Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Here Be Dragons - Part 1: Dragons in myths & legends

Daybreaker by Todd Lockwood
"A constant image [in myths] is that of the conflict of the eagle and the serpent. The serpent bound to the earth, the eagle in spiritual flight – isn't that conflict something we all experience? And then, when the two amalgamate, we get a wonderful dragon, a serpent with wings."
- Joseph Campbell


Joseph Campbell, world-renowned scholar of comparative mythology and comparative religion, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, quite eloquently states above part of what Dragons so special in all our hearts, and I say ALL because Dragons belong not to a single literary genre or culture for the simple reason that they are EVERYWHERE. From the West to Far East, these majestic creatures soar over and through myths and legends, and from there glided into Fantasy literature where they are given life anew a thousand times a thousand times over, for if ANY creature personifies not only Fantasy but mythical/legendary creatures it is beyond all doubt the mighty Dragon. This is part one of a series of three posts in which we explore first where and how they appear in real-world mytho-historical accounts and then their role in Fantasy literature coupled with a description of all different types of Dragons. However, do not expect me to cover everything because that is, in a word and as we all know, is quite impossible - for the human who knows all there is to know of Dragons has stuck a knife in the heart of wonder.

"If the sky could dream, it would dream of dragons." - Ilona Andrews

Dragons in myths & legends

To start, Dragons are no more, and indeed arguably far less, universal in World Mythology than in Fantasy since beliefs regarding them vary greatly depending on the culture. However, since this is not a scholarly dissertation in purpose or length, I can for simplicity's sake safely divide Dragons into two 'species': European/Western and Asian/Eastern. (I apologize to every Asian reading this for lumping your cultures together, as I am well aware that distinct differences exist between, for example, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese Dragons, but this is a blog page, not a book, and Eastern Dragons share more similarities than differences.) 

Beginning with the former, since the High Middle Ages European Dragons have generally been depicted as winged, horned, four-legged, and capable of breathing fire. The image to the left is the oldest recognizable image of a Western Dragon as we today would recognize it and comes from medieval bestiary dating from approximately 1260 AD. Recall that tired old trope of Knights in Shining Armor rescuing Damsels-in-Distress from the evil Dragon, and liberating helpless villages paying tribute to the evil Dragon? That is a European Dragon. Indeed, the whole Dragon Slayer concept was born from and evolved around European Dragons, the common theme being that these Dragons were in effect predators who ranked above humans in the local food chain but could be taken out by bold knights. Predator being the key world, because these quaint medieval-style Dragons were not credited with the intelligence Fantasy literature and gaming grants them today. No one would call a tiger stupid, for instance, but neither are they capable of discussing current events with humans. Such were these original European Dragons. In sum, Western Dragons were portrayed as monsters to be tamed or overcome, usually by saints or culture heroes, as in the unaccountably popular legend of Saint George and the Dragon, and typically have ravenous appetites and to live in caves where they hoard treasure. Sound familiar? Aye, we owe the Dragon's Hoard concept to European Dragons, and with it the trope of the great hero slaying the Dragon both for the treasure and to protect their people from further attacks; the Norse epic Beowulf is a perfect example of this, as is the tale of Sigurd from the Nibelungenlied, the Völsunga saga, and the Poetic Edda.

Now for Asian Dragons which, I might add, are far more civilized than their Western counterparts and look quite different as well – typically being depicted as large, wingless, serpentine creatures with clawed feet. The image to the right shows two such imperial Dragons on the Nine-Dragon Wall in Beijing's Beihai Park. Note the word imperial, for in Imperial China, the Emperor near-always used the dragon as a symbol of his imperial strength and power, since in the East Dragons traditionally personified righteous, potent, power and were symbols of strength and good fortune. Meaning that that whole Dragon Slayer trope is generally absent in Asian lore since, to put in succinctly, Eastern Dragons did not look at humans and think of dinner. That said, they were higher on the metaphysical food-chain because, rather than mere creatures, Dragons were gods (or demigods depending). Shenlong, for example, is a spiritual Dragon from Chinese mythology who is the master of storms a bringer of rain, which makes him fairly typical as Asian Dragons were water-deities, rulers of seas and rivers as well as the makers of weather. The Dragon Kings of the Four Seas (the Sihai Longwang) were the masters of key bodies of water in Ancient China and were revered by those living near them. Note how the two imperial Dragons above are flying over a vast sea, while most depictions of European Dragons are of them coiled around towers (or princesses), in caves guarding treasure, or trying to toast a would-be Dragon Slayer with fire-breath. Not so with Asian Dragons who, in addition to not viewing humans as lunch, could not breath fire. Why would a water-deity breath fire, anyway? Furthermore and given their benevolent Divine status, Asian Dragons are far more intelligent and thus, again, infinity more civilized than their Western counterparts. Indeed, in Asian mythology they are often the key protagonists. One of my favorites is The Four Dragons myth, where the Long Dragon, Yellow Dragon, Black Dragon and Pearl Dragon save humanity from a crippling drought, ultimately sacrificing themselves to become the four great rivers of China. Which brings up the final key difference between Asian and European Dragons: Eastern Dragons could shape-shift, taking on various forms both human and animal. Tis no accident that various images of the Dragon Kings depict them as human.

“I do not care what comes after; I have seen the dragons on the wind of morning.” - Ursula Le Guin

Friday, August 13, 2021

Tess of the Sea

The human, dragon, and ityasaari minds all work differently and sometimes if not often strangely, a fact well known to Rachel Hartman, author of the Seraphina series. Which is why it is not at all strange that I love Seraphina and her sister Tess with a special care above many other book characters. For their struggles, their hearts, and the lengths they are willing to go to protect others they have never met or barely know.

