Or A Few Existential Thoughts On Creatures That Don’t Exist (and Something About Vampires Too)
Last October, I was asked if I would write a foreword for a book on… dragons. Having just had Forging Dragons publish at about the same time, they were still very fresh in my mind. Small world. Full of dragons.
JUST WHAT IS IT ABOUT DRAGONS?
They seem to be everywhere, their ubiquity matched only by their variety. No other creature speads such colossal wings or drags its scaly belly across the mythical lands of so many cultures over the aeons. They span the spectrum from devilry to divinity, from blackest evil to boundless good. They come in all configurations, they speak, or they make our minds reel with the power of their thoughts, they squat athwart hoards of treasure untold. They are story. They are dragons.
But just what is it about dragons ?
Attempts to link the existence of dragons to some proto-memory embedded in the infancy of humanity’s genes seems, to me at least, a vain and somewhat pointless exercise in paleonotogical euhemerism. When humans became to wonder what came before, they imagined dragons there.
Once upon a time, before time began, there were dragons, ur-creatures of turmoil and chaos, roiling, writhing, infinite. Against them battle the first heroes; Marduk slays Tiamat, and from her burst entrails, creates the world. But the dragon is not dead. Apep heaves his bulk after Ra as he journeys through the Underworld, renouncing only when the rays of the rising sun burn his flesh, to retire and lurk in wait for the dusk and pursue the sun once again.
If dragons were there at the beginning, they will be there at the End. Jörmungandr will yawn wide his mighty jaws, releasing his tail, breaking the circle, breaking the world. Thor will slay him, only to die in the serpent’s poison spew. Nidhoggr will gnaw so frantically at the roots of the world-ash Yggdrasil that it will fall, bringing down the sky-vault and heralding the end of the gods.
Not all dragons are forbidding or evil; oriental dragons are benign. The Naga, descendants of nine-headed cobra Ananta accompanied the Indo-European tongues as they spread across Europe and Asia. Chinese dragons are multitude, a constellated hierarchy from imperial magnificence to the size of silkworms. They symbolize fertility and the dawn, and have great affection for rivers.
Rivers too are loved by wyverns and by the belle Melusina, who must leave her lover each Saturday to bathe alone. Despite his promises, he spies on her. It will not end well. The story of Undine is even grimmer, with the second kiss that ends in death. Somehow, it’s hardly a surprise. Her cousin the Banshee haunts the swamps and fens of Eire, luring hapless men to the water’s edge and beyond. Her salt-water cousins, the mermaids, are as likely to ferry drowning sailors ashore as to take them deep, where they bare pointed teeth. Her pedigree is royal and ancient; Dagon was already a god in Sumer. These are beings not to be met on anything other than their own terms.
The serpent is in Eden, and he knows the taste of apples. Mankind falls from grace, entwined in the coils of a dragon’s wiles. Leviathan sinks, cowed but not defeated, beneath the waves of the Flood. Well, if God spurns him, the Devil will have him, and the dragon becomes his dire ally, evil coldsnake of Apocrypha’s richest myths, bane of Christian knight, consort of the Old Ones that flee before the Irish missionaries. When Patrick drove the snakes from Ireland, they were likely swimming in the wakes of dragons (though Lig-na-baste would linger until tricked into submission by Saint Murrough). When Charlemagne felled Irminsul, the dragon likely heard it from where he lurked beneath the dark eaves of the Alemannen woods. The boy Merlin found the white and red wyrms whose struggles brought down the foundations of Vortigerns’s castle at Dinas Emrys and later crowned Uther “chief-dragon”.
The dragon sided with the Titans against the Dodekatheon; Hercules hacked manfully at Ladon until the hydra finally stopped sprouting heads and expired. A dragon slumbers beneath the apple tree from whose boughs hangs the Golden Fleece. Scylla gratefully devours the ships wrecked by Charybdis, as Cetus would have swallowed Andromeda, had not Perseus captured Pegasus in time to race to her aid. Beowulf bravely goes to his doom against the dragon, knowing he goes to a fight he can only win in death. Fafnir the giant is so consumed by his greed for treasure that he takes on the shape of a dragon. Siegfried slays Fafnir, and in licking from his hand a drop of the creature’s blood, can understand the language of birds. (There is magic in the blood of dragons, as Aesculapius might testify.) Vlad Drakul is the son of a dragon.
Saint George acquires a dragon, a charger and bright armour en route from his obscure 3rd-century martyrdom in Cappadocia to the splendid flowering of medieval chivalry, in company of other saints who battle or overcome dragons – Michael, Margaret, Victor and Armentaire to name but a few – bequeathing us an artistic legacy of painting and sculpture unparalleled. Dragons appear in stone, wood and metal, spitting water from cathedrals and fountains, or crouch beneath darkened layers of varnish in countless canvases.
Nor does the Renaissance dismiss dragons. Like unicorns, they haunt the marches of the not-yet-known, the high ridges, the foreign shores. Sea serpents abound in mariner’s tales, and in the early 1700’s Swiss polymath Johann Scheuchzer adorned his Itinera per Helvetiae alpinas regiones with detailed copperplates of diverse dragons sighted in the Alps.
When the CERN finally makes molecules collide to give us the image of the beginning of the universe, I am confident a dragon will appear on the computer screens. After all, what is the Hadron collisioner but a smaller version of the wyrm Ouroboros, the world-encompasser, the circle-snake with his tail held in his jaws ?
Beyond science, dragons flex their wings in science-fiction with such force presence they bend space-time to accomodate them whole. Few other creatues can make this quantum leap with such arrogance and poise.
