Are there Canadian Dragons?

Are there Canadian dragons? And if there are, what are they like? Canada is far too young a country to have ever had a population that naively believed in dragons of the European variety. By the time Europeans settled the land, dragons were known to be myths, creatures of the imagination. Besides, leathery wings and smoking nostrils seem quite out of their element in moose and beaver territory. Once upon a time, Canada may have been home to dinosaurs and, upon the arrival of the first Americans across the Bering Strait, the megafauna, such as woolly mammoths, but ultimately the cold seasons are far too adverse to the breeding of reptiles–of any species, real or imagined.

There are monsters and demons particular to Canada, found in First Nations and early settler folklore. Nightmares such as the windigo, who was said to devour travelers who strayed too far into the bush. But dragons belong to another ecology than the vast boreal forests of the Canadian North, which so fits the particular flavour of horror associated with the windigo.

Modern times have only further driven away the dragons, as cities and other human habitations have tamed the wilderness to such an extent that even the windigo has become obsolete. Let alone the flying lizards of legend. Today a Google search for ‘Canadian dragon’ gives you pictures of dragon boats, roller-coasters, and Kevin O’Leary.

All this is not to say, however, that dragons have never been imagined in Canada. Only to say that the imagining of dragons encounters resistance. While dragons appear in the novels of many Canadian fantasy authors–I’m thinking of the dragon in The Darkest Road by Guy Gavriel Kay especially–two Canadian poets have drawn portraits of dragons: Michael Ondaatje in The Dainty Monsters and Gwendolyn MacEwen in The Shadow-Maker.

Michael Ondaatje
Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje’s most famous for writing The English Patient, but before he hit mainstream success, he was an experimental novelist and poet. His later poetry, in Secular Love, becomes increasingly autobiographical and confessional, but his first book of poems is The Dainty Monsters, a bestiary of poems published and printed by Coach House Press.

In “Dragon,” Ondaatje draws the fantastic beast as the quintessential ‘dainty monster.’ “I have been seeing dragons again,” claims its speaker, implying that he might be hallucinating, that he shouldn’t be seeing them, but he is. The initial image is almost a code that says ‘This is how dragons are in Canada’: while canoeing in a lake the speaker sees a dragon “hunched over a beaver dam.” Far from the fire-breathing terror of villages and castles, this dragon “clutched a body like a badly held cocktail.” This is a dragon who is drunk and should go home.

Dragons are usually challenged by knights in shining armour who try to rescue princesses from their dens. But Ondaatje’s dainty dragon gets “tangled in our badminton net.” The only thing left of this dragon’s fiery breath, his greatest weapon, is “an extinct burning inside” as the speaker’s four badminton buddies and their “excited spaniel surrounded him.” This is a dragon entirely emasculated and surrounded by the artificial world that humans have built up around themselves. Rather than ravaging humanity, the dragon, representing the unknown dangers of nature, has now, in a world where nature is no longer the Other but tamed, become thing about as harmful as, say, a deer.

In Rat Jelly‘s poem “The Ceremony: A Dragon, a Hero, and a Lady, by Uccello,” Ondaatje returns to the dragon myth from the angle of an ekphrasis on the painting of Saint George and the Dragon by Uccello. His poem evokes the dynamism of the famous painting, which depicts Saint George, the Patron Saint of England, lancing a dragon through the eye. The landscape of the painting is somewhere between an artificial courtyard and a natural setting by a cave.

uccello

“A boy-knight shafts the dragon’s eye / –the animal with a  spine of claws” writes Ondaatje. “The horse’s legs are bent like lightening. / The boy is perfect in his angle.” The painting is in movement but captures the perfect moment of the dragon’s death, an arrangement artificially staged like a ceremony. This poem reflects Ondaatje’s interest in the dialectic between order and the natural world that characterizes his Henri Rousseau poems, such as “Henry Rousseau and Friends,” and, I believe, anticipates his interest in the movement and caught motion, which becomes a principle aesthetic concern in “‘The gate in his head.'”

Gwendolyn MacEwen
Gwendolyn MacEwen

Gwendolyn MacEwen’s Canadian dragon is not especially Canadian, but rather appears at first to take after the European kind like Ondaatje’s second dragon poem. But on second thought, her dragon might be Near Eastern–not Chinese, but Mesopotamian. Fascinated by all things exotic, MacEwen’s interest was in Tiamat, the Babylonian goddess of chaos who took the form of a dragon and whose body, after her death at the hands of Marduk, was used to create the heaven and earth. Although this myth doesn’t appear per se in her poem “The Taming of the Dragon” in The Shadow-Maker, the theme of chaos becoming order remains a primary concern.

