Thursday, 14 February 2013

Why Do We Desire Dragons? A Dragon-Seeker's Quest

The dragon is the patron saint of all storytellers and artists” – Guillermo del Toro
"I choose to believe in dragons." - Robin Hobb 

Tintaglia by John Howe, for Robin Hobb's "Ship of Destiny" 

 This blog post was inspired by Terry Windling's "Moveable Feast" on the topic of The Desire for Dragons: What Brings Us to Myth and Fantasy?.

I think it is a question that every person who has ever felt the "desire for dragons" should ask themselves, not in an attempt to "explain the magic away" but in a quest to discover these elusive beasts and on the way, perhaps to ourselves... It is a question that leads into a hundred other questions, for example:

Why is it that we out of everyone in the world feel most strongly a desire for Faerie - for myth and story - for transcendence and legend and perilous beauty? Is it innate - like a magic of old - or is it something that is taught? Why do only some people feel it, and why do others become accountants?  What is the "real" basis of our desire and belief? How much should we care about "reality" anyway? Is story more important than reality? Does story create reality? What is lacking in modern life, that we turn with wistful eyes to a mystical past that never existed save in story? How can we live according to such precepts? How can we use story to make the world we live a better place? Why dragons?

Dragon and Warrior Princess by John Howe

Well, I think the answers to all these questions can only fully be discovered, and crafted, over a lifetime. So as Woolf would say, if you are looking for a "nugget of truth" I'm afraid you won't be getting one (sorry dragons - but gold is shinier than truth anyway). 

Smaug the Golden by John Howe
He seems to agree...
Instead I invite you on my dragon-seeking quest. With staff in hand and dusty sandals, armed with nothing more than a pencil and a roll of parchment (or pad of paper, take your pick) we shall follow the road that leads away across the hills, into the mountains and beyond. And perhaps on the way we will find some glimmerings of the elusive answers to our questions, on the sun-caught wings of a dragon high above, or the dully metallic scales of a Worm wrapped around a hill; or between the serpents coiling at the edges of an old map...

Earthsea by John Howe

Where shall we seek? It does not matter. Dragons are not difficult to find. As anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of world mythology would know, dragons have colonised all the earth and sea and sky. From China to Australia; from South America to Africa to Britain - in all places where humans have settled, it would seem that dragons have preceded them. Sailors feared the deeps for the serpents that lurked below the surface, beyond sight but not beyond knowledge. When the first maps were created the edges of the "known" were marked and everyone knew that dragons were beyond. After rain, we glimpse the tail of the Rainbow Serpent. Look up into the sky at night, and the shining length of "Draco" can be seen. Dragons can be sought - and found - everywhere. It all depends on how you look.

Sea Dragon by John Howe
You would be wise to fear the deeps...

I seem to be blessed with the ability to see dragons. Almost everything I see can be evidence of a dragon - the jagged, granite peaks of a mountain so easily becomes the spine of a sleeping, half-buried dragon, and a massing bank of clouds becomes, with little effort, dragon's breath. Of course, at the same time I "know" that the granite spine was formed by erosion and geological forces of the earth, and the clouds are shaped by air pressure and evaporation. But somehow, strangely, all my scientific knowledge does not diminish my wonder. 

Dragon Isle by John Howe 
I see dragons everywhere... and clearly so does John Howe. 

The dragons and the "magic" of the world I sense every day have the same solidity in my mind as the scientific phenomena. They exist, in my mind, on parallel planes. I do not deny scientific "reality", nor do I believe that the "real-ness" of magic and dragons is the same kind as this more mundane knowledge (though it is as important to me). 

