April 09, 2020, 04:02:39 AM

Author Topic: Have we made Dragons and Demons too cute and cuddly?  (Read 1257 times)

Offline Overlord

Have we made Dragons and Demons too cute and cuddly?
« on: April 13, 2014, 10:53:36 AM »
To celebrate the release of Stephen Deas’s The Dragon Queen coming to paperback, we have a very cool article on the main site today about the emasculation of dragons in contemporary fantasy writing and why – in Stephen’s opinion – this is a bad thing, taking away from the ‘formidable or dangerous’ beasts that have featured in stories over the ages. Certainly, those who have read and enjoyed Stephen’s novels before will know there’s nothing cute and cuddly about Stephen’s creations and now we’ll pass you over to Mr Deas to explain why…

Here be dragons. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Filled with mystery andanticipation. You don’t know what to expect, but whatever it is, it’ll be something impressive, something vast, something that will change anyone who comes by it. Something not easily faced. It sits there on the edge of the map1, impassive, implacable, a challenge to anyone who dares to explore the unknown corners of the world.

So where be dragons? At first glance the answer appears to be absolutely bloody everywhere. There’s something about them, something that fascinates us with a grip that no other mythical monster has. Flip through the myriad of satellite channels and you’ll come across a cartoon of some sort with a dragon in it. Fantasy literature can’t get away from them (mea culpa and proud of it); even when we’re not writing about them, we’re thinking about them or flirting with them or actively avoiding them. Not only is that true now, it seems to have been true forever. Dragons (or lion-snake-raptor things that might be a bit like dragons) appear in indigenous art across Europe, the Far and Middle East and the Americas. As early as Babylon’s Ishtar Gate2, as geographically disparate as Vietnam and the Arctic Circle. Pretty impressive for something that doesn’t exist. You might point at crocodiles or giant snakes or lizards, or at the unearthed fossil remains of dinosaurs, but none of that seems to account for the geography of the beasts. I think, if we can’t leave it as a mystery, I like the collective hard-wired subconscious fear of large flying, slithering and clawed predator-things all rolled up in a tidy fire-breathing package. I’m not sure where the fire bit comes from3, but I’ll put that down to those early fantasy authors who wanted to make their Beowulf and Sigurd characters look really hard.

But what is a dragon? What does it mean? Names matter. To call something a dragon should mean much more than ‘four-legged flying fire-breathing big thing’. The dictionary is, at first, a little less than helpful:

dragon, n, a fabulous winged scaly-armoured fire-breathing monster…4

Right. So four-legged fire-breathing big thing. With wings and scales. Did that bit already and anyway, lots and lots of fabulous creatures that get labelled as dragons don’t have wings and/or don’t breathe fire. That just tells you what some (i.e. contemporary European) dragons happen to look like. Wings and scales and fire might define how a dragon appears (or they might not – most early depictions of ‘dragons’ don’t tend to have the wings or the bad breath; given the origins of their name, they’re more likely to have the deadly gaze of a basilisk instead5), but they don’t define what a dragon is. They’re colouring, clothing, dressing to hang over the fundamental essence of dragon-ness that lies underneath.

  dragon, n, Something very formidable or dangerous.6

For me, that fits, whether we’re talking about monsters like Fafnir or Smaug or the more benevolent dragons of Asia. Something formidable or dangerous. The dragons that Beowulf and Sigurd fought stretched the strength and courage of the greatest heroes of their time to the very limit. Their point, I think, was that they were so formidable and dangerous that they defined the heroes who defeated them. Without their dragons, the myths of Sigurd and Beowulf wouldn’t have existed.

Which brings me back to the question: where be dragons? Creatures with the label ‘dragon’ are wheeled out time and time again in works of fantasy, both book and film, but do they deserve the name? Are they something very formidable or dangerous? The answer, in my opinion, is almost always no. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with flying, fire-breathing ponies, or with an armoured company aiming their 30mm cannons and Stinger missiles at things with wings that flap instead of wings that don’t. They can wear the clothing and the label of a dragon, but that alone doesn’t make them a dragon, at least not in a symbolic sense. They become trappings of the world, a colourful piece of scenery. There is a huge difference between the dragon whose defeat defines the hero and the dragons that act as background colour to an entirely different journey.

