Dragons have long filled our dreams and nightmares, and maps. Until recently, cartographers would fill in unexplored areas on their hand-drawn charts with monsters and serpents. Now, most of the dragons we encounter are courtesy of the movies or the toy store, though some of us harbor metaphorical dragons within (or at the office). Thus with the next Hobbit movie — The Desolation of Smaug — on the horizon it is fitting to look back at the colorful history of our most treasured and terrifying dragons.
From the Guardian:
I doubt if JRR Tolkien would recognise his Smaug in Peter Jackson’s new CGI Hobbit spectacular, with its colossal, grandiose dragon voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. Tolkien’s beast, at least in the author’s original illustrations, was an elegant Rackhamesque creature: a fire-orange, slightly languid lizard, all stuck over with jewels from years of lolling about in his lair, where his vast treasure was stored.
Smaug was created by Tolkien out of his love for Beowulf, whose hero battles with “the fiery dragon, the fearful fiend”. But Tolkien also threw in a little wordplay for good measure: the name came from the old German smugan, meaning to squeeze through a hole, presumably in reference to the biblical parable about rich men and needles; while Smaug’s treasure-guarding echoes the origin of the word dragon itself, from the Greek drakon, “to watch”.
For all its contemporary role as a cliche of fantasy epics, the dragon’s true power comes from a darker place. It casts a long shadow over our folk memory, across the caverns of our collective fears. It may even reach back into prehistory: when the fossilised bones of sauropods were first discovered, they were claimed to be the remains of dragons – a notion encouraged by the convention that dragons didn’t really die, they just cast off their bodies.
But the dragon cannot be contained by palaeontology. It writhes out of reality and into western creation myths, from the pagan Norse beast Níðhöggr, gnawing away at the roots of Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life, to the Book of Revelation and its “great red dragon with seven heads and 10 horns” that attempts to eat the offspring of “the woman clothed with the sun” as she gives birth.
Throughout the Bible, in fact, the dragon is the embodiment of evil, a stand-in for Satan. There’s a wonderful 15th-century oil in the Prado, attributed to a “master of Zafra”, that depicts the archangel Michael (looking rather girly with his crimped hair and bejewelled breastplate) straddling an extraordinary dragon. This medieval mashup has the paws of a lion, the wings of a vulture, the neck of a sea serpent and a head seemingly composed of a horned cow crossed with the archetypal Chinese dragon familiar from 1,000 vases and takeaway menus.
It’s a mark of the monster’s shape-shifting qualities that its satanic western aura is sharply contrasted by the rearing, joyous, prancing imperial dragons of China: symbols of good luck and nobility rather than of disaster, often bearing pearls and surrounded by clouds and fire. At least one emperor, Yaou, was said to have been the product of a liaison between his mother and a red dragon.
In fact, so rich were the oriental legends of dragons that they convinced the Victorian geologist Charles Gould that dragons had really existed. “There is nothing impossible in the ordinary notion of the traditional dragon,” Gould declared in his 1886 book Mythical Monsters. “It is more likely to have once had a real existence than to be a mere offspring of fancy.” Gould surmised that these dragon stories drew on a “long terrestrial lizard, hibernating and carnivorous, with the power of constricting with its snake-like body and tail, possibly furnished with wing-like extensions”. Since Victorians regularly read reports of maned and long-necked sea monsters in their newspapers, such faith in the fabulous was by no means unusual.
For all his mentions of Darwin and “rational study” of the evidence, Gould betrayed his creationist beliefs when he declared that the dragon disappeared during the “Biblical Deluge”. Nevertheless, his fellow cryptozoologists not only insisted that dragons had existed, but that they still did – in the brontosaurian shape of Mokele Mbembe, cavorting in the Congo’s swamps like an African Loch Ness monster.
The Prado painting proves that the medieval world thronged with dragons; its skies were as full of them as ours are of 747s. But it is to the 19th century that we owe our contemporary image of the dragon. From Tennyson’s “Dragons of the prime, / That tare each other in their slime”, to the art of William Blake, Edward Burne-Jones and Aubrey Beardsley, the period teemed with the beasts. Blake’s Great Red Dragon watercolour series revisited the baby-eating beast of Revelation, and has much in common with Swiss surrealist HR Giger’s designs for Alien (itself a sci-fi version of the dragon). Morphing weirdly between human and beast, they are so intensely physical they must surely have emerged from Blake’s many hallucinations. To Burne-Jones, the dragon was a more muscular physical reality, a bleeding, biting beast to be wrestled by St George. Beardsley, on the other hand, produced an epicene, ambisexual Arthurian dragon, all curlicues and decadent flourishes – an enervated, languorous, stupefied beast, barely capable of a roar.
It has always struck me that the pterodactyls and prehistoric lizards that hang off London’s Natural History Museum, not to mention the terracotta dragons perched on the eaves of suburban terraces, were really only excuses for the Victorians to invent their own gargoyles and demons as a retort to the worrying new doubts of Darwinism. Like all monsters (the word comes from the Latin monstrum, “to warn”), dragons fulfil a particular niche, whether for a Chinese emperor, Victorian artist, or contemporary film-maker: they become precisely what the age demands of them, their roars tailored to contemporary concerns. In his intriguing, postmodern study The Last Dinosaur Book, WJT Mitchell sees the dragon as “the cultural ancestor of the dinosaur … the ruling reptile of premodern social systems, associated with kings and emperors, with buried treasure and with the fall of dynasties”. Rather than exorcise the atavistic monsters, the appearance of real dragons – in the shape of Tyrannosaurus rex et al – merely reinforced belief in their imaginary predecessors.
That’s why, in the movies of Ray Harryhausen and other fantasy films from Godzilla to Jurassic Park and beyond, dinosaurs and dragons are almost interchangeable: a reflection of new 20th-century myths, auguries of a nuclear age. From Tolkien and CS Lewis to Dungeons and Dragons (with a particular appeal to boys – and quite a few men), they speak of an alternative existence into which we might escape when reality threatens. Perhaps that’s why the abusive term “dragon” is reserved for “terrifying” women (despite all the phallic symbolism of a dragon’s serpentine neck).
Enter not Bruce Lee, but Carl Jung, stroking his beard and declaring that the dragon is an archetype of our unconscious fears: the devouring nature of our mothers, or our fear of sex – the dragon inside us all. Furthermore, Jung diagnosed the dichotomy of the dragon and its two faces: as feared enemy in western myth; or as the positive, transformative power within ourselves (“the Great Self Within” in Jung’s phrase) in the eastern tradition. Cue a parade of new-age dragons, their sulphorous breath replaced with pungent patchouli.
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