Six years ago – can’t believe it’s been that long! – Gatsby the Great came into our lives
and blessed us with three marvelous, magical, mystical children, Parker, Poe, and Carter-Lion.
Sadly, we lost Gatsby the next year, but her kids are still with us. They have grown into amazing beings: Poe wide-eyed and a little wild, in a constant state of surprise; Parker burly but a bit insecure which can make him scrappy (I think he might have taken his mom’s death the hardest of the three); and Carter who is a wonder – an extraordinarily Zen cat if ever there was one, a profound thinker.
Now every Earth Day is doubly joyous as we hug them close in grateful birthday celebration.
Happy Birthday to Poe, Parker, and Carter-Lion! May you have many, many more.
What a time it has been!
From the Master, Terry Pratchett
All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”
REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
“So we can believe the big ones?”
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
“They’re not the same at all!”
YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY…
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“My soul is ten thousand miles wide and extremely invisibly deep. It is the same size as the sea, and you cannot, you cannot cram it into beer cans and fingernails and stake it out in lots and own it. It will drown you all and never even notice.”
There are writers who touch us, who teach us, who look at the world in eye-opening ways. Writers who not only reflect the world we live in but also dare to shape it into something the rest of us mere mortals had not even imagined. And when they are gone, and their voices silenced, there is a hole in the world; we are all the poorer for their passing.
For me, Ursula Le Guin was such a writer.
The Lathe of Heaven; Left Hand of Darkness; Tales of Earthsea; The Dispossessed…In Fantasy and Science Fiction, novels, short stories, poetry, and essays, she pushed boundaries and, ahead of her time, challenged us on subjects such as race, gender, love, ethical balance (her translation of Lao Tzu is wonderful), and the power of words. Her use of language was by turns elegant, wry, funny, and profound. Her observations of our human condition were both mystical and realistic, and, to this reader, failed utopias aside, ultimately hopeful. She also understood Dragons as well as any of us.
I could go on, but Ursula’s words are far better than mine. As Harold Bloom said, she “has raised fantasy into high literature for our times.”
She raised commencement addresses, too. The following is the speech she gave at Mills College back in 1983. It was wise 35 years ago and seems positively prescient today.
A Left-Handed Commencement Address
Mills College, 1983
I want to thank the Mills College Class of ’83 for offering me a rare chance: to speak aloud in public in the language of women.
I know there are men graduating, and I don’t mean to exclude them, far from it. There is a Greek tragedy where the Greek says to the foreigner, “If you don’t understand Greek, please signify by nodding.” Anyhow, commencements are usually operated under the unspoken agreement that everybody graduating is either male or ought to be. That’s why we are all wearing these twelfth-century dresses that look so great on men and make women look either like a mushroom or a pregnant stork. Intellectual tradition is male. Public speaking is done in the public tongue, the national or tribal language; and the language of our tribe is the men’s language. Of course women learn it. We’re not dumb. If you can tell Margaret Thatcher from Ronald Reagan, or Indira Gandhi from General Somoza, by anything they say, tell me how. This is a man’s world, so it talks a man’s language. The words are all words of power. You’ve come a long way, baby, but no way is long enough. You can’t even get there by selling yourself out: because there is theirs, not yours.
Maybe we’ve had enough words of power and talk about the battle of life. Maybe we need some words of weakness. Instead of saying now that I hope you will all go forth from this ivory tower of college into the Real World and forge a triumphant career or at least help your husband to and keep our country strong and be a success in everything – instead of talking about power, what if I talked like a woman right here in public? It won’t sound right. It’s going to sound terrible. What if I said what I hope for you is first, if — only if — you want kids, I hope you have them. Not hordes of them. A couple, enough. I hope they’re beautiful. I hope you and they have enough to eat, and a place to be warm and clean in, and friends, and work you like doing. Well, is that what you went to college for? Is that all? What about success?
Success is somebody else’s failure. Success is the American Dream we can keep dreaming because most people in most places, including thirty million of ourselves, live wide awake in the terrible reality of poverty. No, I do not wish you success. I don’t even want to talk about it. I want to talk about failure.
