Princess and dragon

"Andromeda chained to a rock" by Gustave Doré.

Princess and dragon is a generic premise common to many legends, fairy tales, and chivalric romances.[1] Northrop Frye identified it as a central form of the quest romance.

The story involves an upper class woman, generally a princess or similar high-ranking nobility, saved from a dragon, either a literal dragon or a similar danger, by the virtuous hero (see Damsel in distress). She may be the first woman endangered by the peril, or may be the end of a long succession of women who were not of as high birth as she is, nor as fortunate.[2] Normally the princess ends up married to the dragon-slayer.

The motifs of the hero who finds the princess about to be sacrificed to the dragon and saves her, the false hero who takes his place, and the final revelation of the true hero, are the identifying marks of the Aarne-Thompson folktale type 300, the Dragon-Slayer. They also appear in type 303, the Two Brothers.[3] These two tales have been found, in different variants, in countries all over the world.[4]

The "princess and dragon" scenario is given even more weight in popular imagination than it is in the original tales; the stereotypical hero is envisioned as slaying dragons even though, for instance, the Brothers Grimm had only a few tales of dragon and giant slayers among hundreds of tales.[5]


One of the earliest example of the motif comes from the Ancient Greek tale of Perseus, who rescued the princess Andromeda from Cetus, a sea monster often described as resembling a serpent or dragon. This was taken up into other Greek myths, such as Heracles, who rescued the princess Hesione of Troy from a similar sea monster. Most ancient versions depicted the dragon as the expression of a god's wrath: in Andromeda's case, because her mother Cassiopeia had compared her beauty to that of the sea nymphs, and in Hesione's, because her father had reneged on a bargain with Poseidon. This is less common in fairy tales and other, later versions, where the dragon is frequently acting out of malice.

Susanoo slaying the Yamata no Orochi, by Yoshitoshi

The Japanese legend of Yamata no Orochi also invokes this motif. The god Susanoo encounters two "Earthly Deities" who have been forced to sacrifice their seven daughters to the many-headed monster. Susanoo is able to kill the dragon after getting it drunk on sake (rice wine).

Another variation is from the tale of Saint George and the Dragon. The tale begins with a dragon making its nest at the spring which provides a city-state with water. Consequently, the citizens had to temporarily remove the dragon from its nest in order to collect water. To do so, they offered the dragon a daily human sacrifice. The victim of the day was chosen by drawing lots. Eventually in this lottery, the lot happened to fall to the local princess. The local monarch is occasionally depicted begging for her life with no result. She is offered to the dragon but at this point a traveling Saint George arrives. He faces and defeats the dragon and saves the princess; some versions claim that the dragon is not killed in the fight, but pacified once George ties the princess' sash around its neck. The grateful citizens then abandon their ancestral paganism and convert to Christianity.

When the tale is not about a dragon but a troll, giant, or ogre, the princess is often a captive rather than about to be eaten, as in The Three Princesses of Whiteland. These princesses are often a vital source of information to their rescuers, telling them how to perform tasks that the captor sets to them, or how to kill the monster, and when she does not know, as in The Giant Who Had No Heart in His Body, she frequently can pry the information from the giant. Despite the hero's helplessness without this information, the princess is incapable of using the knowledge herself.

Ruggiero Rescuing Angelica, an illustration for Orlando Furioso by Gustave Doré

Again, if a false claimant intimidates her into silence about who actually killed the monster as in the fairy tale The Two Brothers, when the hero appears, she will endorse his story, but she will not tell the truth prior to them; she often agrees to marry the false claimant in the hero's absence. The hero has often cut out the tongue of the dragon, so when the false hero cuts off its head, his claim to have killed it is refuted by its lack of a tongue; the hero produces the tongue and so proves his claim to marry the princess.[6] In some tales, however, the princess herself takes steps to ensure that she can identify the herocutting off a piece of his cloak as in Georgic and Merlin, giving him tokens as in The Sea-Maidenand so separate him from the false hero.

