It actually surprises me that Edith Nesbit (1858 – 1924) doesn’t have the same kind of renown as other well-known authors who have written children’s books. Quite a few of her stories were televised and I remember them vividly from my childhood. You may know her name in connection with The Railway Children, Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet or The Book of Dragons.
Edith was a little unconventional in terms of her marriage during that era. She was almost at the end of her pregnancy when she married her husband, and the two of them had an open marriage. Hubert Bland had two children with his mistress, the both of whom Edith adopted and raised as her own.
The Dragon Tamers was published in 1899. It is short story for children. It features a dragon, who is an excellent babysitter and the surprising origin of cats. (Makes complete sense)
John the blacksmith has set up his forge in the ruins of an old castle on the outskirts of his home-town. He couldn’t afford to live anywhere else. He was barely getting by.
He was too poor to live in a proper house, and no one asked any rent for the rooms in the ruin, because all the lords of the castle were dead and gone this many a year
The major was his direct competition, a successful businessman who owned half the town and a huge blacksmith business of his own. He had his huge forge facing the square of the town, and had twelve apprentices, all hammering like a nest of woodpeckers, and twelve journeymen to order the apprentices about.The castle only had two weather-tight and warm rooms.
so the blacksmith got into the way of keeping his old iron, and his odds and ends, and his fagots, and his twopenn’orth of coal, in the great dungeon down under the castle…at one end was a broken flight of wide steps leading down no one knew where.
The blacksmith had never dared to go beyond the seventh step, so he was unaware of what was at the bottom of the staircase. The blacksmith and his wife had a baby, despite barely being able to feed and clothe the two of them.The baby cried all day and all night. The mother was exhausted and also spent all day crying desolately. One evening while John worked and the baby was being nursed, the two of them heard a sound.
Presently, over the noise of the bellows, and over the clank of the iron, there came another sound. The blacksmith and his wife looked at each other.”I heard nothing,” said he.”Neither did I,” said she. It was like the noise of some great creature purring, purring, purring—and the reason they did not want to believe they really heard it was that it came from the great dungeon down below
John didn’t really want to go down into the dungeon and find out where the noise was coming from and what it was making it. He found the storage area was no longer just full of his work supplies.
It was quite full, and what it was full of was Dragon. It put out a great claw and caught him by the leg, and as it moved it rattled like a great bunch of keys, or like the sheet-iron they make thunder out of in pantomimes.”No you don’t,” said the dragon, in a spluttering voice, like a damp squib.
The dragon seemed to be made nearly completely of iron armour.The dragon asks John to repair his armour, so he can go out and eat all the people in town. That sort of creates a conundrum for the blacksmith. Fix the dragon and be eaten or not fix the dragon and be eaten.
“You mend my wing, and then I’ll go out and eat up all the town, and if you make a really smart job of it I’ll eat you last. There!””I don’t want to be eaten last, sir,” said John.”Well, then, I’ll eat you first,” said the dragon.”I don’t want that, sir, either,” said John.
The blacksmith insists on tying the dragon up, just in case he gets uncomfortable and accidentally breaths fire on him. The dragon doesn’t trust the human and asks him to pledge something in return for the dragon pledging his honour. The dragon hears the baby cry and asks the man whether he values this thing.
“Then bring it here,” said the dragon; “and I’ll take care of it till you’ve done riveting me and you shall tie me up.””All right, sir,” said John; “but I ought to warn you. Babies are poison to dragons, so I don’t deceive you. It’s all right to touch—but don’t you go putting it into your mouth.
“You just purr to it, sir,” he said, “and it’ll be as good as gold.”
So the dragon purred, and his purring pleased the baby so much that it left off crying. Who would have thought it, a dragon as a babysitter? Dragons purr?
He told the dragon he needed more supplies and ran to get help. Unfortunately everyone else was ‘busy’ and unable to come to his aid. They were happy that he was keeping the dragon content with the baby.