MacEwen’s dragon has become dainty. “Once the monster’s jaws unfolded fire / but now how harmless are his claws / and all his teeth are capped with gold.”  He’s even become a vegetarian: “between his teeth / are bits of flowers, for he’s sworn off flesh; he seems so glad and foolish.” Rather than positioning the dragon in modern-day Canadian spaces like Ondaatje does, MacEwen places him in the mental space of myth itself. The speaker, whom one can read as a creative poet-figure, mourns the loss of the dragon not because it is a noble creature, but because she mourns “how I used to stand / stricken white in his dreadful breath.” Her speaker needs a relationship with death in order to attain purity. White is the colour of purity and the albedo, the stage of purification in the alchemical process. Dragon’s breath, which is fire, is the agent by which she can achieve the albedo. But now that chaos has been tamed, she has lost the danger that provides the impetus to creativity.

The tamed dragon wears a wreath around his neck and “seems so glad and foolish” now that he has been rewarded with what could be laurels–the traditional symbol for poetic acclaim. MacEwen’s dragon shows how creativity, which thrives on danger and looming death, dies when it is tamed with praise and recognition.

Ondaatje and MacEwen adopt an attitude towards the dragon as an extinct animal, both finding within the monster a symbol  for how the chaos and danger of previous medieval worlds have become order and tameness in our modernity. Canada is an inhospitable land for dragons, according to these poets, partly because it is and only has been modern. Differing from mainstream urban fantasy authors who find no trouble in writing dragons into the modern world, these poets reflect on why it is so difficult and jarring to imagine such monsters invading our comfortable, dainty lives. Yet imagine dragons they do.

What is gained by even trying to imagine such a connection to a mythic past in our seemingly unmythical and unhistorical world, which resists dragons so totally? Is it nostalgia? A desire to live among symbols? This is one of the great questions mythic writing and fantasy ask.

In “A Toronto Home for Birds and Manticores” Ondaatje’s speaker briefly expresses a desire for some kind of connection to myth–that a mythic past might emerge as a result of an archaeology not of dirt but of snow: “When snows have melted / how dull to find just grass and dog shit. / Why not the polemic bones of centaurs.” The question of “Why not?” is what Ondaatje asks himself in “Dragon,” but all he finds is an answer to the ‘not.’ MacEwen attempts to mythologize the city of Toronto in her Noman books, but as the title suggests, living a mythic reality in Canada is an alienating struggle.

MacEwen in “The Thin Garden” suggests that these great myths cannot be found in Canada, but must be found outside: “No traveller comes here from innocence / but for that myth the snow cannot provide, / and all our histories lie outside.” For MacEwen, this ‘outside’ was Egypt and Mesopotamia. She suggests what many fantasy authors–even ones willing to let dragons live in the modern day–have found to be true in Canada: the myths can only be imported from elsewhere–such as from the Middle East, or, I add, England and Europe–for want of an established native mythology. Of course, there are Native American myths aplenty, but for European-descended writers, there are those who claim that using First Nations myths is an act of cultural appropriation, a discouraging quandary.

In conclusion, we can say that there are Canadian dragons, but, in the imaginations of the poets examined in this post, once those dragons fly across the pond, they live within our climate of long winter seasons in a state of severe, disabling culture shock.

Photo Credit:

Uccello: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Saint_George_and_the_Dragon_by_Paolo_Uccello_%28London%29_01.jpg

 

 

His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik

HMDWhat if dragons and their riders formed their own corps of soldiers adjacent to the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars? You get Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, the first novel of which, His Majesty’s Dragon, I have just finished reading on my Kobo.

William Laurence, a Royal Navy captain engaged in the Napoleonic Wars, captures a French ship bearing unusual cargo: a dragon’s egg. When it hatches, the creature accepts Laurence as his master, changing the captain’s life forever. Laurence names the dragon Temeraire, thinking of the name of a British ship. ‘Temeraire’ means ‘bold,’ ‘reckless,’ ‘dauntless,’ and is the sort of name a navy man without experience in the Aerial Corps would bestow.

Here you see the real originality of Novik’s world: Temeraire is named after a ship, hinting that dragons take the place of ships in this alternate nineteenth-century universe. Lawrence does not become the sole, independent rider of a dragon but the captain of a dragonback crew. Temeraire truly becomes one of His Majesty’s dragons, flying alongside His Majesty’s ships, which are trying to prevent the transports for Napoleon’s army from crossing the Channel.

