Here there be dragons. According to a common piece of folklore, that inscription appears at the margins of maps in the olden days. What it really signifies is, “Here is the limit of the known. Beyond this boundary lies the unknown, symbolized by the figure of the dragon, mysterious, ominous, sublime.” The question for this newsletter is, why? Why the ubiquity of dragons, from ancient times to the present? In our time, the dragon is associated with the story form we call fantasy, the modern version of the older genre of romance (in the literary, not the commercial sense), so much so that it has become almost an emblem of fantasy itself, at least that type of fantasy, sometimes called “high fantasy,” which exploded into popularity with The Lord of the Rings. Dragons abound in fantasy—in Harry Potter, in Game of Thrones. And not just in fantasy: there are science fictional dragons, as in Ann McCaffrey’s Dragonrider series, in which the riders bond telepathically with dragons that are really an alien species, and as in the punked-out future of Michael Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and its sequel The Dragons of Babel, in which the dragons are mechanical. Why this particular symbol everywhere?
Critics have commonly distinguished fantasy from science fiction, the other major non-realistic form of modern narrative, by saying that fantasy deals in some way with the impossible. In science fiction, there is at least a pretense that the exotic elements—faster-than-light spaceships, robots, aliens, matter transmission—are somehow grounded in a scientific view of reality. They may not be actual, but they are not strictly speaking impossible. If a starship kicks into warp drive and exceeds the speed of light, the convention is that future science has found a way to circumvent Einstein. Sometimes the convention is flimsy, a mere excuse, but it remains a gesture of respect to the reality principle we call scientific method.
But fantasy, though in some cases it may have an otherwise realistic texture, features at least some element that is outright impossible.
I have never been fond of this criterion of the impossible, though it is so widespread in criticism as to be a rough consensus. For one thing, it is precisely the task of at least some fantasy to question what is impossible. For another, critics grudgingly admit that some very great fantasies do not fit the definition. In one of the greatest fantasies of all time, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, the characters are sketched with the kind of satiric larger-than-life exaggeration we find in Dickens, but nothing is strictly speaking impossible. I think a better definition is that we tend to read a story as fantasy to the extent that it violates or ignores consensus reality. Consensus reality is so-called reality: it is an agreement that there is something called “the real world” or, in more philosophical terms, a “reality principle,” supposedly grounded in fact and logic. Forms of consensus reality range from the naïve to the sophisticated, from good old-fashioned common sense to the sophistication of the great realistic novels. But consensus reality is exactly that, an agreement or social convention—not necessarily the truth. Such is the appeal of fantasy to many people, even if often on an unconscious level. Fantasy says that there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in Horatio’s realist philosophy. Hamlet may be mad, but there is “really” a ghost in Denmark, because other people see it, unless they are mad too. There is a mystery out there on the margins, and it occasionally comes in through the door. Dragons are one symbol of that mystery, along with the other imagery of fantasy such as magic, elves and fairies, talking animals, and so on. But the images are not just interchangeable: dragons capture a specific aspect of the mystery that lurks on the borderline.
We may begin with the frequent disapproval of fantasy by some of the serious-minded. Ursula Le Guin, whose Earthsea series is one of the greatest fantasies of our or any time, and whose dragons are to my mind as impressive as any in literary history, wrote an essay in 1974 called “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” The essay is dated in some ways, and marked by a puritanical contempt for commercial formula fiction that I do not share, but it puts its finger on what she calls “a moral disapproval of fantasy, a disapproval so intense, and often so aggressive, that I cannot help but see it as arising, fundamentally, from fear” (34). It is not, she goes on to say, that those who are afraid of fantasy keep to a healthy-minded diet of serious realism. No, if they read at all, they are likely to read formula fiction whose totally escapist nature is disguised by a thin layer of realistic detail:
Nowadays, with our secular Puritanism, the man who refuses to read novels because it’s unmanly to do so, or because they aren’t true, will most likely end up watching bloody detective thrillers on the television, or reading hack Westerns or sports stories, or going in for pornography, from Playboy on down. It is his starved imagination, craving nourishment, that forces him to do so. But he can rationalize such entertainment by saying that it is realistic—after all, sex exists, and there are criminals, and there are baseball players, and there used to be cowboys… (37)
Likewise for a woman, at least when Le Guin was writing in 1974, of whom she says that
her fancy is likely to glom on to very sickly fodder, such things as soap operas, and “true romances,” and nursy novels, and historico-sentimental novels, and all the rest of the baloney ground out to replace genuine imaginative works by the artistic sweatshops of a society that is profoundly distrustful of the uses of the imagination. (38)
Further thinking needs to be done here. In the first place, I grew up on baloney sandwiches and they didn’t hurt me—I liked them, even though I also liked a lot of other foods that were more nutritional. And, as Le Guin knows, there is formula fantasy that is just as much baloney. But should we be condemning all of it? True, I only read literary fantasy, but I have had any number of students who were passionate about various series of commercial fantasy novels that clearly had a deep emotional importance to them, and I do not feel condescending about their choices. In the second place, this is tarring with an indiscriminate brush. The “bloody detective thrillers” of Raymond Chandler have been inducted into the Library of America, along with the fantasies of Le Guin herself and the horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft, racism and all. In other words, they have become accepted as part of the literary canon, and, in my opinion, for good reason.