Because you are human beings you are going to meet failure. You are going to meet disappointment, injustice, betrayal, and irreparable loss. You will find you’re weak where you thought yourself strong. You’ll work for possessions and then find they possess you. You will find yourself — as I know you already have — in dark places, alone, and afraid.
What I hope for you, for all my sisters and daughters, brothers and sons, is that you will be able to live there, in the dark place. To live in the place that our rationalizing culture of success denies, calling it a place of exile, uninhabitable, foreign.
Well, we’re already foreigners. Women as women are largely excluded from, alien to, the self-declared male norms of this society, where human beings are called Man, the only respectable god is male, the only direction is up. So that’s their country; let’s explore our own. I’m not talking about sex; that’s a whole other universe, where every man and woman is on their own. I’m talking about society, the so-called man’s world of institutionalized competition, aggression, violence, authority, and power. If we want to live as women, some separatism is forced upon us: Mills College is a wise embodiment of that separatism. The war-games world wasn’t made by us or for us; we can’t even breathe the air there without masks. And if you put the mask on you’ll have a hard time getting it off. So how about going on doing things our own way, as to some extent you did here at Mills? Not for men and the male power hierarchy — that’s their game. Not against men, either — that’s still playing by their rules. But with any men who are with us: that’s our game. Why should a free woman with a college education either fight Machoman or serve him? Why should she live her life on his terms?
Machoman is afraid of our terms, which are not all rational, positive, competitive, etc. And so he has taught us to despise and deny them. In our society, women have lived, and have been despised for living, the whole side of life that includes and takes responsibility for helplessness, weakness, and illness, for the irrational and the irreparable, for all that is obscure, passive, uncontrolled, animal, unclean — the valley of the shadow, the deep, the depths of life. All that the Warrior denies and refuses is left to us and the men who share it with us and therefore, like us, can’t play doctor, only nurse, can’t be warriors, only civilians, can’t be chiefs, only indians. Well so that is our country. The night side of our country. If there is a day side to it, high sierras, prairies of bright grass, we only know pioneers’ tales about it, we haven’t got there yet. We’re never going to get there by imitating Machoman. We are only going to get there by going our own way, by living there, by living through the night in our own country.
So what I hope for you is that you live there not as prisoners, ashamed of being women, consenting captives of a psychopathic social system, but as natives. That you will be at home there, keep house there, be your own mistress, with a room of your own. That you will do your work there, whatever you’re good at, art or science or tech or running a company or sweeping under the beds, and when they tell you that it’s second-class work because a woman is doing it, I hope you tell them to go to hell and while they’re going to give you equal pay for equal time. I hope you live without the need to dominate, and without the need to be dominated. I hope you are never victims, but I hope you have no power over other people. And when you fail, and are defeated, and in pain, and in the dark, then I hope you will remember that darkness is your country, where you live, where no wars are fought and no wars are won, but where the future is. Our roots are in the dark; the earth is our country. Why did we look up for blessing — instead of around, and down? What hope we have lies there. Not in the sky full of orbiting spy-eyes and weaponry, but in the earth we have looked down upon. Not from above, but from below. Not in the light that blinds, but in the dark that nourishes, where human beings grow human souls.
“And though I came to forget or regret all I have ever done, yet I would remember that once I saw the dragons aloft on the wind at sunset above the western isles; and I would be content.”
… The Farthest Shore
I hope you are content, Ursula. The world is diminished by your absence.
Halloween is fast upon us. For most of us, it’s our annual nod to the weird and spooky, to the inner desires of our fantasy selves. And to sweet-induced stomach aches we regret in the next day.
Much as Dragons relish the weird and frightening – some might even say it is their default approach to the world – they are decidedly old school when it comes to Halloween. Not that they don’t get a vicarious kick out of our human penchant for dressing up and banding through the streets in search of sugar highs. But they prefer to embrace the day less as a time for digestive overindulgence and more as a solemn celebration of the Otherworld, beyond and between. In the spirit of the Old Faiths, of the Wiccans, Druids, et al., they prefer to keep the 31st – Samhain – sacred.
The same cannot be said for Samhain Eve, aka Mischief Night. Or Devil’s Night or Cabbage Night – Western Dragons are particularly fond of cabbage – as local customs dictate. In centuries past it was a time for late night raids and scarecrows ablaze with Dragonfire.
