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 Faërie. 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 


  1. That is a fascinating essay, thank you.

    I have been pondering some of the themes here for a long time and in my own experience find no dichotomy between the Scientific Quest and the Mythic Quest.

    Science and Myth, equally and in their own way, only add to my store of wonder.

    Science and Myth alike, as you suggest here, are both heroic journeys into the unknown, into mystery; they are both free of dogma and speak directly to our experience and understanding of reality.

    In my own essay on a similar theme (also for this feast!)I essentially claim that they are two sides of the same coin, two different technologies for exploring the fullness of Nature, outer and inner.

    However, your writing here, I think, is much more poetically rich and beautiful than my (as it now seems to me)rather dry effort. I loved reading this, it seems to me to be a great contribution to the Feast.

    Thank you so much. :)

  2. I think that is so true: we, all of us, need mystery, whether we are aware of it or not. We need something we can't quite get hold of, something which teases around the edges of conscious. Thank you for such a well crafted post!

  3. such a beautiful post, thank you!

  4. This is a terrific essay, Laura -- weaving art, philosphy, and dragon lore together in a beautiful way.

    1. Thank you Terri - I'm honoured that you like it!