Friday 15 March 2013

Desiring Dragons

Desiring Dragons is the theme of Terri Windling’s latest Movable Feast.  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.” 

So this post is my response to Terri’s enquiry: “Why are we drawn to stories and other art forms (both contemporary and historic) with their roots dug deep into the soil of myth?”

Okay.  Three quotations:

Into my heart that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills?
What spires, what farms are those?

AE Housman, A Shropshire Lad

We are the Pilgrims, master, we shall go
Always a little further: it may be
Beyond the last blue mountain barred with snow,
Across that angry or that glimmering sea,
White on a throne or guarded in a cave
There lives a prophet who can understand
Why men were born…

James Elroy Flecker, Epilogue, The Golden Journey to Samarkand

The parents had already retired to rest; the old clock ticked monotonously from the wall, the windows rattled with the whistling wind, and the chamber was dimly lighted by the flickering light of the moon.  The young man lay restless on his bed, thinking of the stranger and his tales.  ‘It is not the treasures,’ said he to himself, ‘that have awakened in me such unutterable longings… But I long to behold the blue flower.’

Novalis, Henry of Ofterdingen: A Romance

We pass through this world.  We’re the only animal which understands that it must die, that its time here is transient.  And so we are surrounded at all times and in all places by mysteries.  There is the past, which we remember but can no longer touch or affect: a magician’s backward-facing glass in which the dead are still alive and the old are still young and can be seeing going about their affairs, ignorant of our gaze, in tiny bright pictures with the sound turned down low.

There is the distance, that blue trembling elsewhere on the rim of the horizon, beyond which – perhaps – everything is different, new and wonderful. 

And there is the invisible future into which we constantly travel with our baggage of hopes and promises and longings and fears. 

We’re surrounded by things which are not, which have no physical existence. Living in such a world, it’s hardly surprising that we’re drawn to stories of mythical significance.  It’s been the aim of humans down the millennia to try to explain the world and our existence in it. Science itself springs from this desire. And the paradoxical, untouchable reality of such important things (the past: the future: the horizon) have surely taught us confidence to imagine and discover and delight in other things which can also neither be seen nor approached nor touched. The soul, the human spirit. Gods, ghosts.  Right and wrong. Philosophy. Mathematics.

I don't wish to say that all ideas are equal, just that they spring from the same ‘soil of myth’ Terri speaks of:  the soil from which all human ideas spring.  What Tolkien called sub-creation doesn’t only apply to story-tellers and artists.  The Ptolemaic universe, with the sun at its centre, looks like a fantasy world today, but was believed for centuries to be an accurate description of what was really out there. And indeed it was: it made a great deal of sense given the information then available, until Copernicus and Galileo and Newton came up with new and better descriptions, and then again Einstein: and now we have string theory and branes and multiple dimensions and bubble universes, and cosmologists are continually suggesting new or refined versions. This too is sub-creation.

I long to know what lies beyond the boundaries of my five senses.  I want to know what the bee sees in the ultraviolet. I want to know what it’s like to hear like a bat or a dolphin. I want to know what’s underneath the frozen seas of Europa, and if anything lives on Mars or on some planet circling Procyon or Alpha Centauri.  I want to visit Petra, that rose red city half as old as time; I want to cross the horizon. I want to know what really happened long ago at Stonehenge and Avebury and Carnac. I want to find out what the Druids really believed. And in the meantime, yes - I want to read about the golden dragons in the paradisal gardens at the end of the world because such stories are celebrations and extensions of the magic and the miracle of ‘this precious only endless world in which we think we live’. I'll let Robert Graves tell you the rest:


Join the Movable Feast and find more on 'Desiring Dragons' by following this link to Terri's blog - Myth and Moor: Moveable Feasts

Picture credit:
One of the dragons from The Nine Dragons handscroll (九龙图/九龍圖), painted by the Song-Dynasty Chinese artist Chen Rong (陈容/陳容) in 1244 CE. Ink and some red on paper. The entire scroll is 46.3 x 1096.4 cm. Located in the Museum of Fine Art - Boston, USA. Wikimedia Commons


  1. Good gods, Katherine, that is one of the most beautiful things I have read for a while.

    That is exactly it. So precisely does that mirror my own thoughts and feelings that it is uncanny. I suppose it is that recognition that charges the experience with emotion.

    Perhaps, that is also one function of myth, of story: that despite being essentially alone in an unseeing universe, in myths we experience echoes over that vast untravelable distance, of voices, hearts and minds that are like our own and have known life as we have.

    That's the second time you've made my day in less than 24 hours!

  2. Thankyou, Austin - and I read your essay last night too, and felt exactly the same! I'll put your link here, as it's almost the companion piece to this...

  3. Now that's the third time you've made my day in 24hrs - I don't know if I can cope!

    Having read your very much more lucid, congruent and elegant writing here, I do think I might have to go back and re-write that essay, however.

