I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Jim Harold for the Cryptid Report.
Talking all about Dragons. Enjoy.
I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Jim Harold for the Cryptid Report.
Talking all about Dragons. Enjoy.
Recently, a friend inquired about my Dragon stories. While there is a fresh brace of tales in my new book, Llewellyn’s Little Book of DRAGONS, I realized that I haven’t posted one here for a while. Never a better time than the present, as Dragons say.
So, I thought I would repost an older tale of mine, one born of my love of Dragons, language, and Dylan Thomas. A story of a Welsh Dragon and the life he shared with his bardic human.
I should have put my paw down. Hard. Sulphur spit and Wyvern fire, I should have said, “No. I’m not leaving our bosky hills, not this time. Not for Gotham’s angled wastes. Go alone if you must, but I’m staying home.” I should have said so.
Not that we hadn’t travelled before, Bardd Marlais and Ddraig Cynon, together. Mostly around the Isles, true, though there was that jaunt we took to the Ancient Lands a couple years back. We trained through Europe and then took a steamer cross the sea to the Levant, through the Suez, and on to Persia. A leisurely cruise. Delightful! Nothing pleases this Cymraeg Green quite like an ocean voyage. The rise and fall of the waves, the unhurried pace of ship-board life, not to mention the abundance of fresh, scaly fare swimming just beyond the rail. All snorts and whistles that trip was.
But not this time.
I knew it, too. I did. I read the world with Dragon eyes. Read people like Marlais in ways his fellows cannot. Oh, they might be familiar with his fame, his celebrity curls kissed by the fleeting sun. His words. But that’s scant knowledge come all too late.
And so I wend my tale along Dragonish rills, with leaps and starts and time aflow through blood and distant song.
We first met during Yule of 1919.
For over a year the guns of your War to End Wars had been silent as the rows of steles you rimed with grief. And in that silence, we Dragons of the Anglesey Enchantments slipped back through the secreting mists into a world transformed by monstrous waste.
I was a young Dragon of fifteen when, quite early one morning, my Pater Draconis came to me. His brow ridges caught the pale winter sun and held it for a perfect moment and a breath, letting it seep across his carmine scales. No one could hold the sun like he. Nor spill it with such pleasure on those around him. That day he wrenched me from my play in the frosty surf of the Tall Trees and plunged me into elder realms beyond the Sinking Lands.
“Time we learnt just what the humans have done to our world,” he said. And the next day, with dawn a still-distant promise, we did just that, squadroning above the snows of Snowdon and skirting the Cambrian crest. We broke fast on silver gwyniads and the sweet waters of Llyn Tegid. Then, bellies full, we parted company with Dragonish farewells, fanning out across the Isles as desires ordained.
Drawn to warmer seas, I chose to journey south: a stop in Brecon Beacons, then on to the coast.
“Be smart and vigilant. Keep to the shadows,” Pater rendered his parting wisdom with a stentorian roar. “Most people are as blind to us Dragons as to a Passion of Unicorns. But those who can see are apt to take more of a fright. Size and fire make for easy misunderstandings.” He puffed up in hyperbolic illustration of the point, a curl of smoke pluming from his nostrils. I tried not to laugh – doesn’t do to laugh at the Pater. “And stay clear of Cardiff. The Channel Serpents sent word of a new group of two-foot watchers and catchers. I don’t know what they’re after, but I want you out of their clutches. Understand?”
Not waiting for an answer, he and Mam shot aloft, wings billowing, snouts tipped towards Aberystwyth and beyond to our Gaelic cousins at Mizen Head and Lonrach Ben.
I was alone with far to go.
Aloneness is a transient state for Dragons.
I found the boy the next day in a park off Cwmdonkin Drive, Upper Swansea. Sallow gaslight laced through the December trees and bounced in accidental hues off shaded drifts, a lure to any wing-weary Dragon. I hid amongst the skeletal branches, cloaking myself in the evening light until I felt almost invisible. And there, below, I saw him, all of a slight five-years old, flake-dusted from wellingtons to red cap tight over curly mouse hair. As lost as I. His nose was cold-red and bloodied, the battered corpse of a snowman decaying beside him. He’d been bested in a terrible battle, that was clear. But with Dragonish valour, he bore his lumps and shed no tears, not even for his crumbled comrade.
