage as lavishly as Angus himself. The economy of a lord’s demesnes, it turns out, depends as much on mutual cooperation and respect as its ecology, and it’s Matilda who teaches him the importance of making the community happy, by her kindness to the cottar’s children as well as the Dragon.

Matilda’s distaste for her husband’s insanitary and dishonest practices – as well as her instinctive sympathy for the cottars’ children – marks her out as a migrant not just from another culture but another time. So too does her dislike of the male aggression that surrounds her, and her untiring labours to undermine it by peaceful means. She displays her solidarity with the high-born but gentle-hearted Norman knight by speaking to him in his own language, her solidarity with the cottars’ children by walking through the mud of the demesnes in bare feet, her solidarity with the dragon by her capacity for communicating with him without words as well as through their shared appreciation for beauty. Like the dragon, who enjoys the company of the squirrels and fishes who live in and around the Water of Milk, she has a gift for joining things together; and it’s she who teaches the Dragon not to despise his own relationship to the humblest creature on the planet, the lowly worm. ‘Don’t you dare despise a worm,’ she tells him. ‘Of course you are a dragon, but dragons come from worms, luckily for you. It was by the power of the worm in you that you could join up and live’ (p. 55). Mutual respect and collaborative living are what she stands for, although stranded as she is in the middle ages she never challenges the feudal system – only improves upon it, elevating it through practical measures to the idyllic condition it enjoys in fairy tales, though not in history.

There’s another aspect of Matilda that makes her modern before her time, and that’s her open sensuality – a trait she again shares with the Dragon. Godden wrote one of the most famously erotic books of the mid-twentieth century – transformed by Powell and Pressburger into a scandalous film starring Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron – Black Narcissus (1939), in which a sensual young woman called Kanchi is described (by another woman) as ‘a basket of fruit […] piled high and luscious and ready to eat. Though she looked shyly down, there was something steady and unabashed about her; the fruit was there to be eaten, she did not mean to let it rot’.[4] This unnerving association between desire and cannibalism unexpectedly crops up again in The Dragon of Og. The Dragon has a voyeuristic fondness for women’s legs, and though he would never dream of eating them he certainly describes them in culinary terms: ‘I wish they wouldn’t come and do their washing by the river,’ he complains, ‘especially when they turn their petticoats up. Their legs are so pink and white’ (p. 13). When the Dragon meets Matilda he takes delight in lifting her skirts with his breath to inspect her lower limbs, briefly transforming her into a medieval Marilyn Monroe, and she eventually asks him to stop since ‘My Lord would not like it’ (p. 29). The Dragon agrees, but continues to blow at her skirts from time to time on account of her legs: ‘They’re such dainties,’ he explains. The love of beauty shared by lady and dragon is in part an expression of their sensuality, and Matilda’s almost flirtatious relationship with the beast can be taken as an expression of her desire to acquaint Angus, too, with sensuality: a desire she also expresses by giving him his first soft pair of slippers to wear about the house. For Angus these are unseemly items for a man, but he delights in them, and when Matilda also plays to him on her harp he is briefly transformed into something closer to the creature: ‘as he sat in his great chair by the fire, he looked a different man with a smile in his eyes and a soft look on his face as he listened and pulled the ears of his favourite wolf-hound Brag, but gently, gently’ (p. 23). Gentleness is what she seeks in him – the kind of gentleness she finds in Sir Robert and the Dragon – and it’s implied that she eventually finds it. At one point in the book Matilda thinks about Angus’s fondness for children and decides that she must one day provide him with a ‘little Angus Og of his own, or a little Matilda’ (p. 28). By the end of the book the couple have had many Angus Ogs and Matildas, all of whom are buried in the churchyard along with their parents. Gentling has evidently taken place, desire has found its fulfilment, and the Castle where the couple lived is no longer a fortress, ‘only an ordinary house and where the bailey used to be there is a garden’ (p. 62), fulfilling the promise of the Castle’s pre-Angus name. Masculinity and femininity have been reconciled, at least in this little island in history, and Godden’s sometimes surprisingly realistic fairy tale has found its happy ending.

