Friday, February 22, 2013

The Desire for Dragons

This post is a response to the Moveable Feast hosted by Terri Windling's Myth & Moor, and other contributors to the discussion can be found here.

Jessie Wilcox Smith, The Bed-time Book

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, in words that have initiated those they have touched into a cult of wonder ever since,

I desired dragons with a profound desire.  Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighborhood.  But the world that contained even the imagination of Fafnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever the cost of peril.

Ms. Windling goes on to write,

I chose this title because Tolkien's passionate desire for a world colored by myth and mystery is one familiar to all of us who create and love mythic arts.  [. . .]  What we're discussing here is the why.  Why are we drawn to stories and other art forms (both contemporary and historic) with their roots dug deep into the soil of myth?  [emphasis mine]

It's a good question, but one which an anthropologist is likely to muddle.  As is said in the charming, post-Confederacy version of Homer's OdysseyO Brother, Where Art Thou?, "It's a fool what looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart."

But there is a logic in the longing for Faerie.  It's a different kind of logic.  The kind, G.K. Chesterton notes, that makes us instantly satisfied with the laws therein: don't go into the back room at midnight; always carry bread crumbs in your pocket; don't look a white stag in the eye; knock three times, no more, no less; if you take something back with you, be prepared to face the consequences; and never eat the food.

The anthropologist could say that our interest in wonder, in the unknown, in the unexplainable, arose as a survival mechanism to warn children of danger; or as a political move to keep tribal and religious leaders in power and to discourage questioning; it might have been a way of explaining the miracles of science at a time when people knew little about the workings of the world; maybe it was a way of comforting people and helping them deal with psychological hardships, a beautiful lie.

Why then do we still long for wonder, desire dragons "with a profound desire"?  If we have outgrown these primordial needs and they no longer serve a function; or if we are at least too sophisticated to fall into them, why do they linger?  As artifacts?  Is the desire nothing more than a vestigial organ?

skian-winterfyre of deviantART, Night Drake

Supposing it is a kind of organ.  The presence of such a thing suggests that it was once a need, and the above mechanisms of practicality do not sufficiently and satisfactorily explain it away.  For we have found other means of meeting those needs that don't require myth and fantasy.  Just look at nihilism.

So the need, or desire, is built in--not in some, as we might suspect by our tight-knit community, but in everyone.  Especially children.

As we grow older, we are discouraged from playing make believe, are told to prepare for the "real world," and forced to adapt by relegating wonder to the nursery, or, as is the case for many, to a private hobby (thanks, Richard Dawkins).  Those that don't appear to long for fantastical wonder find wonder in other ways: such as the baby-crazy teenager who ogles pictures of newborns; the devout widow who wears a veil at daily mass; the father and son who love to take apart machines and see how they work, or, if not quite so involved, at least marvel at their functioning.  This attraction to wonder is intrinsic.

If we occur, un-tampered, with a need for wonder, it logically follows that wonder is something we need to be complete.  We need it the way we need lunch, the way plants need sunshine, the way humans digest food and plants photosynthesize light.  We transform those things into our very substance.  They become an inseparable part of us.

Where is this wonder?  Why were we built without it, but wanting it, the way a plant needs photosynthesis but doesn't contain the means to photosynthesize within itself?

Such questions could easily dissolve into a tangle of religious and philosophical sophistries, but let us at least admit this: we were made for something other.  So much is that absence woven into the fiber of our being, that we know the other the minute we touch it.  It is what Edward Gardner so aptly called "familiar otherness."  Like setting foot in a real place we've only ever seen before in a dream.

Charles Santoso, source

So.  My answer to the question "why do we desire dragons?" is simple: because dragons were made for us.

This is the poverty of a society devoid of wonder, of the materialist world of men and women who say "this is all there is."  They are starving themselves, as a flower starves for sunshine.  Count yourself truly blessed, dear reader.  You are one of the few at the feast.



  1. "Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all these things--trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it.... four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow."

    Your beautifully expressed reflection reminded me of that scene from The Silver Chair, and of of Thomas Aquinas' argument that some of the things we believe in are beyond our power to think of.

    1. Oh Anna, that I reminded you of Lewis and Aquinas is the king of all compliments! Thank you!

  2. I'm so glad you participated in this! I wanted to, but haven't been able to find time.

    That "My novel, my rules" piece is a kick!

    And I love your answer to the question. :)

    1. I've been saving the image since November, and now seemed the perfect chance to use it. c:

      I look forward to reading your answer.

  3. "Because dragons were made for us."

    That says it all. I love this essay. Absolutely love it. Thank you so much for bringing to the table.

    1. You are so welcome, and thank you for hosting, this and many other opportunities to bask in wonder and dream of dragons.

  4. "We are ignorant of the meaning of the dragon in the same way that we are ignorant of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the image of the dragon that fits man's imagination, and this accounts for the dragon's appearance in different places and periods."
    Jorge Borges, Preface, The Book of Imaginary Beings

    This idea tickles my brain, that the shape of the human imagination is in part defined by otherly things like dragons; that we cannot do without them because they go with us, were made for us.

    1. Wonderful quote. And it is quite a marvel, a mystery even, isn't it? Even as dragons were made for us, we were made for dragons.

  5. "If we occur, un-tampered, with a need for wonder, it logically follows that wonder is something we need to be complete."

    When I read that, something inside me shouted "yes!" Eye-opening, stirring reflections here. Very good stuff. Thanks for that!

    1. Thank you for sharing that, John. It's good to hear that affirmation, that I'm not the only one who experiences this.

  6. "Those that don't appear to long for fantastical wonder find wonder in other ways...."

    Absolutely. The need is inherent, whether we find it in nature, song, art, religion, stories, or the workings of the universe. I don't think we ever outgrow it, though some of us may deny it or have lost touch with it. Thank you for offering your thoughts, I enjoyed mulling this!

    1. Thank you, Carmine. I don't believe we ever (really) outgrow it either.


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