Fafnir and the Knights

 In the quiet waters
Of the forest pool
Fafnir the dragon
His tongue will cool 

His tongue will cool
And his muzzle dip
Until the soft waters lave
His muzzle tip

Happy simple creature
In his coat of mail
With a mild bright eye
And a waving tail 

Happy the dragon
In the days expended
Before the time had come
for dragons
To be hounded

Delivered in their simplicity
To the Knights of the Advancing Band
Who seeing the simple dragon
Must kill him out of hand 

The time has not come yet
But must come soon
Meanwhile happy Fafnir
Take thy rest in the afternoon 

Take thy rest
Fafnir while thou mayest
In the green grass
Where thou liest

Happy knowing not
In thy simplicity
That the knights have come
To do away with thee.

Where thy body shall be torn
And thy lofty spirit
Broken into pieces
For a knight’s merit

When thy lifeblood shall be spilt
and thy being mild
in torment and dismay
To death beguiled

Fafnir I shall say then,
Thou art better dead
For the knights have burnt thy grass
and though couldst not have fed. 

'Fafnir and the Knights' appears a simple poem, but there are puzzling undertones. It speaks of a very modern concern: the realisation that hunting and habitat destruction have exterminated many animals and many other species are threatened with extinction by human actions. Was St George, the patron saint of England wrong to kill a dragon like the mild Fafnir?

Dragons though, as everyone knows, are not mild, they are fearsome animals. This dragon cools his fiery tongue in a forest pool. which might make him milder than the average dragon and hiis name, Fafnir, with its soft repeated F and open vowels sounds as mild as a gentle breeze. This might lull us into believing Fafnir is a truly mild dragon, but that name has ferocious undertones: Fafnir is the name of a fearful dragon in Norse mythology.  

Norreen Masud’s blog on Stevie Smith and the Art of the Aphorism at https://parrotsatethemall.wordpress.com/2015/12/27/happy-simple-creature-more-on-smiths-myth/   explores the myth in relation to this poem.  Fafnir in the legend is, as Masud explains, 'not a simple, (or indeed a nice ) dragon, he is a murderous ex-dwarf'. 

The poem doesn’t make it ’simple’ a word used many times in the poem, to decide whether the knights have any justification for trying to rid the world of dragons. There are still some places in the world where some of the inhabitants would like knights to rid them of dangerous animals that damage their crops or livestock or kill their children. 

The poem is further complicated by a picture of a knight; he holds a long sword limply resting on one shoulder. He’s looking down with a crooked smile on his face, his shoulders slope listlessly. This knight looks too gormless to kill a wasp, let alone a dragon, even a mild and simple one. Would England want a such a feeble looking knight as a patron saint?

The dragon is rather puzzlingly described as having a coat of mail; this seems more likely to belong to a knight than a dragon. Their fates of course would have mirrored each other; when dragons were exterminated, dragon killing knights like St George of England became redundant, lost their fighting spirit and died out. Human and animal are interdependent.

Fafnir and this poem are not simple. Smith, I feel, flaunts the absurd repetition of simple and mild much as a matador waves his red cloak at a bull, she is trying to goad us into challenging the simplicity of the poem. The conservation of dangerous but endangered species is very far from being simple; the conservation of any species is always complicated and inevitably raises difficult questions relating to human interests and land use. 

Smith often takes a position which appears simple and yet suggests different ways of seeing things; the ridiculously mild and simple dragon which should not be exterminated to make knights more glorious  not only challenges the conventional view of dragons and knights but also the idea that saving species is simple.  

Smith’s sympathy with animals though is evident in many of her poems on a wide variety of animals; cattle at a fat stock show, a sick parrot, or a captive tiger.

Link here to Smith’s Lifeconnections , music , the poems  Cats RolandineFrog PrinceJungle HusbandSuburb,  Smith’s relationship with God my Blog or the Darwin Homepage .

a.bryan77@icloud.com © Anne Bryan 2018