The dragons in our lives, and in the world

The Reluctant Dragon illustrated by Inga Moore

I'm still under the weather, but popping in just long enough to post the following words by Rainer Maria Rilke. I was feeling in need of them today, and perhaps you are too....

In Letters to a Young Poet, he writes: "How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love."

The illustration is by Inga Moore, from "The Reluctant Dragon" by Kenneth Grahame.

The Reluctant Dragon illustrated by Inga Moore


True stories

Studio Muse 1

From The Language of the Night by Ursula K. Le Guin:

"I believe that maturity is not an outgrowing but a growing up: than an adult is not a dead child, but a child who has 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 wisely and well in the adult, but if they are repressed and Dragon hatchling by Alan Leedenied in the child they will stunt and cripple the adult personality. And finally, I believe that one of 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 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's true. Children know that. Adults know it too and that's 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.

Dragon by Alan Lee

On my desk

"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 anyone 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 truth." 

Unicorn by Alan Lee & John Howe

Studio Muse 2Words: The passage above is from "Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?" by Ursula K. Le Guin, which first appeared in PNLA Quarterly 38 (1974), and can also be found in her essay collection The Language of the Night (GP Putnams, 1979). Drawings: The two dragon drawings are by Alan Lee, and the unicorn drawing by Alan Lee & John Howe. Photographs: A quiet Friday morning the studio. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artists.


On Dragons

Leviathan by Arthur Rackham

Dragon by Arthur Rackham

Here's one more exquisite passage from Alison Hawthorne Deming's Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit (discussed in Tuesday's post). It comes from her essay "Dragons," which I recommend reading in full:

Dragon by Arthur Rackham"Earth is teeming  with creatures great and small, tame and wild, endangered and endangering, hideous and gorgeous. Animals are a manifestation of the planet's imagining, and dragons are a manifestation of Earth's imagining that takes place in the human mind. We're not the only animals that can carry other animals in mind. Who hasn't seen a dog running in his sleep after inner prey? Is only his body imagining the rabbit he chases when his paws gallop through the snoring or is his mind too capable of conjuring the cottontail? It's impossible to know. But I'm convinced that all the animal sentience in the world makes for a massive contemplative practice that is humming along at any given moment -- the crow perched on a spruce surveying the meadows, the bobcat trotting down a woods lane in a moving meditation, the humpback whale going tailfins up on a deep and sonorous dive, the crickets percussing their endless hum, the squirrels dismantling pinecones like manic monks with their prayer beads, the Jersey cows chewing their cuds while they lie under maple trees and stare at the dandelions, the elephants rumbling out their hellos to each other across the savanna, the rabbits dancing for mystical joy in the rain as I have seen them do in the desert, the dragons lunging from storybook pages and TV screens and medieval engravings -- all of them an expression of Earth's spirituality, the something greater than rock and light and water, the something beyond matter that seeks to be. A creature of the senses that drinks in the world, a creature of an inwardness that seeks its own ends separate from external factors. Aren't we all, all of us, animals here together, double agents in our own bodies?"

Zoologies by Alison Hawthorne DemingWords: The passage by Alison Hawthorne Deming above is from Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit (Milkweed Editons, 2014), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The dragon illustrations above are by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). The quotes in the picture captions are from "On Fairy-Stories" by J.R.R. Tolkien (1939), The Farthest Shore by Ursula Le Guin (1972), Coraline by Neil Gaiman (2oo2), and Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke (1929). Run your cursor over the images to read them.


The Desire for Dragons, 2

The Laidley Worm of Spindleston Heugh

Kissing the dragon

There have been many tasty new dishes added to our Moveable Feast in the last week. (The topic: "The Desire for Dragons: What Brings Us to Myth & Fantasy?")

Be sure to click on the "Show More Comments" link at the bottom of the Comments section for the latest offerings. There's also a full list of links (so far) on the Moveable Feast page.

And please note that the Feast is still open to anyone who wants to bring a new dish to the table....

Images above: The Laidley Worm (or dragon) on Meldon Hill, and the prince kisses the dragon. These photographs, taken by Brian Skilton, are from the 2009 film shoot of The Laidley Worm of Spindleston Heugh, a fairy tale film from The Chagford Filmmaking Group. (Our daughter Victoria played the dragon.)


The Desire for Dragons

Ignis and Cara by PJ Lynch

Today, I'd like to initiate a new Moveable Feast topic: "The Desire for Dragons: What Brings Us to Myth & Fantasy?"

This topic is based on some of the quotes we've been discussing this week, about why we write, or paint, or perform, or read, or simply love fantasy and mythic art. Why are we, in Mollie Hunter's words, among those "who actively retain the desire for [the sense of wonder] known in childhood"? What brought here to the numinous landscape of Faerie, and why do we stay?

