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 2 of 2. Our second round of editorial drinks for Terri Windling’s latest moveable feast. Read Part 1 here.

JP2: We’re kind of circling back to what Tolkien said—we don’t want dragons per se, but we want a world where dragons exist. This, arguably, is part of what distinguishes the fantasist from the cryptozoologist. If there really were dragons in the world today, they’d be for conserving and not slaying, wouldn’t they, like tigers and whales and other huge dangerous animals.

Rightly so, I want to say—suggesting a change, at least, since the old days when ferocious days were meant to be killed. Do dragons, then, reflect not just our imagination but our interaction as a species with the natural world? Does fantasy perhaps—as it certainly did in Tolkien’s case—emerge at least partly from an urge to preserve a pastoral memory of an imagined past as the world changes so rapidly and frighteningly around us?

And what about Tolkien’s other dragons? Chrysophlax and Glaurung. By the end of Farmer Giles of Ham, Chyrsophlax is nicely domesticated and settled into life as a draconian country squire, more or less. Even more than Smaug and Bilbo, he’s beat down by plain country wits—in this case, Farmer Giles’s knack for bargaining (and a magic sword). Glaurung is essentially Tolkien’s version of Fafnir—and Turin Turambar slays him, but is also driven mad.

Mentioning Turin, though, brings up the question of hope in mythic arts—there’s actually very little of it in Tolkien’s own work, for all he says about eucatastrophe, and The Children of Hurin is a perfect example: here the desire for dragons is, presumably, perfectly realized—and the story ends with the dragon’s victory, really. There’s very little hope in the tale itself. And yet there is sublimity in reading it, the keen sense of beauty that Tolkien found in the Norse works, for all the bleakness of the story—in this sense it’s closer akin to, say, Shakespeare’s tragedies than most genre fantasy, honestly. I wonder if we should refine what I said about mythic arts to make it less about a definition as an aesthetic—the total effect is one of transcendence, achieved by certain ways.

Josh Richards: Rather than circling back to Tolkien and genre fantasy, I would like to ask “why dragons in contradistinction to dinosaurs?”

“Fall down mountains, just don’t fall on me” by Mark Witton.
Reproduced under Creative Commons.

That dinosaurs appeal to the child and child-like is certain, and that is itself an interesting question—and if one thinks of Dinotopia in the 90s, you would know that they are certainly ripe for fantasy applications.  But what do dragons offer us that dinosaurs don’t?

Dinosaurs certainly satisfy what John was talking about, the hearkening back to the bad old Hobbesian days that we in our glass towers quietly, self-loathingly obsess over via apocalyptic literature—the popularity of zombie stories and other such post-apocalyptic tales certainly attest to such—so I think that can’t be the end of it for the desire for dragons. That’s a related but distinct fantasy of self-actualization to what I am proposing.

The real difference seems to be intelligence. Dragons are in their purest form, rather than dinosaurs for fantasy authors, portrayed as older and wiser beyond comprehension, driven by passions beyond the mortal ken. They are, in short, the Olympian gods, an extrapolated portrait of ourselves in size, majesty, passions, and power blown up to gigantic proportions. I think we desire them because the pleasure they provide is that of contacting that beyond our pale, in short, the Kantian sublime.

But I will stop this response on the cusp of both Kant and metaphysics…

Defne Cizakca: I must say I am out of my depth here. I really don’t have much knowledge on, or childhood memories of, dragons. So what I will do is to post some questions. Hopefully they are helpful.

I found Josh’s idea of dragons reflecting the Kantian sublime very interesting. In my part of the world, we have the giants who are strong but silly creatures. We have the djinns who are much more clever than us, and when we capture them, they are bored and frustrated with us. But we don’t have dragons. (And I will start thinking about why that is, or if we have another creature that takes their place, like the simurg perhaps…)

The usual response to the Kantian sublime is to stay in safety and watch it in awe. Where do you think the wish to conquer dragons comes from? That is a reaction the sublime would not normally elicit. But my intuition also is that we desire dragons since they are worthy enemies. They are intelligent and proud, much stronger than us. So they offer the perfect opportunity to surpass ourselves. An opportunity which giants (too little competition) or the djinn (way above our capacities), do not offer. So could dragons correspond to a different concept than the sublime? What would that be? And why?

JPP: Here’s another spanner to throw into the mix. There’s a shamanic belief—and it has strong parallels in other religious traditions, I think—that the first shamans, long ago, were immensely powerful—they could change into birds and fly to the sky and back, and had other extraordinary magical powers. But in these latter days, the saying goes, the world has become withered and decadent; shamanic power has dwindled to a feeble imitation, and shamans have greatly reduced powers, and can only go to the sky through trance and ritual. In other words, contrary to the Western myth of continual forward progress and upwardly mobile evolution, the world is seen to be in continual decay, a loss of knowledge and ability.

One doesn’t have to embrace shamanic belief, of course, to see the significance of this mindset: perhaps the desire for dragons (or whatever cultural, magical equivalent) is the desire for a mythological past. Such a past may or may not have existed—determining which is beyond us in this discussion—but the desire for it seem to be there: the urge to envision a world much more magical than this one, even if that means more dangerous and terrible. And so the impulse to create new stories could perhaps be an attempt to reconstruct some viable, mythic narrative of consolation in the face of scientific and ideological evidence which doesn’t necessarily allow it in reality.

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