The Dragon Princess

The 2019 English Heritage Story-Telling Competition

In 2019, while I was artist-in-residence for English Heritage, one of the briefs suggested to me was that I might create illustrations as prizes for the winners of the five categories of an English Heritage story telling competition. It was a new experience to consider, inasmuch that I’d have to agree to be involved from the start so that the announcement could be made at the launch of the competition. This meant that I’d be committed to the project before getting to read any of the stories, which is not my usual way of working. But because I thought the idea had the potential to be stimulating for the young writers, I accepted.

The 5-7 category winner was Sophie from the Midlands with her story of The Dragon and the Princess, set at Kenilworth Castle. Most of the stories submitted for the five categories were based on history, but Sophie had written one in which she had a protagonist who appeared to be channeling her inner Daenerys Targaryen – though without the attendant carnage.

I thought the story charming, and believed I could contribute something to it. In an ideal world I would have enjoyed having dialogues with the winners so that I could exchange ideas with them and have a sense of what they wanted for their stories, the way I would when illustrating a commercial publication. But this was deemed by English Heritage to be too complicated, and so I worked using only the winning texts as my guides and inspirations.

Below: developmental drawings toward the illustration for The Dragon and the Princess:

There were so many directions I could have taken with the illustration, and it felt limiting to produce only one when I could see so many possibilities. (I loved the idea that Perdita ‘torched’ the castle before setting off for her new life with Dennis, presumably so that there was no chance of her being forced to return!)

All five illustrations for the competition winners were started and completed during lockdown, framed and then collected by a specialised art-carrying service that delivered them to the recipients. There was no contact between any of us. But then quite unexpectedly Sophie’s mother messaged me at Facebook.

“Hi Clive, I’m the mum of one of the English Heritage short story winners that has received your wonderful Illustration of her story. She is absolutely thrilled with it – you have bought her story to life and she couldn’t be happier! Thank you so much for a wonderful bit of art that will stay with my daughter – and with us as a family – for ever!”

Later she added:

Sophie would love to see the process you took, as would we. Her headteacher is very excited to see the illustration too, and so it is going into school on Monday to be shown in a full school assembly, albeit via Zoom ‘beamed’ into each classroom, but the excitement is still valid!

Above: Sophie, the Age 5 -7 Category Winner of the English Heritage Storytelling Competition, with her prize of an illustration of Dennis the Dragon and Princess Perdita.

The Dragon and the Princess

Once upon a time, a king called Titon lived in Kenilworth Castle. The knights of the castle were fearless, the guards were strong, and the castle was expertly built. The king wanted it this way because of his big secret: his daughter, Princess Perdita. King Titon loved Perdita so much that he would have kept her in a little jewellery box if he could have! But he did not realise that this was bad for Perdita. She was lonely because her father wouldn’t let her do anything. 

One day a fierce dragon by the name of Dennis came to the castle. He breathed out fire in rage as if he were in a terrible tantrum. Everyone in the castle was scared so the knights and guards started to fight Dennis. They fired arrows at him and tried to cut him with their swords, but Dennis was too strong and too fast. What they didn’t know was that Dennis was only angry because everyone he met was scared of him and he was sad because he was friendless. 

The last few knights and guards fled, and they took the king with them. When they came to take Perdita too, she hid from the guards in a wardrobe. Princess Perdita looked out of the window and saw the last few guards and her father leave. She knew what it felt like to be lonely and understood Dennis’s feelings, so she ran downstairs and outside to meet him. Dennis went up to her, but he wasn’t angry anymore. 

Princess Perdita bravely walked right up close and looked straight at him. “Hello, I’m Perdita. Would you like to be my friend?” she asked. 

Dennis couldn’t believe his ears. “Yes, please!” he roared with a big smile on his face. “I’m Dennis. Pleased to meet you.” 

Then Princess Perdita had an idea. She asked Dennis if he could breathe fire over the whole castle because she didn’t want to be a princess anymore. She would rather be a dragon’s best friend and fly on his back all over the kingdom. Dennis was so happy to finally have a friend he agreed at once. And that is how Kenilworth Castle fell into ruins. 

Written in 2019 by Sophie, aged 7

(Sophie is now 8)

12 thoughts on “The Dragon Princess

  1. What a super, strong, hopeful and (if I may say) unusual tale.
    Love the prideful smile on her happy face, joyful in these ‘Perdita’ missing times.
    How lovely Clive to have a work of yours be the focus for a group of youngster. Well done that head teacher too.
    Love as ever.
    ‘Breathing Fire Bern’ xx

    • Awww, shucks. Thank you, Judy. It was a lovely surprise to hear from Sophie’s mum and I’m so pleased she contacted me. It felt rather dreadful to be investing so much into the project with no feedback at all from the organisers. The outcome seems not to have made an appearance at the English Heritage website. I guess the pandemic has meant they’ve had other things on their plate.

  2. What a beautifully written tale, clever Sophie. Knowing you, I suspect this was more of a challenge than ever to get it right, so much decision making involved judging by the number of drawings, but you got it perfectly, it’s a gorgeous illustration, glowing bright just as a dragon should! Greetings from the Dordogne, wish you were here xxxxL🙁

    • Ha ha! Clever old you. There were indeed even more drawings than shown here. The problem was making an image to tell the whole story at a glance, that would serve both as an illustration and a framed artwork/memento of the competition. It wasn’t possible (for me) to make an image that was stand alone. I ended up designing both a dragon and a princess that would have worked across all the illustrations had I been making this as a publication. (How does the dragon look when rampaging, or when having a snooze or gliding over fields and woodlands or having cheese on toast for his tea? What does the princess look like when she’s bored, or content, or when hiding in a wardrobe or riding a dragon?) I think that was the most difficult thing to explain to the people at English Heritage, that I couldn’t just throw it together. The brief was for just one image per story, but the preparation was the same as if I’d been making twenty! The longer I live the more I realise that many people, even those you’d hope would be insightful, don’t understand the nature of illustration or what it takes to do it well. When approached in the right way, there are no shortcuts. Shortcuts just come back and trip you up later. Whatever microcosm of a universe you show in the images, the full picture has to exist – even when out of sight – as the foundation

      • Absolutely, and I could see it was a mammoth task!
        I love the idea of a dragon having cheese on toast for tea, melted and toasted no doubt by merely breathing on it!
        Shame on EH, just remember it’s not malice but ignorance. xL

  3. WOW !!!
    I loved your illustration, I loved the story, and
    I loved Sophie.
    I hope she grows up to be a great writer, with many many many friends

    Love from Madrid

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