Laurence initially loathes the idea of becoming a member of the Aerial Corps. However, he sees that he has no choice but to join, given his profound sense of duty. It means he must forsake his promising Navy career. He will also never be able to enjoy social functions, since those in the Corps live in isolation due to the nature of their duty and are even looked upon as social outcasts. Lawrence must furthermore lose the hand of a woman he has never formally courted.

But as Temeraire grows in size from a hatchling, so does Laurence’s bond with him. Soon he learns to favour the company of his dragon over that of human society. He learns to accept his lot as Corps captain.

Mix Master and Commander with Eragon and you might think you have a good idea of Novik’s concept for this historical fantasy world. But the truth is more complicated than that; dragons are an analogue for warships and function alongside the Navy. This element of fantasy shows how similar an exchange of broadsides in a naval engagement is to dragon fire.

The Battle of the Nile
The Battle of the Nile

I was uncertain what to expect wading into His Majesty’s Dragon, but I was pleasantly surprised. The prose style alone is remarkable; Novik uses polite semicolons to render her dialogue and style into the period cadence. Temeraire is about as polite in his speech as dragons come; he is the sort of dragon to whom you could read an Isaac Newton treatise over a cup of earl grey. Temeraire is also special for another reason, an unusual feature of his that makes him feel different from other dragons. But that I leave readers to discover.

The first chapters of His Majesty’s Dragon set off at a roaring start. It was a pleasure to not only learn about the biological aspects of dragons and their military uses, but the social consequences of humans who associate themselves with the creatures. Although the middle sags, when Laurence and Temeraire must train for war and get to know about life in the Corps, it picks up at the end and introduces the sequel around a promising premise. I was personally hoping that premise would get addressed in His Majesty’s Dragon, but I suppose I would have to buy Throne of Jade to find how it plays out.

Naomi Novik, author of His Majesty's Dragon
Naomi Novik, author of His Majesty’s Dragon

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Photo Credits:

Battle of the Nile: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Nile

Book Cover: http://breadandink.com/2013/05/12/review-his-majestys-dragon-by-naomi-novik/

Naomi Novik: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naomi_Novik

Venetian Dragon

Today I will share a set of images I drew and painted of a Venetian dragon. This is part of my series on Renaissance dragons in urban settings. I will, as in my post on Florentine Dragon, take you through the process of painting it. I’m still practicing my skill, but that’s how you improve.

Here is the final painting.

Venetian Dragon3

I did this one in a single sitting. I worked very carefully on the bridge, then tried to match the tone in the surrounding stone. I feel as if my colours were off and fairly flat unfortunately. However, my father, who paints with oils, said this one was a step up from the sketches I had drawn before. Nonetheless, I feel my work on this particular dragon is done for now. Later, I might paint a Roman dragon, or perhaps a dragon from San Gimignano, Milan, Genoa, or Naples. After I have my trilogy, my plan is to choose the best dragon, perfect my technique, and paint a massive watercolour of a large scale sheet of watercolour paper I received from my cousin as a gift.

A design like the one above did not happen overnight. Here is what my initial sketch in my notebook looked like. I drew it practically a year ago now.

Venetian Dragon2

That dome is supposed to be from Basilica San Marco, but there is no canal like this nearby. This sketch is purely fantastical, so to make my actual watercolour I visited Venice via Google Earth and found a bridge over a canal that would work for me. The Basilica was not visible over the rooftops, but I had a clear enough view of the bridge. Although my initial sketch of the dragon was generally okay, I perfected the elegance of its snake-like body in the final watercolour.

After sketch, I scanned the actual sketch I used for the watercolour and printed several copies to try different colour schemes. The first was conservative. For the second I tried to make a dramatic dawn shot, but the pencil crayons I used all blended together into a bit of a mess. I need practice with colour, but the only way to rise above that is through practice.

venetian dragon colourVenetian Dragon1

 

 

 

 

 

 

I used the conservative colour scheme, taking a special note to work with the lighting. I envisioned beams of sunlight illuminating the dragon’s face and the man’s face, showing their bond. Although I colour-coordinated the man’s cloak and the dragon’s colour, I forgot about this dynamic in the final watercolour. Nonetheless, I don’t think the colour came out bad in that regard. The strongest part of this painting was the composition, something I had in Florentine Dragon, although I would have preferred to keep the dragon well below the top of the canvas in that one. I’m proud of Venetian Dragon because the gaze travels in a loop around the bridge, giving you the idea of two different worlds uniting: man and dragon.

