Thursday, December 20, 2018

Seasons Readings: The Reluctant Dragon

Of Dragons and Dinosaurs 1990-2004-2018

Listen to the story here.
This year I am revisiting a post of Christmas Past. When I first wrote this, Little Foot and friends were making plans to free themselves from the Sharp Tooth once and for all. The scene was from the Don Bluth film, The Land Before Time, in which a band of odd young dinosaurs trek in search of the Great Valley while escaping the ravenous T-Rex, “Sharp Tooth.”  It is, as the narrator explains, a journey towards life itself.
The dinosaur that year was Nick (at age 2.7) and it echoed a similar dinosauria with Jack 14 years before. A fascination that continued forward another 14 years with Jordan (now age 10.) As the photos above testify, all the boys, sooner or later, spend time in the dinosaur persona.  Not insignificantly, they equally relish the role of the Sharp Tooth and, by so doing, remind me that however cute the weak vegetarians are, we ultimately are more kin with the villainous predator.  Perhaps more than kin and less than kind.  The photo of Jack on the left is from Halloween in 1990 (age 3.3), Nick roars on center as Christmas approached in 2004, and Jordan rides his beast on the right this past Halloween, 2018.  Among other things, the photos illustrate that I have learned a few things over the years about fitting the dinosaur to the man and the man to the dinosaur.  My first attempt with Jack yielded an unwieldy head that he graciously suffered to wear for the sake of the photograph.  I am pleased to report that he has grown into the head-of-unwieldy-weight with an impressive academic record, a deep regard for ideas, a quick wit and a loving smile. Nick’s head, likewise, is keeping well apace of any enclosure that seeks to subdue him. Jordan happily handles whatever confronts him. His is a head-for-all-seasons.
This Christmastide will again be dragon-haunted.  So I turn to the tale of St. George and the Dragon.  A favorite for Christmas mummers plays, the pageant is a faux-Christian allegory of the triumph of good over evil, and may have an historical reference to some actual English triumph (the Welsh dragon?) but certainly has pre-Christian roots.  St. George appears to have come from Green George, a tree and nature spirit who is still present with us in Asheville in the form of the local craft brewery, Green Man Ales, which can be enjoyed at the local pub, Jack of The Wood. 
 Green George played a role in the spring fertility rites as the male principle bringing new life to the land. Perhaps the tale of the dragon-slaying has to do with the New Year battling the Old, Spring against Winter, Life against Death.  The western dragon is viewed variously as symbolic of the devil or of death. The image of the dragon hoarding gold and treasure and keeping damsels in constant distress is familiar.  In that sense, the battle is between Greed and Generosity, Covetousness and Charity, Taking and Giving, Holding On and Letting Go, Stifling and Creating…you get the idea.
But unlike our all-too-often seen habit of pitting good against evil and light against dark, the contest is really a kind of dance between interdependent forces. If we want heroes we must accommodate villains, and Rebirth necessitates Death. The dragon, therefore, may be too much maligned. He is, after all, a necessary and popular part of the pageant. Indeed, he may be an eternal and ineluctable part of ourselves.
And what about dinosaurs? One of Nick’s video programs on dinosaurs went to great lengths to distinguish between dinosaurs as actual creatures and dragons as mythical ones. But surely the dragon comes from our earliest encounters with dinosaurs, if not living ones, then certainly the readily viewable and dramatic remains. Certainly in the Gobi Desert, dinosaur remains must have been seen by early peoples and could well have influenced the traditions of the Chinese dragons. Likewise the dinosaurs of the American west may have influenced Native American dragon/monster stories such as the Illini Piasa. Why, then, could not the dragons of one era simply be the Iguanodons and Allosaurs of another? Though the language of science has separated factual dinosaurs from mythical dragons, it has not removed the sense of wonder both inspire. To a great degree, the fact of dinosaurs encourages the fantasy of dragons; for the tangible fossil record affirms the possibility of dragons, while it’s fragmentary nature commands imagination. The conception of dragons has been attributed to many causes including explosive methane clouds in ancient burial mounds (treasure hording, fire-breathing, dragons?) and the inchoate dream-making habits of our psychic nether-realm, the collective unconscious. The most compelling thinking about dragons I have come across is found in the Electric Universe, suggesting that dragons are largely inspired by lightning and its kin in plasma physics. This group meets in a medial realm, triangulated from science and myth, to conceive of the possibilities both direct our attention to: dramatic events observed and embedded in a flash of archetypal visioning, telling a story in myth that continues to resonate to the present day. (Check out Discourses on an Alien Sky.)