Suddenly, as if I’d called his name, he looked up and stared right at me, his eyes quick with defiance and more woe than a creature his size should have to bear. Quite the portrait of a young dog thrashed for ravaging the roses.
He inhaled an admiring ‘Cor Blimey!’ through the gap in his teeth, his dejection retreating under the weight of Ddraig-inspired awe. “Who are you?” he demanded.
“I’m Cynon, a Dragon.”
The child sneezed, a fine spray of blood dotting the snow, then wiped his wounded snout across his sleeve. “Well, of course you’re a Dragon,” he snuffed. “I’m a boy. You’re not very big for a Dragon.”
“You know a lot of Dragons, do you? You’re one to talk. A right scrub you are!”
“I’ll get bigger.”
“So will I.”
A half-toothed chink of a grin flamed through then faded. “You can call me Marlais if you want.”
“That’s your name?”
He nodded. “Marlais the Poet.” It was a proud declaration in words he seemed to barely understand but would, in time, wrap his imagination round like an India-rubber ball. “Come down from that tree,” he ordered.
“Pruffchuffff!” I sputtered, singeing the bark between my toes. “You cheeky morsel of human!” I flashed my incisors in menacing humour and waited to see what he’d do next. His grin widened to a smile. “That’s brilliant, ‘cheeky morsel of human.’ I don’t think I’d taste good, though. Too stringy.” Mirth rippled through his words, the thought of bravely staring into the teeth of Draconian doom giving him more pleasure than finding a sovereign in the Christmas pudding. “But why not come down? You can’t be very comfortable up there.”
“I am comfortable wherever I am,” I lied. “It is the way of my kind. More to the point, how would you explain Dragon prints to your nemeses?”
“The humans who battered your nose. I assume it took more than one.”
“Oh, them. Just the Murrays. They’re not poets. Can’t see Dragons. But you might be right. Mind if I come up? I’m getting a crick in my neck.” He mooned up my tree, perched on a branch across from me, and stretched. “Ever see sheep on snowshoes? In the sweet shop? I have. A whole flock of them!”
And so we talked in our tree, about gob-stoppers and mutton and salmon and toffee, bullies and betters, Christmas crackers and mountain wolves, mufflers and scales, Dragons and words….
Over housetops, down lanes, from all the corners of the town, church bells serenaded us with a temporal call.
“The park-keeper will be ringing close-of-gates soon.” The boy sighed, then clambered down to the ground. On frosty footing, he closed his eyes and swayed in the carillon winds. “You hear that?” he asked. “The bells inside?”
Such a curious boy with bells inside. “Dragons hear thunder, not bells. Not inside bells.”
He laughed. “Thunder. Right. Horses for courses – Dragons for wagons.”
Suddenly his mind shifted as he cannibalized a scoop of snow from his fallen fellow and scrunched it into a ball, his eyes tightening in a fleeting image of playground revenge. Then, with casual indifference, he dropped his icy weapon, splat to the ground. “I have to go. Time for tea.” Such was the attention span of a child.
“Will I see you again?” he called out, backing into the deepening dark.
“If you like.”
“Oh, please, yes. Promise?”
Through the branches, I nodded my assent.
“You are a pleasure, Dragon.” He bowed with a bardic flourish that would do Taliesin proud, then vanished across the green, through gate and door into fire-place warmth and a mother’s scolding care. His nose would be tended, his mittens dried, and, over roast lamb and leek soup, his mind would replay our first meeting and rehearse elegant phrases for our next.
Dragons do an intricate dance with time. We can live a year in the beat of a hummer’s heart or an instant in a lazy summer moon. This plays havoc with schedule keepers and, in my case, a little Welsh lad for whom “again” meant next day, at most next week. Had I known then what I know now, I would have been more careful with my words. Tricky things, promises.