When humans got in on the fun were eggs dripping off windows, frost-spoiled veggies smashed hither and yon, and toilet paper in the trees. I remember when I was a kid, our mailbox was an habitual target for exploding paint cans; at least I knew the mailbox makers were kept in business. In all, it is a night of messy but (usually) harmless hijinks. The tricks before the treats.
What Dragon wouldn’t want to join in? For, awe-inspiring though they may be, Dragons are not exactly sober beings. They have wild, fittingly over-sized senses of mischief. And, after a month of chipping in and generally being on their best behaviour, who among them wouldn’t want to blow off a little good-natured steam?Still, the mood around the Nest is a little different this year, bouncing between weary tail biting to anarchic rebellion. Given how empathetic Dragons are, this is likely a reflection of the general angst around them. Right now, I am hard pressed to keep the Dragons from flying south, buzzing the White House, and leaving noisome mountains of draconic fertilizer in the Rose Garden. (I won’t tell you what they have planned for a certain West Palm Beach residence.)
But I remind them that all the positive PR we’ve been doing throughout the year can be negated in a puff of ill-placed Dragonfire.
Not to mention, drawing unwanted governmental attention can be extremely problematic in these dark times. Low profiles do have their benefits.
So, as you and your Dragons head out tonight for a little pre-Samhain hell-raising, be wise and careful. And keep a thought for the less fortunate Dragons of the world. For the Dragons who don’t have the luxury of frolic, who are being pushed to the fringes and struggling just to survive.
These are the days of spooks and goblins, ghosts and ghouls. Days when spirits cross between worlds and ban-sidhe wails ride the winds. Perfect time to stir the embers of nightmares: binge on horror flicks, attend a séance, visit a haunted house. Court the monsters of the shadows and the things that go bump in the night.
Long ago, when our ancestors huddled together in fire-warmed caves, just living was a frightful proposition. In the darkness lurked bears and lions, serpents and birds of prey, all much larger and fiercer than their modern kin. And, most frightening of all, there were Dragons.
Rightly or wrongly, they haunted ancient dreams and struck terror in primeval hearts. It’s an understandable turn of events in a draconically unenlightened world. Even today, though our interspecies relations are at a passing level of détente, I know a Dragon or two who still get quite kick out of giving us humans the shivers.
Lately, though, the Dragons of the world have themselves been shivering. Not since the Dark Times has their world been in such turmoil. It is only fitting, then, to ask what gives Dragons nightmares?
What can make these near-invincible, sentient, apex-predators toss and turn, tremble and quake? Sadly, the answer is what it’s always been: Humans.
Ignorant, selfish, careless Humans. Puny, thin-skinned, myopic Humans who put self-preservation on hold in place of short-term greed that would put Smaug to shame.
Over the past year, certain two-legged powers that be have been systematically undermining science and learning, dismantling efforts to combat climate change,and putting the future of the planet and all its inhabitants at risk. (The loss of 40,000 Adélie penguin chicks this year brings tears draconic eyes. “Don’t you see what you’re doing?” they demand. “Even if you have no care for others’ hatchlings, can you have so little for your own?”)As Humans have escalated tribalism, internecine conflicts, and weaponized pissing contests to the brink of world-wide cataclysm, courtesy, truthfulness, even basic human decency have become as rare as a snallygaster in New York.
“This isn’t politics,” the Dragons insist. “We have no use for politics, or religion, or any of your sillinesses. This is survival. Yours and ours.”
In the past, of course, Dragons had a distinct advantage over us hapless humans. They could always fade into the mists, bide their time until cooler heads prevailed. They did this during the worst of the Dark Times and survived. But then we two-legs lived, died, and killed on a local scale. Now we’ve gone global and even the misty realms are endangered.
“Destruction is so easy. We should know.But where we have learned, you have not. At the end of the day, who will be left rise from the ashes of your irresponsible stupidity? Who will be here to restore the wonders, the lives you’ve ruined? And many of you don’t even believe we are here. Is it any wonder we fear for our very existence?
In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald warned of the type of arrogant humans who now run roughshod through the world:
“They were careless people,… they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
They are the disasters waiting to happen; the Monsters of our modern world. They lurk beyond Dragon-fire and are fought in draconic dreams.
