Beyond Britain: The Cross-Cultural Dragon in Medieval and Early Modern Arthurian Literature

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: English Drama American and Canadian Stu


My project explores the far-reaching literary and cultural influences, drawn from European and Arabic sources, which informed the development of the dragon as a cultural symbol in English Arthurian literature produced between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries. The function of the Arthurian dragon as a signifier of British, and English, national identities has been noted by Kenneth Hodges (2012) and Victoria Flood (2016), but the broader cultural influences, beyond the boundaries of England and Britain, that informed this construction at various key moments in its literary development, remain to be fully studied.

Since commencing doctoral study in October 2018, I have explored astrological and alchemical influences at work in the red and white dragons of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Prophecies of Merlin (c.1136). My early research suggests that Geoffrey drew on contemporary Latin translations of Arabic sources circulating in Britain from continental Europe, such as the Secreta Secretorum, and that Arabic influences directly inspired Geoffrey's use of the dragon as a celestial symbol within his broader narrative of dynastic origins and endings. This cross-cultural approach departs from previous studies of the dragon as an exclusively 'English' (or British) symbol, advancing understandings of its regional importance
through discerning the motif's wider cultural significances. I will consider these significances further in Ywain and Gawain, the Middle English translation of Chrétien de Troyes's Yvain, Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur, and Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, each culturally and politically influential within the English Arthurian canon.

The first year of this project has been supported by a grant from The Vinaver Trust, awarded by the International Arthurian Society which, although prestigious, does not provide substantial doctoral support. Since beginning my research, I have undertaken training in reading and transcribing eleventh- to sixteenth-century manuscripts. This follows my advanced MA study of Middle English language and literature. In the spring term of this current academic year, I will begin training in Latin, subsequently drawing on available M4C resources to supplement this with a Latin summer school in my second doctoral year. I will also undertake training in medieval Arabic to supplement my knowledge of modern
Arabic. My doctoral field of study builds on work undertaken for my MA dissertation on Malory's Le Morte Darthur and its later reception - which I am developing as an article for submission to the Journal of International Arthurian Studies.


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