Scottish-born author Kenneth Grahame is best remembered now for his wonderful children’s story, `The Wind in the Willows’ but in his own lifetime he was more famous for two books written for adults about the fantasy-lives of children – `The Golden Age’  (1895) and `Dream Days’ (1898). The second of these contains one of my all time favourite Fantasy stories, `The Reluctant Dragon’. This story has often been published on its own, or included in anthologies of modern fairy tales. Disney made it into a short animated film in 1941 and there is even a musical version by the composer John Rutter. I suggest that it is worth reading `The Reluctant Dragon’ in its original context as a chapter of `Dream Days’. This book has been reprinted by Hesperus Classics but you can also download it for free from Project Gutenberg or find preloved copies on ABEbooks for a few pence or cents.

Both `The Golden Age’ and `Dream Days’ consist of a series of interlinked stories about a group of five orphaned children. There are two girls, Selina and Charlotte, and three boys, Edward, Harold and the unnamed narrator. It isn’t necessary to read `The Golden Age’ first in order to enjoy or understand `Dream Days’. The children are being brought up by aunts and uncles who treat them kindly enough but don’t love or understand them. The narrator envies the `Olympian’ adults who rule his life because they can do as they like but he despises them for the boring uses they make of this power. The indifference of these adults does mean that the siblings have much more freedom than most modern children do. All this is very similar to Kenneth Grahame’s own childhood. His mother died when he was five and his father was an alcoholic who rarely saw his children. Grahame and his siblings were brought up in the English countryside by a grandmother and various uncles.

Seven out of the eight chapters in `Dream Days’, deal with the imaginative games the children play and the misunderstandings that these can cause with adults. The narrator is a boy with an exceptionally vivid inner life, so I’ll call him Kenneth. In the first chapter he describes fierce Selina’s passion for re-enacting great naval battles and how she gets into trouble for lighting a huge bonfire to commemorate the death of her hero, Admiral Nelson. During the second chapter Kenneth fantasizes about being a ferocious puma, an invincible general, a pirate chie,f and a saint who will be annoyingly forgiving towards his repentent family. In the third, he discovers the perils of offering to share a palace he’s invented (complete with pleasure boats, Chocolate-room and a row of brass cannons) with a bossy girl he has a crush on. In `The Magic Ring’, Kenneth daydreams about the lives he might lead with two, very different, circus performers; while in the next chapter his imagination tries to take him beyond the medieval city in a familiar painting to a magical island he’s sure must be waiting for him.

Kenneth is the sort of boy who would probably now be into Fantasy role-playing games. Today, he’d be able to buy whole worlds in a box. Back in the 19th century, children had to use their imaginations. In `A Saga of the Seas’, a tin bath becomes the black schooner in which Kenneth sails frozen and tropical seas. He defeats some dastardly pirates who are pretending to be Swiss, wins treasure – `There were ropes of pearls, too, and big stacks of nougat; and rubies and gold watches, and Turkish Delight in tubs’, and rescues a Princess. When Kenneth carries off the Princess to his cabin, they listen to a musical box, make toffee, and play with a model train set. The perfect evening.

Kenneth’s fantasies and the interplay between the children are often funny and charming. If you enjoy  stories by E.Nesbit, such as `Five Children and It’, you will like `Dream Days’ , but there is more poignancy in Grahame’s writing than in Nesbit’s. Chapter Two begins with `the spatter of misery uncomprehended’. The children’s nursemaid, Martha is crying because her sailor brother has been drowned in some `far-flung sea’  but Kenneth seems more concerned about a broken shoelace. Later, Martha is shown `red-eyed and strangely silent’ as she serves the children their tea. The narrator seems to forget about Martha’s grief but the reader doesn’t. The reality behind the children playing at being sailors and soldiers is that some of them may be destined to die in foreign wars. A longing to escape from the restrictions and responsibilities of adult life is a constant theme in Grahame’s work. In `Dream Days’,  young Kenneth hates being forced to wear uncomfortable clothes and be polite to grown-ups and he dreads becoming an `Olympian’ himself some day. He wants to stay inside a fairy story after the ending in order `to have a chance of knowing how people lived happily ever after’. Kenneth is dragged out of his story by an insensitive adult and in the moving final chapter, the siblings are forced to say goodbye to childhood dreams when their toys are given away.

The odd chapter out is the one in which the only adult in the book who remembers how to think and feel like a child, tells Kenneth and Charlotte the story of `The Reluctant Dragon’. The hero of this story is a shepherd boy who is far smarter than any of the adults in his medieval world.  The Boy lives with his parents in a cottage half-way between a village and the Downs. `What the Boy chiefly dabbled in was natural history and fairy-tales, and he took them just as they came in a sandwichy sort of way’ , so when his father finds a monster in a cave, the Boy knows that it must be a dragon. When he goes to investigate, the Boy discovers that this particular Dragon is a lazy and affable creature mainly interested in composing poetry. They become friends but the Boy is afraid that men with spears and swords will inevitably try to exterminate the Dragon and he’s right. The villagers send for Saint George and tell him all kinds of tall tales about what the Dragon has done to them. The villagers were planning a badger-baiting session but think that a Dragon versus Saint fixture will be even more exciting. Can the Boy save his friend from the Dragon-Slayer?

Sympathetic dragons are commonplace in Fantasy fiction now but a staunchly pacifist, poetry-loving dragon was a very rare beast in 1898. On the surface this is an amusing and light-hearted story but there is an underlying sadness about people’s eagerness to start fights over imaginary wrongs and destroy anything that is too different from themselves. As Saint George says, `This is an evil world, and sometimes I begin to think that all the wickedness in it is not entirely bottled up inside the dragons’. If you want to find out how the Dragon and St George reach their very own happy ending, read `Dream Days’. You don’t just have to rely on my recommendation. `Dream Days’ was one of President Theodore Roosevelt’s favourite books. Make of that what you will. Until two weeks time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

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