Enter the Dragon Fruit

Let me take you back to last week.  Dear Wife has just come home from the store, and is unloading the groceries while I am watching B.T.

“I got you a dragon,” she says.

Of course, I am intrigued.  The word “dragon” is typically reserved to describe only things that are awesome.  But what could she have gotten at the grocery store that would attain to such heights of awesomeness as to be called a dragon?

It was not long until the groceries were appropriately put away, and the truth was revealed.

“It’s called a dragon fruit,” says dear wife, again.  I am still intrigued.  It is one of the most unusual fruit I have ever seen.  You can see, right away, why it is called a dragon fruit. Continue reading

Friday Flash: The Steed and the Page Boy

So, I says to myself the other day: “Self!  There are far too few dragons here on your site.  Why are there not more dragons?”

And then Bazelli goes and posts this prompt for the week:

The challenge: Keep one emotion in the forefront of your mind while you write a scene (1000 words or less) but do not tell us what that emotion is. The story should speak for itself. The theme this week: “flight

And what do you suppose I’m supposed to do with that?  Oh wait.

So, here’s this week’s Friday Flash, coming at you at 1,266 words.

The Steed and the Page Boy

By: Stephen A. Watkins, Jr.

Valigash surveyed the burning fields and the ranks of the fallen.  The assault against Dethlak’s horde had turned into a route, and even Valigash himself had not emerged from the debacle unscathed.  He limped as he picked his way through the corpses, searching for some sign of his companion, Hibold.  Here and there, the moans of the fatally injured rose to Valigash’s ears, but he could spare them no comfort.  Where the ground was not trampled, grass blackened by fire still flickered and glowed .  Smoke drifted through the air on oily currents.  Hibold lived, if only barely, and Valigash would need to find him if anything from this day would be salvaged.   Luckily, Dethlak’s horde had withdrawn – though victorious they were not without heavy losses.  Yet, time was short.  So Valigash searched. Continue reading

Review of “How to Train Your Dragon”

This will be the first time I’ve done a regular “review” of a movie or book, so bear with me as I figure out a consistent standard for doing these.  I think I’m going to go with a “letter grade” for my reviews, either ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’, ‘D’, or ‘F’, with a + or – here or there to indicate something either exceptional or just below par for that grade.  So here goes my first review.

How to Train Your Dragon

Genre: Fantasy, Computer Animation, 3-D

Overall Grade: A

How to Train Your Dragon PosterDear Wife and I don’t get to go out to movies very often, and I expect that will be more true as we welcome dear baby B.T. into our home.  So this is most probably one of the last movies we get to see together for the next several months that we didn’t wait to catch on DVD from redbox.  Personally, I was considerably more excited about this movie than I was about the other tent-pole alternative, “Clash of the Titans“.  Then again, I’m an avowed sucker for family fantasy flicks.  So, we decided to go see this movie together, in all it’s 3-D glory.

The good news: this movie did not disappoint.  In all the most important regards, the movie excelled, and it was every bit as good as my expectation.  If you’re a fan of light-hearted family friendly movies such as those from Pixar or like the Shrek franchise, then I believe this movie will definitely be up your alley.

The skinny, if you haven’t heard, is that young Hiccup, from the village of Berk, wants to be a great Viking warrior like his father, to help defend the village against nightly dragon raids.   The dragons steal their sheep and burn their crops, and without the protection of these Viking warriors, the village would starve.  But Hiccup isn’t like the rest of the Vikings: he’s physically smaller, and spends his time coming up with ingenious ideas for fighting dragons that always seem to go awry.  To prove himself to his clan, he’s determined to capture and kill one of the dreaded Night Furies, a variety of dragon that seems to be the offspring of a living Stealth Bomber.  When he actually manages to shoot one out of the sky with his bola cannon, nobody believes him.  So Hiccup heads off into the forest where the dragon crash-landed.

Right away, you’ve got my attention, and a serious rooting interest in the main character.  His experience is more than just a fantasy cliché: he’s like a fantasy (and highly-dramatized) version of me.  Relatively scrawny, more of a thinker than my peers, the son of a military man, and desperate to prove myself in my own way and on my own terms.  The good news for Hiccup: he has the opportunity to befriend a dragon!