Hope everyone got a good night’s rest because today is sure to be wild and woolly. It’s Take-A-Dragon-To-Work Day!
Surprisingly, there are many people out in the world who still think of Dragons as fiercely uncivilized forces more interested in burning bridges than building them. More to be feared than adored. Foolish humans.
On TADTWD, dracophiles around the world have a chance change all that.
Today, with Dragons all washed, brushed, and dusted – and permission from the powers that be, of course – head into work and put your best paws forward.
Begin with proper introductions. It’s the civil thing to do and, as Lewis Carroll said, “It isn’t etiquette to cut any one you’ve been introduced to.” also, remember that for some this may be their first up-close-and-personal encounter with a Dragon. Simple socail graces can go a long way towards allaying any fears your co-workers might have about the situation.
Take into account the size of your Dragon. You don’t want inadvertant devastation from whippy tails or careless wings. If your Dragon is too large to maneuver the halls of industry, a lunchtime get-together in the parking lot or nearby park is always a viable alternative. And, if you happen to work with kids, this provides a great opportunity for Dragon rides, scaley play, and draconic story time. Fear and loathing spring from ignorance; the more our children interact with Dragons, the more they will understand, respect, and love them.
Have fun, be safe, and move the shared future of our species back from the brink.
As we lean into the last weekend of October, some of you who are familiar with MotD may be saying, “But wait. Did I miss Take-Your-Dragon-to-Work Day?”
No you didn’t! This year, tomorrow, October 27, is TYDtWD. So tonight, give your Dragon a good scrub, burnish her scales, and remind her of proper workplace etiquette, for tomorrow she will be walking the halls of education, commerce, politics, you name it. It’s time for Dragons to represent in the work-a-day world.
But more on that tomorrow.
Today is still about telling Dragon tales. Or, more specifically, talking Dragon books.
The time for gifting is fast approaching and so I offer a few Draco-centric suggestions for the Dragon lover on your Yule/Channukah/Kwanzaa/et al. lists, beginning for a not-so-humblebrag of my own. As the Dragons keep reminding me, being a WAFDE VIP does have its privileges, so here goes.
They are a hearty welcome to Dragon Country!
With hard science and myth, empirical wisdom, and original line drawings, The Dragon Keeper’s Handbook is the draconic enchiridion for the modern world, providing everything you need to know about these extraordinary beings. From disparate theories of Dragon evolution and the golden geometry of their form to modern conservation efforts and how to release a well-weaned orphan back into the wild, this book answers all your questions, even those you didn’t know to ask. From awe-inspiring Cosmic Creators to wee pisuhänds guarding hearth and home, discover the habits and habitats of Dragons and pseudo-dragons both familiar and rare.
Dragons for Beginners is an essential, comprehensive introduction to Dragons. Whether a casual dracophile or a dedicated Dragon keeper, come explore what Dragons have to teach us about the world and ourselves in science, religion, art, literature, and even occult studies. Discover how, with care and devotion, you can help save them from extinction.
Additions to the Draconic canon are made with every passing year. The following are among the more recent volumes I whole-heartedly recommend:
The 5th in the Lady Trent series, Within the Sanctuary of Wings is a delight. Those who have followed her draconic adventures since A Natural History of Dragons will not be disappointed. (If you are unfalmiliar with the good Lady, I suggest the other volumes in the series as well: The Tropic of Serpents, Voyage of the Basilisk, and In the Labyrinth of Drakes. All are available at your friendly neighborhood bookstore or – of course – on-line.)
After nearly five decades (and, indeed, the same number of volumes), one might think they were well-acquainted with the Lady Isabella Trent–dragon naturalist, scandalous explorer, and perhaps as infamous for her company and feats of daring as she is famous for her discoveries and additions to the scientific field. (Amazon)
Jessica Feinberg’s Dragon series including Earth Dragons, Metal Dragons, and Water Dragons, are whimsically illustrated books available on Kindle.
I also want to mention a couple of up-coming publications:
For the Dracophile who has most everything, there is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: Illustrated Collector’s Edition (Newt Scamander, J.K.Rowling; Olivia Lomenech Gill, Illustrator). A bit pricey but very elegant. And due out in time for Yuletide.