The title of the Feast comes from J.R.R. Tolkien. “I desired dragons with a profound desire," he wrote regarding his life-long taste for myth and tales of magic. "Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighborhood. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fáfnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever the cost of peril.”  I chose this title because Tolkien's passionate desire for a world colored by myth and mystery is one familiar to all of us who create and love mythic arts. (Offerings for the Feast needn't literally be about dragons, mind you--but of course, they can be too.) What we're discussing here is the why. Why are we drawn to stories and other art forms (both contemporary and historic) with their roots dug deep into the soil of myth?

"Do people choose the art that inspires them," Alice Hoffman has asked; "do they think it over, decide they might prefer the fabulous to the real?"  For Hoffman, "it was those early readings of fairy tales that made me who I was as a reader and, later on, as a storyteller." But what about for each of us?

The following posts are the first dishes for the Feast (a little tray of appetizers, perhaps): "Shaping stories, and being shaped by them," "Finding the colors again," and "Dreaming Awake."

You're welcome (as always) to bring whatever you like to the table: a piece of prose, a piece of art, a poem, a quote, etc., etc.; and you're welcome to offer more than one dish, should you be inspired to do so.

There are three ways to participate:

Faeries in the Kitchen by Wendy Froud1. By posting your offering on your own blog, and then leaving a link in the Comments section of this post. (When you do, please let me know where in the world you're located. The information will be needed for this Feast's list on the Moveable Feast page.)

2. Those of you who don't have blogs of your own are welcome to put your contribution here, in the Comments section of this post. (But nothing exceedingly long here, please!)

3. You can also contribute to the Feast simply by joining in the conversation and responding to the various offerings--both in the Comments here and in the Comments sections of participating blogs.

If you're new to the Moveable Feast concept, visit the Feast page for an explanation--and to see the range of offerings folks have contributed to previous Feasts.

Now I should warn you, I'm going to be away for the next week (I'm off on a writing retreat, happily), but I welcome you, as a community, to take over the Comments section here in my absence and thus to get this Feast rolling...in fact, I'm rather counting on you to do that. I'll read everything that's posted as soon as I'm back online (Saturday, Feb 16) -- and I'll contribute a more substantial dish of my own the following week.

Please pass word of the Feast (and an explanation of how it works) to anyone who might be interested in participating. They needn't be regular readers of this blog.

All are welcome at the table.

A wee feast at BumblehillImages above: "Ignis and Cara" by the Dublin-based illustrator P.J. Lynch (from his book Ignis), "Kitchen Faeries" by Wendy Froud (photographed by Toby Froud, for a lovely article by Ari Berk), and feasting at Bumblehill.


Dreaming awake

Nattadon morning 1

“I write fantasy because it’s there. I have no other excuse for sitting down for several hours a day indulging my imagination. Daydreaming. Thinking up imaginary people, impossible places. Imagination is the golden-eyed monster that never sleeps. It must be fed; it cannot be ignored. Making it tell the same tale over and over again makes it thin and whining; its scales begin to fall off; its fiery breath becomes a trickle of smoke. It is best fed by reality, an odd diet for something nonexistent; there are few details of daily life and its broad range of emotional context that can’t be transformed into food for the imagination. It must be visited constantly, or else it begins to become restless and emit strange bellows at embarrassing moments; ignoring it only makes it grow larger and noisier. Content, it dreams awake, and spins the fabric of tales. There is really nothing to be done with such imagery except to use it: in writing, in art. Those who fear the imagination condemn it: something childish, they say, something monsterish, misbegotten. Not all of us dream awake. But those of us who do have no choice.” - Patricia A. Mckillip

Nattadon morning 2

"Do people choose the art that inspires them — do they think it over, decide they might prefer the fabulous to the real? For me, it was those early readings of fairy tales that made me who I was as a reader and, later on, as a storyteller." - Alice Hoffman

Nattadon morning 3

"My parents gave me C.S. Lewis and Tolkien and T.H. White, but I think I was supposed to grow out of them. Which makes me think of that famous China Miéville line — when people ask me how I got into fantasy, I ask them, how did you get out of it?"  - Lev Grossman (from "What Fantasy Does Best")

Nattadon morning 4

"People who deny the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons. From within."  - Ursula K. Le Guin (from The Wave in the Mind)

Nattadon morning 5

The dragon and her dad


Desiring Dragons

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"I desired dragons with a profound desire. Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to
have them in the neighborhood  . . . .But the world that contained even the imagination of Fáfnir
was richer and more beautiful, at whatever the cost of peril."   -- J.R.R. Tolkien

I had intended to write this post last Tuesday, on the 120th birthday of J.R.R. Tolkien...but I'm only just emerging from three weeks of winter flu, and I'm behind on everything at the moment. And so, one week late: Happy Birthday Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien! Thank you for telling your magical tales. . . which in turn gave birth to the Adult Fantasy genre as we know it, for which I am grateful indeed.

