In which the Banshee’s lack of a classical liberal education is once again exposed.
It turns out that the original “reluctant dragon” shows up in Horace’s Odes, Book 4, Ode 4, the third stanza. It’s a poem about poor Drusus Germanicus who kicked the bucket early (and who couldn’t have been so great, since Caligula was his son). Drusus is portrayed as a sort of fledgeling young Roman Legions eagle, learning to fly better and better, then starting to dive down and attack all sorts of prey.
Anyway, Horace talks about Drusus, saying, “nunc in reluctantis dracones/egit….”, which looks like it should mean, “now he drove into reluctant dragons.” It really means, “struggling/resisting snakes,” or maybe even “writhing snakes,” except a little more high-sounding. Some people suggest that “dracones” in this sense are more like pythons, or really long snakes and serpents.
Horace’s Odes are the sort of thing that Victorian English schoolboys had to read and translate in Latin class, so that’s probably exactly where Kenneth Grahame got his idea for his fun little story/book The Reluctant Dragon.
There are a fair amount of other Latin references in the story (“enemy of the human race,” for instance) which must be deliberate. It’s the sort of casual joke that kids and adults would be expected to get back then, when the Classics were part of popular culture.
So now you know! And knowing is half the pugnam!
UPDATE: Vase painting from Wikimedia of Cadmus fighting the dragon that guarded the Castalian spring. Said dragon would shortly provide him with involuntary contributions of dragons’ teeth, so that he could sow them in Theban soil and reap the “spartoi,” who would then fight each other until only five remained. These five elite superkillers with snake DNA would be the other founding fathers of the aristocratic clans of Thebes, which I suppose would explain a lot about aristocracy.
As you can see, Mr. Dragon is a big ol’ python, without any legs or wings whatsoever. So’s this Cadmus’ dragon. Both dragons do have a crest of feathers or something, which I suppose is dragonish in its way.