Dragons Were Real

November 11, 2012.

In my western science-fiction novel, The Ghosts of Watt O’Hugh, my eponymous hero and outlaw is camping out in the middle of Utah when a lizard flies across the night sky. A great lizard with “hundreds of scales on its body, the head of a camel, a demon’s eyes, a cow’s ears, antlers like a deer, the neck of a snake, a clam’s belly, a tiger’s paws and an eagle’s claws.”

“Dragons are real?” Watt O’Hugh asks his traveling companion, a one legged counterrevolutionary named Madame Tang.

“A dragon just flew over our heads!” Tang replies, exasperated.

What, after all, could be better evidence of the existence of dragons than seeing one fly right over your head?

And, as far as I am concerned, what could be better evidence of the past existence of dragons than rare but documented dragon sightings from every society on Earth, societies with no contact at the time of the sightings? Everyone from ancient China and Israel to Europe of the Middle Ages had their dragons.

As Desmond Morris, a dragon expert (but a non-believer) wrote in his foreword to Karl Shuker’s Dragons: A Natural History:

No other imaginary creature has appeared in such a rich variety of forms. It is as though there was once a whole family of different dragon species that really existed before they mysteriously became extinct. Indeed, as recently as the seventeenth century, scholars wrote of dragons as though they were scientific fact, their anatomy and natural history being recorded in painstaking detail. … From now on, the concept of the dragon would have to be tossed into the cauldron of fiction ….

Shuker, for his part, is more open to belief. Are dragons, he wonders, “mysterious living creatures still awaiting formal discovery by science”?

In my novel, Madame Tang gives our hero a history lesson on dragons. Only in the modern era was there even any doubt expressed about the existence of the great, noble lizards, she says.

 “There aren’t many left,” she continued, “and those that still live stay mostly out of sight. In China, by the turn of the Millennium, they were already so rare that whenever a dragon appeared, everyone thought it was auspicious. If a dragon appeared in your home village on the day of your birth, it sealed your future. Sometimes it was really an omen. Sometimes a dragon just wanted to stretch his wings.”

“Real fire-breathing dragons?” [Watt] said, more than a little amazed.

She sat up and leaned back on her elbows.

“How could a dragon breathe fire?” she said. “This is real life, O’Hugh, not a bedtime story. If any reptile breathed fire, it would burn up its lungs and its mouth. Plus, reptiles by definition are cold-blooded – no mechanism for making fire, or even keeping warm. No, here’s how that myth began: In the old days, dragons would often fly in thunderstorms – less likely to get a spear through the chest – and the next morning the crops and forests would be burning. Caused by lightning, but blamed on dragon. The drachenmanner – dragon-slayers – found they could get better pay if they fought a fire-breathing dragon, so they had an incentive to propagate the rumor. More danger to it, the villagers were more worried, more eager to find an outsider to kill their dragons for them. So the traveling drachenmanner moved through Europe, and the stories grew through the years. I say Europe, because in China, we didn’t kill our dragons. But no, dragons never breathed fire. They’re just big flying lizards, dinosauria that didn’t quite die out and that never evolved into birds. Didn’t you ever study Darwin? Everybody knows about this.”

You may have noticed that the name for the dragon slayers is awfully close to my surname, Drachman. I like to think (without a shred of evidence) that my ancestors were dragon slayers. My great grandfather claimed, on the contrary, that we were Greeks who immigrated to Germany, where they named us after the currency, drachma, that we carried in our pockets when we arrived. A less ripping explanation.

One of the audience members at a reading last year asked me, “Were dragons real?” and I said, “Yes.” That brought the whole thing to a thudding close. A friend of mine once said to me, “One day, you’ll be up for something important, like senator, or attorney general. And I’m just going to walk into the room and say, This guy believes in dragons.”

Still, as idiotic as it may be, I’m sticking to my guns. I do not believe in unicorns. I do not believe in fairies or leprechauns. But I will insist that dragons are probably extinct, flying lizards that never breathed fire, the missing link between dinosaurs and birds. A thousand years ago, they were not yet extinct, though exceedingly rare. While dragon sightings were reported, no dragon’s lairs were ever found, so they were probably well hidden. Because of their rarity, and their ability to hide, a dragon’s remains have never been found by modern scientists.

Nevertheless, I fully understand that I am probably completely wrong about this. Wouldn’t be the first time. But I will go on believing in dragons, because it’s nicer to believe than not to believe.

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