Saturday, March 27, 2010

You Go, Greydanus, or, O'Brien and the Dragon

Over at the National Catholic Register, Steven D. Greydanus has a review of the film How to Train Your Dragon, which I'm determined to see as soon as Lent is over.  (Lent always comes at inconvenient times, but that's probably the point.)

I want to send you over to the review mainly because Greydanus apparently has the same frustration I have with Michael O'Brien's dislike of dragons.  The first reader comment on his article goes like this:
Hmmm…so the beast from Revelation, the Dragon that fell from the sky can now be tamed? We can now feel compassion for the “dragon”, and alas, the dragon can be our friend? It seems fitting, for in our post-modern world we have already accepted the kind, romantic vampire and the benevolent witch. This is exactly what we need. Another movie that blurs classical symbols in order to confuse our kids in discerning spiritual truths.

For parents out there I would recommend a wonderful book by Catholic author Michael O’Brien called A Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child's Mind. It’s a great exposition on the “reversal of symbolism” in children’s fantasy literature, and how this confusion invades the child’s imagination, undermining his ability to recognize truth.
Further down in the comments, Greydanus does a fine job of showing that O'Brien on dragons doesn't make much sense:
The book of Revelation has an evil dragon. But in the Old Testament we read “Praise the LORD from the earth, ye dragons, and all deeps” (Psa 148:7 KJV) and “The beast of the field shall honour me, the dragons and the owls” (Isa 43:20 KJV). Revelation calls the dragon “that ancient serpent” (Rev 12:9), but Jesus uses the same word “serpent” positively when he tells us “Be wise as serpents” (Matt 10:16); obviously Jesus does not mean “Be like the dragon in Revelation or the ancient serpent in the Garden of Eden.”

In other words, the same animal can be a symbol or figure of evil in one context and of good in another. 1 Peter 5:8 compares the devil to a lion, but Rev 5:5 uses the lion as a symbol for God. Likewise, wolves are often icons of evil in the Bible (e.g., Matt 7:15, 10:16, John 10:12, etc.)—but not always (Isa 11:6, 65:25).

In Christian art and tradition, as in the Bible, dragons and serpents are often symbols of evil, but they’ve also been used in positive ways, for example in connection with King Arthur Pendragon (“Dragon’s Head”) and in European heraldry. There are also other cultural traditions to consider. I don’t know about you (or Michael O’Brien), but I’m not prepared to say that the benevolent dragons of Chinese tradition, among others, are a demonic deception.
Greydanus's comment continues from this point and is worth reading.  I would add to his list of biblical examples the good dragon of Mordecai's dream, which battles an evil dragon in Chapter 11 (Addition A) of the Greek version of Esther, and receives its interpretation as a representation of Mordecai himself in Chapter 10.4ff (Addition F).  Mordecai's dream was added to the text of Esther, along with the other additions, to give the story more explicit religious content.  The author of the additions was clearly not interested in any deep symbolism associated with dragons; he just needed some appropriate apocalyptic imagery, and so dropped a couple of dragons onto the page.  But according to Michael O'Brien's strict interpretation of all dragons as symbols of the devil, this biblical story of a good dragon fighting an evil dragon is hopelessly confused and represents a devilish attempt to lead children astray.  A curious thing to find in the Bible, to be sure.

I believe O'Brien runs into this problem largely because he starts with the wrong idea. In A Landscape With Dragons, O'Brien sets forth his axioms: if I understand him rightly, he holds the position that certain tropes or motifs which appear in literature are symbols for various things of religous import. These symbols are (again, if I understand him rightly) fixed and unalterable, permanently linked to certain realities of the cosmos. An author who attempts to nuance these symbols or imbue them with different meaning is doing something unauthorized and un-Christian and perhaps even impossible.  O'Brien also expresses this in the essay, "The War for Our Children's Minds," in which he gives his thesis a possibly Jungian flavor:
Pro-Potter Catholics consistently forget that the symbols in our minds exercise a certain power over us (often subconsciously), and this is especially so in the minds of the young. Symbols are keystones in the architecture of thought, indeed in our perceptions of the structure, if you will, of reality itself. If we lose symbolism, we lose your way of knowing things. If we destroy symbols, we destroy concepts. If we corruptsymbols, concepts are corrupted, and then we lose the ability to understand things as they are, rendering us vulnerable to deformation of our perceptions and our actions. [more...]
For the record, this particular pro-Potter Catholic hasn't forgotten--though I am highly suspicious of this notion that symbols affect our minds subconsciously--but I do believe O'Brien himself has forgotten that, while symbols may hold some power over us, we also hold power over symbols.  This basic idea of immobile symbols built into the structure of the universe or of the human mind or both (assuming that is really what he means) is one I do not accept, and that is probably the most important reason I usually disagree rather sharply with the conclusions O'Brien draws in his essays on fantasy literature. My own viewpoint is that anything symbolic gains its meaning from its context. It gets it from neither a Jungian collective unconscious nor from a cosmic storehouse of universal symbols.

