As I’ve suggested in many posts on this blog, there’s a lot of crossover between fantasy fiction and spirituality. In my case, that’s especially true of dragons. Dragons are fantasy creatures appearing in many different forms in many works of fantasy. In all cases, dragons are big, powerful, and potentially very scary. Often they are also highly intelligent and cunning, although sometimes they are just big scary beasts. Dragons have elemental, magical powers in many conceptions that are normally denied to big scary beasts, including flight (I mean, seriously, consult some basic physics and biology — even an ostrich is too big to fly, let alone a reptile the size of a mansion), fiery breath or another form of elemental long-range armament, and sometimes magic itself.
Many fantasy treatments make dragons hostile, evil creatures. That was certainly the case of Tolkien’s dragons, which were creations of the Dark Lord Melkor/Morgoth intended to spread destruction and ruin. A dragon appears in the Book of Revelations in the Bible as an image of evil, a form of Satan. Some make dragons benign, more in the spirit of Chinese dragon lore in which the dragon is an icon of the creative force or of Heaven. In a few cases, notably Robin Hobb’s treatment of the creatures in her fiction set in the world that includes the Six Duchies and the Rain Wilds, dragons are neither good nor evil but simply magnificent creatures with whom humanity shares the world. That was also somewhat the case in Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy, although those books were written from a more narrow human perspective and the dragons were hostile to humankind, yet beyond human moral judgments.
The dragon is particularly important to me because it is my primary totem image. In a vision achieved through shamanic vision quest stimulated by fasting, drumming, and trance, the dragon answered my call and has been a guide and protector to me ever since. (I wrote a poem recounting the experience and the insights the dragon has brought years ago: Hymn to the Dragon Spirit.) So for me, the spiritual implication of the dragon in real life is very important.
I haven’t used dragons a lot in my fantasy writing so far. I did include one inThe Child of Paradox (Book 2 of The Star Mages) where a dragon appeared in the Background Realm (a vehicle for just about any fantasy element I wanted and a way to sidestep the limitations of contemporary fantasy) and gave advice to Falcon, Dolphin, and Angée involving a disturbing development in their conflict with the Sword. But that dragon, Azure, was not a main character nor a main plot line.
The ambivalent way in which dragons appear in both fantasy and myth — benign or hostile, good or evil, sacred or devilish, but always powerful and frightening — makes them an interesting element to think about, and that’s what I want to discuss today.
The dragon is reptilian, and yet it’s usually much more intelligent than any reptile, and that means, taking advantage of modern knowledge that was unavailable to our distant ancestors who first crafted this myth, that perhaps the dragon is more a fantasy dinosaur than a fantasy reptile. (Dinosaurs are no longer classified as reptiles; many of them are believed to have been warm-blooded, quite likely feathered, and the ancestors of modern birds.) It is an aspect of nature foreign to human beings, more so than dangerous mammals such as big cats or wolves who are more closely related to us. The dragon is a mythic image of nature in all its wildness, indifference to our well-being, beauty, power, wisdom, and danger. This perhaps accounts for the different treatment of dragons in Christian and ancient Chinese myth. Christianity is entirely human-centered, with man as the center of the universe and the absolutely unique object of divine interest (God having sacrificed His “only begotten son” not for the world or nature in general but for us), while the older Chinese mythic structure has a little closer tie to the pre-civilied view of man as a part of and subordinate to nature and of nature itself as being divine. The same mythic/fantasy concept is touched upon in both conceptions, but in one it is good because it is an embodiment of sacred nature, while in the other it is evil because it is untamed and (at least potentially) hostile to humanity. The difference is not in the creature itself but in our own attitude towards it, and whether we are capable of reverencing nature when it presents a danger to ourselves.
(Remember that the imagination has power and myth has its own reality; we are not free to imagine dragons or anything else entirely as we please, without losing the essence of the myth and its power over our souls. Dragons have been stripped of their mythic qualities in a few works of fantasy but always with humorous intent. In serious fantasy, the dragon is always an awesome and terrifying creature to be treated with great respect, if not necessarily with reverence.)
In an earlier post (Fantasy, Spirituality and Environmentalism), I noted that as our moral and spiritual views evolve in the course of transitioning from classical to advanced civilization, we are adopting a third view of man’s relationship to nature, neither the “man as subordinate” view of pre-civilized cultures nor the “man as dominator” view of agrarian civilization, but a man as caretaker view in which it becomes our responsibility to protect the natural world, first from ourselves, and then from anything else that may threaten it. In this view, a dragon as a mythic embodiment of nature itself would be approached properly by us neither with “It’s great and holy and we must reverence it (and if it eats a few of us that’s a sacred sacrifice),” nor with “It’s an abominable, evil creature and we must destroy it,” but with “It’s beautiful and irreplaceable and we must protect it lest it be lost forever.” There have already been two fantasy treatments of dragons that fit this motif. One is Robin Hobb’s remarkable dragons in her Liveship Traders and Rain Wild Traders books. The other is George R.R. Martin’s dragons in his Song of Ice and Fire, where dragons are the source of all the magic in the world and if they become extinct (which nearly happened) we will be much the poorer and our survival itself will be threatened by the forces of ice, cold, and death.
Which can also be said of nature itself.
Image credit: ancello / 123RF Stock Photo