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Book I, Canto XI

August 20, 2010

Finally we return to the central quest of Book I. Lady Una remembers that her family is under siege by a dragon. As they approach the lands of her kingdom, she points out the tower that her parents are trapped in. Suddenly the dragon roars.

The battle begins as Una runs off to watch from a safe distance. Spenser addresses his Muse for a few stanzas, giving us a preview of another epic battle that presumably will come at the end of his poem. But at the moment Sir George has a dragon to slay, and after a long and wonderful description of the “dreadfull Beast” (with his terrible scales and wings and stinging tail and claws and jaws and eyes…you get the picture) we get down to business. This enormous reptile* somewhat unnerves George, who is promptly knocked off his horse with a swipe of a tail. The knight’s blows have little effect on the dragon except to fuel its rage. It grabs George and his steed in its claws and flies around with them for awhile, until they manage to struggle free. At last George manages to stab the dragon in a soft spot under its left wing, causing it to roar again, bleed profusely, and blast fire from its nostrils. Again George is dismounted, and again he strikes the dragon but fails to pierce its scaly armor. The good news is that due to its previous wound, the dragon is unable to fly, so it breathes fire instead, burning George inside his armor. The knight is felled for the third time, but luckily he falls into the well of life, which just so happens to be behind him at this moment. It is a magic fountain of renewal. The sun sets on George in the well, with the dragon presuming victory and Una praying all night long.

The next morning Una looks for George, who emerges from the well fully restored and proceeds to strike the dragon’s skull. He wounds it, breaking the dragon’s armor for the first time. As the crazed beast thrashes around, it stabs its tail-sting through the knight’s shield into his shoulder. In retribution George severs the dragon’s whole tail. Then the dragon snatches his shield away. After trying three times to retrieve it, he just hacks off the dragon’s whole foot, leaving it still gripping the shield. Again the dragon breathes fire at him, and again he stumbles backwards into a magical mercy of nature – the tree of life. The sap of the tree functions as did the well of life, saving him from death and healing him. The sun sets and Una prays all night.

At dawn George arises healed. The mutilated dragon is quickly dispatched with a stroke through its mouth. Una and George realize that they have won.

*C.f. stanza 4, “Efstoones that dreadfull Dragon they espide,/Where strecht he lay vpon the sunny side,/Of a great hill, himselfe like a great hill.” However, if you try searching Google Images on the subject you find that traditional imagery seems to prefer a very small dragon. I deliberately enlarged the beast in this blog’s header image. I don’t pretend to understand this discrepancy, as I have always considered the terror of a dragon proportional to its physical size.


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