Some Tolkien reading and viewing on the web:

* Anthony Lane discusses "The Hobbit Habit" in a lovely article first published in The New Yorker back in 2001. Lane says:

"There’s no two ways about it, Tolkien fans are a funny bunch. I should know, for I was one of them. Been there, done that, read the book, gone mad. I first took on The Lord of the Rings at the age of eleven or twelve; to be precise, I began it at the age of eleven and finished at the age of twelve. It was, and remains, not a book that you happen to read, like any other, but a book that happens to you: a chunk bitten out of your life."

Indeed.

* Peter Gilliver discusses Tolkien and the Bestiarium of Fantasy in a recent post on Wordnik.

* Alison Flood discusses Tolkien and the Nobel Prize in The Guardian.

* The BBC archive has an odd and interesting little film that includes footage of Professor Tolkien interviewed in Oxford in 1968.

* Flavorwire has posted a collection of vintage Tolkien covers from around the world -- and there are more covers are here, on The Literary Ominvore.

* Tolkien's premier illustrator, Alan Lee, is interviewed here (in the Journal of Mythic Arts archives) and here (more recently, on the John Barleycorn blog). Alan says:

"I first read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit when I was eighteen. It felt as though the author had taken every element I'd ever want in a story and woven them into one huge, seamless narrative; but more important, for me, Tolkien had created a place, a vast, beautiful, awesome landscape, which remained a resource long after the protagonists had finished their battles and gone their separate ways. In illustrating The Lord of the Rings I allowed the landscapes to predominate. In some of the scenes the characters are so small they are barely discernible. This suited my own inclinations and my wish to avoid, as much as possible, interfering with the pictures being built up in the reader's mind, which tends to be more closely focussed on characters and their inter-relationships. I felt my task lay in shadowing the heroes on their epic quest, often at a distance, closing in on them at times of heightened emotion but avoiding trying to re-create the dramatic highpoints of the text."

* Also in the JoMA archives: Ari Berk's gorgeous poem "Lords of the Ring; and my essay/memoir, "On Tolkien and Fairy-stories."

And here's Tolkien himself, discussing Fantasy as a literary form in a letter to W.H. Auden:

"For my present purpose I require a word which shall embrace both the Sub-Creative Art in itself, and a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression, derived from the Image: a quality essential to fairy-story. I propose, therefore, to arrogate to myself the powers of Humpty-Dumpty, and to use Fantasy for this purpose: in a sense, that is, which combines with its older and higher use as an equivalent of Imagination the derived notions of 'unreality' (that is, of unlikeness to the Primary World), of freedom from the dominion of 'observed fact,' in short of the fantastic. I am thus not only aware but glad of the etymological and semantic connexions of fantasy with fantastic: with images of things that are not only 'not actually present,' but which are indeed not to be found in our primary world at all, or are generally believed not to be found there. But while admitting that, I do not assent to the depreciative tone. That the images are of things not in the primary world (if that indeed is possible) is, I think, not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most Potent.

"Fantasy, of course, starts out with an advantage: arresting strangeness. But that advantage has been turned against it, and has contributed to its disrepute. Many people dislike being 'arrested.' They dislike any meddling with the Primary World, or such small glimpses of it as are familiar to them. They, therefore, stupidly and even maliciously confound Fantasy with Dreaming, in which there is no Art; and with mental disorders, in which there is not even control; with delusion and hallucination.

"But the error or malice, engendered by disquiet and consequent dislike, is not the only cause of this confusion. Fantasy has also an essential drawback: it is difficult to achieve. . . . Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it. But that is not enough -- though it may already be a more potent thing than many a 'thumbnail sketch' or 'transcript of life' that receives literary praise.

"To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode."

Alan Lee Tolkien cover

Pictures: Above, a dragon on a hilltop near our village (performed by our daughter Victoria during the filming of "The Laidley Worm of Spindleston Heugh" by the Chagford Filmmaking Group). Below, The Children of Huirin cover art by Alan Lee.  Howard posed for this painting a few years ago, wearing a helmet and holding a broom in place of a sword in the back garden of my old cottage.


A dragon in the neighborhood....

Our daughter Victoria is turned into a dragon for the filming of "The Laidley Worm," the latest project from The Chagford Filmmaking Group. She's pictured below in the film's costume workshop, and on set at Castle Drogo with costume designer Laura Mackrill. The photos come from Laura's film shoot album and appear here with permission.


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"I desired dragons with a profound desire. Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighborhood  . . . .But the world that contained even the imagination
of Fáfnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever the cost of peril."
-- J.R.R. Tolkien (from his essay "On Fairy-Stories")


Below: the dragon and her dad on the hills above our village.

Laidley Worm