A Defense of Tame Dragons

The fantasy trope of taming dragons has always deeply resonated with me, and I happily inhale stories of human partnership with dragons. Both Chrysophylax and Kazul made the list of possible names for my childhood green iguana. Bob the Bearded Dragon, the current lizard around here, escaped being named Kulingile by one of the hairs he doesn’t have.

So Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick’s post today, Can (Should) Dragons Be Tamed?, was food for thought that I found tough and chewy. I think it completely misses how tamed dragons are generally used in fantasy stories, which is not as diminished/alluring evil but as a representation of natural wonder.

He acknowledges that many dragons are rooted in nature instead of demonic chaos, and it’s plain to see the inspiration taken from real animals for most of them. The source animal is usually a reptile, either living or extinct (and the animated version of Toothless in How To Train Your Dragon was refreshing because of Toothless’s cat-like mannerisms). As a reptile owner, I argue for separating The Serpent from serpents. In fiction, nature-inspired dragons are functioning as the relationship between Man and Animal writ large, and taming them is a grand exaggerated drama of the joys of domestication.

But it is quite unfair to stop there and categorize natural dragons as being part of “the de-spiritualized material world” when their most common narrative purpose is the opposite: to suddenly and completely reveal the truth of a larger, magical world that fulfills the protagonist’s yearning for more than the ordinary world they inhabit. Encountering a dragon is often the first intrusion of the magical world into the mundane in a fantasy story (I’m linking Penny White as an example because you can read the first few paragraphs including the dragon encounter by clicking Look Inside, and it’s written by an Anglican priest). Dragons are huge and undeniable, unlike a mere glimpse of magic or a fantasy creature that is small and prone to hiding. In these scenes the protagonist is comprehending something larger and more powerful than himself and experiencing awe.

The first glimpse of the dragon is a moment of overwhelming wonder.

Wonder is the encounter with the Other-world, with Faerie, with sacrament. Wonder is the emotion that readers seek in fantasy literature and tame dragons embody it better than any other fantasy creature. The flight sequence is ubiquitous in tame dragon stories: the rider is carried away from his life on the ground to the heavens.

Wonder leaving the world because dragons are threatened or withdrawing is a narrative response to the loss of sacrament in the modern worldview. The tame dragon story is about the hunger for wonder, the desire to seize onto it and make it stay when we do experience transcendent moments, and that those moments can sustain us even though they end. Tame dragons who leave do not abandon their riders. They leave them secure in body and soul (Pete’s Dragon) and usually with the assurance that magic can be found again when you know where to look.

No, a tame dragon is not in the same class as a horse or a pet. This is more often than not the driving conflict in tame dragon narratives that go on for longer than the initial “wow, a dragon” episode. The Temeraire series from Throne of Jade onward is an excellent example.

While this blog post is starting from the supposition that I do not want to glorify evil in my stories, I would argue that the Tame Dragon, better called the Wonderful Dragon, is so firmly established in our culture that he is worthy of a place in the Christian imagination. Wonder, like love, is one of the emotions that points to the divine when we experience it. And dragons are the very embodiment of fantasy wonder to so many people. There is a reason that you can find dragon tchotchkes in every gas station and that so many fantasy fans use the dragon as a sigil. It’s because they are emblems of wonder to today’s dragon consumers, not wickedness.

Fiction writing, particularly pulpy genre writing, is not the same as iconography for the church, which has a codified system of symbolism that we teaching our audience. In addition to considering the past of a symbol, an author has to consider what that symbol means now to the group that they are addressing.

Tame dragons, based on natural wonder, can be an additional use of the fantasy animal without denying dragons as traditional symbols of evil and chaos. After all, when you look to our tame dragons they are almost always fighting beside us as we go up against bigger dragons (see, in 2019, the plots of How To Train Your Dragon and The Priory of the Orange Tree).

Why a Eucatastrophe is NOT a Deus Ex Machina

Buckle up for an incredibly niche rant…

The literary concepts of deus ex machina and eucatastrophe are not synonymous. Both are sudden reversals at the climax of a narrative where things are looking grim for our protagonists, but they are distinct narrative devices.

Deus ex machina, “god from the machine,” is a term originating from ancient Greek theater. When the heroes were in an impossible situation and the play was out of time, a god character would be lowered from the rafters above the stage and hand them victory. Today this is widely recognized as flawed storytelling. It breaks the integrity of the story to have an external force resolve the conflict: nothing leading up to this point actually mattered. It feels arbitrary, as if the storyteller had no plan.

The eu (good) catastrophe, the happy disaster, also saves our heroes from an impossible situation. But they are saved because the outcome of their failure is unexpected success. It is not external, but a direct consequence of the story pieces already in play.

Since Tolkien defined the term eucatastrophe in On Fairy Stories, an explicitly religious essay defending fantastic sub-creations that point to the resurrection story as suitable work for Christians, I consider it disingenuous to separate the term from a Catholic mindset when defining it (as Wikipedia has done, and I assume some literature courses). I myself am not Catholic, and the concept can be applied to works that are not religious, but this context helps us see the intended meaning. When Tolkien proposed the term eucatastrophe, we know from the text and his letters that he was thinking of Christ. As a Catholic, he believed that Christ’s complete defeat and death was a necessary part of the process that saves mankind.*

In a eucatastrophe, what looks like a huge loss is the reason that our heroes succeed. It’s not merely an emotional sequence of almost-defeat and then success, but a causal link.

The archetypal example of the eucatastrophe in Tolkien’s work is not the eagles, but Gollum biting the ring from Frodo’s hand. (The eagles are arguably a deus ex machina: with the lines as I draw them, I’d argue that Tolkien used both literary devices to explore his theme of grace.)

The eucatastrophe is not arbitrary, but happens as the storyteller planned it all along. The interference of supernatural grace is not a negation of the characters’ agency but comes in to use the antagonist’s actions, intended to harm the heroes, for their good instead (as in the story of Joseph, Genesis 50:20).

A story with a eucatastrophe gives readers the power to keep going through it instead of engaging in avoidant behavior when they face real difficulties that seem impossible. It teaches them a thought pattern in which growth, better than mere escape, will give their darkest hours meaning in retrospect.

If you remain unconvinced, let us agree to disagree as storytellers and leave it at this:

“Deus ex machina works when it is the point.”

Film Crit Hulk

* Footnote… I am summarizing recklessly here, since theologically this is one of those Big Deals that gets subtle quickly. See any Catholic commentary on Luke 24:26 for the information I consider relevant to this argument, which is Tolkien’s intellectual environment.