Which is why I grin broadly and crow with joy on learning that on February 22, 2022 book four of the Seraphina series is coming out: In the Serpent's Wake, following Tess as she Pathka, Kikiu, and Jacomo go from road to open sea, setting sail to find and save Anathusia, the last of the World Serpents from those who would destroy her. The great sea awaits!

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

I just started Winterkeep by Kristin Cashore

I just started Winterkeep by Kristin Cashore, the fourth and newest book of her Graceling Realm Series.

I love all my Fantasy books, but few have my heart quite so firmly as Katsa, Po, Fire, and Bitterblue, and now both the adventure and the world itself expands for in this latest book we travel to the newly discovered land of Torla and its five realms, one of which is Winterkeep. Personally I think the Council, and Bitterblue and Giddon, will have its/their hands more than full as I know political deviousness and murder when I see it, much less when telepathic foxes and whatnot are added to the equation. Here we go again.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Just finished Flame by Sharon Shinn

Two days ago I began and just today finished Flame by Sharon Shinn, the final novella in her book Quatrain, which returns to the land of Gillengaria and its Twelves Houses. A prequel of sorts to her Twelves Houses series (but one that should only be read after the main series), it was wonderful seeing Senneth again as she navigates her desire to do good with her aversion to political intrigue and the unreasoning hatred many feel towards mystics such as herself. Seeing Kirra Danalustrous, Donnel, and her first meeting with Tayse was edifying as well. She certainly cleaned up a few sources of bad manners and mystic haters, as well saved many lives.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

I have again finished the Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin

I have again finished The Other Wind by Ursula K. Le Guin, and with it her Earthsea Cycle. 

The crown jewel of the already priceless gem that is Earthsea, The Other Wind is so deep that of old it seemed almost esoteric to me – and I loved every syllable of it. Now I understand all those syllables where I did not before, and my appreciation of the book has doubled for it showed beyond anything Le Guin's unrivaled mastery of Dragons and her deep wisdom regarding what separated and separates them from humans.

Earthsea itself is a story like no other. Written without the intention of it becoming a series, Ursula Le Guin followed her pen, letting the winds of the world take Lookfar's sails and Ged where it would. From the School of Roke to the Place of the Tombs at Atuan, to Selidor the Farthest Isle and back to Gont, to Morred's High Seat in Havnor, repeatedly to the dry land and, lastly, to the other wind. I have always said that Fantasy takes care of itself, that the best stories are merely channeled by their writers out of some incomprehensible place, that writers follow their characters as much if not more than the other way around. A belief born out by the words not only of Ursula K. Le Guin but also of J.R.R. Tolkien (because he always enters the conversation one way or another). A belief born out of writing my own Fantasy series in my own Archipelago that was directly inspired by Earthsea. But all tales have their endings, for Le Guin herself has passed and with her the knowledge of what came after, and thus do I depart the wondrous Archipelago and the other lands (and winds) of Earthsea.

Farewell for now Ged and Tenar, Ogion the Silent, Tehanu, Master Doorkeeper, Lebannen and Seserakh, Orm Irian, Azver the Master Patterner, Alder, and Kalessin the Eldest. Until next time.

"Farther west than west
beyond the land
my people are dancing
on the other wind." - The Song of the Woman of Kemay

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Golden Sun celebrates its 20th anniversary.

Today I pay tribute to Golden Sun as it celebrates its 20th birthday. I honestly cannot fathom why a fourth game has not been made, as not a year passes when its large and dedicated fandom does not loudly clamor for it.

I raise a toast to the Warriors of Vale: Isaac, Garet, Jenna, Kraden, Ivan, Mia, Sheba, Felix, Piers. And to their children and their friends: Matthew, Tyrell, Karis, Amiti,  Rief, Sveta, Eoleo, and Himi.

Romantic Fantasy

It occurred to me recently that I forgot a Fantasy sub-genre in my Types of Fantasy page. So without further ado:

Romantic Fantasy: As the name implies, Romantic Fantasy is basically a Fantasy that focuses as much if not more on a budding romance between characters as it does the rest of the story, and, per the "official definition", one of its key features it that it involves the focus on social and political relationships, in addition to the romantic. Always married to another sub-genre, Romantic Fantasy combines itself with any of the above listed types of Fantasy to provide a setting. The Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer, for example, is Dark Romantic Fantasy, while Kristin Cashore's Graceling Realms is Medieval Romantic Fantasy. I generally avoid this sub-genre since, while I have nothing against and in fact very much enjoy romances in Fantasy, I prefer it when they supplement the overall plot instead of dominate it to the point where it feels like the rest of the story is simply to drive and add tension to the romance. That said, I adore the Graceling Realms and very much enjoyed The Twelve Houses series by Sharon Shinn. Of these two, however, I prefer Graceling Realms because, while Shinn created a worthy world and a rich cast of funny and varied characters (such as Senneth and Kirra Danalustrous), the I felt romance element dragged the story to a notably slower pace than it could have been. An issue Graceling Realms does not have for the simple reason that the rest of the plotline is no less important or gripping than the romance. (Some publishers distinguish between Romantic Fantasy where the fantasy elements is most important and Fantasy Romance where the romance are most important, while others say that the line between the two has essentially ceased to exist or, if it remains, is in constant flux. For myself, I agree with these others.)