I didn’t return to Swansea until 1933. For years I travelled the length and breadth of the Continent, flew wing-dragon for a human planing over the Himalayas, even took the occasional dip in the deep loch waters off Urquhart Castle – which caused quite a stir according to the Inverness Courier. But such excursions could not continue. The world was hurtling towards another bloody mess, rife with anger, hatred, and misery. “What sadness creeps across human faces,” Pater lamented long ago. “They call us daemons, yet harbour far darker daemons within themselves.”
I was drawn out of my fun, my wandering ways. Home.
I spent spring round the fingers of Bae Caerfyrddin, washing the rising muck of the world from my scales. Then, one day, between crunches of periwinkle, I heard evensong pealing in from the kirk of Kidwelly. I remembered my word broken to the red-capped boy of interior bells.
Remembering is easier than finding. Dragons can’t exactly knock on doors and ask, “Do you know this Swansea tyke, this scrappitty general of snowmen? He’d be no child now, of course, but you’d recognise him by the rhyme in his smile.” No, I couldn’t do that. Ears open in the shadows, I was on my own, a Dragon detective in Wales.
It was a warm Bank Holiday when I finally found him. There I was, at dusk, hock-deep in the surf off Mumbles Pier. There, with patient farsightedness, I saw the man-once-boy trip lightly from the Mermaid Hotel, cigarette smoke infusing his still-curly hair, his nose stout-red, a raffish ascot tied where once mother’s muffler wrapped him warm. I watched as, absently, he took pen and book from his jacket and, scribbling away, crossed the cobbled road to the Devon-facing shore. When finished, he pocketed his tools and steadied himself against the rail, waiting, as for the arrival of something lost.
Could he still see me, I wondered, with his poet eyes? How could he not? I was standing square in front of him, the tide surging to my knees, my wings furled in the wind. Perhaps it was my fault. Perhaps in my absence he’d grown as beat down and myopic as the Murray boys in winter, his lyric visions wracked on a strand of shattered promises.
“Marlais – ” I whistled through my teeth, a whooff of Dragon heat scooping fog up over the seawall, flushing his cheek with memory.
Blush gave way to ruddy recognition as his eyes cut through the mist and found mine. The jetty steps could not meet his feet fast enough.
“Cynon!” In breath bitters-sweet, he spun delicious music round my name. “Ah, my pleasure-Dragon, where have you been?”
His words carried no censure. He’d long ago made a pauper’s peace with my errant neglect. “I had a tree-climb with a Dragon. Our talk in the snow! Not even Danny Jones can claim that, and he paints symphonies in his dreams.”
He’d grown adolescent-lean and hungry. A wistful aura flirted round his eyes, making him look older, soul-weary. But that flash of smile was still there, with all its bardic beauty. And, in the swirls of smoke and fog, we walked upon the sand and talked. Of Messieurs Jones and Stravinsky, of Surrealism, Cubism, Enchantments, and Matisse. Of art and religion and the tragedy of cinemas too small for Dragons. Of Picasso and Yeats, Garbo and words….
At the far edge of night, within sight of Mumbles Head, he turned to me. “Only you call me Marlais,” he said. “I’ve missed that. I thought I heard you whistle once, thought I saw you – flying over Thistleboon Drive – but it was only a hawk on fire-wings hanging in the air.”
He did not ask for my return. I did not offer promises. And yet, for all such lessons learned, we knew we’d see each other again.
And over the next two decades we did – quite often, by Dragonish measure – our paths criss-crossing through highs and lows, through sullen seasons when his pleasures turned more Dalwhinnie than Dragon. True, there were lapses: a fortnight’s absence might roll into a month, into a year, in the wilderness of our swirling worlds. I flew without his path when he traded broadsheet scribblings for literary laurels, Cwmdonkin Park for Covent Garden. It was his time, his orbit wobbling round high London life. I am not an urban Dragon; I would not follow him there. And when the Isle Enchantments convened at Wyre Weyr in the Orkneys to sort our choices for the coming troubles, well, that was a long year’s Dragon business, pure and simple.