These are but a miniscule sampling of the Dragon books out there. Anyone with further suggestions – or books of your own, please let us know. As the saying goes, the more Dragons between covers, the better.
In his delighful Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, Philip Pullman says that, unlike “literary” works where the author’s text – the words as set down upon the page – are the heart of the thing, “a fairy tale is not a text of that sort.” A fairy tale is shaped with each telling by each teller.
It’s a transcription made on one or more occasions of the words spoken by one of many people who have told this tale….The fairy tale is in a perpetual state of becoming and alteration. To keep to one version or one translation alone is to put a robin redbreast in a cage. (Which ‘puts all Heaven in a Rage’ [Wm. Blake])
Being a storyteller, I wholeheartedly agree, especially when it comes to Dragon tales.
Yesterday, I presented the ‘traditional’ lore surrounding Cymu’s Y Ddraig Goch. Today, I offer a more whimsical version I cobbled together a few years back. I hope you enjoy.
A Lost Dragon Found:
The Red Dragon of Wales
As everyone knows, Dragons come in a rainbow of colours: green, gold, black, and blue. Their scales sparkle like emeralds and shimmer like embers on the hearth. And when they wish to hide, they can blend into the background like nobody’s business. Get a bunch of Dragonkeepers together and they will each have their own opinion about which shade is the most common or handsome or prized. One thing most people agree on is that one of the rarest—and most famous—Dragons in the world is the Red Dragon of Wales. Or, as the Welsh call him, Y Draig Goch. This noble creature is so famous he even has his profile on the flag of his homeland.
But how did this wonderful creature come into being? Where was he born and how was he tended?
There are many stories about the Red Dragon, about his origins and what he means to the people of Wales. Some include wizards and great kings and fierce battles between nations. Proper Dragon stuff, for sure. However, the tale I like best I heard from an elegant green Dragon from the Enchantments of Anglesey in northern Wales. Her name was Cymcaille, and this is what she told me:
Long, long ago, when Stonehenge still had that new temple smell and London was barely a pit stop for invading Romans, there was a village in Wales in the lush, green valley of the Glaslyn River, a village so small it didn’t have a name. The people who lived there were strong and wise. They fished the river and hunted the woods; they tended their sheep and cattle and fields. They feasted when there was plenty and shared when there was little. And like one big family, everyone, from young child to grey-haired elder, worked hard and played hard when their chores were done.
Now, the clan chief had two children, a daughter, Efa, who was ten, and her eight-year-old brother, Brychan. Every morning these two woke up just looking for trouble. They would hurry through their daily tasks, eager to run off to the woods or down to the river. One day in late summer, with chores done and lessons learned, Efa and Brychan headed out to pick blackberries. The berries were so big and juicy that more went into their stomachs than their basket, and, by late afternoon, they were purple-fingered and full, with nothing to show for their labours. Not wanting to go home empty handed, they walked along the river, hoping to find a fish or two tangled in the nets stretched across the shallows. But the fish were too clever and refused to get caught that day. Just about ready to give up, Efa and Brychan rounded the bend in the river and there, in the last net, saw the strangest thing they’d ever seen: a great round egg, all midnight blue with specks of silver.
“Let’s smash it,” Brychan said grabbing a stick thick as his arm. “I want to see what’s inside!”
“No!” Efa said. She stood between her brother and their find. “No, I have a better idea: we’ll hatch it.”
Brychan thought about it for a moment, then smiled. What a great idea! Besides, his sister was older than him and would squash him in a second if he crossed her. With his big stick, they dug a hole in the sunny side of the bank. Then, working together, they freed the egg from the net, rolled it to the hole, and buried it where it would stay warm and out of harm’s way.
“This is our secret,” Efa warned her brother. “Don’t breathe a word to anyone.”
“Not even Mother and Father?”
“Especially them. Come on, it’s getting late!” And they ran back to the village, arriving just in time for supper.
Now, Efa didn’t know it then, but she was about to become a Dragon Keeper. Led by common sense and good instincts, she returned to the egg every couple of days—more often when she could. Sometimes Brychan even tagged along. She dug up the egg, tapped it, talked to it, then returned it to its warm, sandy nest.