But I do not wish to be condescending to Le Guin. I greatly respect what she calls “my personal defense of the uses of the imagination, especially in fiction, and most especially in fairy tale, legend, fantasy, science fiction and the rest of the lunatic fringe” (39), as summed up by the essay’s eloquent closing:
For fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it is true. Children know that. Adults know it too, and that is 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. (40)
Here, the defense of fantasy, dragons included, expands into a defense of the imagination itself. But we have still not answered our original question: why dragons, specifically, as symbols of the imagination?
What is a dragon? To start with the simplistic in order to go further, a serpent on steroids. In Old English, it was sometimes draca, sometimes wyrm, or worm, but in any case something serpentine and very large, not the worm on a fisherman’s hook. As a mythologized serpent, the dragon harbors the sinister connotations that account for the widespread phobia about snakes, which clearly has a psychological origin, since most snakes are harmless. Why are snakes, starting with the Book of Genesis, identified with evil, since they are no more dangerous or vicious than many other species of animal? C.G. Jung’s depth psychological explanation makes a great deal of sense. We have ambivalent feelings about animals the farther below us they are on the chain of being. The fact that most mammals, even wild ones that can never be turned into pets, can at least be anthropomorphized indicates that the imagination feels a more immediate kinship with them. Yes, there really are “furries,” people who take this sense of kinship unusually far—that right-wing nutball in the news recently was not just making that part up, only the paranoid conspiracy theory which he attached to it. People have even made pets, however precariously, of wolves and lions. We may be afraid of such predators, but they do not unnerve us, creep us out.
Mind you, some people are not at all creeped out by snakes and keep them as pets, though I suspect the feeling they have for them is fascination rather than affection. However, the common fear of snakes is rooted in the feeling that snakes are other: they are not just non-human but inhuman, alien. If you look into a snake’s eyes, you do not see an expression, but rather something fathomless and weird. It is doubtful whether fear of snakes has a genetic basis, as it may have with monkeys, simply because it is far from being universal. In his marvelous poem “Snake,” D.H. Lawrence is clear that the aversion is cultural and learned. When a snake comes to the speaker’s watering hole, he says, “The voice of my education said to me / He must be killed.” But he confesses that he likes the snake and even feels honored that the snake would come as a guest to his place to drink. “And yet those voices: / If you were not afraid, you would kill him!” Moreover, something deeper than cultural conditioning unnerves the speaker: he is appalled when the snake begins to withdraw into what he calls “that horrid black hole.” Snakes dwell in the dark underworld, and the poem ends by calling the snake “a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld.” So he throws a log at the snake, and immediately thinks, “how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!” The snake is not just lower on the food chain and therefore less relatable, as my students say: he is an embodiment of a realm beneath the ordinary that most people want nothing to do with. Lawrence is saying that it may be such murderous prejudice that is the true evil.