Still, we were connected. Not that I was at his beck and call. That’s not the Dragon way. I chose to keep Marlais in my life and that was enough. I knew of the swath he cut from the Kardomah to the BBC, from the West End to Penzance. And when the roiling in his Cymraeg blood steered his return to our bosky hills, I was little surprised to find him cross the estuary from my old Carmarthen haunts.
But he shook me off. He was round and happy, with his swanning mate and milk-breathed son and poems to walk through by the mile. He did not want to see the coming darkness, to hear grief soft-padding up the street, to even imagine my absence at end of day. Don’t dare spoil my cardiganed bliss, he begged through brilliant eyes.
So I let him talk instead. Of sex and babies and blue-windowed boat houses. Of darts, draughts, and peat-layered malt. Of musty scholars and blighted critics with tin-tipped ears. Of dreams and tremors. Of owl-light and words….
That day our parting travelled no usual route, sang no intimate litany.
“Just remember to whistle now and then,” I called out, hovering over the castle green, my breath burning like a bush.
“My pleasure!” He smiled, half-masked and cocky-self-sure. “And you – ”
But there would be rare pleasure-whistles heard for years to come.
Tapestried fears hung between us as I veered north to kin and sanctuary. Were I not Dragon-bound by Dragon ways, I would have swept Marlais and his family up into the temporal mists with me, kept them safe through the coming madness. But even Dragons have rules, the ancient harmonies of life and death, which cannot be broken. And though I never gave them voice, they were always understood. My poet knew not to ask for more than was mine to give.
I choose not to talk about the war. Your next war. Your World War Two. You humans having just packed in your quaint superlatives, preferring to list your hostilities in endless series, each longer and bloodier than the one before. Such passion for self-destruction gives the Cosmic Dragon pause. Such blind hatred calls even wise Ddraigs into the fray. Your next war became our war. We led sorties in the Battle of Britain, kept watchful eyes from Anglesey to Cardiff. No one asked us. No one had to.
And I will not talk of the after years when the dead were counted as sands upon the shore and nations rebuilt but did not learn. Of the Dragon losses cutting deep across every Enchantment. Of nestings smashed and hatchlings broken. Of my father, raging in explosive skies. My father slain over Lough Neagh with a fiercesome score of Gaelach Golds.
Dragon plagues on you, you scaleless sods! How many tears would you have us weep for your lunacy?
No, that is out of my tale. I will never speak of that.
Healing takes time. Forgiving takes distance.
For years I licked my wounds and shed death’s stench with my brittle skin. Still, it was not enough. Europe remained poisoned to me, her air toxic to every flick of my tongue. I had to burn myself clean in a landscape ancient and wild. Amongst the Sand Dragons of Dasht-I-Kavir where noble Kur, black and sinuous, once danced in the desert sun.
“Oh, Cynon, I envy you, all wing-wide, catching the flying seasons in your open claws.” Bow-tied and tweeded, Marlais was still round but no longer happy. Fame, family, and spectral friends ghosted round the edges of his mind, each vying for dominion. They would batter him bloody, sure as the Murray boys. “How I long for our tree in Cwmdonkin Park, to climb into her branches and just disappear.”
“America wasn’t enough for you?”
“America. It was shiny and new as a fresh-mint sixpence and paved, coast-to-coast, with distractions. The flesh is weak. It’s complicated.”
“Isn’t it always? My friend, you are a scraggy mortal itching in an ill-fit skin. Come away with me. To exotic worlds beyond your imaginings. We’ll escape to the East, where the land meets a seamless sky and spilt blood and tears filter clean.”
So we went away from rations and rubble, temptations and shades. Two truants running from unkempt memories until, exhausted, we fell into a fragile laugh.
It was an appetizing thought to put down roots in the Salt dunes of Persia. But Marlais would not have it. Though the dry air did his lungs good, he was, at heart, a green-weather type, not a desert-loving Angle like Lawrence of the Seven Pillars. Besides, we both had families, obligations we could not ignore.
Being there was essential, but staying was not an option.
He smelt of Woodbines, whisky, and women. Success had not made him content, children not kept him home.