    But yes, in a sense, they do sit side by side in terms of the substance if not the style.

    Thanks. Maybe one day we'll share a pot of tea or coffee somewhere along the way. :)

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  5. Kath - I was bowled over by this post. Not only do I feel exactly the same about the fertile soil of myth and magic, but James Elroy Flecker got into my blood when I found an old book of his poems in my grammar school library at the age of 13 and feel in love with the Golden Road to Samarcand - and even more, with the Gates of Damascus ('I had not told ye, fools, so much, save that I heard your singing man'...). No one ever knows who he his when I mention him!! Plus the Warning to Children (Robert Graves) is also one of my favourite poems. As a child, the longing I had to get 'beyond' the visible world was huge - I, also, had a desire for dragons... When I do book talks I usually tell the story of how, when I was about 10, I persuaded my best friend that if we just hurled ourselves at the wall of the playground, we might get through it to Narnia. Needless to say, we just got rather bruised!

    Lovely post - thanks!


    (previous deleted post was me - but accidentally signed in as my daghter, so reposted as myself!)

  6. Glad to meet another Flecker fan, Celia! Thankyou for stopping by!

  7. And I adore your story about hurling yourselves at that wall! I remember feeling the same way, but never put it to quite that much of a test.

  8. It's helpful to remember that dragons really did exist - that they were living, breathing, flying, swimming, devouring beasts. Only now we call them dinosaurs, not dragons.

    And once we really did share our ancient world with elves and dwarves, other people like us yet not, only now we call them Neanderthals and other complicated Latin names.

    As we move towards a greater rational understanding of our world, it is indeed vital not to lose the sense of wonder that lay behind those original names. Because just calling them 'dinosaurs' and 'Neanderthals' does not explain them away or make them somehow 'ordinary' and mundane. Rather the opposite: it should remind us that every single aspect of the world we live in is a miraculous wonderland of the highest order.

  9. I've been in love with dragons ever since I read Anne McCaffrey's wonderful Pern books. That's probably why I see them more as fabulous creatures and friends rather than monsters to be slain... though I do like a bit of dragon slaying from time to time!

  10. A lovely description of why we love science fiction and fantasy - the SF term for it is "sensawunda" ( sense of wonder). It's in our bones. By the way, I have been hunting for James Elroy Flecker's work ever since I read a few snippets in a Kerry Greenwood novel. She got hers from a book published in 1920. I can't even find it on line. Maybe I'm just looking in the wrong places?

  11. Nick and Katherine, thanks for commenting! I do agree this green earth of ours has generated 'dragons' in the past: but don't you think myth has made more of them? The dragon, which can be sly, greedy, cunning, powerful, dangerous and beautiful all at once, is another way of looking at ourselves in a mirror?

    Do you know, Katherine, I've never read anything by Anne McCaffery! I don't know why, she's just somehow a gap in my education. Which would you recommend, to begin with?

    Sue, you can find some of Flecker's poems here at Gutenberg:
    but for the rest it's best to try for old copies. Try looking for 'The Old Ships' or 'The Golden Journey To Samarkand' - good luck!

  12. I never got on all that well with Tolkein, but I remember being pulled up short by that line about 'desiring dragons with a profound desire' - because it so exactly summed up my own feelings as a child. That profound desire hurt. I wanted my mother's ornaments to come to life and talk, as they did in Andersen. I wanted to know what they thought of things. And I wasn't QUITE certain that they didn't come to life when no one was watching.
    Wonderful blog, Kath - as ever!

  13. Something that generates real "sensawunda" for me is knowing we still have small feathered dinosaurs around us and that those sharks, crocodiles and even jellyfish we see ave been around a lot longer than we have. The magic and dragons have never really gone away!

    Thanks Katherine, I'll go back to Gutenberg and see what I can find. I finally found The Secret Commonwealth as a low-priced ebook on iBooks, after failing to find it in Gutenberg, but there is, as you say, always Abebooks!

  14. Gosh, what a fabulous dish in this ongoing feast of desiring dragons!

  15. I'm wordless and peaceful....thank you, and please forgive me for mercilessly re-blogging the Robert Graves clip....just beautiful!!

  16. But there's something wonderful in the not-knowing too, isn't there? In the lack of satisfaction? To be satisfied is to cease to be, in a way. I think we need the mysteries to live. Stonehenge would be less sacred to me if I knew what it was for. c:

  17. You're right, Christie. But I still want to know - knowing I never shall!

  18. I just loved this post so much - it says exactly the things I keep striving to say. Kath, you'll be interested to know I used the motif of the blue flower and some of Novalis's poems in 'The Wild Girl'. I'll send you a copy when it comes out in the UK later this year. Thanks so much for this blog post - I'll be sharing widely.

  19. Thankyou, Kate - and as for the Wild Girl, I can hardly wait to read it!