Dragons share the chthonic or (in plain English) underworld associations of snakes, guaranteeing that many representations of them will be demonic. In this context they are associated with the “lower” elements of earth and water. The marine versions are not always designated dragons, merely sea monsters, but the greatest of them all, Leviathan, whose image appears throughout the Old Testament, is once called (at least in the King James translation) “the dragon that is in the sea” (Isaiah 27), which shall be slain by the Messiah at the end of time. Biblical Leviathan imagery is fascinatingly complex. Leviathan is sometimes a symbol of ultimate evil, a form of Satan himself, like the seven-headed dragon that comes out of the sea in the Book of Revelation (Rev. 13). The climax of book 1 of Spenser’s Elizabethan epic The Faerie Queene is a battle between the knight of Holiness and the dragon who is allegorically false religion or Error but who is mythologically Satanic. Spenser’s knight of Holiness is in fact St. George, famous for his dragon-killing exploit and also patron saint of England. But when God holds up Leviathan in the Book of Job, chapter 41, and boasts how he can “draw him out” with a hook, Leviathan seems more an image of the sublime power of untamed nature. This ambiguity haunts the tradition from the serpent of Genesis to the “great fish” that swallowed Jonah to Melville’s Moby Dick. The serpent of the Eden story, which is an old folk tale, is a Trickster who was only identified as Satan in disguise by later tradition.
Classic dragons, however, are earth dragons. We know them best from Norse, Germanic, and Anglo-Saxon mythology and literature, filtered through Tolkien. Smaug, in The Hobbit, brooding upon his treasure hoard in underground darkness, has a mythological genealogy that includes the Germanic Fafnir (Fafner when he appears in Wagner’s opera Siegfried) and the dragon in Beowulf. The first two monsters that Beowulf fights—Grendel, who is actively malicious because, the narrator says, he is of the race of Cain, and Grendel’s mother—live underwater, at the bottom of a mere. The third, a dragon, lives underground and is roused from his slumber when an unnamed person steals some of his hoard. Like Tolkien a medieval scholar, the novelist John Gardner in his delightful satire Grendel (1971) made the characters in Beowulf spokesmen for philosophical attitudes. Grendel sees everything ideal—the heroic, the romantic, the utopian—in terms of the cynically reductionist attitude that Jung aptly called “nothing but.” The dragon is an exponent of philosophical nihilism, although we suspect that most of it is only a pose. Both attitudes have to be defeated by the true hero.
Both sea and earth dragons dwell in the depths, but there is a depth below the depths, so to speak, a level on which dragons appear in their less displaced, fully revealed form. Here, the dragons represent the foundation of the cosmos, the prima materia, to use an alchemical term, out of which reality was made. In the Babylonian Creation myth Enuma elish, the hero Marduk slays Tiamat, a female monster very like a dragon (as Polonius would say) and makes the world of her body. In Genesis, God does not create ex nihilo, out of nothing, as later theologians tried to claim, but causes it to rise out of a waste and void of waters, the deep, tehom. Biblical scholars note that tehom is etymologically related to “Tiamat.” On this sub-basement level we meet the image of the ouroboros, also spelled uroboros, the serpent with its tail in its mouth. In Norse mythology, the Midgard Serpent is an ouroboros biting its own tail. When it lets go, the end of the world will have come. Erich Neumann uses the uroboros (as he spells it) in his Jungian book The Origins and History of Consciousness (1949) to stand for the original psychic state out of which consciousness arises. The uroboros stands for original unconsciousness, in which all opposites are united because they have not yet been differentiated.
But there is an ambiguity about this sub-basement-level serpent or dragon. The more fully mythological or archetypal an image is, the less it can be pinned down to a single meaning and given a fixed place in a system. The essence of mythology is metamorphosis, images modulating into other images. Thus the cosmic serpent or dragon can be represented as sleeping in the bowels of the earth. But it can also become a containing image—and what it contains is the whole fallen world. We are inside the monster or dragon, just as Jonah was. What the hero needs to do is disembowel the monster and release the captives inside. This is exactly what we see in medieval illustrations of the Harrowing of Hell. On Holy Saturday, when Christ’s body lay in the tomb, his spirit descended into hell and released all the redeemable people trapped there since Adam, who follow him out of the literal mouth of hell, the jaws of a fire-spitting monster. Jesus likened the three days of his Passion to Jonah’s three days in the belly of the great fish (Matthew 12:40), so the two images are explicitly the same image.