For what purpose do they unite? Perhaps because the man is a patrician with investments in the Venetian navy and they must recruit a beast to fight the Turk and reclaim the island of Cyprus, which the republic lost in the sixteenth century. Or maybe the dragon is this nobleman’s pet and water dragons are as common in the canals of this alternate Venice as gondolas. What do you think?

To finish off, I had some fun with a filter on Photoshop. I found this rough, high contrast image gave a  strange, intense emotion to the composition. It is a variation on the halftone filter I used with Florentine Dragon.

Venetian Dragon4

Google

Taniwha Highway: the Phenomenon of Modern Day Dragons

Over a decade ago, you might have stumbled across the following headline in the New Zealand Herald: “Transit and the Taniwha” by James Corbett. It discusses–with that characteristic Kiwi sense of dry humour–how a dragon came to be at the center of a Māori protest over the construction of a highway.

The BBC said, “Construction on a major highway in New Zealand has been halted because a local Māori tribe says it is infringing on the habitat of a mythical swamp-dwelling monster.” The New Zealand Herald claimed that you could “hear the sniggering all the way around the globe.”

While a mythical dragon stopping a construction project makes for a colourful news headline, I believe this story is more than a folksy anecdote. Despite the dryness of the article, the New Zealand Herald did, to it’s credit, include Māori voices.

maoriThe Māori, attempting to recover lost parts of their culture, have turned to defend their traditional beliefs. Since the lore of the Māori claims the existence of a taniwha that resides by the highway, they have sought not only to use the beast as a strategy to reach a compromise with Transport New Zealand, but as a way of asserting Māori identity within a society that has historically attempted to erase their old beliefs.

Being the writer for a blog dedicated to “history and fantasy alchemized,” I found this whole dynamic wildly fascinating. Here the fantastic is perceived to have entered the continuum of history. Modern-day, rational people now have a reason to believe in dragons. And it is anything but fantasy for the sake of escapism, some whimsical trip of the imagination. It is a last resort of a people struggling. If the Māori recant, their identity cracks, fractures.

bulldozerAs the New Zealand Herald explains, the Māori felt ignored when plans for the road were drawn. A desperate fight to argue for a detour around the swamp is the only answer–a conflict reminiscent of Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (That is, if Arthur Dent were the supernatural thousand-year-old guardian of Ngāti Naho, the local tribe.) And though the battle lines seem clear-cut–Māori who genuinely believe in the taniwha, against the Pakeha (non-Maori New Zealanders) who don’t–the lines are actually fuzzier. Many Māori may disbelieve in the taniwha, or have mixed feelings about their heritage and there are surely Pakeha sympathetic to their cause, maybe even some who believe in the supernatural.

This conflict is a prime example of traditional worldviews at conflict with rationalism. This is the same conflict that resides at the heart of the structure of the historical fantasy genre, which pits fantasy with mimesis, or realism. When magic or the supernatural appears within history, we are asked to judge whether a scientific understanding of the universe is a valid way to explain these events, or if they are, in fact, events completely outside the province of science. Perhaps the taniwha’s existence is entirely subjective, but does that make it an illegitimate phenomenon?

taniwha2If you’re like me, you might believe science holds the answers to why supernatural events occur. What we think of as the supernatural might simply have unknown causes.

But this is no simple ghost story for detectives to solve. The highway protest was a social movement. This is not so much a matter for physicists to decide, but for social scientists and anthropologists to analyze–maybe even ecologists. What if the taniwha is partly a metaphor for the Māori’s greater concern for the environmental impact of the highway? Just because the taniwha does not actually exist does not mean we should let its ecosystem die. (For the record, Ngāti Naho won their case.)

A factor of the unknown needs a name, a personification that can lend our complex world a sense of order and familiarity. Such a factor may take on the shape of the archetype of a dragon. A similar phenomenon occurs with the  elves of Iceland, mythical creatures widely believed to exist within our post-Enlightenment, post-Industrial, post-Darwinian, post-modern world. Both the elves and the taniwha live in patches of wilderness that locals wish to preserve from encroaching modernity.

Do Māori  believe in the taniwha the same way Icelanders believe in elves? Given the cultural significance of taniwha, can only Māori truly believe in the taniwha? What about Pakeha? What happens to the nature of belief itself when you can believe in something while in full knowledge of its scientific impossibility? Is this faith? Perhaps. But it may also be something else.

J.R.R. Tolkien in his essay “On Faerie-Stories,” claims to have desired dragons from a young age. Archetypes like dragons often form a part of the oneiric logic of dreams, which are driven by desire. It may be that in waking, we continue to desire dragons. They become a part of us, our identity.

