Smaug. It must’ve started with Smaug. Smaug the Magnificent. As a boy of 8, I think that’s the first time I heard a dragon talk. A Conversation with Smaug by J.R.R. Tolkien is still one of my favourite illustrations. ‘Well, thief! I smell you and I feel your air’, isn’t that how it went? And that was also, I think, the first time that the 8-year-old me heard about a dragon being able to talk. Smaug was red, of course. To this day, it’s my favourite colour.
As an adult, I’m pleased to note that Professor Tolkien also drew on ancient sources, from the ‘night-scather’ in Beowulf to the talking dragon Fafnir of the Völsunga Saga. Fafnir, as it happens, used to be a man, but his greed for gold eventually turned him into a dragon, so one could argue that the seed of Smaug, in a way, was entirely human. Here you see the roots of the myth you’re tapping, a vein that stretches back to the elemental serpents of Ancient China, those noble god-beasts who were often depicted in human form, and one that will surely stretch on long into the future.
On that note, we come to Ben Garston. Red Ben. I first came across Ben sitting in a village gaol in a wonderful book called British Dragons by Jacqueline Wilson, which led me to explore the legend more deeply in An Account of the Mordiford Dragon by James Dacres Devlin, 1848. The legend goes even further back, of course, to at least the 16th century, but it’s probably older still. Here we find all the elements used in Chasing Embers, the girl Maud with her egg in the woods and a mention of the criminal (or nobleman) Ben Garston. Well, in the strange way that myths tend to thread through time, links sparking against links and forging entirely new ones, it occurred to me that I could have fun with this tale, put my own spin on things. What if Ben Garston was the dragon found by Maud, the beast who was currently ‘terrorising’ the village? What if the villagers released this criminal (or begged this nobleman, in some versions) in order to cunningly slay himself, to ‘live happily ever after’? And say that Ben was as long-lived as Smaug, though perhaps a little less wicked – what would he be doing now? Did he get that happy ever after, after all?
This was the seed of Chasing Embers. Reading through reams of medieval lore, I noticed a familiar pattern – the knight, the beast, the damsel in distress, often a wizard or a witch… I intended to superimpose this pattern onto the modern world, albeit seen through a glass darkly, the archetypes rendered cynical by the turn of the ages. And in turn, this met my love of history and the period when the Dark Ages started to shrug off superstition and made the first steps of progress towards modern civilisation, namely during the reign of the Plantagenet Kings Richard and John. What if the Magna Carta wasn’t the only pact that King John signed that year?
In this way, stories are born. Myths, hopefully, endure. Remnants survive. The oldest fires keep on burning.
But I’m pretty sure that it started with Smaug. Smaug, Fafnir and all their draconic ancestors, talking to us down the corridor of time, breathing flames and leaving embers.
James Bennett‘s Chasing Embers is published by Orbit Books in the UK and North America. It is out now. For more on Bennett’s writing and novels, be sure to check out his website, and follow him on Twitter and Goodreads.
Here’s the novel’s synopsis:
Behind every myth there is a spark of truth…
There’s nothing special about Ben Garston.
Or so he’d have you believe. He won’t tell you, for instance, that he’s also known as Red Ben. Or that the world of myth and legend is more real than you think.
Because it’s his job to keep all that a secret.
But now a centuries-old rivalry has resurfaced, and the delicate balance between his world and ours is about to be shattered.
Something is hiding in the heart of the city — and it’s about to be unleashed.