How deep do these images go? Do we reach a level, as Jung thought, of a collective unconscious, in which certain images are not acquired through individual experience but are innate and widely if not universally shared, part of the common inheritance of the human? I ask because in 1961, at the age of 10, I bought my first issue of Marvel Comics' Fantastic Four. It was issue 4, the return of the Golden Age figure of the Sub-Mariner, who was discovered living as an amnesiac derelict in the Bowery. When the recovered Prince Namor discovered that a nuclear test had obliterated his kingdom of Atlantis, he became a hero-villain vowing revenge, and unleashed an army of sea creatures upon the surface world. One of them was an enormous leviathan, who could only be killed by having the Thing descend into the bowels of the monster with a huge bomb strapped to his back. The image of the Thing trudging through the shadowy innards of that monster has haunted me for 60 years. I assure you that, at the age of 10, I knew nothing of all the mythological background I have been tracing. The image—really just a single panel—simply arrested me, and does so in memory to this day. A much more sophisticated modulation of the same image appears in the sequence of fantasies inaugurated by the story “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule” by one of the major fantasists of our time, Lucius Shepard. In a land described as “separated from this one by the thinnest margin of possibility,” the immense dragon Griaule, over 6000 feet long, lies physically dead, yet mentally alive. People have built an entire community on top of him, like Gulliver’s Lilliputians, simply ignoring his presence, yet his powerful mind radiates a malignancy that affects the lives that surround him. He cannot be killed because he is already dead. Instead he must be, to use my own terminology, decreated by an artist who paints murals on his side, the paint acting as a poison, an extraordinary metaphor for the decreative power of art.
This inherent or immanent dragon thus becomes an image of the entire fallen world in which we are trapped, what Paul calls “the body of this death.” But the dragon can be an image not just of fallen space but also of fallen time, particularly in its ouroboros form whereby it becomes an image of cyclical time, time that returns upon itself, without beginning or end—and also of mutability, time that devours itself. Like all archetypal images, the dragon as symbol of cyclical time has both ideal and demonic permutations. Out of cultural modesty I am not going to say much about Chinese dragons, but it is often remarked that they are not evil like so many Western dragons, being associated instead with the natural cycle of rain and fertility and a social cycle of luck and prosperity. The dragon can be the symbol of ideal political power, as with the Chinese Emperor, but also with Uther Pendragon (“chief dragon”), father of King Arthur and therefore the progenitor of the Arthurian cycle of history. Irony is usually lurking around the fringes of ideologically-captured archetypes, however. The Arthurian saga is inspiring, but it is also…a cycle. What rises must someday fall. One of the major cycles of Greek mythology, the cycle of Thebes, begins with king Cadmus killing a dragon sacred to Ares, and peopling his new land by sowing the dragon’s teeth in the ground, which spring up as citizen-warriors. But the cycle of Thebes, as recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is driven by the double energy of sex and violence in very Freudian fashion—indeed, the story of Oedipus is one of its later chapters.
In the end, Cadmus and his wife, the ironically-named Harmonia, are turned into snakes in what at once is a blessing and a final curse, as the hero’s final form is the shape of the monster he killed. Strange as it may seem, it is common in myth and romance for the hero and his antagonist to have strange affinities, suggestive of a paradoxical identity. One of the central works of non-realism in our time—I call it that because, among its other ambiguities, it eludes generic categorization, although it was marketed as science fiction—Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren (1975), an amnesiac hero known only as Kid learns late in a 789-page book that his name might (or might not) be William Dhalgren. “Dhalgren” is a reversal of Grendel. The novel is constructed as an ouroboros: the last sentence is completed by the fragment with which the book begins. Time itself is the monster that Kid tries to confront, but he cannot really conquer it, only embody it. The circularity of Dhalgren is a psychologically and metaphysically sophisticated version of the naïve circularity of E.R.Eddison’s great fantasy The Worm Ouroboros (1926), in which the heroes, instead of being jubilant that they have triumphed, are dejected because their adventures are all over, like kids called in to supper. They are delighted to learn that their story is an infinite feedback loop, and will repeat itself forever in what amounts to an unintentional parody of Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal return of the same. There is no regular season, only reruns.