One last word, concerning Godden’s style. The notion of linking things together, binding what was separate, reconciling what was at odds, is beautifully conjured up by the sinuous length of Godden’s sentences and the profusion of interrelated ideas and images that jostle each other in her paragraphs. Let me end with an example, a paragraph that describes the moment when the angry Dragon heats up the Water of Milk and kills all the fish:

The good river water had cooked the fish, ‘To a turn,’ as Matilda said. The Castle steward managed to save a few for Matilda and Angus Og, but men, women and children were eating their fill; even the cottars, who had usually to be content with minnows or a bit of tough pike were eating lovely pink salmon flesh and learning the delicate taste of trout. Soon somebody brought down a barrel of ale, another of mead – it could be guessed that was at the orders of Lady Matilda. ‘As this has happened, let’s enjoy it,’ she said of the fish, and such a feast had never been known at Tundergarth, and, ‘God bless Og!’ shouted the people and, ‘Bless our Dragon!’ The Dragon had eaten a few of the salmon himself, though it was rather like eating his friends and, as his anger and his hunger were appeased, he had gone back to sleep, but, ‘I’ll have its blood for this,’ swore Angus Og. (p. 40)

The flow from one idea to the next in this paragraph perfectly conjures up the links that are gradually being built up between the Dragon, Matilda and the people of Tundergarth. The Dragon’s anger cooks the fish, the fish teach the locals a sensual delight in the ‘delicate taste’ of salmon and trout, Matilda takes advantage of the situation to throw an impromptu party, the Dragon’s wrath – which was aroused by hunger – is appeased by the fish he himself has cooked and eaten, and the whole sequence culminates in the possibility of reconciliation between the Dragon and Angus, as the people celebrate both as providers of the feast. The embedded morsels of dialogue in the passage suggest the way the situation is encouraging communication between people who have so far lived largely apart from one another. And the whole weight of the passage bears down on the off-key note that sounds at the end. Angus’s vow of revenge, coming as it does immediately after the reference to the Dragon’s guilt at eating the fish, his friends, sounds particularly jarring because Godden has the Lord refer to the Dragon as ‘it’, against his wife’s express request. In this way Godden cuts him off from his joyful people, from any hope of communication with the Dragon, and from Matilda. As Matilda weaves connections between members of the local community, Godden implies, Angus weaves death and dissent; there could hardly be a neater stylistic evocation of toxic masculinity.

Godden’s Scottish fairy tale, published three years after her move to Scotland, isn’t set in her new home town of Moniaive. Tundergarth is in Annandale, much closer to the English border. By choosing that location Godden was able more graphically to invoke the complex clash of cultures – Highland and Lowland, Anglo-Norman and Scots, upper and lower class, human and animal, male and female, sensuality and violence – that energize her tale. She chose her spot with care and expertise as a lifelong specialist in tales of collision. I hope this piece will draw some of its readers both to her little narrative and to the strange and beautiful country where it’s set.

Tundergarth Mains, the site of Tundergarth Castle. Note the graveyard in the foreground.

 

Notes

[1] The twelfth century date is suggested by the reference to King David on p. 27. This must be David I (1124-1153); David II reigned in the fourteenth century, long after knights stopped wearing chain mail and castles stopped being built on the motte and bailey principle, as Tundergarth Castle is in the book.

[2] All quotations are from Rumer Godden, The Dragon of Og (Magnet Books; London: Methuen, 1983). This is a truly dreadful edition, with many typos. Worst of all, it has made a terrible mess of Pauline Baynes’s magnificent illustrations for the first edition. All the gorgeous colour pictures I’ve reproduced in this blog post are left out, and the black-and-white illustrations have been chaotically scattered through the text in all the wrong places. Let’s hope there’s a better reprint based on the first edition soon.

[3] Godden explains these associations (though not the meaning of Og) in a prefatory note on p. 7.

[4] See Sarah Street, Black Narcissus, Turner Classic Movies: British Film Guide (Londonand New York: Tauris, 2005), p. 5.

This entry was posted in Books, Children's Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *