“But it is one thing to read about dragons and another to meet them.”
- Ursula K LeGuin
The hill with the dragons in it terrified me as a child.
Set and setting played a role. I was about Merlin’s age, very sick and hallucinating, on a tiny Pacific island that could only be reached by canoe, when I first read about Vortigern’s attempts to use his blood as a sacrifice to keep up his hillfort.
There were some strange dreams that night, let me tell you.
Here’s the legend:
Geoffrey [of Monmouth] was probably familiar with folk tales about Merlin from his childhood in Monmouth. Later, as bishop of St Asaph in North Wales, he seems to have fallen under the spell of the great enchanter, giving him an important role in the Historia.
Geoffrey had already compiled a volume of The Prophecies of Merlin around 1135; now he sought to incorporate other stories of Merlin into other works.
In Geoffrey’s account, Merlin’s first great prophetic outburst forms a dramatic centrepiece to the first half of the Historia. Vortigern, a minor king, makes a bid for power by bringing in Saxon mercenaries to fight the Picts in the north and his own enemies elsewhere. He is briefly popular, but his star soon wanes as more and more Saxons arrive and begin acquiring more extensive areas of land. Finally, the exiled sons of the former High King of Britain return at the head of an army, and Vortigern flees to Wales, where he intends to build a hilltop stronghold from where he can mount a counter offensive.
Having chosen a site, he sets his builders to work; however every night the progress they have made is undone by a mysterious agency. Vortigern learns from his druids that only the blood of a fatherless child, spilled on the stones, will ensure the completion of the fortress. Sent out to search for the child, Vortigern’s soldiers find Merlin at Carmathen. He is the son of a Welsh princess, but no one knows his father. The woman and boy are brought before Vortigern, and Merlin’s mother explains that she has led a devout and pure life, but that she was visited in her chamber by a mysterious being who fathered a child upon her.
Vortigern is tempted to disbelieve this account, but Merlin speaks out in defence of his mother, and challenges Vortigern and his druids to explain the real reason why the fortress will not stand. He tells them that there is a pool beneath the hilltop, and that within it is a stone coffer containing two dragons, one red and the other white, who battle every night, causing the ground to shake and the work of the king’s masons to fall. Vortigern orders his men to dig and finds that all is as Merlin has foretold. The wise child explains that the red dragon symbolises Britain and the white dragon the Saxons, and prophesies that after a time the white will overcome the red. He then goes into a trance and for the next 14 pages in Geoffrey’s book proceeds to expound the future of the race to the very end of time….
Wherever Geoffrey found the material for this part of his book, it was clearly not from his own mind, indicating, as already stated, that he was in some way the recipient of traditional lore associated with Merlin. [More.]
In this recounting, the pool containing the dragons is beneath the hilltop. Typically, as in Mary Stewart’s books, this is taken to mean within. But it is interesting to note that on the drive into the town where we stayed, you pass between Dinas Emrys and a widened pool (of a similar name) that would be beneath the hilltop if you were standing on it. (It’s a lot larger than it looks in this map.)
I actually almost crashed the car as we were driving between the lake and the hill. My blood pressure instantly dropped in the way it does when I’m halfway to trance. Something very big is in that space. Very big indeed.
This is the origin point of the red dragon of Wales, and thus Uther, Arthur and Mythic Britain. (‘Pendragon’ being, of course, ‘the head of the dragon’.) The site itself has even older draconian associations:
The tale of the dragons of Dinas Emrys actually begins with the Mabinogion of Lludd a Llefelys, where one of the pestilences affecting the Island of Britain (a hideous shriek heard throughout the land on the eve of Beltane). Llefelys informed his brother, Lludd that the shriek was caused by the clash of two fighting dragons: one a native of the land, the other an invader. The contest between these two beasts was endless, but every May eve, the native dragon would utter a scream because of its pain and hurt. Llefelys further informed Lludd that he should take his wisest men and have them make a survey of the entire realm to find the very centre of the country. There they should dig a large pit and in that pit a large cauldron brim-full of mead should be placed and covered with a silken cloth. The dragons will be seen fighting in the sky, but eventually, in their exhaustion they will fall to earth in the form of piglets. As they fall, the cloth will catch them and they will sink into the mead. This they will drink and as a result they would fall into a stupor.
At this point Lludd was to bind them up in the silk cloth before placing them securely in a stone chest. This should be taken to the mightiest fortress in Lludd’s kingdom and there the chest should be buried beneath stone. Lludd returned home and did as his brother had advised him. The stone chest with the captive dragons was taken to the mountain realm of Eryri (Snowdonia) and there it was buried beneath a rocky hill there; a hill that later became known as Dinas Emrys (Ambrosius’ Fortress).
Here’s a map from Geoffrey Ashe’s classic, The Quest for Arthur’s Britain.
In one of those fascinating syncs that accompanies psychogeography, we stopped at a small border town on the way to Snowdonia for coffee. Waiting for the coffee, I walk into a second hand bookstore and find The Quest for Arthur’s Britain right next to -literally right next to- this:
£3 later and we were on our way. Amazing. Anyway, it rounded out my research material and meant I could spent the afternoon reading and setting this post up somewhere nice and picturesque. Somewhere that was also a pub because, to quote Homer, I’m not running for Jesus.
I love the Merlin/Vortigern/prophect tale. It is the ‘just so’ story for the origin of the red dragon of Wales, which is, incidentally, technically the oldest surviving emblem of any European people.
That seems to befit a dragon. As Tolkien says:
But the land of Merlin and Arthur was better than these, and best of all the nameless North of Sigurd of the Volsungs, and the prince of all dragons. Such lands were pre-eminently desirable. I never imagined that the dragon was of the same order as the horse. And that was not solely because I saw horses daily, but never even the footprint of a worm. The dragon had the trade-mark Of Fairie written upon him. In whatever world he had his being it was an Other-world. Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was a profound desire. I desired dragons with a profound desire.
I spend the day before my visit thinking about prophecies. The appearance of Merlin who offers a vision that contravenes the druids -then the outgoing order- appeals because it doesn’t shy away from bad news. The white dragon ultimately heralds Vortigern’s downfall.
Of course, over a long enough time line, all dire prophecies come true. This one seems quite on the mark for today’s world, nonetheless.
A Fugitive Poem of Myrddin In His Grave (from the Red Book of Hergest)
I have drunk from a bright cup
With fierce and warlike lords;
My name is Myrddin, son of Morvran.
I have drunk from a goblet
With powerful warlords;
Myrddin is my given name.
There will come a time of great hunting dogs (Ed: military craft?)
And buildings in secret places, (Ed: definitely military installations)
When even a shirt will cost a fortune.
There will be a time of great profanity,
When vices are active and churches are empty.
Words and relics will be broken
Truth will vanish, falsehood spread
Faith will grow weak, and disputes abound.
There will be a time when everyone delights in fine clothing
When the lord’s counsellors become like vagrants;
Bards will go empty handed, though priests will still be happy;
Men will be despised and frequently refused.
Getting to Dinas Emrys is deceptively difficult. Either the surrounding farmers are grumpy bastards, or their land isn’t part of that Public Right of Way thing I use so much. So whilst you can park basically in it’s shadow, it’s still a three mile walk to the top.
So eager was I to have the place to myself that I briefly considered getting up before 7am and driving to the place on my own. This would have meant scrambling along a National Trust track, in the dark, along fences, past waterfalls and through shin-deep mud, in the dark. It would have been like Dennis Nedry trying to escape Jurassic Park and getting killed by the dilophosaur.
The idea was a non-starter, anyway, as we ended up getting really quite drunk in the hotel the night before. And because literally every independent hotel in Britain is kept at an overnight temperature approaching boiling point so that old people don’t leave bad reviews on TripAdvisor, I woke up double-dehydrated.
In the end, it would not have mattered. 9am was fine. We saw no one for the entire track. In fact, we had the whole area to ourselves. This meant I got to shout my invocation as loud as I liked.
As for the actual incantation, having discussed this at length with Jason beforehand, HO OPHIS was selected.
HO OPHIS HO ARCHAIOS
HO DRAKON HO MEGAS
HO EN KAI, HO ON KAI
HO ZON TOUS AIONAS
META TOU PNEUMATOS SOU!
Oh Ancient Serpent
Oh Great Dragon
Who was and who is
Throughout the Aions
Be thou with our spirit
But these were the mountains and hill forts of Snowdonia, not the warm shores of the Med, so I wanted to have a backup in case the Greek didn’t resonate with the landscape. As such, I bowled up to two hot Welsh chicks in a bar, apologised for my presumptive racism and asked them if they spoke Welsh.
The first one said “Yeah, we all do.” So I spun my laptop around and asked them if they would mind translating five lines of a dragon spell ‘for my flatmate’s theatre production.’ (You mean to tell me you don’t confront strange women in a remote bar with an open laptop and a question about dragons? Pfff. Single for a reason!)
The first one pointed out that they didn’t quite get up to Ancient Serpents in primary school Welsh class. The second one said “my mother is a translator for the Crown. Let me have a look.”
And so, let me present to you for what I can only assume is the first time, the HO OPHIS, translated into Welsh. With a pronunciation guide because it is a crazy language and the internet can’t even seem to pronounce “niche” correctly.
O Sarff Hynafol
(Oh Sarf Hinarvol)
O Ddraig Nerthol
(Oh Dry-g nearthol)
Pwy oedd a pwy sydd
(Pool oyth a pool sith)
Bydd gyda ein ysbryd
(Beeth gerdah ayn ers-breed)
Both versions were used, repeatedly, and the results were extremely interesting. I sort of walked around Dinas Emrys, shouting the invocations at the side of the mountain every few paces. (The dragon is in rather than on it.) If you scroll back up to the map, the area with the most resonance was just to the right of the compass point.
The results from using the Greek invocation were fascinating. First, it worked. Secondly, I got the distinct impression that I was not the first person to attempt almost exactly this. The HO OPHIS not only resonated with the energy of Dinas Emrys, but sort of activated (?) a replay/memory (?) of a late eighteenth century antiquarian. I could hear the clatter of a horse and carriage, pulling up between the lake and the hill and everything. This interests me for two reasons:
- Snowdonia in the late 1700s was probably wilder than any of the colonies. What lunatic would attempt such a thing back then?
- If the PGM was only discovered in the mid-nineteenth century, where did the inspiration for shouting Greek bits of Revelations at a hill come from? I’ve subsequently done some inner work on this and the late 1700s is definitely coming through. (As is the mid-twentieth, but that’s less interesting.) Or it could just be a screen memory. Anyway, weird.
You will no doubt be familiar with this phenomenon from your outdoor invocations, but the weather responded instantly to the invocation. This may have been the other factor in my repeated use of the invocation… I wanted to keep doing it until I managed to get through one without the weather responding. It didn’t happen even once. By the end of the first shouted line, the wind -appropriately- roared down the valley and past me to the lake. By the end of the invocation, I was shouting even louder just to hear myself.
I tend to do these things until I perceive a sort of ‘tuning fork’ effect has been achieved. Once this state had been achieved, my head was positively spinning. Entheogen spinning. I leant on a nearby stone fence and just stared up at Dinas Emrys. It was pulsing and warping like I was peaking on psilocybin.
From Snowdonia, we moved onto Anglesey and Holy Isle, where I got up early and tried the Welsh version, alone on a beach. My -for once altruistic- motive for getting the HO OPHIS translated was I wanted to know if saying it in Welsh resonates with the Red Dragon of Dinas Emrys… for those of you who can’t or won’t ever make the journey.
Anyway, with repetition, it does. (You may also experiment with putting the word ‘goch’ between ‘ddraig’ and ‘nerthol’.)
I sincerely recommend you try it out. Whatever a dragon actually is, it is important. This one in particular sits at the base of the entire British spiritual tradition the way Kundalini is coiled at the base of your spine.
That analogy was deliberate, of course. Let’s unpack it a bit more:
The lion-headed serpent of the Gnostics is called by magical names such as Ophis, Knuphis, and Abrasax. In the occult anatomy of Asian mysticism and Yoga, this reptile is known as Kundalini, the serpent power. Gnostics who practiced Kundalini yoga were called Ophites, from the Greek ophis, “snake.” This cult was condemned by early Christians as pagan “snake-worshippers.” To the mundane and uninitiated mind, the Kundalini serpent can only be conceived by crude literalization. To Gnostics, the lion-headed serpent crowned with solar rays was not only the image of the Lord Archon, but also of the source of spiritual power that allows human beings to resist that entity.
Experts who do not look outside Gnosticism to understand it never mention Kundalini, but unorthodox and esoteric scholars such as G. R. S. Mead, Helena Blavatsky, and C. W. King (Gnostics and Their Remains) make the connection routinely, as do comparative mythologists such as Joseph Campbell and Alain Danielou. In The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, Campbell shows how the image of Kundalini, the “serpent power,” appears in world art from the Indus Valley circa 2300 BCE and continues right across the spectrum of ancient cultures, well down into the Common Era. As late at the 16th century, golden thalers in Germany (Campbell, Fig. 8) showed the Crucifixion on one face and a serpent draped over the cross on the other. At that late date, Christ would have been identified with Kundalini — without an inkling of why, however — but to Gnostics the snake on the cross was a cancellation of the saving power attributed to crucifixion (i.e., the glorification of suffering as a redemptive force). Arousal of Kundalini produces ecstacy, triggers superconsciousness, opens the occult faculties, and releases waves of healing energy that flush physiological and hormonal secretions through the body.
As the mythical serpent guarding the Tree of Knowledge in Genesis, Kundalini was “the messenger of salvation” for Gnostics. In a complete reversal of the usual reading of the Fall, Gnostics regarded the serpent as a spiritual ally to primal humanity, “the first to attempt to release mankind from bondage to an unknowing god who had identified himself with the Absolute and thus blocked the way to the tree of eternal life. (Campbell , p. 78) The “unknowing god” who falsely identified himself with the Absolute is of course Yaldabaoth, alias Jehovah. [More.]
You could be forgiven for seeing an archonic plot in the treatment of the dragon over the centuries. It could certainly do with some better PR. Below is an extract from Paul Weston‘s Mysterium Artorius, about some curious imagery in a church in Glastonbury.
I find the layering of these symbols particularly pleasing. First, there is the obvious draconic imagery. Dragons, of course, have long been associated with comets and other unexplained aerial phenomena, to the point that certain corners of the New Age conflate AAT/Annunaki with reptilians.
This association is strengthened by the presence of St Catherine’s ‘spinning space wheel’, which is very Ezekiel. Then you also have the Light Bringer aspect of the phrasing and the association with the grail itself. Where the subcontinent has mandalas, the Western Tradition has these ‘symbol bombs’ that unpack in an almost identical manner. (Indeed, Rudolph Steiner believed the Grail represented the re-emergence of the Oriental/Eastern Mystery Tradition into the West.) Finally, there is the pearl iconography, which calls to mind the Gnostic Hymn Of The Pearl.
And so, with that context, I want to quote in its entirety, a famous talk that Ursula LeGuin gave in the seventies, titled Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons? If the title of a speech from forty years ago offends anyone unfamiliar with exceptions and rules, then I note that she has softened her position slightly in recent times. (But you know what she means, anyway.)
Why are Americans Afraid of Dragons? (1974) by Ursula K. LeGuin
This was to be a talk about fantasy. But I have not been feeling very fanciful lately, and could not decide what to say; so I have been going about picking people’s brains for ideas. “What about fantasy? Tell me something about fantasy.” And one friend of mine said, “All right, I’ll tell you something fantastic. Ten yeas ago, I went to the children’s room of the library of such-and-such a city, and asked for The Hobbit; and the librarian told me, ‘Oh, we keep that only in the adult collection; we don’t feel that escapism is good for children.”‘
My friend and I had a good laugh and shudder over that, and we agreed that things have changed a great deal in these past ten years. That kind of moralistic censorship of works of fantasy is very uncommon now, in the children’s libraries. But the fact that the children’s libraries have become oases in the desert doesn’t mean that there isn’t still a desert. The point of view from which that librarian spoke still exists. She was merely reflecting, in perfect good faith, something that goes very deep in the American character: a moral disapproval of fantasy, a disapproval so intense, and often so aggressive, that I cannot help but see it as arising, fundamentally, from fear.
So: Why are Americans afraid of dragons?
Before I try to answer my question, let me say that it isn’t only Americans who are afraid of dragons. I suspect that almost all very highly technological peoples are more or less antifantasy. There are several national literatures which, like ours, have had no tradition of adult fantasy, for the past several hundred years: the French, for instance. But then you have the Germans, who have a good deal; and the English, who have it, and love it, and do it better than anyone else. So this fear of dragons is not merely a Western, or a technological, phenomenon. But I do not want to get into these vast historical questions; I will speak of modern Americans, the only people I know well enough to talk about.
In wondering why Americans are afraid of dragons, I began to realize that a great many Americans are not only antifantasy, but altogether antifiction. We tend, as a people, to look upon all works of the imagination either as suspect, or as contemptible.
“My wife reads novels. I haven’t got the time.”
“I used to read that science fiction stuff when I was a teenager, but of course I don’t now.” ” ” “Fairy stories are for kids. I live in the real world.”
Who speaks so? Who is it that dismisses War and Peace, The Time Machine, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream with this perfect self-assurance? It is, I fear, the man in the street – the hardworking, over-thirty American male – the men who run this country.
Such a rejection of the entire art of fiction is related to several American characteristics: our Puritanism, our work ethic, our profitmindedness, and even our sexual mores.
To read War and Peace or The Lord of the Rings plainly is not “work” – you do it for pleasure. And if it cannot be justified as “educational” or as “self-improvement,” then, in the Puritan value system, it can only be self-indulgence or escapism. For pleasure is not a value, to the Puritan; on the contrary, it is a sin.
Equally, in the businessman’s value system, if an act does not bring in an immediate, tangible profit, it has no justification at all. Thus the only person who has an excuse to read Tolstoy or Tolkien is the English teacher, because he gets paid for it. But our businessman might allow himself to read a best-seller now and then: not because it is a good book, but because it is a best-seller – it is a success, it has made money. To the strangely mystical mind of the money-changer, this justifies its existence; and by reading it he may participate, a little, in the power and manna of its success. If this is not magic, by the way, I don’t know what is.
The last element, the sexual one, is more complex. I hope I will not be understood as being sexist if I say that, within our culture, I believe that this antifiction attitude is basically a male one. The American boy and man is very commonly forced to define his maleness by rejecting certain traits, certain human gifts and potentialities, which our culture defines as “womanish” or “childish.” And one of these traits or potentialities is, in cold sober fact, the absolutely essential human faculty of imagination.
Having got this far, I went quickly to the dictionary.
The Shorter Oxford Dictionary says; “Imagination. 1. The action of imagining, or forming a mental concept of what is not actually present to the senses; 2. The mental consideration of actions or events not yet in existence.”
Very well; I certainly can let “absolutely essential human faculty” stand. But I must narrow the definition to fit our present subject. By “imagination,” then, I personally mean the free play of the mind, both intellectual and sensory. By “play” I mean recreation, re-creation, the recombination of what is known into what is new. By “free” I mean that the action is done without an immediate object of profit – spontaneously. That does not mean, however, that there may not be a purpose behind the free play of the mind, a goal; and the goal may be a very serious object indeed. Children’s imaginative play is clearly a practicing at the acts and emotions of adulthood; a child who did not play would not become mature. As for the free play of an adult mind, its result may be War and Peace, or the theory of relativity.
To be free, after all, is not to be undisciplined. I should say that the discipline of the imagination may in fact be the essential method or technique of both art and science. It is our Puritanism, insisting that discipline means repression or punishment, which confuses the subject. To discipline something, in the proper sense of the word, does not mean to repress it, but to train it – to encourage it to grow, and act, and be fruitful, whether it is a peach tree or a human mind.
I think that a great many American men have been taught just the opposite. They have learned to repress their imagination, to reject it as something childish or effeminate, unprofitable, and probably sinful.
They have learned to fear it. But they have never learned to discipline it at all.
Now, I doubt that the imagination can be suppressed. If you truly eradicated it in a child, he would grow up to be an eggplant. Like all our evil propensities, the imagination will out. But if it is rejected and despised, it will grow into wild and weedy shapes; it will be deformed. At its best, it will be mere ego-centered daydreaming; at its worst, it will be wishful thinking, which is a very dangerous occupation when it is taken seriously. Where literature is concerned, in the old, truly Puritan days, the only permitted reading was the Bible. Nowadays, with our secular Puritanism, the man who refuses to read novels because it’s unmanly to do so, or because they aren’t true, will most likely end up watching bloody detective thrillers on the television, or reading hack Westerns or sports stories, or going in for pornography, from Playboy on down. It is his starved imagination, craving nourishment, that forces him to do so. But he can rationalize such entertainment by saying that it is realistic – after all, sex exists, and there are criminals, and there are baseball players, and there used to be cowboys – and also by saying that it is virile, by which he means that it doesn’t interest most women.
That all these genres are sterile, hopelessly sterile, is a reassurance to him, rather than a defect. If they were genuinely realistic, which is to say genuinely imagined and imaginative, he would be afraid of them. Fake realism is the escapist literature of our time. And probably the ultimate escapist reading is that masterpiece of total unreality, the daily stock market report.
Now what about our man’s wife? She probably wasn’t required to squelch her private imagination in order to play her expected role in life, but she hasn’t been trained to discipline it, either. She is allowed to read novels, and even fantasies. But, lacking training and encouragement, her fancy is likely to glom on to very sickly fodder, such things as soap operas, and “true romances,” and nursy novels, and historicosentimental novels, and all the rest of the baloney ground out to replace genuine imaginative works by the artistic sweatshops of a society that is profoundly distrustful of the uses of the imagination.
What, then, are the uses of the imagination?
You see, I think we have a terrible thing here: a hardworking, upright, responsible citizen, a full-grown, educated person, who is afraid of dragons, and afraid of hobbits, and scared to death of fairies. It’s funny, but it’s also terrible. Something has gone very wrong. I don’t know what to do about it but to try and give an honest answer to that person’s question, even though he often asks it in an aggressive and contemptuous tone of voice. “What’s the good of it all?” he says. “Dragons and hobbits and little green men – what’s the use of it?”
The truest answer, unfortunately, he won’t even listen to. He won’t hear it. The truest answer is, “The use of it is to give you pleasure and delight.”
“I haven’t got the time,” he snaps, swallowing a Maalox pill for his ulcer and rushing off to the golf course.
So we try the next-to-truest answer. It probably won’t go down much better, but it must be said: “The use of imaginative fiction is to deepen your understanding of your world, and your fellow men, and your own feelings, and your destiny.”
To which I fear he will retort, “Look, I got a raise last year, and I’m giving my family the best of everything, we’ve got two cars and a color TV. I understand enough of the world!”
And he is right, unanswerably right, if that is what he wants, and all he wants.
The kind of thing you learn from reading about the problems of a hobbit who is trying to drop a magic ring into an imaginary volcano has very little to do with your social status, or material success, or income. Indeed, if there is any relationship, it is a negative one. There is an inverse correlation between fantasy and money. That is a law, known to economists as Le Guin’s Law. If you want a striking example of Le Guin’s Law, just give a lift to one of those people along the roads who own nothing but a backpack, a guitar, a fine head of hair, a smile, and a thumb. Time and again, you will find that these waifs have read The Lord of the Rings – some of them can practically recite it. But now take Aristotle Onassis, or J. Paul Getty: could you believe that those men ever had anything to do, at any age, under any circumstances, with a hobbit?
But, to carry my example a little further, and out of the realm of economics, did you ever notice how very gloomy Mr. Onassis and Mr. Getty and all those billionaires look in their photographs? They have this strange, pinched look, as if they were hungry. As if they were hungry for something, as if they had lost something and were trying to think where it could be, or perhaps what it could be, what it was they’ve lost.
Could it be their childhood?
So I arrive at my personal defense of the uses of the imagination, especially in fiction, and most especially in fairy tale, legend, fantasy, science fiction, and the rest of the lunatic fringe. I believe that maturity is not an outgrowing, but a growing up; that an adult is not a dead child, but a child who survived. I believe that all the best faculties of a mature human being exist in the child, and that if these faculties are encouraged in youth they will act well and wisely in the adult, but if they are repressed and denied in the child they will stunt and cripple the adult personality. And finally, I believe that one of the most deeply human, and humane, of these faculties is the power of imagination: so that it is our pleasant duty, as librarians, or teachers, or parents, or writers, or simply as grownups, to encourage that faculty of imagination in our children, to encourage it to grow freely, to flourish like the green bay tree, by giving it the best, absolutely the best and purest, nourishment that it can absorb. And never, under any circumstances, to squelch it, or sneer at it, or imply that it is childish, or unmanly, or untrue.
For fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it is true. Children know that. Adults know it too, and that is precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living. They are afraid of dragons, because they are afraid of freedom.
So I believe that we should trust our children. Normal children do not confuse reality and fantasy – they confuse them much less often than we adults do (as a certain great fantasist pointed out in a story called “The Emperor’s New Clothes”). Children know perfectly well that unicorns aren’t real, but they also know that books about unicorns, if they are good books, are true books. All too often, that’s more than Mummy and Daddy know; for, in denying their childhood, the adults have denied half their knowledge, and are left with the sad, sterile little fact: “Unicorns aren’t real.” And that fact is one that never got anybody anywhere (except in the story “The Unicorn in the Garden,” by another great fantasist, in which it is shown that a devotion to, the unreality of unicorns may get you straight into the loony bin). It is by such statements as, “Once upon a time there was a dragon,” or “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” – it is by such beautiful non-facts that we fantastic human beings may arrive, in our peculiar fashion, at the truth.
I remember my first trip to Hong Kong as a child, seeing the giant holes built into the middle of skyscrapers, so that the New Year’s dragon energy would descend unimpeded from the mountains, through the city and into the ocean. It positively blew my mind.
For a dragon is a transgressive type of thing. It is a myth and a fiction and a real thing and a cipher and a protest. It refuses categorisation not only because predates it, but because it returns to destroy it.
And so we close with one final LeGuin quote:
“People who deny the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons. From within.”
You have been warned.