Perhaps we are missing the point if we look at this phenomenon from a strictly scientific perspective. Actually, we’re practically missing the issue. Desiring dragons, and being consciously aware of this desire, makes dragons as real as anything else in the subjective sphere. Desiring dragons, we desire another plane of reality, we long for state of existence beyond our own: contact with the numinous. It proves the mundane does not satisfy us, because the mundane does not hold all truth.

The taniwha represents the desire of the Māori tribe involved in the protest to restore its culture and overcome erasure. That means its members must consciously believe in a supernatural creature because historically, their ancestors did believe in it. This desire for a connection to the past–a desire that makes the taniwha real enough–challenges the rationalistic definition of reality. “There are more layers to reality, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy,” Hamlet might say. To reject the taniwha legends on scientific principles reinforces the “intellectualist” arguments that have served to belittle and colonize the Māori. This pegs them as “other” and robs their culture of its legitimacy.

The highway protest is the perfect showcase for the competition between scientific and ‘traditional’ definitions of reality. One is framed by method and logic, the other by mythology. Both worldviews are legitimate.

Do you believe in the taniwha? Perhaps the better question is whether you desire it. If we begin to ask questions in this manner, we take the discussion off the laboratory table and the corporate desk. Then we can instead bring discussion into the cultural center , where we can have more meaningful discussions about the relationship between the supernatural, identity, and mystery.

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Links for further reading:

Taniwha through Maori eyes: http://news.tangatawhenua.com/archives/14944

What are taniwha?: http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/taniwha/page-1

Monster halts highway construction: http://tvnz.co.nz/content/143607

Taniwha: http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/taniwha

Taniwha in the way of Auckland rail loop: http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/5114496/Taniwha-in-the-way-of-Auckland-rail-loop

Transit and the Taniwha: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=3003401

The Elephant in the Room Horotiu the Taniwha!: http://www.channelmag.co.nz/channel-features-mainmenu-8/webpage-784/the-elephant-in-the-room-horotiu-the-taniwha-

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Photo Credits:

Taniwha: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Taniwha_rock_carving_from_the_side_%28Lake_Taupo%29.jpg

 

 

Florentine Dragon

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"Florentine Dragon" my watercolour painting.  It is a complete product, but I may seek to produce a large painting in time, based on the same concept.
“Florentine Dragon”: my watercolour painting. I imagined that this scene may turn out to be a radical historical fantasy idea, placing dragons in the midst of Renaissance Italy during the age of the Medici (dragons being apt metaphors for that wealthy family, not to mention the Borgia clan). One crazy dream I have is to become a fantasy artist in my own right and design book covers, maybe even Magic cards. It is a complete product, but I may seek to produce a larger painting in time, based on the same concept, and possibly change the lighting to a night scene. (I’m working on my skills here.)
florentine dragon pencil
My first concept sketch. I knew I wanted the dragon to look like he inhabited the Renaissance, so in my composition, I tried to play up the sympathy between the shape of his wings and the Duomo of Florence Cathedral. I was actually thinking of making the arms of the dragon’s wings white, to match the marble ribs of the dome. I knew that my colour scheme would have many reds and oranges, the colours of the roof tiles. I also thought it would make a good night scene. However, there are more daytime shots of Florence and I did not know how the night lighting might have been in the Renaissance.  They didn’t have spotlights, after all. As you can tell, at this stage, I was too lazy to look closely at my architectural model. I wished for my focus to be on the dragon and the cathedral, mostly cropping the city.
Florentine dragon white
I redrew the dragon and roughly put in the shape of Florence Cathedral in this pencil crayon colour experiment. I was aiming for a night scene in this one, which I abandoned at the watercolour stage. I wanted to see if an abstract blurry technique could work for the roofs of the city, but I ended up hating the chaotic mix of colours. I learned that the city was going to be very warm, so I aimed for a cooler backdrop, mixing green mountains with a blue and purple sky. I kept the moon, since you can see it in the daytime and it adds an aura of mystery and romance.
"Florentine Dragon" my watercolour painting.  It is a complete product, but I may seek to produce a large painting in time, based on the same concept.
And then I did the watercolour!
Florentine Dragon3
Now some fun with photoshop. This looks rough, but has harder edges that I find appealing.
Florentine Dragon4
Is this an nineteenth-century daguerreotype of an actual sighting of a dragon around Florence? Maybe my historical fantasy can take place in the 1830s.
This is the same watercolour but more saturated. Do you find the colours more appealing? I'd like to know.
This is the same watercolour but more saturated. Do you find the colours more appealing? I’d love to know.
Florentine Dragon2
Poster edges, one of my favourite filters. Gives it that modern art look. Thanks for the comments!