The stuff that dreams are made of

Dragon by Arthur Rackham

Today, one last passage passage from Jane Yolen's seminal book Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Chilhood, which no folklore library should be without. The art, of course, is by the great Golden Age book illustrator Arthur Rackham.

"Though we are just now finding out that the dinosaur was probably a warm-blooded beast and not the cold-blooded lizard of the textbooks," Jane writes, "we have never been in doubt about dragons. We know, even without being told, that they were born, nourished, kept alive by human blood and heart and mind. They never were -- but always will be. It was Kenneth Grahaeme who wrote: 'The dragon is a more enduring animal than a pterodactyl. I have never yet met anyone who really believed in pterodactyls; but every honest person believes in dragons -- down in the back-kitchen of his consciousness.'

"Dragons and pterodactyls, actuality has nothing to do with Truth.

Fafnir and Sigurd by Arthur Rackham

"Throughout the 19th century, there was a great deal of speculation about fairies. One group of anthropologists and folklorists held that there really had been a race of diminutive prehistoric people who had been driven underground by successive invasions. These 'little folk,' who were really the size of pygmies, supposedly lived for years in communities in caves and burrows, in warrens and tunnels and in the deepest, darkest parts of the forest where, in brown-and-green camoflage, they stayed apart from their enemies. Kidnappings and mysterious disappearances were all attributed to them. These hardy guerrillas of a defeated culture became, in the folk mind, the elves and gnomes and trolls of the British Isles. There were even archeologists wo were convinced they had discovered rooms underground in the Orkney Islands that resembled the Elfland in the popular ballad Child Rowland. (And, similarly, other folk stories might have emerged by a misunderstanding of the weirs and dikes used by the Romans for their household baths.)

Fairies at work by Arthur Rackham

Three fairy paintings by Arthur Rackham

"It is a very seductive thesis, but it really begs the question. For even if we do conclusively prove that the Picts or Celts or some other smaller-than-average race are the actual precursors of the fairy folk, it will not really change a thing about those wonderful stories. The tales of Elfland do not stand or fall on their actuality but on their truthfulness, their speaking to the human condition, the longings we have for the Faerie Other. Those are the tales that touch our longing for the better, brighter world; our shared myths, our shaped dreams. The fears and longings within each of us that helped us create Heaven and Elysium, Valhalla and Tir nan og.

Fairies on a romp by Arthur Rackham

"This is the stuff that dreams are made of. Not the smaller dreams that you and I have each night, rehearsals of things to come, anticipation or dread turned into murky symbols, pastiches of traumas just passed. These are the larger dreams of humankind, a patchwork of all the smaller dreams stitched together by time.

The fairies under Kensington Gardens by Arthur Rackham

"The best of the stories we can give our children, whether they are stories that have been kept alive through the centuries by that mouth-to-mouth resuscitation we call oral transmission, or the tales that were made up only yesterday -- the best of these stories touch that larger dream, that greater vision, that infinite unknowing. They are the most potent kind of magic, these tales, for they catch a glimpse of the soul beneath the skin."

Fairies in Kensington Garden by Arthur Rackham

Words: The passage above is from the title esssay in Touch Magic by Jane Yolen (Philomel, 2981; August House, 2000). The poem in the picture captions, also by Jane, was first published in The National Storytelling Journal (Winter 1987). All rights to the text and art are reserved by the author and the Rackham estate.

Related reading: Jane Yolen on children and tough magic, Alison Hawthorne Deming on dragons, and me on fairies in legend, lore, and literature.


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.)