The story is a simple one, of a dragon who is a retiring and literary sort, befriended by a boy and then challenged to a fight by Saint George (at the behest of the villagers, who love fights). Between them, the boy, knight, and dragon arrange a staged battle, after which the dragon becomes a popular figure in society.
Reluctant Dragon is one of the first in a now-venerable tradition of retelling fairy-tales with an irreverent twist. (And the story of St. George badly needed it. In the original story the dragon is tamed, after which St. George promises to kill it if everyone will turn Christian. They do, so he does.)
The charm of the book lies in Grahame’s writing. Here, for example, is how he tells us about the boy’s bookishness: “What the Boy chiefly dabbled in was natural history and fairy-tales, and he just took them as they came, in a sandwichy sort of way, without making any distinctions; and really his course of reading strikes one as rather sensible.”
Reluctant Dragon is really a longish short story which originally appeared in Grahame’s story collection Dream Days, many years before his more famous Wind in the Willows. Reluctant Dragon probably also inspired E. Nesbit’s series of dragon stories, published in magazines starting in 1899 and collected in The Book of Dragons.
The “classic” illustrations for Reluctant Dragon are by Ernest Shepard (Winnie-the-Pooh, Wind in the Willows), though they weren’t drawn until forty years after the fact. The first illustrations for Dream Days were by Maxfield Parrish, but were not printed in color (color being the raison d’etre of a Maxfield Parrish painting), and Parrish’s slightly creepy, hyper-realistic style just doesn’t work for this story. Shepard, on the other hand, had the touch for bringing to life the characters of any book which is gentle, light-hearted, and philosophical.