So the summer passed, day upon day, week upon week, until the sun travelled lower in the sky and a whiff of coming autumn lingered in the air.
“Is it going to hatch soon?” Brychan asked impatiently as they pulled turnips and greens from the garden.
“I don’t know,” Efa said, unable to lie even to her pest of a brother.
“Well, I should have cracked it open—Whack!—long ago. Then we’d know—“
“Absolutely nothing. We’d just have a broken egg. Too big to even scramble!” Brychan laughed then shrugged, returning to a particularly stubborn turnip that wanted to spend another day or two underground.
Though she wouldn’t say so out loud, Efa was as eager as her brother to know what grew inside the star-lit-shell. Something amazing was about to happen, she knew it in her bones. And as soon as she could, she gave her brother the slip and ran off to the check on her treasure. When she neared the river, her heart sank. Through the brambles and honeysuckle, she saw waters churned up and muddy, a great mass of paw prints ripped deep into the bank. My egg! Someone’s after my egg! And without a thought to her own safety, Efa followed the tracks down the river bed, until, under a wind-bent tree, she found a lustrous silver Dragon—a mountain of a Dragon!—sobbing into her paws.
“What’s wrong?” the brave child asked.
“Who are you to ask, tender morsel?” moaned the Dragon.
“I’m Efa. A—a girl. I only want to help.”
“Help? Oh, how can an insignificant scaleless thing like you help me?! I am a wretched Dragon—a Dragon bereft and bewailed. A Dragon beyond help. I am a Dragon who has lost her egg.”
“Was it all blue with specks as silver as your scales?”
The Mother Dragon pricked up her ears and wiped her eyes, drenching Efa in the tears she flicked from her paws. “Yes, that’s it. Where is my egg, what have you done with it? Answer quick or I’ll eat you where you stand!”
“Oh, I’d much rather you didn’t. Really. The thing is, my brother and I found your egg caught in one of our nets. He wanted to—well, that’s not important. I—we—buried it in the sun, not far from here. I’ve taken good care of it, I promise. I’ve turned it and talked to it. Come, I’ll show you where.” And she led the Dragon down around the bend to the sunny side of the river. There, with tears of joy, the Silver Dragon unearthed her egg, wrapped it in the curl of her tail and blew a hot-hot breath upon it.
Then they waited, Dragon and child. And when the sun tipped over the hills, and dusk was fast approaching, the egg began to tremble, to rock, to roll. Then, with a loud crack, it split open, spilling forth a baby, yolk-soaked red Dragon.
“Oh, he is perfect!” the Dragon said with proper mother’s pride. “You saved him, girl, and I and all the Dragons of Cymru are eternally grateful.” She plucked a scale from near her heart and placed it in the child’s hands. “Keep this until our return,” she said, “a sign of our thanks.” And with that, she scooped the little red Dragon up in her paws and flew off into the western hills.
With a Wow! in her heart and a lump in her throat, Efa watched them disappear over the horizon. Then she plopped down on the bank and stared at the token heavy in her hand. Oh dear, she thought, how ever will I explain this to my brother?
Many years later, when Efa and Brychan had families and children of their own, a great Red Dragon swooped down into the village—the same Red Dragon they’d helped hatch so long ago that it all seemed like a dream.
“I am Y Ddraig Goch,” he roared. Then recognizing the Dragon scale which hung around Efa’s neck, he bowed low. “I am here to thank you for helping me come into this world. I owe you a great debt. You and your people. The Dragons of my Enchantment—my clan—owe you, too. We shall teach you and guard you, till the end of time.”
And so they did and so they do, to the end of time.
Month of the Dragon is racing right along, and we have arrived at a favorite time of mine, Tell-a-Dragon-Tale Week. It is a time to gather in the mead hall and spin the most fantastic yarns of draconic daring-do. To talk of Dragon books and stories.
This year, prodded gently by my friend Karen Sanderson, I’m kicking off the week with a classic piece of Dragon lore: the tale of Y Ddraig Goch, the Red Dragon of Wales.
There are many stories about this noble creature, though one of the earliest is found in the Mabinogion. In the story of good King Lludd
and his brother, Llefelys. It seems that long ago, Britain was cursed by three plagues, the second of which is to our tale.