This dragon-slaying hero appears in medieval romances about knights-errant,[7] such as the Russian Dobrynya Nikitich. In some variants of Tristan and Iseult, Tristan wins Iseult for his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall, by killing a dragon that was devastating her father's kingdom; he has to prove his claim when the king's steward claims to be the dragon-slayer.[8] Ludovico Ariosto took the concept up into Orlando Furioso using it not once but twice: the rescue of Angelica by Ruggiero, and Orlando rescuing Olimpia. The monster that menaced Olimpia reconnected to the Greek myths; although Ariosto described it as a legend to the characters, the story was that the monster sprung from an offense against Proteus. In neither case did he marry the rescued woman to the rescuer. Edmund Spenser depicts St. George in The Faerie Queene, but while Una is a princess who seeks aid against a dragon, and her depiction in the opening with a lamb fits the iconography of St. George pagents, the dragon imperils her parents' kingdom, and not her alone. Many tales of dragons, ending with the dragon-slayer marrying a princess, do not precisely fit this cliché because the princess is in no more danger than the rest of the threatened kingdom.

An unusual variant occurs in Child ballad 34, Kemp Owyne, where the dragon is the maiden; the hero, based on Ywain from Arthurian legend, rescues her from the transformation with three kisses.[9]

Modern versions

Russian civil war propaganda poster:
White Russian knight is fighting the
Red Russian dragon

In Sleeping Beauty, Walt Disney concluded the tale by having the wicked fairy godmother Maleficent transform herself into a dragon to withstand the prince, converting the fairy tale to one with the princess and dragon theme.[10]

In Ian Fleming's Dr. No, both the book and film versions feature a tank in the shape of a dragon that protects Dr. No's island from superstitious intruders. James Bond and Honeychile Rider are menaced by the dragon, do battle with it, have their friend Quarrel killed and are captured by the crew of the Dragon tank. Ann Boyd's 1967 book The Devil with James Bond explores the theory of the updating of the Princess and dragon genre.

In modern fantasy works, the dragon may hold the princess captive instead of eating her. Patricia Wrede spoofed this concept in Dealing with Dragons.

A subversion of the concept for young readers is Robert Munsch's The Paper Bag Princess, in which a princess outwits a dragon to save a prince (her betrothed, whom she proceeds not to marry upon him insulting her makeshift clothing instead of thanking her).

In Jay Williams's tale The Practical Princess, a dragon demands that a king should sacrifice his daughter to him so that he will leave the rest of the kingdom alone. But the princess saves herself by making a "princess dummy" out of straw, and filling it with boiling pitch and tar. The princess dresses the dummy in one of her own gowns, then goes to the dragon's cave where she offers herself as a sacrifice. The unwitting dragon swallows the straw dummy whole, and the pitch and tar explodes inside the dragon's stomach, killing him. Afterwards, the princess observes, "Dragons are not very smart."

In the Isaac Asimov short story Prince Delightful and the Flameless Dragon, it is revealed that Dragons used to be slain as part of a passage from princehood to adulthood, though after a while, they became a protected species. Contrary to popular myth, they don't eat princesses as they tend to smell of cheap perfume and give indigestion.


In some stories, mostly in more recent literary works, the cliche involving princesses and dragons is somehow twisted to create a more exciting or humorous effect. For example, in The Paper Bag Princess, the princess came to realize that her prince was even more obnoxious than the dragon, and refused to go with him, preferring to skip off into the setting sun alone instead. In some versions, the princess may also befriend, tame, personally defeat, or even be turned into a dragon herself. Indeed, there are a few examples when a curse or spell transforms a princess into a dragon or similar creature (e.g. an alligator, giant bird, or fictional reptile species). In such stories, the transformed princess usually aids her sweetheart in a battle against a force of evil. In The Swan Princess, for example, Princess Odette is transformed into a swan, and she helps her lover triumph in a battle against the sorcerer Rothbart, who has the power to transform himself into a hideous beast (a manifestation of a lion, wolf, and bear).

Tales with princess and dragons

Tales with princesses and similar perils


  1. Johan Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages p 83 ISBN 0-226-35992-1
  2. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, p 189, ISBN 0-691-01298-9
  3. Stith Thompson, The Folktale, p 24-5, University of California Press, Berkeley Los Angeles London, 1977
  4. Stith Thompson, The Folktale, p 27, University of California Press, Berkeley Los Angeles London, 1977
  5. Maria Tatar, p 282, The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, ISBN 0-393-05163-3
  6. Max Lüthi, Once Upon A Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales, p 54, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., New York, 1970
  7. Johan Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages p 84 ISBN 0-226-35992-1
  8. Anne Wilson, Traditional Romance and Tale, p 46, D.S. Brewer, Rowman & Littlefield, Ipswitch, 1976, ISBN 0-87471-905-4
  9. Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 1, p 306, Dover Publications, New York 1965
  10. John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Sleeping Beauty" p 874 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
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