Overall the story was very fun, the characters were engaging, and the animation was exceptionally well done.  Like “Avatar”, the 3-D in “How to Train Your Dragon” is full-immersion, depth-of-field affair (not a cardboard cut-out deal like what I hear you get with “Clash of the Titans”).  One of the most spectacular scenes occurs as Hiccup takes flight with his dragon friend and we in the audience feel as though we’ve come just about as close to flying with a dragon as we can actually get in our pathetically dragon-less world.

That said, there are a few dings that I have to give the movie.  The estranged boy seeks solace in the friendship of a wild pet theme is standard bildungsroman fare, though I think it works here.  There were times when I thought Jay Baruchel’s performance as Hiccup were a little too deadpan in their delivery.  There were opportunities in the movie for it to be a little more daring or a little more dramatic that it did not take, but I don’t fault that too much in a family friendly movie.  And, as a nerd, I can say that in my personal opinion Hiccup’s fellow student Fishlegs – who has memorized the statistics on every dragon in the kind of obsessive detail evident only in role-playing game enthusiasts, Pokémon players, and Baseball fans – is underutilized and underdeveloped.  But, again, I’m a nerd, and wanted to see more of the nerd characters.

By the end of the movie, though, Dear Wife and I both were coming out of the theater with smiles on our faces.  We had just enjoyed a really well-made movie.  If you want to come out of a movie theater with a smile on your face, you should go see “How to Train Your Dragon”.

A Dragon in the East

Yesterday, I started a Genre essay on the topic of Dragons, one of the oldest and most treasured of fantasy genre tropes.  I knew it was a big topic – which is why I put it off for so long (unbeknownst to you, dear reader, I’ve been planning this pair of articles since I started this blog) – and that I would be unable to do it full justice in so short a space.  Even with a second blog post, the topic is pretty big (thus the copious Wikipedia links), so after continuing my discussion of Eastern dragons, I’ll finish this off with a short analysis of the use of dragons in fantasy fiction.

Yesterday, I detailed a mythological image of a powerful force of nature embodied in a four-legged, winged, fire-breathing, snake-tailed creature.  But that frightening image differs markedly from what we see in Eastern and Oriental cultures.

There, the dragon is more serpentine than what we know.  It is four-legged, but rarely if ever depicted with wings (though it can still fly).   It is typically depicted with a mane, and frequently has a jewel or pearl under its chin.  Eastern dragons continue to represent the powers of the weather, rains, floods, waters and rivers.  But the most significant difference from the European conceptualization of dragons is that Eastern dragons completely shed any association with evil or avarice.  In eastern cultures, Dragons are not monsters to be slain, or which terrorize mere mortals.  They are auspicious symbols of good luck, fortune, and Imperial Authority.   At worst dragons are typically as indifferent to humanity as the weather but at best they are benevolent.

But there is still some nuance to this depiction.  Japanese Dragons pull folklore from a variety of sources, both the benevolent Chinese “long” as well as the serpentine, cobra-like Naga of India.  Still considered neither good nor evil, the Naga can bring both rain and fertility or drought and disaster.  One one hand, the line of Japanese emperors is thought to be descended from Dragons, yet on the other the Japanese ancestral god Susanoo is famed for slaying the eight-headed and eight-tailed Yamato-no-Orochi, a dragon to which an elderly couple had been forced to sacrifice seven of their eight children.  Here we see some resonance with the western dragon-slaying tradition. 

But it is particularly interesting that Eastern Dragons share many of the same concepts and ideas as Western Dragons: they are nature spirits and water deities with power over rains, seas, and storms.

In looking at these two dragon traditions, we have a lot to consider in analyzing how dragons are depicted in fantasy fiction.  Historically, in the western literary tradition, Dragons have primarily drawn on the western tradition of the evil, avaricious dragon.  Most famed of these fictional dragons is Tolkien’s Smaug.  Role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons picked up this theme, using dragons as the ultimate adversary for the game’s heroic characters.  The concept was occasionally subverted (especially, as far as I can tell, in children’s literature) in which dragons are merely misunderstood, but the this was the standard way to portray them.