Every May Day a terrible scream was heard across the land, from Anglesey to Land’s End, from Dubrae to Caledonia. Worse than a thousand Ban síde, the scream made grown men weep and all manner of creatures, two-legged and four, to go barren. Lludd was at a loss, but his brother, who was wise in the way of the mystical knew at once what to do.
“Dragons! The land is plagued with Dragons.” One very old (the Red Dragon of the Celts) and one a newcomer (the would-be usurping White Dragon of the Saxons and Angles). They were engaged in a terrible battle and it was their terrible screams that cut through the night.The only thing to do was to capture the Dragons and confine them underground at the heart of the land.
Now, to capture two warring Dragons is no easy task, but, with the help of vast quantities of mead (Dragons do love their mead), King Lludd and Prince Llefelys were able to bind the Dragons and bury them deep underground on the southern verge of Snowdonia in Cymru. The mound that kept them contained is Dinas Emrys.
What images this conjures up! Daenerys Targaryen chaining Viserion and Rhaegal in a dungeon under Meereen [Mother of Dragons lost major cred with that move; than goodness Tyrion was wise enough to set them free.]
Years later, King Vortigern, a first-class tyrant if ever there was one, wanted to build a castle atop Dinas Emrys. Everytime his builders tried to set the foundation, the earth trembled so violently the stones turn to rubble. His court “magicians” told him to sacrifice a child “born without a father” and sprinkle his blood on the hill. This would stop the tremors and bring him great good fortune, to boot.
So Vortigern searched far and wide until he found such a msyterious child.
The next day the king, his wise men, his soldiers and retinue, his artificers, carpenters, and stonemasons, assembled for the ceremony of putting the boy to death.
Then the boy said to the king, “Why have your servants brought me hither?”
“That you may be put to death,” replied the king, “and that the ground on which my citadel is to stand may be sprinkled with your blood, without which I shall be unable to build it.”
“Who,” said the boy, “instructed you to do this?”
“My wise men,” replied the king.
“Order them hither,” returned the boy.
This being done, he thus questioned the wise men: “By what means was it revealed to you that this citadel could not be built unless the spot were sprinkled with my blood? Speak without disguise, and declare who discovered me to you.”
Then turning to the king, “I will soon,” said he, “unfold to you everything; but I desire to question your wise men and wish them to disclose to you what is hidden underneath this pavement.”
They could not do so and acknowledged their ignorance….
“I,” said the boy, “can discover it to you if the wise men cannot.
And the boy told the king of a great chamber in which two mighty dragons, one red, one white, were engaged in eternal war with each other.
“…the red…is your dragon, but the white…is the dragon of the Saxons, who occupy several provinces and districts of Britain, even almost from sea to sea. At length, however, our people shall rise and drive the Saxon race beyond the sea whence they have come. But do you depart from this place where you are not permitted to erect a citadel, you must seek another spot for laying your foundations.” (Why the Red Dragon Is the Emblem of Wales; W. Jenkyn Thomas)
After executing his not-so-wise council, Vortigern took the lad’s advice and built his castle on a neighboring hill. His life spared, the boy grew in fame and power and became know, in time, as Myrddin Emrys, a name later Anglicized as Merlin.
As most of us know, Merlin left Cymru for Cornwall where he offered his considerable services to Uther Pendragon and, later, his son, Arthur, a king who also rode under the banner of the Dragon.
In later years, a much better king than Vortigern, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, the last king of Cymru, constructed a great citadel atop Dinas Emrys. It was perhaps his reverence for the Red Dragon that made it possible for him to build without draconic interference.
As for Merlin’s vision of the Red Dragon defeating the White, the mage was right for a time. Yet, eventually, as Geoffrey of Monmouth recounted, the White Dragon of of Britain – sometimes Anglo-Saxon, sometimes Norman – did overcome and subsume Y Ddraig Goch.
For the Cymry, though, the Red Dragon remains the soaring emblem of the land on flag and crest, watching over them with all his fierceness.
The English, perhaps recalling the strength of Y Ddraig Goch in centuries past, have not always approved. To which Dragons reply, “Tough talons! We’re here, we fierce, get used to it.”