What Dragons?

Smaug the Magnificent by Tolkein.

I’m starting – and won’t finish – this on St George’s Day. But while I’ve written about dragons before here, and on St George’s Day, too. And as is often the case, I’m spurred into action by a remark elsewhere – in this case Martin Flatman’s comment on Twitter that suggested we should have a St George to fight bots. A clever thought: some internet warrior whose job is to deal with the time and emotion devouring interjections into our e-life. But what are our foes? How do we counter them? Let’s look at some dragons.

Lizard by Tove Jansson: curled round shining garnets.
“A giant lizard…like a hideous dragon guarding its beautiful treasure.”

Notice that it isn’t a dragon. As Tolkien suggests of a wider range of literature, dragons, real dragons, essential both to the machinery and the ideas of a poem or tale, are actually rare…There are massive brontosaurus-like creatures (the magnificently irascible Edward the Booble), and this lizard like a dragon, but of all the fantasies Tove Jansson conjures up, traditional creatures such as dragons hardly figure. We may have plants eyeing up Snork Maidens, and knitting ghosts, and the howling fire of the Comet’s nuclear blast – but no dragons.

“No dragons” makes me think of Thor Nogson, whose failure to confront his fear makes him so much a figure I recognise.

Then there is the sorry figure of the dying dragon whose form luckless, soulless Eustace inhabits/inherits much to his regret in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, that uncomfortable fantasy of redemption and repentance at the heart of the Pilgrimage of Perfection (or the earlier Pilgrimage of the Life of Man or maybe Pilgrim’s Progress?), and the awesome (in the earlier sense of the world) dragons in Earthsea [Cue at least one fantastic, menacing, serpentine LeGuin dragon from the artwork of Charles Vess: compare and contrast with poor Eustace].

Pauline Baynes: Eustace as a Dragon bewails his fate
Charles Vass’s sinuous dragon at the start of The Books of Earthsea.

And nearer to my heart are the Knight and the Dragon, trying so hard to live up to the myth of who they are meant to be in Tomie de Paola’s parable of reconciliation and self-realisation, and the very modern, urban and urbane Franklin, in Jen Campbell and Katie Hartnett’s Franklin’s Flying Bookshop. Dragons have changed, been tamed (or come closer at any rate to us). Franklin seems a long way from Orm Embar.

“Luna and Franklin feel like they are made out of stories.”

Few of these – and I know they are self-selected (where, for example, would I put the greedy and self-centred dragon from The Paper Bag Princess?) – are the dragons we would fight. These last two in particular play with the terror, the aggression and turn it on its head.

So far, so predictable, perhaps. Beyond those texts, behind my understanding of what a dragon might be, is this song that I loved so much in school assembly. Martin Simpson performed a gentle, thoughtful version of When a Knight Won His Spurs, linked here.

“Let faith be my shield and let joy be my steed
Against the dragons of anger, the ogres of greed,” the song goes. These monsters that attack us, that with the current war in Ukraine seem closer than ever – and, it is noticeable, the war is fought most fiercely in the ruins of cities – but is also fought with anger and misinformation on the web. And not only this war, but the miry lies of governments, our own self-deception. I no longer wield a “sword of youth” but I still fight to set free the power of truth in myself. It’s never an easy task.

So with this simple song from my childhood we might be back to where we might need to fight dragons. Maybe this is the place.

So dragons from the past in Western literature stand as images of aggression, greed especially, and are a species apart. They are (often) merciless, or with their own way of thinking: symbols of our inability to think ourselves into the minds of others. The battle here is with an enemy we don’t understand – maybe one that is set not to understand us.

This is where Martin Flatman’s remark becomes clearer and cleverer: how do we stand against the slow acid attack on our ideas or our spaces in the maze of the Internet or in real life: intrusive, poisoning, interrupting. How would a St George deal with them? Perhaps it s not the clumnsy sword-weilding that deals with them; you wouldn’t use a sword to bash away flies after all. Simply saying “don’t” to bots (and their fleshier imps, the trolls) is like saying “Thou shalt not,” as Pullman suggests in his surprising praise of Jesus as storyteller: Thou shalt and thou shalt not are easily ignored and soon forgotten; but Once upon a time lasts forever. We need stories of hope, stories that laugh at the invading, venomous half-truth. I am holding out, not so much for a hero, but for a Teller of Tales.

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