In our fascination with dragons we give them traits that are recognisable as human. We try to explain how they work, how they live, what they eat, how they came to be. We steadily bring them within the circle of our understanding. In the end, we make them like us, and in doing so, we emasculate them. There’s a straightforward reason for that. There’s no space on the map any more for Here Be Dragons. Sigurd and Beowulf are, to be blunt, rather one-faceted heroes. Modern protagonists (and I’m talking about fiction in general now) are expected to be more multi-dimensional and, frankly, are much better for it. Dragons have followed the trend. Besides, you can’t get away with having a dragon and simply going ‘Oooh! Dragon!’ and expect anyone to be impressed, because we’ve seen it all before. Dragons have evolved in order to survive within our changing stories, but I think they’ve lost something on the way.

There are other dragons. Darker ones. Ghost-like shades who flit only ever part-seen among us. We have a book at home called You’ve Got Dragons. It’s a story about a boy who is chased by scary dragons. Gradually he learns about them, turns to face them and they stop being scary. It’s fine enough for what it is, as a parable for children. It’s a natural human thing to do after all, to try and understand something. That’s how we deal with the unknown. That’s how we conquer fears, by understanding things, by breaking them down into little pieces and assimilating them one by one. It’s a thing that children need to learn. The dragons in this case are a blunt metaphor for childhood fears – as you come to understand them, they diminish and go away. In the context of teaching children not to be afraid of the dark, that’s fine, but not all dragons are like that. The ghost-dragons that haunt us aren’t so easily defeated. As adults we learn to live with the fears and the emotional scars we’ve carried with us from our youth but we don’t always master them. Some people do, others fail utterly, many of us live in an uneasy truce with them. Maybe that’s not a thing for children, but it’s the truth. Here, dear reader, be dragons. Here, dear readers, be the dragon of Dragon Queen.

The very last sentence of You’ve Got Dragons is: No dragon is more powerful than YOU. However well intentioned, that sticks in my craw. No dragon is more powerful than me? Excuse me? Yes they bloody well are! That’s their whole point, dammit. Something formidable and dangerous, remember? And I have seen too many people struggle with their inner demons (or dragons) and fail and fail and fail to win. I’ve seen a few fall entirely, consumed by the monster. I’ve seen a few appear to triumph. I see others struggle constantly fighting an endless war of attrition simply to stay still. No dragon is more powerful than YOU? I’m sorry, but no, it’s not true.

Dragons. Something that only a hero can overcome. By claiming to understand our dragons, I think we’ve shot our collective selves in the foot. We diminish them, and in doing that we diminished the heroes that fight them and ultimately diminish ourselves. So if you happen to read The Dragon Queen, do me a favour and ask yourself at the end: where lurks the real monster? Where is the real dragon?

Anyway, don’t we need a few dragons? A few lurking monsters and terrible mysteries to keep us from apathy and complacency?

[Exits to the strains of The Stranglers “No more heroes”]

1 Dragon trivia: The phrase ‘Here be dragons’ seems to originate from the Lenox Globe, c.1505. That appears to be about it, until fantasy writers took up the baton. Never mind, eh.

2 Creatures that look like hybrids of eagles, lions and serpents are documented in descriptions of the gate and appear on the reconstruction in the Berlin museum.

3 Alright, alright, it’s probably an embellishment of the flickering red forked tongue of some snakes and lizards or something like that.

4 The Chambers dictionary

5 From www.etymonline.com: c.1220, from O.Fr. dragon, from L. draconem (nom. draco) “serpent, dragon,” from Gk. drakon (gen. drakontos) “serpent, seafish,” from drak-, strong aorist stem of derkesthai “to see clearly.” But perhaps the lit. sense is “the one with the (deadly) glance.” Nice.

6 A secondary definition from wikipedia’s online dictionary.
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Offline Eclipse

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Re: Have we made Dragons and Demons too cute and cuddly?
« Reply #1 on: March 30, 2020, 06:16:48 PM »
I feel dragons have got weaker over time also people avoid vampire books due to writers making them romantic heroes instead of the terrible monsters that there are.
According to some,* heroic deaths are admirable things

* Generally those who don't have to do it.Politicians and writers spring to mind

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