The dragon had purred till he was quite out of breath—so now he stopped, and as soon as everything was quiet the baby thought everyone must have settled for the night, and that it was time to begin to scream. So it began.
The baby refused to be comforted and the dragon was at his wits end. As he lifted his head he saw a woman sitting on the steps, so he asked her whether she knew anything about babies.
“Then I wish you’d take this one, and let me get some sleep:” said the dragon, yawning. “You can bring it back in the morning before the blacksmith comes.”
The woman took the baby upstairs, where the two of them rejoiced, for they had caught a dragon and saved their baby. Saving the town brought good luck to the blacksmith and the town in general. The saviour, a keeper of dragons. In the following years he kept the dragon locked in the dungeon and the baby grew up to be a young man.
One day the mayor and corporation, hunting the hare in their gold gowns, came screaming back to the town gates with the news that a lame, humpy giant, as big as a tin church, was coming over the marshes towards the town.
The townspeople asked him to fight the giant, so the dragon drove the giant away with his flames and ferocious teeth. Afterwards he was tired and retired back to the dungeon.
and the dragon, who was very tired, went home to sleep, announcing his intention of eating the town in the morning.
Now once again the people wanted the dragon chained up, which meant they had to come up with a plan. They decided to tell the dragon that an even bigger giant had come to town and was planning to eat the wild dragon. The people brought the dragon bread and milk mixed in a tub. Bread sauce to dip wild dragon in apparently.
He said he only ate wild dragons—with bread sauce.
The dragon didn’t want to be eaten by the giant. The children and the now grown baby convinced him that the giant wouldn’t eat a tame chained up dragon. So once again he allowed himself to be chained up.
The dragon had a lot of time to think about the lies he had been told. He started eating the bread sauce and asked for more. He convinced them that he was now a tame dragon and tame dragons don’t need to be chained up, do they? As a thank you for his release he brought them bags and bags of gold that had been hidden at the bottom of the staircase.
The town grew richer and everyone stopped working. As the dragon emerged from the dungeon and into the sunlight one by one his iron plates fell off. Day by day he became furrier.
he grew furrier and furrier, and he was the beginning of all cats. Nothing of the dragon remained except the claws, which all cats have still, as you can easily ascertain.
I bet you weren’t expecting that. Without the scales, with a lot more fur and a mega purr you get a cat. It explains why they are so ferocious, have such sharp claws and think they can climb and fly.
And I hope you see now how important it is to feed your cat with bread and milk. If you were to let it have nothing to eat but mice and birds it might grow larger and fiercer, and scalier and tallier, and get wings and turn into the beginning of dragons. And then there would be all the bother over again.
And there you have it, the beginning of cats. Makes a lot of sense, no?
This is what I like about Nesbit, she has this way of creating scenarios that will appeal to both younger and older readers. She also works in a moral or two in a really subtle way. She is way up there on the same scale as Blyton, as far as I am concerned.
The Dragon Tamers, The Book of Dragons, The Enchanted Castle, Five Children and It, The Railway Children, The Magic City, The Phoenix and the Carpet, The Story of the Amulet, The Magic World, Wet Magic, The Story of the Treasure Seekers, Man-Size in Marble or In The Dark at Feedbooks. The Wonderful Garden , The Incomplete Amorist, Man and Maid, The Rainbow and the Rose or All Round the Year at the Internet Archive. Alternatively you can listen to The Book of Dragons, Harding’s Luck, Five Children and It, The Lark, My School Days or For Dolly, who does not Learn her Lessons at Librivox.
Read In The Dark and Eight Stories of Dragons by Edith Nesbit, The Wendigo, Cats Go Wild Again, The Scarecrow of Oz, Poor Pauline, The Magic Fishbone, The Club of Queer Trades, A Cask, A Cellar and a Punishment with Impunity, The Outsider, Dancing on the Ceiling, The Snow Creature, Little Fuzzy, A House-Boat on the Styx, DOA, The Crimson Ghost, Twelve Stories and a Dream or A Tale of Two Cities right here on the blog.