Write on Cue
Welcome to this week’s Write on Cue!
This week, our good friend Cindy has asked us to “investigate and report on the myth of dragons, its origin, the myth, the legend.”
Huw Le Lytle takes on dragons!
And remember, you can send in your topics using the form or by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will Write on Cue!
The name “dragon” is said to come from the Latin word “Draco”, which means serpent. But “dragon” also comes from the Greek words, “drakein” and “derkomai”, that mean “to see clearly”. And I think this is the most important part. Dragons are watchful creatures, who guard things and people. So what I find interesting about dragons is that they watch, and when they watch they see clearly.
And all of the legends of dragons, good and bad, share this important action of watching and guarding. Whether they’re guarding apples or damsels, dragons are on the lookout. They are basically the livestock guarding dog of the mythical world.
But why is seeing clearly so important? Well, there was a human, a long time ago, called Mr Descartes. He decided the world was basically divided in two, and he thought of this as body and soul (in fact, it was such a successful idea that there is even a famous song, a 1930 jazz standard called Body and Soul, as well as many more with the same title. But back to Mr Descartes … ). This body and soul idea meant that the (non-human) animal was just a mindless machine without a soul, and that only the human (animal) had a consciousness. Of course, zoologists everywhere took issue with this. But you would be amazed how many people still think of dogs as mere stimulus-response machines, just out to avoid a punishment or grab a treat, and unable to do much else because we are enslaved by our instincts. Good grief. Well, I’ve got news for you, Mr Descartes. I think, and therefore I am too!
But what has this got to do with dragons? And seeing clearly? Well, Mr Descartes provoked a scientific revolution … eventually. But it all really could have started with dragons. The fact that dragons would watch so carefully and thoughtfully is something that probably would have bothered Mr Descartes enormously. A dragon doesn’t just see like some automaton or soulless machine. It sees clearly. A dragon cogitates.
But catching onto this wisdom of the dragon has been troubled by a geographical “dualism”. Like elephants, there are two main types of dragons – Occidental (the Western or European Dragon) and Oriental (the Eastern or Chinese Dragon).
The Oriental Dragon is the dragon you will meet in East Asian and South Asian countries. This dragon is intelligent, wise and revered. This dragon sees clearly.
But this is quite different from the dragons in European folklore. Unfortunately the Occidental or European Dragon is usually represented very negatively. And today, “dragon” has even become a term that people use to describe someone who is a bit of a nightmare, mostly thanks to British legends. In these legends, the dragons are depicted as sinful and dangerous. While the humans who would slay them were called saints! In fact, they were so fond of spilling a dragon’s blood, that it became a trade. There used to be an occupation in England, and no doubt in other areas in which dragons flourished, called “Dragons Blood Dealer”. This was someone who would sell resins and gums. A vial of Dragon’s Blood or Dragon Water was actually just resin from particular plants, usually palms, used in some potions and things that humans would take to feel better. But the sentiment was clear.
I think depicting dragons so negatively is a worrying early example of the myth of human exceptionalism (helped along by Descartes and his idea that animals are machines) that has influenced how people understand animals, including dogs, even today. I think if those so-called dragon slayers had thought about the special skills of dragons, and worked with them instead of trying to make them submit to human will, then maybe they would have seen how clever dragons are. Maybe they would have realised that dragons see clearly. And some of the dragon stories would be quite different today.
So I am pleased to see the dragon’s story being rewritten as humans become more enlightened about animal intelligence and cognitive ability. And this brings me to a little story by Seton Ingersoll Miller, called “Pete’s Dragon.” Mr Miller had written the story about Elliott the Dragon, but hadn’t published it. But in the 1950s Disney bought it from him so that they could bring Elliott’s story to the big screen. And in 1977 they made Pete’s Dragon. And like all good 1970s movies, it was remade in 2016.
Elliott is a true modern dragon. He is wise and watchful. And Disney even depicted him as an Oriental dragon, just to make this clear. He is kind and helpful, not frightening and dangerous. And instead of seeing a dragon as a sinful monster who tramples everyone under foot on purpose, we see that this is actually just clumsiness, and not maleficence. Finally, someone looked more carefully at the dragon’s story and corrected all the behavioural misinterpretations of centuries past.
In the 2016 remake, after he is saved by the dragon, Pete names him Elliott after a puppy in his favourite book. I think it’s important that Pete names Elliott after his favourite dog, they share a close bond. And just like a dog, Elliott is also intelligent and wise and kind. Dogs are becoming some of the most sought-after subjects of research into animal intelligence. I suspect because we are so intelligent … and I dare say, wise and kind as well.
Another important revisionist text on dragons comes from the X-Men, and Kitty Pryde in particular. When the X-Men are kidnapped, Kitty Pryde meets a small purple dragon who saves her and returns to Earth with her, becoming her constant companion and regular life-saver. Lockheed is a small dragon, a dragonet possibly. He looks like a cat-sized Occidental dragon. And so, with his acts of bravery and love, he really is overturning the terrible and unfair myths about European dragons. And yes, our Kitty Pryde has her own purple Lockheed as well.
So, whether they are like puppies, or whether they are like kitties, all dragons are awesome. And all dragons see clearly.
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