“Cynon, you must come with me to New York! They love me there. Fall at my feet! We’ll have a sojourn in the Village, a romp round Washington Square. Hobnob with New World Ddraigs – not that I know any. Don’t gruff and chuff and scorch my brows – I had a hell of a job explaining the last time you did that. Besides, you owe me for that trek through God’s dustbin.” His laugh was wanting, his eyes luster-lost.
I should have said no, at least tried to change his restless mind.
The line between us pulled taut. He was right: I did owe him. And perhaps, if I was there, if he’d let me, I could watch over him, make good on my unvoiced pledge to a snow-coated boy.
Magical thinking from a magical being.
New York is no place for Dragons. Hasn’t been, according to my American cousins, since the Lenapē were forced west of the Hudson. In autumn of 1953, it was noise and neon, sporadic trees marooned on islands of dog-yellowed grass, concrete fountains passing for pools. True, Central Park is bearable in its manicured way, save for the zoo, rank with imprisoned wildness begging to be free. And the view from atop the Empire State is impressive when the air blows thin enough to see beyond the tip of my tail. I admit I’m even rather fond of Coney Island from afar, and chatting up the Chrysler Building gargoyles is always a challenge. But, block for block, London’s a veritable Eden by comparison. Were it not for the Cloisters, I would have been rough pressed to stay, even for Marlais.
I circled high, watching. He sat on the fountain’s edge in Washington Square, waiting for me. To these smog-burnt Dragon eyes, he was bent and grey as the November sky, immortal longings oozing from every pore.
“You look like death warmed up.”
“And how was your day, Cynon?” He coughed, then lit another cigarette more out of habit than want. “Seriously. Tell me what you’ve done, what you’ve seen. We’ve been here over a fortnight and all that time I’ve been sentenced to work and the demands of people I hardly know. Talk to me, Cynon.” There was a plaintive desire in his voice, a quest for answers just beyond his weary half-pissed grasp.
So I talked. Of the New York I knew. Of the Cloisters’ anachronistic calm and the underground, lusty with Dragon thunder. Of hand-linked lovers, shoulder-huddled against the cold, strolling along the river and earnest, black-clad Hasidim, Yeshiva-bound along Delancey. How kaleidoscopic aromas tickled my nose, all hot-sweet, soft-savoury, and modern-foul. How my scales rippled with music in the night: cool Beat, hot Jazz, and the syncopated slap-pat of double-Dutch jumpers in the street.
And I talked. Of Bowery poor and Gramercy rich. Of musky Brooklyn waterfronts and spiky Bronx cheers. Immigrant dreamers and silk-suited thugs. Of Mingus and Monk, de Kooning and Rothko. Of Ginsberg, Berryman, Cunningham, and Cage. Of Ellison, Baldwin, cummings, and words….
For the longest time Marlais stared at me through soot-flaked evening, smoke, more Dragon than man, spewing from his nostrils. Hunching shoulders into tweed, he coughed again. “I was so angry with you, Cynon, all those years ago. When I was a boy, and you came to me, the most wild and wondrous thing! I was so angry when you did not return. When the other boys mocked my pledge to fly, to see town and sea from Dragon heights. So many years, I had to find my Dragon pleasures…elsewhere.
“I swore I’d never forgive you, Cynon. Never. But then you came back, and I did. I am glad of that. Glad of our travels, our twilit trysts. So glad to hear you whistle again. Better than bells.
“I shouldn’t have asked you to come this trip. It was selfish of me.” He looked away, his watch face safer than Dragon eyes, then stood, unsteady and small. “I must be going. Supper over at Patchin Place, then on….”
“Want a lift?”
“Oh, what an entrancing entrance that would be! Ta, but no. The walk will do me good.” He lied. “Sorry they don’t allow Dragons in the White Horse. I think you’d enjoy the company. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He nodded, backing away towards MacDougal Street, his pale smile a tight, fraying string between us. “You are a poet, Dragon. I should have said it sooner.”
Then he was gone, sucked into the city, step after step, dying of welcome, women, and strangers from whom even I could not protect him.
I waited for him the next day, and the day after that. A near fortnight with no sign, no sound. Then, one day, as I kept vigil atop the Triumphal Arch, I caught his mourning’s inner bells pealing east from St. Luke’s, setting me free.
