Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Do Not Meddle in the Affairs of Dragons...

The Flight of Dragons might remind some of the 1982 animated film featuring the voice acting James Earl Jones, but for me that title represents the 1979 book by Peter Dickinson which lent its name to the movie. The book is a work of speculative natural history that posits that dragons were real and attempts to explain their physiology and behavior using historical and literary sources from around the world and across history.
It is this book that was brought to my mind by the discussion last Wednesday. Our fundamental problem seemed to be that we did not seem to be able to make sense of dragons in some fundamental way because they did not fall into the pattern of the other animals that we have looked at thus far. An animal like the elephant or the “cameleopard’ has a real animal attached to what may have been a medieval misinterpretation. The dragon does not have a real analog there. We can compare it to a large serpent or constrictor, but these seem inadequate explanations for Beowulf’s fire-breathing dragon, or the healing dragons of the East. I’m beginning to wonder if Peter Dickinson didn’t have the right idea. He presumed that dragons were, in fact, real, and attempted to make sense of the various sources he examined with the presumption that they were referring to real animals.

His explanations are bizarre at times, but at other moments oddly appealing to common sense. He agrees with Albertus Magnus’ interpretation of dragon flight. No animal that large would able to fly using the same methods as birds or bees, especially if it is made of incredibly hard armor-like scales. He describes it in terms of a brick with wings made of porcelain plates. When you scale it up a 50 foot dragon would need an absurdly enormous wingspan in order to generate enough lift to get off the ground. However, Dickinson is not deterred. If you have seen the movie you may know where this is going. He supposes that the fiery breath, poisonous bite, acidic blood, and flight are all tied together into the same biological system that makes them all possible.
For Dickinson, dragons are like gigantic blimps. Dragons are hollow, and the acid in their stomach breaks down the foods they eat into lighter-than-air gasses that allow the dragons to generate lift without using their wings. This gas must be expelled in order for the dragons to descend to earth again. As it passes out of the dragon’s mouth the gasses are ignited, and POW! Instant fire. This also provides Dickinson with a convenient explanation for why no fossil or other remains of dragons have ever been found. Their blood is acidic, their bellies are full of combustible gas, and they breathe fire. The odds of a dragon’s remains surviving the kind of decay that would be involved in the death of such volatile animal would surely obliterate any remains that would be left. Dickinson’s book contains many, many more examinations and explanations of dragon behavior including mating, their life-cycle, and what he thinks might have been the various types of dragons that have lived in different geographical locations. I won’t subject you to a summary of his entire book here. It is definitely worth the read, if you can find it (it’s out of print).
While it may be fun to speculate about the realness of dragons and what they might have been like, I think it raises an interesting point. We were having all those problems discussing dragons because we assume they are not real. It causes problems for us trying to decide how Medieval people thought of these animals that are not real to us, but seem to have real to them. It begs the question, though, are dragons real? Maybe that is the problem. Maybe our assumption that Medieval people were wrong for believing that dragons existed is the beginning of our difficulty. They had an incredibly inaccurate understanding of rhinos and giraffes, but it never causes us to question whether or not those animals existed. We have seen them in zoos, and we know that they exist for ourselves. What do we do when we cannot find the modern analog? Do we assume that the analog not exist? Do we assume Medieval people had an incredibly inaccurate misconception of pythons? Maybe we should consider that dragons did exist. Perhaps not quite as we conceive of them now, but in a form that was real nonetheless. Maybe this is me falling into that temptation we modern people have that wants dragons to be real. At the very least it is something to consider. I will leave you with an excerpt from the lyrics to title music from the animated movie, which was performed by Don Mclean.


Flight of dragons soar in the purple light
In the sky or in my mind
Flight of dragons sail past reality
Leave illusion behind

Is it the past I see
When I look up to the heavens
Believing in the magic
That I know could never be


  1. Two thoughts:

    1. Cool! (Apparently this is an acceptable comment!) This book is definitely now on my list of future gifts for some of my favorite nerds.

    2. This reminds me of a special I saw on SyFy one time, which created an imaginary fossil of a dragon and then discussed how such a species might have become extinct, where it might survive, and what its behavior might have been like. Even though I was old enough to know a dragon fossil hadn't been found for real, I was extremely excited throughout the whole program.

    I think it's fair to assume medieval people who "saw" dragons felt the same sort of excitement - something you've always heard about just showed up, if only for an instance. This may also help explain why dragon hunting wasn't as popular - the seeing of a dragon was a personally exciting experience (unless you were hurt in some way, but we don't seem to be getting reports of dragon attacks), instead of a threat you need to share with the whole village.

  2. Here's another thought: dragons were real, we just call them "dinosaurs" now. There was an exhibit at the Field Museum a few years ago (have I mentioned this already?) on monsters, including mermaids and dragons, and one of the exhibits was about triceratops fossils that protrude from the sides of cliffs in far east Asia (the location was more specific, but I'm afraid I've forgotten). The exhibit suggested that these fossils may have been the origin of stories about monsters like griffins, but they could easily foster stories about dragons as well. Which brings me to what I find most interesting about dragons: no matter how many ways we find to "explain" where the stories of dragons may have come from, we still tend to resist them as satisfying explanations. No, no, we say, there were dinosaurs and constrictors, but those weren't real dragons--as if it is we who need the dragons to be real and won't be satisfied until we find an animal that fits our image of dragons.


  3. I'm familiar with the explanation of dragons as dinosaurs. One source that seemed to be outside of the scope of the class, but would have been really fun to look at more closely is the book of Job in the Old Testament. The behemoth and leviathan are problematic in the same kind of way. The behemoth is usually listed as a elephant or a hippo in the footnotes of most translations. The difficulty is that behemoth had a tail like a cedar tree and could stand in the middle of the Jordan river without any problems. The leviathan is compared to a whale more often than not, but whales don't breathe fire or have armor-like scales. On top of all of that God speaks to Job of these animals as though they are things that he ought to be familiar with. They are not mythical creatures, but ones that Job is expected to have experience with. This may simply be part and parcel with the difficulties of reading Job at all, but it's definitely food for though.