Among the symbols that concern O'Brien, the chief is probably the dragon, which he holds to be a universal symbol of evil, referring ultimately to Satan. In his view, stories of friendly dragons are lures that can potentially drag children into bad philosophical systems or worse. I believe this is too simple, constructed from a haphazard overview of world literature dismissive of anything that doesn't match his preconceived idea. As he discusses dragons in world mythology, he says this:
...In some Asian cultures dragons are considered good luck, or at worst a mixture of good and evil. Even Greek and Roman mythology, though it bequeathed ample warnings about the terrifying brood of Medusa, the Gorgons, Hydra, Chimaera, and so forth, did at times regard the dragon as a clever dweller of the inner earth.... This ambiguity is due to the blurred distinction between good and evil in dualistic Eastern religions.... [A Landscape With Dragons, 31]
O'Brien here admits that many myths don't match his thesis, but he carries on anyway.  If the dragon appears in a variety of guises throughout the world, how do we know which one is the true meaning of the symbol?  More importantly, why must the symbol have only one meaning?

Ernest Ingersoll's Dragons and Dragon Lore presents another, I believe more reasonable, history of the dragon in literature, though it's over-ambitious, and undoubtedly out of date. Ingersoll traces all images of the dragon back to Tiamat, the watery, primordial goddess slain by Marduk in the Enuma Elish, a Babylonian version of the combat myth; as they appear in various myths around the world, dragons are typicallly associated with water, though in different contexts, so that some are rain gods, some are guardians of underground pools, and some are chthonic representatives of the chaotic sea.

Whether or not Ingersoll's attempt to trace all dragons the world over to a single source can be sustained (something I doubt), a few points from his work are worth noting, and they tend to erode O'Brien's thesis: the image of Satan as a dragon, which comes to us from Revelation, stands at the end of a long process of mythological development. The Hebrews' own version of the combat myth, never narrated in scripture but referred to many times in the Psalms and the Prophets, depicts God creating the world after defeating a primordial sea serpent called Rahab, a monster presumably the same as Leviathan; the book of Job links this sea monster to a land monster called Behemoth (for a good meditation on these monsters and their appearances int the Bible, see Shuck and Jive). In Revelation, the creation imagery of the combat myth is projected forward from the beginning to the end of time, and given a more definite moral dimension, so that Leviathan (the Beast from the Sea), Behemoth (the Beast from the Land), and the Dragon (Rahab?) become the final enemies of God at the end of the world.

So the image of Satan as dragon is built on Hebrew creation mythology, which in turn draws on the mythology of the surrounding Near East. It is good imagery, certainly, but it grows out of a specific cultural context that gives it its meaning, a meaning intentionally manipulated and altered by the biblical authors to serve their own purposes. In O'Brien's view, the Satan-as-dragon image was there from the beginning, before humans even existed--he considers even dinosaurs to be images of the devil (A Landscape With Dragons, 23-25)--but in my view, the Satan-as-dragon image is a useful imposition on an invisible reality, formed out of imaginative capital developed over time in ancient Near Eastern culture. These two starting points lead to different conclusions, but I believe mine fits the facts better.

I must also mention Cornelia Funke's novel Dragon Rider. In an essay in the back of the novel, Funke explains that she sees the dragon as a symbol of nature, so in her view stories about evil dragons being conquered by Christian knights are really expressions of a Christian desire to control and dominate the natural world. Funke and O'Brien, though they have wildly different views of what dragons represent, are guilty of the same mistake: they force a single meaning on a complex literary trope and then use it as an aid in inappropriate forms of moral criticism. The view of the dragon as an image of the devil and an image of nature both have their roots in existing mythology and literature, but there is no reason I can see that either view should be taken as the only acceptable one.

To finish off, I'll quote Greydanus from his comments section once again, because he's darn reasonable and eloquent:

As I said, I am sympathetic to the way that an inversion of traditional symbols can be used to subvert traditional moral truths. However, I think we need to be cautious about language like “misappropriated symbols,” which seems to be imply that symbols have a set, “native” meaning, and anything that departs from that is somehow suspect.

I don’t think that’s the case. The dragon is not a natively evil symbol that some cultures or stories misappropriate as a symbol of good. It is an imaginative archetype that can be used with equal legitimacy in either negative or positive ways. [more...]
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