Dragons in Historical Culture

Drachen in der Geschichtskultur


Observing historical culture and its products reveals a shift towards fantasy. More and more hybrid elements, which illustrate this trend, are emerging in different areas. For example, in the 20th century toy producers such as Playmobil® or Lego® tried to represent the past as true to fact as possible. However, for more than ten years, mythical creatures have also found their way into these toy worlds, which are supposed to make this genre more exciting.[1]

Fire Breathing Agents

This is particularly noticeable in the Playmobil® “Dragons” series, in which flying dragons meet Viking-style fighters. This is no coincidence as the characters are a merchandising product of the DreamWorks Dragons series, a concept that in turn is based on Cressida Cowell’s children’s book series “How to Train Your Dragon” or the same-titled computer animated film.[2]

The question that must be asked in connection with such hybrid representations between (re-)construction and fantasy is what impact such representations have on the reception of the Middle Ages. The same is true for “Games of Thrones.” There, too, dragons quite commonly act as agents in the fictitious, but strongly medieval scenery.[3] Dragons are no longer pictorial symbols displayed on flags or in coats of arms (e.g. Wales) or statues (e.g. St. George). Rather, they have become agents themselves. In view of these developments, it is therefore not surprising that Playmobil® also offers dragons for the toy knights’ castles in the “Knights” series.[4]

Creationist Confusion

On the one hand, one can sit back and relax, because narratives have always included fictional elements. Today, the previously figurative symbols appear to us as agents, as evil materialized.[5] However, those exploring historical thinking and children’s ideas about the past, like history educators and teachers, cannot avoid observing this phenomenon and asking what kids do with these phenomena. Current ethnographic research on children’s rooms at the University of Salzburg has asked children about their toy dragons, which romp around in their rooms. Whether or not dragons actually existed remains unclear for children at the end of elementary school. These creatures remind them strongly of dinosaurs, which in turn opens up a no less questionable creationist perspective.[6]

The Empirical Unicorn

Dealing with historical popular culture and historical learning processes also means observing the unclear, blurred marginal phenomena about which which scholars seem to have established clarity. If we are going to discover how seemingly historical images from the world of fantasy, enriched with elements of historical fiction (from films, books, digital offers, etc.), are stored in pupils’ minds, we urgently need empirical insights. These are even more imperative given the deafening silence surrounding these matters. I recently met a group of adults who actually assumed that there were no unicorns!

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Further Reading

  • Köpper, Hannah, and Sacha Szabo, eds. Playmobil® durchleuchtet. Wissenschaftliche Analysen und Diagnosen des weltbekannten Spielzeuges. Marburg: Tectum Wissenschaftsverlag, 2014.
  • Carretero, Mario, Stefano Berger, and Maria Grever, eds. Palgrave Handbook of Research in Historical Culture and Education. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2017.

Web Resources

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 [1] Hannah Köpper and Sacha Szabo, eds., Playmobil® durchleuchtet. Wissenschaftliche Analysen und Diagnosen des weltbekannten Spielzeuges (Marburg: Tectum Wissenschaftsverlag, 2014).
[2] https://www.playmobil.us/play/dragons/  (last accessed 9 December 2018).
[3] https://www.hbo.com/game-of-thrones  (last accessed 9 December 2018).
[4] Produkt “Großer Burgdrache“ (6003) – https://www.playmobil.at/grosser-burgdrache/6003.html  (last accessed 9 December 2018).
[5] The author is aware that apart from the dragon’s significance as a symbol of the evil, the topic also has other cultural aspects.
[6] Cf. Christoph Kühberger’s “Historical Culture in Children’s Rooms,” a research project being conducted at the University of Salzburg’s  Department of History: https://www.christophkuehberger.com/forschung-und-projekte/laufende-projekte/kinderzimmer/  (last accessed 9 December 2018).

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Image Credit

Dino and Knight © 2008 Christoph Kühberger.

Recommended Citation

Kühberger, Christoph: Dragons in Historical Culture. In: Public History Weekly 6 (2018) 39, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2018-13086.

Editorial Responsibility

Moritz Hoffmann / Marko Demantowsky (Team Basel)

Beobachtet man die Geschichtskultur, so fällt auf, dass sich die Grenzen der dort auffindbaren Produkte in Richtung Fantasy verschieben. Immer mehr hybride Elemente tauchen in unterschiedlichen Bereich auf, die diesen Trend verdeutlichen können. Versuchten etwa Spielzeugproduzenten, wie Playmobil® oder Lego® noch im 20. Jahrhundert eine möglichst sachliche Darstellung der Vergangenheit zu bieten, halten seit über zehn Jahren auch Fabelwesen Einzug in diese Spielzeugwelten, die dieses Genre offenbar spannender machen sollen.[1]