Dinosaurs and dragons occupy the same medial realm. That realm is a hunting ground for the spirit. For it is in the place of mediation between opposites that, if we’re lucky, we discover early on and, if we’re wise, we continue to explore throughout life’s journey. At some point in childhood we discover that the world is not strictly dichotomous, although binary organization will remain useful as a cognitive tool. We discover that in fact there is a third point not on the same line as our simple polarities: that is the place of color that exists in a triangular relationship with black and white. Now and Then are mediated by Might-Have-Been. Child mediates Mother and Father. Though “mediation” suggests a mid-point along a straight line, such as gray halfway between black and white, it can also be something more than a dimming of one extreme or a brightening of another. The navigational art of triangulation uses two known points to determine the location of a third and it teaches us that two opposing points can still orient us to a third possible direction. Like Zeno’s arrow, never reaching its’ target because the space between is infinitely divisible; just so, the medial realm is infinitely possible. The imagination abhors a vacuum and where one is found, the medial realm supplies rich possibilities. If there is Life and Death, could there also be Not-Life and Not-Death? If so, what might that look like? Ghosts? Vampires? Angels? Similarly, if there is Good and Evil, might there also be Not-Good and Not-Evil? What might that be? Enter the Benign Dragon and the Dissembling Saint. Now that offers much more room for possibility, adventure and whimsy than stark opposites!
So it is that I have chosen again for this season’s story, the wonderfully whimsical and curiously poignant tale of The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame. Grahame’s writing has long been a big influence on my own imagination and sense of story telling and so his story leapt to the fore as I contemplated the boyhood immersions in dinosauria. Here is a tale that invites us into the medial realm where possibility feeds the soul’s hunger for something other than the Known and the Unknowable. In so doing it reveals to us some useful lessons by way of allegory. First, that dragons need not be seen as all bad.  Second, that there may be some sense in connecting the possibility of dragons with the impulse to poesy. Third, that the role of the Saint may have something other to do than the mere vanquishing of objectionable nature, and that something may be reconciliation.
The dragon that Mr. Grahame gives us is a poet and a gentleman. Yet he is also a dragon, big as “four cart horses,” and therefore an established enemy of humankind.  What is the solution? Make a show of subduing him in order that he may “go into society,” and thereby become a source of enrichment for us all. How like the problem of the Artist is the problem of the Reluctant Dragon. Here is a source of great power, which we eliminate to our own great loss, but which we dare not allow to roam freely among us unchecked and unmanaged. Without dragons our lives are stale and mechanical. With them our lives are filled with wonder and possibility and the rich imaginative stuff that allows for the notion of something eternal, loving and universal in our nature. But dragons need friends to mediate foes. Enter the Intuitive Artist and the Instinctive Scientist, the dragon-dreamer and the dinosaur-hunter. These fellows among us keep the soul fires burning hot as dragon’s breath. I do not mean to suggest that dragons are without danger. Indeed, their dangerous nature is part and parcel of their special potency. Rather, what we need are people willing to engage with dragons, and saints ready to accommodate them. So Mr. Grahame gives us a boy. Additionally he gives us a girl and a boy whose tracing of dragon tracks in the snow conjures up the entire tale to begin with.  Of the two, the girl, Charlotte, makes the most telling remark, saying, “a little dragon would be nice to have. He might scratch and spit, but he couldn’t do anything really.” So saying, she informs us that we must embrace our dragons while they are small, before they are too hot to handle.
So here we are in the season of the birth of a savior with a story of a saint who allows for the conversion of a most talented dragon through the wise intervention of a well-read boy. I invite you into the story and ask you to wander up the road with a most rewarding threesome of Dragon, Saint, and Boy, like three ships sailing; a holy trinity on Christmas Day.

David Novak, Christmas, 2004 & 2018.