I believe the first major shift in how dragons were portrayed in fiction came with Anne McCaffery‘s “Dragonriders of Pern” series (though I have never read these books), in which dragons become the formidable mounts for heroic characters – a theme picked up in the Eragon books as well as one of my own childhood favorites, the “Dragonlance” series.  In Dragonlance (via Dungeons & Dragons), we were introduced to the idea of  a world with two very different kinds of dragons: some motivated to do good, and some to do evil, and the two distinguishable by their appearance.   The idea seems to borrow heavily from the two different depictions of dragons in real-world mythology.  Today, the ideas spawned by McCaffery and later rebroadcast in Dragonlance and other novels now forms the nucleus of the modern fantasy cliché of the dragon. 

Meanwhile, other stories more directly borrow from the eastern version of the dragon.  The most immediate example I can think of comes not from literature but from film, but Falkor the Luck Dragon, from “The Neverending Story“,  is clearly based on the benevolent Eastern Dragon (I realize my example actually does come from literature but, to be honest, I’ve never read the book; an oversight I’m sure someday to correct).

An interesting trend that I’ve noticed, though this is mostly anecdotal, and I’ve not done a thorough study of the entire fantasy literature repetoire, is that throughout the 80’s and early 90’s dragons were fairly plentiful in fantasy fiction – in worlds like McCaffery’s “Pern” or Weiss & Hickman’s “Dragonlance” and many others.  As I said above, today dragons are not so much in vogue, but they’re not entirely absent from fantasy fiction, either.  Instead, however, they seem to more frequently crop up in stories in which they are remarkable because of their rarity.  My gut tells me that this means something, if it’s true, about the message in current fantasy literature, but I can’t say what this is.

The concepts and themes of the dragon have also been personified in the character of Rand al’Thor in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.  Rand is referred to as “the Dragon” in the series, a moniker that suggests both the awesome, destructive power of the western dragon and the benevolent authority of the eastern dragon.  While not an actual dragon, Rand’s title is portrayed by a typical eastern dragon which serves as his sigil.  One of the joys of Jordan’s series is the manner in which it borrows both eastern and western myths and motifs to weave his story at an epic scale, and Rand’s character best exemplifies this dichotomy and duality.  And the best symbol to represent that duality, without question, is a dragon.

The way in which we think about dragons in fiction has changed a lot over the years, particularly as fantasy fiction has opened its doors to take in mythology from sources all across the world, not only from the European traditions and legends, but from Eastern traditions.  The way we view the dragon in fiction will continue to evolve as we borrow ideas and themes from many places, and the potency of this symbol will continue to grow.  These are just a few of the reasons why the image of the dragon is my favorite fantasy trope.  I hope to continue to see dragons take flight in fantasy fiction, written with skill and an eye toward the myriad mythic traditions that give it form.  Happy writing.

Here There Be Dragons

It is no spoiler to reveal that the short story I’ve been working on involves Dragons.  Dragons have been one of the primary mainstays of fantasy literature since the early days – and though not as in vogue today as in the past, they’ve never fully fallen out of favor.  Much of the allure of the dragon comes the deep and rich mythology passed down through the ages to us.  Because of the long association between this mythology and fantasy literature, and because I draw on some of those themes in my short story, I couldn’t help but write about this, my favorite fantasy trope.

The intriguing thing about dragons in mythology is that it is nearly universal.  Though the nature and depiction of dragons varies across cultures, most cultures seem to recognize them in their mythologies.  There have been several theories to try to explain this.  A recent one is detailed in a book by anthropologist David Jones called An Instinct for Dragons.  His theory contends that the depiction of dragons across mythologies stems from a vestigial, evolutionarily inherrited fear of the natural predators of our most primitive ancestors (apparently some kind of squirrel-monkey creature), those predators being snakes, big cats, and predatory birds, and dragons being a conglomeration of those.  This theory, though interesting, lacks scientific rigor.  But another leading theory, that stories of dragons evolved as an explanation for early dinosaur fossil discoveries, also rings as improbable.  It’s difficult to say why images of the dragon are so widespread across many different cultures.  Nevertheless, the mythologies of dragons generally fall into two groups: Western, or European Dragons and Eastern, Oriental, or Chinese Dragons.