Promises are tricky things.
It takes time to heal. Distance to forgive. Forgetting, they say, takes a Dragon’s age in flight.
Tomorrow I go north to New Brunswick. I hear there is a Weyr of sea-loving Dragons who surf the deep waters off Gaspe Peninsula. Then on, perhaps, to chill my bones among the Snow Ddraigs of Hudson Bay, or further west to the Rockies….There are so many Dragons in this part of the world, so many new whistle-bards to hear.
I will dance my eternal dance with time and space, until, at length, I return, wing-tipping over Cymraeg hills.
I will find another child, perhaps, who laughs and calls me pleasure.
Every now and then there comes a time for shameless self-promotion. Now is such a time.
My new book, Llewellyn’s Little Book of Dragons, is now available from bookstore everywhere as well as online from Llewellyn, Amazon, et al. It’s a delightfully scaly hardcover book full of Dragon tips, lore, and even a couple of brand-new Dragon tales. It is the perfect Valentine’s present for the dracophile near and dear to your heart.
Greetings friends and visitors.
It has been a while since I’ve written here. The year has been hard and busy and full in ways I never anticipated when it began.
That said, Thanksgiving is past and December’s chill is in the air. And for my Dragon-loving friends, I have news to share:
My new book, Llewellyn’s Little Book of Dragons, is now available to be preordered either from Llewellyn or Amazon. A delightfully scaly hardcover book full of Dragon tips, lore, and even a couple of brand-new Dragon tales. It will be officially our February 8th – a perfect Valentine’s present for the dracophile near and dear to your heart.
As I say around Dragons Nest, a little Dragon under the Yule tree or Chanukah bush is always better than a big Dragon sending needles and branches up in flames.
(Next project: a Dragon Tarot. But more on that in the months to come.)
Warren MacKENZIE… (1924-2018)
On New Year’s Eve, 2018, my father died.
He was an artist. A master with clay and wheel, glaze and fire. He was a teacher, a mentor, and, though he’d likely shrug it off, an inspiration to generations of potters. His pots are in homes and museums around the world, his life and lessons frozen in time on film and in print. Perhaps some of you are even reading this with a MacKenzie vase full of hopeful spring blooms on your table or a yunomi full of Earl Grey in your hands.
For weeks, I have been trying to put pen to paper, to find the right words to talk about him, to cut through the swirl of emotions, and I always seem to come up short. How can I possibly put him into words? Then, with my mind’s eye, I see him throw up his hands. “Get out of your head, Shawnee,” he says. “Memories, reflections. Just keep it simple.” Then he laughs.
Good advice, as always.
There are some individuals so comfortable in their own skin, the rest of us feel like pod people by comparison, struggling to fit in. My father was one of those people. I always marveled at how at ease he seemed, regardless of the situation. Whether in clay-covered T-shirt and jeans or the occasional suit – I even have a picture of him in a tuxedo! – it didn’t matter (though I’m sure he preferred the former). Whether showing a class of eager students how to center a ball of clay or dining with ambassadors and kings, he was always himself: passionate, generous, and curious about everything.
He was a natural teacher who thrived on the exchange of ideas, the opening of minds. Decades past, when – weather permitting – the yard would be covered with pot-laden tables for one of many quarterly sales, I remember how he held court under our maple tree, wrapping chosen treasures in old newspapers recycled from the neighbors. Perched in the branches overhead, I’d hear his laugh filtering up as he talked with old friends and new acquaintances, about form and function, or how a bowl fits in the hand and why texture is for the eye as well as the fingertips. Whether at the University, doing workshops, or sitting under the maple tree, what he taught was as much philosophy as technique, and, like his pots, it endures.
Growing up, he urged us to say YES to life whenever we could. To try new foods – no matter how strange – at least once. To read voraciously and listen to music, familiar and foreign. To embrace the aesthetic of the world wherever we found it, be it in the smile of a cat, the simplicity of a Han bowl, or the kitsch of pink flamingoes standing in the Minnesota snow. To look at everything with a sense of wonder and trust the world – even at its darkest – as much as we could. And to always vote Blue.