All of these paradoxes and conundrums are what I mean when I say that fantasy interrogates our categories of “possible” and “impossible.” At the map’s margins, time as well as space becomes ambiguous. Moreover, we have not yet touched upon a whole other aspect of dragon symbolism that will bring with it a whole other set of paradoxes. For dragons have wings and breathe flames: that is, they are associated with the “higher” elements of air and fire as well as with the “lower” elements of water and earth. The dragon is a variant of what in the mythologies of Mexico is called the “plumed serpent,” personified as the god Quetzalcoatl. Bird and serpent, union of the two poles of the vertical axis mundi, the spiritual and the chthonic. The dragons of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books are the opposite of traditional, Tolkien-style dragons in every way, and I suspect the mirror symmetry is deliberate, whether it was Le Guin’s conscious or unconscious mind that was doing the deliberating. Dwelling in the far West, at the margins of the map, Earthsea’s dragons do not secret themselves underground but live their entire lives in the air, landing only to mate. Whereas traditional dragons are miserly, anally-fixated materialists crouching upon their pile of gold, Earthsea’s dragons speak in the old speech, whose words are words of power, like those of the creating God. They are the most awesome dragons in the tradition, at the top of the vertical axis of being, at least for a Taoist author who does not believe in a traditional supernatural.
The serpent or dragon not only represents the upper and lower poles of the vertical axis of being but also a process of ascending metamorphosis by which the lower opposite develops into the upper. This is the imagery of Kundalini yoga, which posits seven centers, or chakras, moving up the human axis mundi of the spine. These chakras can be awakened and activated by meditation, resulting in higher levels of consciousness that are also higher levels of reality. Joseph Campbell has a succinct summation of the process in an essay on “The Inspiration of Oriental Art,” collected in his book Myths to Live By. The progressive activation of the chakras are a serpent awakening and rising vertically. The imagery of Campbell’s description is noteworthy:
It is said that when the coiled serpent rests in the first lotus center, the personality of the individual is characterized by spiritual torpor. His world is the world of unexhilarated waking consciousness; yet he clings with avidity to this uninspired existence, unwilling to let go, just hanging on. I always think in this connection of what we have been told of the habits of dragons: how they hoard and guard things in their caves. (109)
The element of this first chakra or lotus is earth. The second chakra or lotus is at the level of the genitals, and its element is water. Campbell says that “anyone whose energies have mounted to this stage is of a psychology perfectly Freudian. Everything means sex to him” (109). The element of the third chakra, at the level of the navel, is fire, the fire of the will to power that obsesses Adlerian or Nietzschean psychologies. The first truly human level of the ascent is chakra four, whose element is air, and which is at the level of the heart. Religion, art, and philosophy are born at this level, which is a kind of Middle Earth between the lower, pre-human levels and the remaining upper levels, which are increasingly post-human and transcendent.
But extremes meet: the head of the serpent at the top of the vertical axis bends down and around, taking its tail in its mouth. The vertical serpent and the circular ouroboros are one. Skeptical critics complain that myth criticism is a kind of uncontrolled association in which eventually everything can be identified with everything else, and it may seem as if we have reached that point here. Why does any of this matter? Why is it more than an intellectual game? While there is such a thing as bad myth criticism, the problem is that in the vision that myth criticism arrives at, its telos or final cause, everything really is identified with everything else. It is a vision of what Northrop Frye calls interpenetration, one of his central terms. What is interpenetration? The impossible, the vision of total identity and yet total metamorphosis. To experience it, as opposed to babbling about it in paradoxes, you have to leave town, where the imprisoning yet comfortable limitations of consensus reality keep us safe and sane, and go out to the margins, the extremities. You have to go out where there be dragons, and learn to stammer at least a few words of the old speech, which expresses the interpenetrating vision directly rather than as a mere set of conceptual abstractions. Why would anyone in their right mind want to do this? No one in their right mind would. It is only the hero, heart aching for those imprisoned in the nihilism masked as normality, who goes to steal fire and language, in order to burn down this world of hopeless suffering and recreate it from the ground up with the power of the word, the power of the imagination, the power of dragons.
Campbell, Joseph. “The Inspiration of Oriental Art,” in Myths to Live By. Penguin, Arkana, 1972, 105-25.
Le Guin, Ursula K. “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” in The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, revised edition, 34-40. HarperPerennial, 1993. Revised edition originally published in 1989.