Part 1 of 2
Our contribution to Terri Windling’s latest moveable feast is a potluck: a jumbling of literary reflections, theories, and disputations. After the topic was brought up, the editorial staff engaged in a lively email exchange about why, and wherefore, and indeed whether, we desire dragons. Think of this less as the main dinner and more as the debate in the pub afterwards. We’re running this in several parts for your reading enjoyment, so you’ll hear from two of our esteemed editors (and some moderator bloke) today, and the others next week. Feel free to add your own thoughts and drinks in the comments below.
JPP: First: recall that Terri introduced the topic thusly:
The title of the Feast comes from J.R.R. Tolkien. “I desired dragons with a profound desire,” he wrote regarding his life-long taste for myth and tales of magic. “Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighborhood. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fáfnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever the cost of peril.” I chose this title because Tolkien’s passionate desire for a world colored by myth and mystery is one familiar to all of us who create and love mythic arts. … What we’re discussing here is the why. Why are we drawn to stories and other art forms (both contemporary and historic) with their roots dug deep into the soil of myth?
There’s another why I want to pick up from this: Why dragons?
These are terrifying monsters, really, a destructive threat that can only be handled by a trained warrior in the old tales. And in old cultures it was used as a symbol of intimidation and power—dragons on longboats to frighten sea-demons, dragons on shields to frighten enemies. But Tolkien gives us the wily dragons of Smaug and Chrysophlax, both of whom are outwitted and undone by plain-speaking English landowners (as it were); now we also have LeGuin’s bold assertion that dragons are beautiful, as well as the Reluctant Dragon and the wonderful story/TV series Jane and the Dragon—to say nothing of Custard the Cowardly Dragon. (Of Pete’s Dragon we will not speak—except to say Disney Has Been Here.) Terry Pratchett says that dragons are made of our dreams, which I never believed, and I’ve heard at least one preacher say that dragons are really dinosaurs (to his credit, if that’s the word I want, he then proceeded to argue we have fossil evidence that the dinosaurs breathed fire.) We have plenty of warm and wonderful dragons to dream about, now. Yet when Tolkien desired dragons, he meant Fafnir the destroyer, and the terrible foes of St George.
So: why have dragons become as symbol of fantasy and the mythic arts? Is our desire for dragons analogous to what Tolkien expressed, or has it changed and mollified—our art with it?
Second: let’s take the question of mythic arts in particular.
If I were asked to clarify what distinguishes the mythic arts from genre fantasy in other forms, I would say that it requires, first, a respect and familiarity with folklore and folk culture in its several forms, rather than familiarity with the wider genre. (For instance, a mythic artist likely moved from Tolkien to the Icelandic Sagas, rather than from Tolkien to Tad Williams.) This often creates a sensibility in mythic arts redolent of the Celtic Twilight—in part because Yeats and Dunsany and so on are more readily embraced in the mythic arts than in the genre, but more importantly because there is a similar desire to rehabilitate and reclaim the old tales into the present-day, and a lushness of style and expression counter to the dominant literary idiom.
But more importantly, it requires, second, a profound sense of hope. Call it eucatastrophe if you will, as Tolkien did—the sudden joyous turn—or ridiculous optimism, as Henson described his own outlook. But it is this hopefulness, primarily, that translates the folkloric material into an attempt—not just for experience, but for transcendence. So perhaps partly because it combines these two particular elements—folklore and hope—that make the mythic arts more readily fluid between media and form than other modes of the genre.
Is my twofold definition useful or valid, do you think? How would you clarify it further? And how does it help us understand our own desire for dragons?
Jenna St. Hilaire: Why dragons?—in some sense, precisely because they’re dangerous. The old wyrms are an enemy at once demoniac and beautiful, mysterious and sly and powerful. A confrontation with one, which is usually volitional, requires courage on every level: physical, mental, emotional, moral, spiritual. Readers and writers of fantasy hope to find out that we possess that courage. Even if we don’t quite wish for the chance to face one of the brutes—not a lot of grownups do, though some children have innocent fearlessness enough—we study the question a dragon asks of a knight and wonder endlessly how we ourselves would answer.
Regarding the distinction between mythic and genre fantasy, I especially like John’s point about transcendence. The reclaiming of traditional tales, the “lushness of style and expression”, and even the eucatastrophic ideal are strivings after the good, the true, and the beautiful, as opposed to the primarily commercial and exciting—not to denigrate genre fantasy, the best of which often contains elements of the mythic.
A further point might be that mythic art tends to internalize the moral and/or spiritual visions of the story. For instance, genre fantasy and mythic fantasy share a value for heroism, but the former usually focuses on the larger-than life martial champion and his triumph over an enemy whose role is irredeemable Other. When the mythic hero challenges the dragon—as Bilbo responding to the lies of Smaug—he fights the evil within himself. The mythic text, therefore, works as a mirror, encouraging us to make war against an injustice that is not primarily another’s, but our own.
Katherine Langrish: Why do we desire dragons? Because we can: we made them. We are makers, shapers, we human beings: we can hardly help it. We look up at the random scatterings of the stars and see not only dragons but horses and bears and ploughs and wagons and Justice bearing her scales. It may be that the power of the imagination was—evolutionarily speaking—developed to enable us to figure out which way that herd of aurochs is going to stampede after we rush out at them screaming and hurling spears—but imagination is a powerful genie to let out of the bottle. It’s got time on its hands. It doodles. It creates.
So it creates dragons—and maybe at the beginning, once we’d figured out that other people were just like us on the inside, we extended that to any other physical thing, so that trees and rocks were presumed to be conscious, and to have spirits—so this imagining of spirits and dragons was the release from selfhood, the ability to expand our world. And that still goes on. Even if we do live in a multi-dimensional universe, I’m unlikely to discover much about the other ones (in my lifetime at least) but I can expand the edges of being by imagining them. It’s about being able to stretch. Dragons take us beyond the horizon.
I think your (dual) differentiation between the mythic arts and genre fantasy is interesting—actually not one I’d thought of before—but I’m not sure I’m entirely happy with it, probably because I don’t like boundaries, fences. I honestly don’t know if, in challenging Smaug, Bilbo challenges the evil within himself. It seems to me that Bilbo’s triumph resides in his entire quest, releasing the adventurous and imaginative that was always there, repressed, within him—and his contest with Smaug—and Thorin—is nothing to do with greed, but with the Everyman/small town/hobbit decency which tells him that revenge, ambition and pride—in the shape of both Thorin and Smaug—is the evil which needs to be tackled.