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Lizards in literature

January 24, 2010

Yesterday, my wife and I collected our baby leopard geckos; Hastur the Unspeakable, and Mokele-Mbembe. The latter is the name of a mythical dinosaur in legends from the Congo River basin. The former is a character from the work of HP Lovecraft. No prizes for guessing which one was named by my wife (the dinosaur expert) and which by me (the strange and bizarre fiction lover).

Image used with kind permission, © 2010 Julia Anderson.

When I mentioned at work I was getting geckos, the reaction was almost universally one of revulsion. Lizards are slimy, disgusting and scary.

It’s a stereotype perpetrated throughout literature. Lizards are, with very rare exceptions, evil.

Take it back to the granddaddy of all reptile stories (and all evil). Who is the major villain in the Garden of Eden? That’s right, the snake that tempts Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge.

With very few exceptions, dragons are rapacious creatures, demanding human sacrifices, to be vanquished by heroic knights, or laying waste to villages (think of Smaug in The Hobbit.

In Britain there are two very similar legends of creatures, the Lambton Worm and the Linton Worm, that terrorise the surrounding countryside, but cannot be killed, as the wounds heal themselves. It is only when the hero wears armour covered in spikes and fights the worm in a stream (so that the parts wash away before healing) that the Worm is defeated. Worm, or Wyrm in Old English, translates as “serpent”.

Even as recently as Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs are the major threat to the humans, with the velociraptors in particular being singled out as cruel hunters.

I’ve been racking my brains to think of “good” lizard/reptile characters. Aside from the occasional dragon (who are generally “helpful” only insofar as it suits their purpose), I’m drawing a blank. And I think that’s grossly unfair. After all, look at this little guy:

How could you think he’s evil?

So, can anyone think of any examples of good/heroic/nice lizards, serpents or reptiles in literature?

Paul never thought he’d get used to handling squirming bugs, until he realised he needed to in order to feed the geckos…
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14 Comments
  1. January 26, 2010 1:18 am

    I found one! It just took me three days of thinking, an hour of internet searching of Aboriginal mythgs and ten seconds of absent-mindedness walking up the stairs five minutes ago.

    Australian author and artist May Gibb’s created a character called Mr Lizard in her famous ‘Snugglepot and Cuddlepie’ series. He was a friend and protector of the gumnut babies and was set upon by the nasty Banksia Men. Gibbs work was first publishd in 1918 and is still as amazing today as it was then. I know I loved it as a kid.

    You can find a picture of Mr Lizard here http://www.flickr.com/photos/85009674@N00/2785896351/ (he’s actually be photographed in this beautiful illustration) and here http://wwwbirdbath.blogspot.com/2008/03/when.html where he is about to defeat evil Mrs Snake (another nasty personification of snakes!)

    As an aside – the tribes in Western Arnhemland here in Australia see The Rainbow Serpent as the creator of their world. I was horrified and entranced when I first saw pictures of the Rainbow Serpent as a child. From memory there was also another mythical snake in perhaps a Hindi myth? All I see is a snake with massive jaws with a line of people walking into it?

    It’s sad really – because snakes are such a powerful totem – you only have to look to any medical association with the twin, entwined snakes to know their healing and transformative power.

    Awesome column Paul – such a unique take on things and so many wonderful comments! Brava!

  2. January 26, 2010 2:55 am

    As I excitedly mentioned to you this morning, of course we have missed out the Heroes In A Half-Shell themselves, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Not only are the heroes reptilian, but the villains (at least the henchmen) Rocksteady and Bebop are mammalian.

    Now, I’m not quite enough of a nerd to be able to say whether this constitutes literature (I don’t know if they started off as a comic book or an animated cartoon) but it’s worth mentioning them as the little blighters responsible for a global increase in tortoises and turtles as pets.

  3. January 26, 2010 5:19 am

    Julia, they started off as a comic book, and given my family background I’d be killed for saying that comic books weren’t part of literature!

    Jodi, that’s interesting mentioning the Aboriginal legends of the Rainbow Lizard, as it has reminded me of the Midgard Serpent which circles the world in Norse mythology. When it lets go of its tale, the world will end. Admittedly, this isn’t a particularly heroic serpent, as it is the arch-enemy of Thor, and at Ragnarok it will come onto the land and poison the sky, before being killed by Thor (and leaving Thor fatally poisoned himself).

  4. January 26, 2010 6:23 am

    Jodi,
    Thanks for dragging me back into my past. I have been dragged back before, but seldom made to feel how far back in time and space.
    When I was a young boy of eight, my parents went to live in Maylands, which is one of the suburbs of Perth, West Australia. Our first real home in Australia. I can remember being introduced to ‘Snugglepot and Cuddlepie’ at school, and finding the Wicked Banksia Men very frightening and nasty. West Australia was a new and different environment to me and my parents, and I was taking a little time to settle in and appreciate the local fauna and flora for its unique beauty.
    How was I to know that the plants and animals that had inspired both Joseph Banks and also May Gibbs were on my doorstep and that I would eventually develop a great fondness for them and their beauty. Bunbury, where may Gibbs took her inspiration for her books and their illustrations, was only a couple of hundred miles south of Perth.
    The environs of Perth were teaming with wildlife, and one didn’t need to go further than the vicinity of the creek near home to see many examples. Your Mr Lizard, May Banks’ Mr Lizard, to my mind, was most probably based on a Racehorse Goanna; a noble and beautiful animal. I liked him; I found Snugglepot and Cuddlepie a little too sweet for my liking. Geckos are far too gentle to take on a Wicked Banksia Man. But the Banksia Men were another matter. These are things that nightmares are made of.
    My New Best Friend, Fred Ormiston, came to my rescue, indirectly. His mother, Mrs Ormiston, told me that Fred’s Nan was related to May Gibbs. Fred’s Nan was the most harmless old bird. If Fred’s Nan was related to May Gibbs, and May Gibbs had a hand in the Banksia Men but also could produce a hero like Mr Lizard, then by extension, everything was no longer frightening, but safe.
    But why, Jodi, have I “thanked” you for dragging me back in time and space? We arrived in Perth in 1948. May banks published ‘Snugglepot and Cuddlepie’ in 1918; another world; another time.

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