We craft and tell stories because we’ve stood on the uncertain edge between the waking world and our imagination, between enchantment and fear. And we remember other stories that help us build our own stories, scraps of lumber and fragments of narrative we gather together to make stories for ourselves.

Desiring Dragons

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.

‘Storm Dragon’ by Lisa Grabenstetter. Reproduced by kind permission.

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.

Reader Comments

  1. Thanks JPP for moderating, and posing the questions/observations about a distinction between dragons in mythic tales vs the fantasy genre.
    Thanks also to Jenna and Katherine for sharing their thoughts. For myself, as a reader, I do find that while I love dragons (madly, passionately!), I do prefer tales that are myth and folklore rich, not the fantasy genre that often feels lightweight, and I all find myself thinking that it was written more for those who no longer even know the myths and the folklore.
    Absolutely great point for discussion. Thanks to all.

  2. John, thank you for making the distinction between dragons. I desire both, I think: the good, eastern wise dragon and the cunning “brute” as Jenna calls him, that shows that little people can overcome big obstacles (trite as that sounds). In both, though, we have the encounter with the Other, which can be found within as well as without.

    I don’t think I agree with Katherine. I don’t think we made dragons. They’re too Other. As in forming constellations out of the distant stars, our “creation” of dragons was a way to put flesh (or scales, rather) to something we otherwise were unfamiliar with. In other words, I don’t believe the power of imagination is an evolutionary trick that’s outgrown itself. I think our desire for dragons is a response to an unseen reality.

    Thank you for these thought-provoking dishes, all of you.

  3. Lovely comments, both.

    Just to clarify, my ‘evolutionary’ approach to the development of the imagination is full of wonder. It’s amazing what it can do. If dragons are out there, an unseen reality as you put it, Christie, they are – in my opinion – as magnificent a creation of humankind as is the Sistine Chapel or the cave paintings of Les Eyzies. Do unicorns exist, or do they exist because we think they exist? I’m for the latter option – but – they DO exist…

  4. … since people imagined them, they are as real now as anything is in the past or the future, anyway…

    And that, for me, is hugely wonderful.

  5. A jolly good read that, thank you one and all.

    Of course we have invented Dragons. Why should that make them any less wonderful?

    On the various ideas about the nature of Dragons, I think it clearly follows that if we have invented them, then we can contentedly and justifiably go about re-inventing them.

    And you know, we can keep all our species of dragon together in the same mythological zoo.

    Let there be brutish beasts of Dragons, whose fiery breath and evil eyes lay waste to land, lord and labourer alike. Let there also be wise and mystical Dragons, whose ancient tongues speak magic into the mind of the Mage. And let there be Dragons symbolic, expressing the divine feminine powers of the Earth. Oh, and let’s also have Dragons that once were dinosaurs and walked the prehistoric landscapes of the past. Yes, and Dragons, too, that prefer to sit idly in their caves composing poetry.

    Let us have Dragons of every kind and colour. But let us have them – for one thing is certain: if Dragons there be and of such great number and variety, it can mean only this…

    That truly, we do desire Dragons.

  6. Austin, for some reason when you mentioned keeping dragons in the zoo, I found myself thinking of Douglas Adams’s white mice…

    It would be interesting to look at how literary depictions of dragons have evolved in the past century or so. Because we do make dragons, at least in literature, and we make them more or less–if not in our own image, then in our dreams’ image. And it would be interesting to see whether we have, in fact, all thrown them in the same view of giving material form to our own wishes and desires.

    Katherine, I’m reminded of your own curious use of dragons in the Troll trilogy–how the carving begins by (presumably) being a response to a mythological belief but then become mythologial/magical in its own right. And how that connects with the twin process of mourning and adolescence. That whole passage seems pertinent–did you have any thoughts about that?

    Christie, I think the question, regardless of evolutionary or other motives, is why dragons? Theoretically we could have chosen any other ferocious monster–as Defne points out in today’s post, there isn’t actually a parallel creature to dragons in Turkish folklore. I’m curious what about that particular trope has become so polyvalent.

    Aaron, thanks, and agreed!

  7. Funnily enough, I was thinking ‘what dragons? I don’t have any dragons in the Troll trilogy’ – and then realised you meant the dragon-head from the viking ship ‘Long Serpent’. Now that dragon was more than a bit strange. It took over. It did and became so many things I had never actually anticipated, I may just have to go and write a post about it in its own right…

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