Feuerspeiende Agens

Besonders auffällig ist dies etwa in der Playmobil-Dragons”-Reihe, in der fliegende Drachen auf an Wikinger erinnernde Kämpfer*innen treffen. Dieser Eindruck kommt nicht von ungefähr, da die Spielfiguren ein Merchandising-Produkt der U.S.-amerikanischen Cartoonserie Dragons” von DreamWorks sind, ein Konzept, das sich seinerseits auf den Computeranimationsfilm bzw. die Kinderbuchreihe von Cressida Cowell „Drachenzähmen leicht gemacht” (Originaltitel: How to Train Your Dragon) bezieht.[2]

Die Frage die man sich im Zusammenhang mit derartigen hybriden Darstellungen zwischen (Re-)Konstruktion und Fantasy stellen muss, ist, welche Auswirkungen derartige Darstellungen auf die Rezeption des Mittelalters haben. Ähnliches können wir nämlich auch bei Games of Thrones” ausmachen. Auch dort scheint es ganz gewöhnlich zu sein, dass Drachen in der fiktiven, aber stark an eine mittelalterliche Umgebung angelehnte Szenerien, als Agens auftreten.[3] Sie sind nicht mehr bildliche vorgeführte Symbole, die in Fahnen und Wappen (z.B. Wales) oder Statuen (z.B. Hl. Georg) als Hinweise auf das Böse agieren, sondern werden selbst zum Agens. Angesichts dieser Entwicklungen verwundert es daher wenig, dass auch Playmobil® in der Knights”-Serie Drachen für die Spielzeugritterburgen anbietet.[4]

Kreationistische Verwirrung

Einerseits kann man sich beruhigt zurücklehnen, denn Erzählen hatte immer schon fiktionale Anteile. Vormals Bildliches tritt uns nun eben auch als etwas Handelndes auf, als materialisiertes Böse.[5] Doch wer sich wie Geschichtsdidaktiker*innen und Lehrer*innen mit dem historischen Denken und mit Bilderwelten der Vergangenheit von Kindern beschäftigt, wird nicht umhinkommen, dieses Phänomen zu beobachten und danach zu fragen, was die Kinder damit machen. In einem ethnografischen Forschungsprojekt zu Kinderzimmern, welches derzeit an der Universität Salzburg umgesetzt wird, wurden Kinder auch zu ihren Spielzeug-Drachen befragt, die sich in ihren Zimmern tummeln. Ob es Drachen tatsächlich gab, bleibt für Kinder am Ende der Grundschulzeit aber eine unklare Angelegenheit, erinnern diese Wesen sie doch stark an Dinosaurier, was wiederum eine nicht minder fragwürdige kreationistische Perspektive für sie eröffnet.[6]

Das empirische Einhorn

Sich mit Public History und historischen Lernprozessen zu beschäftigen, bedeutet auch die unklaren Randphänomene, die wissenschaftlich geklärt scheinen, aber in der Populärkultur verankert sind, zu beobachten, denn ohne empirische Erkenntnisse dazu, wissen wir nicht, wie sich historisch anmutende Bilder aus der mit Fantasy angereicherten historical fiction (aus Filmen, Büchern, digitalen Angeboten etc.) in den Köpfen unserer Schüler*innen ablagern, vor allem dann, wenn niemand mit ihnen darüber spricht. Erst neulich bin ich nämlich Erwachsenen begegnet, die tatsächlich davon ausgingen, dass es keine Einhörner gebe!

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Literaturhinweise

  • Köpper, Hannah, and Sacha Szabo, eds. Playmobil® durchleuchtet. Wissenschaftliche Analysen und Diagnosen des weltbekannten Spielzeuges. Marburg: Tectum Wissenschaftsverlag, 2014.
  • Carretero, Mario, Stefano Berger, and Maria Grever, eds. Palgrave Handbook of Research in Historical Culture and Education. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2017.

Webressourcen

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 [1] Hannah Köpper and Sacha Szabo, eds., Playmobil® durchleuchtet. Wissenschaftliche Analysen und Diagnosen des weltbekannten Spielzeuges (Marburg: Tectum Wissenschaftsverlag, 2014).
[2] https://www.playmobil.us/play/dragons/  (letzter Zugriff 9. Dezember 2018).
[3] https://www.hbo.com/game-of-thrones  (letzter Zugriff 9. Dezember 2018).
[4] Produkt “Großer Burgdrache” (6003) – https://www.playmobil.at/grosser-burgdrache/6003.html  (letzter Zugriff 9. Dezember 2018).
[5] Dem Autor ist bewusst, dass es neben der Bedeutung des Drachens als Symbol für das Böse auch noch andere kulturhistorisch relevante Momente gibt.
[6] Projekt “Geschichtskultur im Kinderzimmer” von Christoph Kühberger/Universität Salzburg, Fachbereich Geschichte – https://www.christophkuehberger.com/forschung-und-projekte/laufende-projekte/kinderzimmer/  (letzter Zugriff 9. Dezember 2018).

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Abbildungsnachweis

Dino und Ritter © 2008 Christoph Kühberger.

