What is it about dragons? They’re so iconic of fantasy, and have been the inspiration for stories for generations. Anne Leonard has some really interesting dragons in her new book Moth and Spark, and we here at Lytherus wanted to hear about why dragons spoke to her so much. So, without further ado, here’s Anne’s guest post. Enjoy!
What Makes Dragons Interesting
Kind of obviously, the big lure about dragons is that they both fly and breathe fire. Flying is something that people want to do. I think it’s pretty primal. It seems liberating to be able to move in three dimensions, plus it gives you the opportunity to see – almost the opposite experience of hiding in a cave from things that might eat you. Fire is similarly primal – it brings heat, and light, and safety, but at the same time it can be wildly destructive. So it’s not very surprising that human imagination would conceive of a creature with both flight and flame, nor that the creature would lodge itself so firmly in stories. The dragon seems all-powerful in a way that other mythical beasts don’t, because it controls air and fire.
The dragon also has significance as a hoarder of treasure and a destroyer of cities. It’s a great metaphor; one of my favorite scenes in fantasy literature is in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when Eustace gets transformed into a dragon because he was having dragonish thoughts. It works as a metaphor because the dragonish thoughts of greed and revenge and the lust for power are so human. I think the dragon that embodies the worst traits of human beings is probably essential to the human psyche; stories of dragon slaying give hope.
But dragons that are really humans with scales and claws are not as intriguing to me as dragons that are different from humans, so my dragons don’t horde treasure. I like observing animals, and I think that part of it is because animal consciousness is so unknown to me. Mostly I anthropomorphize my cats, but once in a while I get a glimpse of them doing something that is purely animal and instinctive, and I become very aware that these creatures, these beasts, are not like me at all. It’s always a rather humbling experience, because I realize how much mystery there is about life. Dragons, because they are mythical, distant, imaginary, encapsulate the unknown really well.
When I started creating my dragons, I needed to find a way to make them strange, and I thought about their nature as reptiles. A lot of people are freaked out by snakes. I, on the other hand, like them. I don’t want to encounter any cobras or cottonmouths or large anacondas in the wild, but a five foot long ball python is a really amazing creature to hold. The skin doesn’t feel rough at all – it’s almost silky. And watching and feeling the snake’s muscles moving is fascinating. But it’s also nothing like petting a furry mammal. So when I was writing about dragons, I remembered holding snakes and tried to apply those physical sensations to touching the dragons.
Communication was another issue. Snakes are a lot more alien to us than cats are. When my cat rubs me, purring, I am almost 100% sure he’s hungry. I’ve never been able to fathom a reptile’s desires or motives or emotions. I tried to impart that sense of strangeness to interactions with dragons. The plot required the dragons to be able to communicate effectively with humans, but if they could actually talk, some of their alien nature was lost. I settled on a language of images, communicated telepathically. There are times in the book when the dragons’ language is expressed in words, but that’s essentially because the characters’ minds are translating the images into words. (The dragons also have sounds which they use when talking to each other.) Speech itself takes place on a deep, non-verbal level. On the one hand, the dragons are animal-like; on the other, their thoughts are too complex for humans to understand. Even though my dragons are able to communicate with people, there is something inherently unknowable about them.
One final aspect of dragon-creation that I considered was magic. Going back to The Hobbit, one sees that there is not much magic in the book (aside from the Ring); the fantasy lies mostly in the creatures of Middle-earth, not in Gandalf doing his wizard-thing. Smaug is mortal and is killed with an arrow. I could have made my dragons purely non-magical beasts, like Smaug, but I wanted to add another layer of mysteriousness, so I gave them their own world, a realm beyond human perception, where time and space don’t function as they do in our earthly experience. There are only hints of this in Moth and Spark, partly because this was one of the places where I ran into my own limitations as an author (how does one describe the indescribable?), but it’s underneath. The dragons you see aren’t the dragons there are.
I want to end with a short quotation from the book: “It did not know compassion, nor did it know evil or selfishness. It had neither loyalty nor blame. She stood in its shadow and watched the sparks flicker along its body. It was terrifying and beautiful, and she could speak to it.” For me it’s this, the terror and the beauty side by side that makes dragons compelling creatures of myth and story. They’re an intersection point between human experience and human imagination. Through their strangeness, they show us what it is to be powerful, and they remind us what it is to be human.
Thanks Anne! Want to know more? Check out Anne’s website at www.anneleonardbooks.com, and follow her on twitter @anneleonardauth. Plus, don’t forget to check out the rest of our Anne Leonard Feature Author Week, including entering for your chance to win a copy of Moth and Spark.