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