The Stone Dragon by John Howe for Robin Hobb's "Assassin's Quest" 

Tolkien wrote in his essay On Fairy Stories:

“Fairy-stories were plainly not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability. If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded… The dragon had the trade-mark Of Faerie written plain upon him. In whatever world he had his being it was an Other-world. Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was the heart of the desire of FaĆ«rie. I desired dragons with a profound desire... the world that contained even the imagination of Fafnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever cost of peril.”
That is the gift of dragon-sight; the purpose of the dragon quest. Dragons embody the beauty and the peril of an "other world" that is "richer and more beautiful" and full of strange and marvellous things. Ah - I see a glimmer of an answer - a flash of desire on the wing of a dragon! I understand a part of why I desire Faerie - and dragons - with such aching passion. When life can contain "even the imagination" of such eldritch possibility - when a world of unplumbed depths of mystery exists alongside our own - then what a glory is opened to the soul! What visions of wonder, far beyond the ken of mortal sight, unfold before the inner eye, lit by a "light better than any light that ever shone; a land no one can define or remember, only desire"... 

 "In this unfolding, ever-changing but constant drama, dragons have always played a role. They are among the First...They embody concepts of considerable importance and they are clothed in scales. Their origins are inextricably interwoven with our psyche, and they breathe fire. They are Freudian and, better still, eminently Jungian, and they spread vast wings over the sky.”  - John Howe, Forging Dragons

Dragon of Chaos by John Howe
The dragon that created the cosmos...
Volcanic Dragons by John Howe

I have heard people say that science killed magic. I disagree. Science is an exploration - an attempt to penetrate mystery. Artists and writers; scientists and mathematicians - all share a desire to explore and to discover. I do not think that science explains everything - Mystery abounds yet, and dragons were ever the gate-keepers of mystery.

The Gates of Night by John Howe

This is why, I believe, dragons are such potent and universal figures; so beloved by storytellers and artists from the beginning of human thought. That is why they are so tenacious, and will not let themselves be rooted from our stories, from the land or from our consciousness. That is why I follow their fiery trails, ever seeking Faerie. And that is why I think dragons are eternal. No matter how "advanced" humanity becomes in scientific pursuits, the dragon will be there.

"The skies of this world were always meant to have dragons. When they are not here, humans miss them. Some never think of them, of course. But some children, from the time they are small, they look up at the blue summer sky and watch for something that never comes. Because they know." - Robin Hobb, Golden Fool

Dragon Moons by John Howe
Fool's Fate by John Howe, for Robin Hobb's book of the same name 

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Why everyone should see "The Slipper and the Rose"

What is a song that's never sung?
What is a heart that's never thrilled to being young?
What is a dream that can't come true?
What is my life to me, without my love for you?
- Secret Kingdom, The Slipper and the Rose

Prince Edward: Whatever happens afterwards, I will always remember this moment...

Tonight I watched (for the twentieth time), my favourite of all fairytale movies (and very close to my favourite movie ever), The Slipper and the Rose.

The movie is a musical adaptation of the classic Cinderella story. But there is nothing whatever trite or cliche about this adaptation - nothing caricatured or Disneyfied. I first watched it when I was about five years old, and have watched it several times each year since. Above all movies, it shaped my entire childhood perception of the world, and its magic still affects me just as strongly today.

Since it is sadly unknown in much of the world, I will briefly give a sketch of the storyline:

The moated manor where Cinderella lives, in the tiny kingdom of Euphrania 

After the death of Cinderella's father, his will places her under the protection of her stepmother , with only the memory of love to sustain her. 
The stepmother and stepsisters make "certain drastic economies in the household" ... 

... which involve making Cinderella the maid-of-all-work.

Meanwhile the king and queen urge the prince that "it's your duty to the state not to stay a celibate" while he argues that marriage begins with love, not duty. 
The prince's foolish cousin drops the "teensiest of social briquettes"., with hilarious consequences. 
The Fairy Godmother in her Domythic cottage, writing all the fairytales... 
She "tests" Cinderella before deciding she is worthy of help.

"I thought - a ball. A great ball! The greatest ball that has ever been known, sire! And to it we shall invite every eligible princess in Europe, and even beyond, your majesty."
Cinderella is set the task of making dresses for the ball, but fails miserably. Thankfully, someone steps in to help.
Cinderella" "Me, go to the ball?"
Godmother: "Of course! Wait, that is what you were wishing wasn't it?
Cinderella: "Not wishing... Thinking what it must be like."
Godmother: "Same thing."