The word “dragon” comes to us from Greek “drako”, via Latin “draco”, meaning “serpent” (and originally from a word meaning “to see”).  But the concept of the dragon goes back much farther than that.  Since the earliest of times, there has been a strong association between serpents, snakes, and dragons.  The same association has also extended to sea monsters and sea serpents.  In Ugaritic and Mesopotamian mythology, Lotan (known in Hebrew stories as Leviathan) was a great seven-headed dragon or serpent of the seas and oceans.  Lotan came to be associated with the Babylonian sea goddess Tiamat, who was slain by the god-hero Marduk.   There is more to these stories than I have space to recount, but in these early incarnations, the dragon was associated with the destructive power of the sea, floods, and storms. 

This association continues through Greek mythology with the Hydra, a multi-headed serpentine creature.  The Hydra is considered a water creature, whose lair was in the lake of Lerna, and is the offspring of Typhon, a very dragon-like Greek Titan.  The Hydra had toxic breath, but its most frightening ability was the reduplication of its severed heads.  For each head cut off, two more would spring up.  These ancient accounts also have the roots of the heroic dragon-slayer motif: whether Marduk slaying Tiamat or Hercules slaying the Hydra.

In Hebrew stories, the Leviathan was slain by God.  Some interpretations have this as an analogy of the triumph of the Hebrew religion’s one God over all other gods, which are equated with demons and devils.  Indeed, throughout Hebrew, Jewish and later Christian stories, serpents and dragons both are regularly used to symbolize the forces of evil, and are interchangeable with Satan or the Adversary.  This  may be the root of the evil nature of dragons in Western mythology.

Through the Middle Ages, dragons slowly began to take on a personality and appearance distinct from sea serpents and snakes.  But they never fully lost their mythic meaning as a force of nature.  Dragons, as winged creatures, still serpentine but generally with legs – either two or four – were used as heraldic devices to represent strength and power. 

As these stories evolved, so did the dragons.   For instance, the Wyvern, a type of dragon typically depicted with only two legs, claws on its wings, and a poison-barbed tail, shares etymological roots with the word “viper”.  The more common depiction of dragons today, as four-legged beasts with wings and a snake-like tail, bears a closer resemblance to the Welsh Dragon, Y Draig Goch

Stories of heroic knights and saints slaying dragons that terrorized villages and kidnapped princesses abounded throughout this period.  The most famous of these is the story of Saint George and the Dragon.  The dragon terrorized the town of Silene, and to appease the beast, the people fed it their children, chosen by lottery.  The lot came to fall to the king’s daughter.  But as she was tied up to be fed to the dragon, Saint George happened by.  He slew the dragon, saved the princess, and by his deed the people of Silene were converted to Christianity.  But Saint George’s tale is repeated across Europe in different forms with different heroes and other dragons: whether Dobrynya Nikitich slaying the Slavic dragon Zmey Gorynych, the French Tarasque tamed by Saint Martha, the Norse Fafnir slayed by Sigurd, Thor battling Jormungandr the Midgard Serpent, or a dozen other knights, saints, gods and heros fighting a dozen other dragons.  From Fafnir and Sigurd, and other sources I’m sure, we also see the motif of the Dragon guarding the treasure emerge, and dragons came to symbolize greed and avarice.

Later, on maps, wild and unknown or undiscovered places, it is said came to be marked with the latin phrase “Hic Sunt Dracones”: “Here be Dragons”.  With all of this, dragons in western mythology have come to symbolize power, strength, a force of nature, the unknown, avarice, and evil.  Clearly, just mining this mythology, Dragons make for a potent,  loaded symbol.  But then we can turn to Oriental mythology.  Next time I’ll continue to wax draconic, and conclude this essay on Dragons.