Empfohlene Zitierweise

Kühberger, Christoph: Drachen in der Geschichtskultur. In: Public History Weekly 6 (2018) 39, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2018-13086.

Redaktionelle Verantwortung

Moritz Hoffmann / Marko Demantowsky (Team Basel)

Copyright (c) 2018 by De Gruyter Oldenbourg and the author, all rights reserved. This work may be copied and redistributed for non-commercial, educational purposes, if permission is granted by the author and usage right holders. For permission please contact the editor-in-chief (see here). All articles are reliably referenced via a DOI, which includes all comments that are considered an integral part of the publication.

The assessments in this article reflect only the perspective of the author. PHW considers itself as a pluralistic debate journal, contributions to discussions are very welcome. Please note our commentary guidelines (https://public-history-weekly.degruyter.com/contribute/).


Categories: 6 (2018) 39
DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2018-13086

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3 replies »

  1. To all our non-English speaking readers we recommend the automatic DeepL-Translator. Just copy and paste.

    Really interesting piece. Works of historical fiction (and fantasy) are part of our students’ lives and one of the main sources for their learning of history (arguably in many cases more influential than school history). In the light of this assumption, I think that Collingwood’s distinction between the work of an author and the work of a historian could be a key idea to be developed through history teaching. In Historical Imagination, Collingwood argues that “As works of imagination, the historian’s work and the novelist’s do not differ. Where they do differ is that the historian’s picture is meant to be true. The novelist has a single task only: to construct a coherent picture, one that makes sense. The historian has a double task: he has both to do this, and to construct a picture of things as they really were and of events as they really happened.” He then goes on and states three principles (rules of method) that the historian must follow; their account must be

    a) localized in space and time,
    b) consistent and
    c) grounded on evidence.

    These principles can be a starting point to help our student distinguish between historical fiction/ fantasy and history. Historical fiction/fantasy should not be dismissed as mere lies or fictional stories without any value but approached as a special kind of reconstruction of the past which follows different principles that the ones mentioned above. For example, an interesting history lesson could begin with the question of why the creators of the recent biopic about the Queen (Bohemian Rhapsody) chose to present Freddy Mercury as being aware that he was HIV-positive before Live Aid in 1985 (he was not diagnosed as HIV-positive until 1987).

    P.S. Sadly I know adults who really believe that unicorns existed!

  2. To all our non-English speaking readers we recommend the automatic DeepL-Translator. Just copy and paste.

    Interesting article! It confused me a bit seeing a dinosaur instead of a dragon on the eyecatcher picture, but after reading the article this might have been made on purpose.

    I want to point out that Playmobil other than LEGO is doing a “classic” medieval scenario as well which is based on “realism”. So no or almost no fantasy elements. LEGO right now does not have such thing to offer. They have some spacy Nexo Knights, but before they had “Classic” castle.

    Tobias Hammerl points in his book “LEGO: Bausteine einer volkskundlichen Spielkulturforschung” out that LEGO is alternating fantasy with “realism”. This can be interesting when analysing that topic.

    I can only recommend having a look in this new book. It has a full chapter dedicated to the LEGO castle theme and its history.

  3. To all our non-English speaking readers we recommend the automatic DeepL-Translator. Just copy and paste.

    An imaginary animal…worlds of histories

    In Frederick Wiseman’s documentary about the New York Public Library (“Ex Libris”) there is a wonderful scene in which a telephone operator answers a caller who wants to find out about unicorns: “A unicorn is actually an imaginary animal. It’s not a creature that ever existed” and suggests books on the subject to him nevertheless and probably for this very reason: “The first appearance that I have of it is in the year 1225. . . . I’ll have to translate this from Middle English.”

    If one takes the ethnographic approach to the historical worlds of the children’s room outlined here by Kühberger seriously and approaches them phenomenologically, then the questions of plausibility/Triftigkeiten in the sense of the dichotomy between truth and fiction or the reality behind the constructed worlds probably do not lead any further. From a child’s point of view this would probably be more like a “Entzauberung” of their world than an approach that takes them and their world view seriously.

    For these things move as “kulturelle Tatsachen” (Ralf Konersmann) within a space of possibility of historical narrative, which can also encompass eigen-sinnige constructions. Then one quickly finds Lady Gaga next to Leonardo da Vinci in front of medieval castle worlds. Past and future become projection surfaces of the respective present. History is an ongoing process that takes place simultaneously.

    It is the “Eigensinn der Dinge” (Hans Peter Hahn) that meets the expectations of commentators and a rationally arguing, scientific public here. The polysemy of things enters the sphere of public history. The dinosaur becomes a dragon, guarded by a medieval knight. In addition, early modern-day pirates could sail in Viking ships.

    More important than confronting these worlds of histories with external realities, in my opinion it would be to take these worlds in their materiality as independent realities just as seriously as other stories, be they told by historians or artists, just as well.

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