Of Dragons, Knights and Virgin Maidens: Dragonslaying and Gender Roles from Richard Johnson to Modern Popular Fiction. MUSE. Trier: WVT, 2011/2012. (forthcoming)
Dragons and other creatures of the imagination were frowned upon by the European Enlightenment with its focus on rational thought and empirical evidence. For decades they slumbered in archives and libraries or stole away to live in the literature of the common people – in folk tales, chapbooks, and street ballads. From the mid-eighteenth century onwards, though, so-called Volkspoesie or folk literature garnered new interest. In the 1790s German romanticists re-discovered the appeal of the architecture and literature of the Middle Ages, while at the same time the British upper-class remodelled their homes in the gothic style and put fake medieval ruins into their gardens. In the nineteenth century this gothic revival became a powerful torrent that affected many areas of culture and society, especially in Britain. It not only led to a re-evaluation of medieval literature, but also to a processing of themes and motifs from medieval romances, fairy tales, and local legends in nineteenth-century art and literature.
One narrative pattern which has remained popular with authors and artists since the Middle Ages, in spite of the Enlightenment's general disdain for imaginary creatures, is the heroic dragonslayer story. It appears not only in medieval literature, but also in neo-chivalric romances, in folk literature, fantasy fiction and popular romance, among others. As my study will make apparent, the story of the dragonslayer has undergone significant transformations, many of which are connected to major social and cultural changes that took place within the last 400 years. Especially in regard to gender roles, the dragonslayer story can serve as an example of how art and literature mirror social actualities of their times.