Happy Month of the Dragon!

All the Dragons I know think stories are better than crumpets and kippers, so how better to kick off the Month of the Dragon than with a telling.

Everyone who loves Dragons has a memory of when they first crossed paths with a Dragon. I am not talking between the covers of a book (I’ll be talking books later in the month), or as a snuggly childhood toy. I’m talking that first, life-altering-take-your-breath-away encounter with a wild Dragon. In my case, it was almost half a century ago and some 3000 miles away, but I remember it like it was yesterday.

It was the autumn of 1963, and we were spending my father’s sabbatical on the rural fringes of Dartmoor. The tor-speckled heath was prime Dragon country, with bracken tall as Minnesota corn and purple heather thick underfoot. Not to mention the plethora of shaggy sheep and cattle who could be culled now and then without too much hardship (except to the hapless creatures destined to flesh out a draconic tea).

Curiously, though, despite keeping my eared pricked and eyes peeled, my first Dragon encounter did not come on these wonderful windswept moors, but in the dense shadows of a rhododendron forest.

On the edge of Dartmoor, overlooking the Teign River Valley, is a little village called Hennock. Back in the sixties it was little more than a couple dozen houses, a pub, a school, and a church on either side of one narrow street leading up to the top of a hill. There pavement gave way to a well-rutted cart lane, leading off between fields and into woods. Though we weren’t living in Hennock, we spent a lot of time there. A friend had purchased the penultimate house in town, a 14th-century farm, Longlands, and, with my father’s help, was converting one of the barns into a pottery.[1]

While the adults laboured away, I would take off exploring. One of my favourite treks was down the dirt road at town’s end. Within a mile, farmland disappeared among trees. A mile more and the trail became two, one branch temptingly diverging down into a dense forest of beech and rhododendron. Winding round and round, it stopped at last at an abandoned mine. Normally, my nine-year-old self would have wanted to know everything about that mine but the fact is, I couldn’t even tell you what they used to pull out of the ground there. Simply put, Dragons took precedence.[2]

There was surprisingly little birdsong, and barely a hint of breeze. Yet squirrels chattered as they leapt from tree to tree, and rabbits rustled through the undergrowth. Suddenly, everything went silent. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught something – something large – quietly weaving in and out of the tree trunks. I turned, but there was nothing there. A play of my imagination, I thought, continuing on my way. Then I saw it again – on the other side of the lane! I stopped and stared, hard, trying to pick out a creature from the heavy camouflaging bands of shade and filtered sun. Something moved, I was sure of it.

Then, with a roar and a whoosh that knocked me flat on my ass, a young, emerald green Dragon flew out of the woods, over my head, and circled the mine, then zoomed straight up through the canopy and disappeared.

I was dumbstruck. Not scared, just dumbstruck. Even in England, I knew you didn’t see Dragons every day. But I had. For some reason, the Great Dragon had smiled on me that day, and blessed me with my first real live Dragon encounter. Whenever I could, I returned to those woods, holding my breath in hopes of another meeting. But that Dragon was like lightning and did not strike me in the same place twice. Persistence eventually paid off, though and I did catch sight of him the next summer basking on near-by Bottor Rock.

I didn’t tell anyone about this, of course. Part of me wanted to hold tight to the experience, keep it just between myself and the Dragon. Even more than that, though, I wasn’t sure what the grown-ups would do with the information. The last thing I wanted to risk was having the authorities called in or, worse, yet, some skittish Hennockers organizing a hunting party!

Now, almost fifty years later, with Dragons protected across the UK, I can tell the tale. I like to think someday, if I am fortunate enough to cross the Pond again and revisit  those old haunts, that perhaps the Great Dragon will deign to smile again and that emerald beauty and I will meet up once more.

What was your first encounter with a Dragon? Did you jump for joy or hide under the bed? Did you keep it to yourself or shout it from the rooftops? Love to hear your tales!

Leave a comment during the Month of the Dragon and you are eligible for the give-away of a signed copy of The Dragon Keeper’s Handbook to be picked by lot on Samhain, October 31, 2011.

Be sure to check out the calendar of events for the coming month.

[1] In the spirit of full disclosure, the geese kept the barn and the pottery was put in the piggery. That is, once a mountain of pig shit was mucked out – a job for which even we kids were enlisted.

[2] I have since learned it was a mica mine, but that’s neither here nor there.