This poem was commissioned as part of Art Russe, The Art of Storytelling. It was inspired by late 19th century artist Victor Vasnetsov's painting 'The Legendary Heroes' and displayed as part of an exhibition at the Mall Gallery, London.

The Knights

by Matthew Sweeney

1.

I am Ilya, and with my friends Dobry and Alyo,
I pledge to defend Russia from dragons.

They’re a scourge, and they bubble up everywhere.
Their breath can destroy a town and its people.

We’ve decided to wipe them out together.
We worked out seven of them are still active.

Too many – well, even one would be extraneous.
We convened for a council of war in Vladivostok.

I have to admit something here, I admire dragons –
such a strange creature has a right to exist

but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to be
the most famous dragon slayer of two centuries.

The dragons are determined to terrify the world
and why wouldn’t they be. Anyway, my mates and I
parcelled out the known surviving dragons,

all seven of them, and tried to plot their doom.
I asked my friends to tussle with six of them and

they said they’d handle them, on condition I coped with

the seventh (known to be the biggest and worst),
which would need a well-thought-out method of killing.

2.

Let me tell you about my dragon. He’s a bit odd
in his habits. He lives at the bottom of a lake

in an underwater cave surrounded by skeletons
of fisherfolk he’s boiled in the water and eaten.

There are countless lakes in northern Russia
but his is easy to find because the tree branches

on the shore nearest him are all singed black
and the birds avoid every one of those trees.

He sleeps a lot, more than any other dragon,
but we know he’s awake and coming up

when the water starts bubbling, then steaming,
and there he is, dragon-paddling in the lake

as if nothing were more normal. Oh, I should
mention he’s blue, the only blue dragon ever,

and the last dragon, too, if I can possibly help it.
But look at the waves his splashing creates –

any fishing boats out today are in trouble.
That must be how he catches his dinner, and

he has no need of giant saucepans or a fire.
No, his breath and the lake-water do it all.

3.

I’ve given a lot of thought to how I’ll kill him.
For a start, he never seems to leave the lake

so my swift horse would be no help to me.
With my two sons I ride to the Arctic Sea

where we throw a big net into the water
and catch a young pilot whale, then bring this

fast swimmer in a cart of water to the Caspian Sea
where we leave him to wean himself off salt.

Two weeks later we are at the dragon’s lake.
I’ve anointed the point of my lance with hemlock.

We launch the whale with me on his back,
knowing the blue creature will emerge for us.

He does, and he’s not expecting to be approached
at such speed, or greeted with such powerful venom.

A breath of flame takes all my blond hair away, but
otherwise I’m unscathed, and I watch, disbelieving,

as the dragon sinks beneath the surface in a hiss of smoke.
I hear loud applause behind me, and turn to see

my friends Dobry and Alyo on their horses, waving flags.
After a lap of honour I ride my water-horse to join them.

 

The Poetry Society was founded in 1909 to promote “a more general recognition and appreciation of poetry”.  Since then, it has grown into one of Britain’s most dynamic arts organisations, representing British poetry both nationally and internationally.  Today it has more than 4000 members worldwide and publishes The Poetry Review.

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