Though I could never convince him to get connected to the Internet, he always had a certain fondness for gadgets, especially tape recorders. I remember many an evening, after long-ago dinners with friends, when he’d bring out the reel-to-reel, and set it up on the table, recording conversations about pots and politics, love and literature, well into the night. I don’t know if he ever listened to the tapes after that, but, at the time, it was the recording that mattered.
He remembered well and told stories with flair, something I like to think I learned from him.
And he loved – and was loved in return by – two remarkable women: my mother, Alix,
and my step-mom, Nancy.
Before Joseph Campbell made it popular, he followed his bliss. Of all the things he wanted for us kids, I think that was top of the list: to find our own paths – even if by happenstance, as he did – and follow them with as much joy and passion as we can muster. To be true and happy in ourselves, and move through life with kindness, loyalty, and love.
A friend of mine remarked how strange it is to be an orphan in one’s 60s. And she’s right. After being independent for years, suddenly we want nothing so much as to be little kids again, to feel safe in arms no longer here, in an infectious laugh now silent.
Tolkien wrote: “So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their endings.”
My father was a bold, creative, long-lived Dragon. The most remarkable Dragon I have ever known.
It’s his birthday, today. He would have been 95.
I miss his laugh.
When I sat down with the WAFDE Dragons back in 2011 to celebrate the first Month of the Dragon, they insisted, in their don’t-pin-us-down way, to make it a movable feast. So it was that, every year, we would confab in the late summer and, until now, we decided to keep it in October. Personally, I think Halloween was a major draw.
This year, however, we are going to take advantage of the movable part of the feast and push Month of the Dragon to February. The Dragons are being very gracious in this, acceding to the fact that I am on a book deadline – about them, always a plus in their minds. Also, yesterday, one of my furry hose-dragon cats sunk his teeth into my wrist and, though on antibiotics, computer work is rather hunt and peck right now. [Parker is very contrite and promises never to do it again. Right.]
By all means, anyone who wants to celebrate Dragons in October, or November, or every day of the year, have at it with draconic gusto. World Dragon Day is Saturday, October 6, this year, and we will certainly be hoisting a flagon in festive cheer. And, as February approaches, I will be posting reminders for one and all. It may be a short month but it will be packed with draconic fun.
Thanks for understanding. See you all then.
“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.
Month of the Dragon has come to a close. A hearty roar of appreciation to all who have participated. And a draconic welcome to all our new WAFDE members! Hope everyone had a spikey-wikey, rip-snorting time.
Halloween. All Hallows Eve. Most Dragons prefer the ancient name, Samhain. This has always been a liminal time – a day when the misty barrier between the spiritual and the corporeal worlds thins and the inhabitants of each can come and go at will.
If you are up on your Dragon history you know this is a very special day for Dragons, especially among the Westie Weyrs. It is a solemn time of both remembrance and hope. A day to honor ancient sorrows and proffered sanctuary, ancestors lost and triumphant returns.
I am speaking, of course, of events that date back to the Dark Times of Dragon persecution. When Dragon-slaying was not only the “sport” du jour but also the surest way for would-be heroes, saints, and princelings to claim their bona fides. The Weyrs of Europe were decimated and anti-Dragon sentiments even inched their way east along the Silk Road.
Some Dragons flew west to the New World (Trans-Atlantic Transmigration), and some stayed and fought. But most Westies chose the better part of valor, discreetly taking the Sidhe up on their offer to dwell in the Otherworld until humans regained their sanity. In short, they faded into the mists. And – Surprise! – after many centuries, things in the physical realm did improve. Yet, while some of our friends chose to return to this world, other more cautious Dragons, did not.
So it is that Samhain takes on a certain long-distance family-reunion quality, with flights between planes and all-nighter confabs. There is music and dancing and visiting old haunts. There is catching up with the grand-dragonlets and telling of tales of past lives and future dreams. Some Dragons even seek out the relatives of Dragon-friendly humans they once knew.
For now, we here at the Nest wish you all a very Happy Samhain. May your harvest be bountiful and the coming year warm with Dragon-fire and fast friends.
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.