Dancing mice. What's not to love?

The prismatically lovely carriage seems to be made of dreams and imaginings...

At the ball, the Prince "conceals his boredom from half a dozen twittering maidens of blue blood" (the princesses between whom he is meant to choose) while the local nobility attend to fill up space
A glittering carriage arrives late to the palace...

... and the "Princess Incognita" arrives. 

Entering the ballroom...

... Cinderella and the Prince are drawn to each-other

The waltz that Cinderella and the Prince dance at this point must be seen to be truly appreciated. It is the most beautiful dance I have ever seen, and earned The Slipper and the Rose two Oscar nominations. It tells the story of a relationship, and makes their falling in love believable.

It really is the most romantic and beautiful dance - ever.

After the dance Cinderella Prince Edward walk in the garden, and the Prince apologises to her for the "ridiculous charade" of the "bride-finding ball". He confesses that he has been "trapped by his birthright", but offers Cinderella his "private kingdom... with no castles and no vassals and no throne".

Unfortunately the chimes of midnight necessitate Cinderella's flight...

... and his pursuit is in vain. 

"Though this lovely night was only a fantasy/ And I know tonight is all there will ever be/ Dancing in his arms forever my heart will never be free... Dreaming of the night he danced with me."
"Could it be that she was only a fantasy? Could it be tonight is all there will ever be?"
Edward: It is unique, like its owner. Who ever fits this slipper, must fit the bill!
King: It really is remarkably dainty... half the size of your mother's... take it away... very disturbing...
Stepmother: "Now push  hard."
Palatine: "Oh I'm pushing, Mama!"

After a fruitless search of "three months, six days, ten hours", Prince Edward and his companion-at-arms John are both tortured by the pangs of love . Edward is educated as to the restrictive nature of "position" and social conditioning.

Frustrated and half-wondering if Cinderella had been a phantom-like "Belle Dame Sans Merci", Edward decides to throw the glass slipper away.

But it is found again by Cinderella.

Joyfully she dances in the fields with the slipper...

... where she is seen.

A passionate reunion...

... but there is talk of war, and the prince must make a marriage of alliance with a powerful kingdom with an "army to fortify the throne" of the tiny and vulnerable Euphrania.

Cinderella makes a noble sacrifice, going into secret exile. 

Edward prays on the eve of his wedding: "Forgive me dearest Cinderella. I have no heart for what I am about to do... I have loved but once. I have loved but you. And I have lost you - twice!"

In her place of exile, Cinderella "can't stop remembering" - until the Godmother shows up "to rise to the occasion and do something spectacular".

The marriage of alliance...
... but someone else has arrived.

Happy, but not yet the ending...

... and that's only a taste of the gorgeousness in store. It can't do justice to the music, the vivacity, the Romance and the magic of this peerless fairytale movie.

Essentially, the first half of the story is the one we are familiar with - except that the characters are far more real and the Prince (Edward) has as great a role in the story as Cinderella. There are a host of wonderful supporting characters (the stepmother, the prince's companion-at-arms, the royal family and the fairy godmother to name a few), which give the film depth  and allow it to explore themes of tradition, class warfare, independence, diplomatic relations and ethical dilemmas. When Cinderella is reunited with the prince at last, their happiness takes second place to the concerns of the kingdom, for a declaration of war requires the prince to make a marriage of alliance to a powerful princess... Of course it ends happily (and satisfactorily) thanks to the cleverness of the Fairy Godmother - but not before both Edward and Cinderella are tested.

The Slipper and the Rose is beautiful in every way - with incredible music, sumptuous costumes, an absolutely wonderful romance, humour and great characters. I can't praise it enough. For anyone who wants to watch it (which should be everyone after reading this!) - you can purchase it on Ebay or *watch here on Youtube*.

In fact, you have no excuse. Enter the fairytale. You will not be sorry. Go and watch it now.