Thursday, July 21, 2005

Dragons and Turtles: Myth and Fantasy

Clearly I've been reading far too much Terry Pratchett-related material of late: Terry Pratchett: Guilty of Literature, which I mentioned here before, and Once More with Footnotes (edited by Priscilla Olson and Sheila M Perry, published by The NESFA Press, 2004), because I have been thinking about turtle-shaped holes in humanity's consciousness, and of the similar dragon-shaped holes which exist in some people's consciousness. Terry Pratchett refers, in his article Imaginary Worlds, Real Stories, to the turtle-shaped hole in humanity's consciousness:

"Most of my books, [...] are set in the largely imaginary world of Discworld. I say "largely imaginary" because of course it has that slight air of solidarity that mythology brings to an image; the idea that the world goes through space on the back of the turtle, as the Discworld does, is found in many cultures. It is either very old indeed or we just naturally have a turtle-shaped hole in our consciousness. It's most developed in Hindu mythology; I don't recall ever learning about it, it being one of those things you grow up knowing without any apparent source, but it's an image that often appears in books of popular astronomy and I suppose I must have got it from one of them when I was a child.

Pratchett has said elsewhere (and if anyone can tell me exactly where, I'd be glad to hear) that it was into this turtle-shaped hole that Discworld fell and thus a fantasy world was born, which continues to bring a great deal of pleasure and amusement to readers across the globe.

In a similar vein, J R R Tolkien, in his essay On Fairy-stories, tells the reader that "I desired dragons with a profound desire". Tolkien was entranced by Norse literature, in which Fáfnir the dragon appeared, and Beowulf, who, though he was an old man, went out to fight a dragon with his companion Wiglaf. The two of them kill the dragon, but the dragon has mortally wounded Beowulf. So Tolkien created Smaug, in The Hobbit who was slain by Bard of Esgaroth; Glaurung, Father of Dragons, who was slain by Túrin Turambar; Ancalagon the Black who was slain by Eärendil and Scatha who slain by Fram of the Éothéod.

Dragons in fantasy literature come in a variety of shapes, types and personalities, much as they do in myth. Dragons are generally accepted are typically depicted as huge lizards, that are larger than elephants and possessing horns. In Western culture they usually have large wings to enable them to fly, but in Eastern culture they are most often wingless and use magic to fly. Eastern dragons tend to be more snake-like as well, although possessing front and rear legs as does Smaug when drawn by Tolkien. The majority of dragons are described as being covered in scales, although some have a leathery skin. Most dragons have the ability to breathe fire.

I seem to have read a lot of fantasy novels that feature dragons, probably because I, too, have long "desired dragons". Terry Pratchett's dragons come in several forms, although they are all magical beasts: Twoflower creates one by the power of his imagination in The Colour of Magic and the Night Watch fight one in Guards! Guards!, whilst Lady Sybil, Commander Vimes' wife breeds swamp dragons; Juliet E McKenna's dragons are creatures of magic created from the element in which a mage is strongest (see the Aldabreshin Compass quartet); Christopher Paolini's Eragon hatches from an egg; Robin Hobb's dragons are created by the Skill magic wielded by the Farseers and other Skill users; Ursula Le Guin's dragons can also take human form, so are shape-shifters. I could go on - and no doubt others could too (I know Anne MacCaffrey writes dragon-tales, but I have never read them), but it is getting late, so I will close here.

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