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