But perhaps nowhere more than in modern fantasy do we encounter such a diversity of dragons. Smaug is both the last descendant of Fafnir and Beowulf’s bane and the father of dragons of modern fiction. His scaled and pinioned peers are legion. Icefyre, Saphira, Chrysophylax Dives, Temeraire, Errol Goodbody of Flynn and many more are witness that dragons are far from an endangered species.
Artists have been fascinated with dragons for millenia, and modern fantasy illustrators are not immune to their baleful charms. They exercise a wicked charm and a perilous glamour, offering the best of both worlds – combining in one scaly silhouette the challenges of visual representation with evident depth of meaning. (Dragons aren’t just another pretty face, they have personalities too.) They resist easy anthropomorhizing, thus redefining the visual terms of their iconography. They are hard to fit on a page, the energy of their coiled bodies and the breadth of their wings are difficult elements to master. Dragons are irresistable.
Years of drawing and painting them have led me no nearer to truly defining dragons. Somewhere in their diversity resides an archetype escapes me yet. Nor can I impose upon them a recognizable style of dragon, something that the enviable likes of Ciruelo Cabral, Michael Whelan or Wayne Anderson so excel at, and in such different fashions. I leaf through books of dragons painted by Rackham, Vasnetzov, Doré, Blake or Von Stuck. I have a few dozen serious non-fiction books on dragon myth, all avidly read and dog-eared, so I must be closing in. The trail is clear, but they remain elusive. Somewhere, some day, in a painting or a drawing, I know I have a rendez-vous with the Dragon.
All in all, « sic hvnt draconis » has never been more apt an expression.
Simply, it no longer applies to those uncharted lands on « Africk maps » that cartographers once decorated with dragons, but to those places within our very selves we can but ill explore, the interior kingdoms of our fears and aspirations, our victories and defeats. That is where we are doomed and charmed to wander, and to face we know not what. Only one thing is certain : we will meet dragons there.
John Howe, October 2008
Inspiration, Impact & Technique in Fantasy Art
Flame Tree Publishing
NOT JUST ANOTHER VAMPIRE BOOK
A few months ago, I received a book. In a box of books; I have a friend who works in book distribution, and she periodically boxes up a selection of books and posts them to me. (It’s Christmas half a dozen times a year.) And, amongst those books was a copy of The Strain, by a certain Guillermo del Toro. How the devil does he find the time, I thought, with his insanely manic schedule, to write a book? (Admittedly, he had help in the person of mystery writer Chuck Hogan, but stiill…)
I might have known better. A year ago in April, my editor was casting about for famous folks to do a foreword for Forging Dragons, she had the audacity to suggest Guillermo dl Toro. (Not that she suggested she make contact, she happily left the footwork up to me.) So track him down I did, and much to my delight, he said yes, he would be happy to pen a few words. Shortly after that, in May last year: lunch with Guillermo del Toro in London. First time Alan Lee and I had actually met him, and were still growing accustomed to his… ummm… colourful language. “You guys are cool (insert beep here) man!” and I was thinking I am doomed, I have asked this guy to do a foreword, and it will be full of four-letter words and my editor will never publish another book of mine and I’ll have to change my name and get plastic surgery and move to Irkutsk or Hobart. Or something.
I might have known better. Guillermo wrote a fabulous foreword, erudite, malicious, concise, just perfect. I was enchanted. (And my editor agreed to do another book too…)
The Strain is not just another vampire book. It’s one of those books that re-invents the genre so cleverly you wonder why no one has done it before. (But then, good ideas always seem so self-evident, at least in retrospect.) It’s a fantastic book, one I picked up and pretty much only put down when I had finished reading it.
I don’t want to spoil the surprises, so I’ll spoil just one. When a passenger flight from Berlin lands in New York and suddenly goes silent and dead on the runway, it is a scene straight out of Nosferatu, when the ghost ship drifts up to the quay. It’s eerie and frightening, because there is nothing, just the metal corpse of the 777’s fuselage glowing in the airport lamps. Everyone on board appears to be dead. Then, of course, it gets worse. A lot worse. A whole lot worse.
For a debut novel, it’s pretty impressive. The characters are well fleshed-out (a delectable characteristic much appreciated by vampires) and the book is rife with all the vampire lore you could want, and much more. No seductive pale Gothic vampire folk in this novel, his vampires are horrid monstrous deadly things that would make you shut your eyes in a theatre.
I was going to mention the fact that the scientific, esoteric and generally tech bits, which so many writers feel obligated to either bedazzle us with or forcibly ram down our throats to the point of boredom, exasperation or indigestion – probably because the have paid their teams of researchers wa-a-ay too much money – are here handled effortlessly, but I won’t. It wouldn’t be fair to all those other best-selling yet profoundly irritating (at least to anyone who finished high school) and otherwise epideictic authors whose names are three times the size of the title on a cover. Suffice it to say that you take on mentions of adenine, uracil, guanine or cytosine and the like without thinking about it, and besides, it’s mostly in the plausibly impossible realm of strigoi epidemiology, hardly something you need worry about catching when there’s a flu going around.
Along with reinventing vampire biology, del Toro also reinvents vampire mythology, and the immortals themselves, the ur-wampyres whose internecine spat (you can get really bored and and concoct some pretty ambitious and radical agendas over millennia) is about to upset their age-old entente cordiale in a way that will make global warming look like a summer vacation, are a suitably daunting and exclusive coterie of über-oupires you do not want to get anywhere near. These regal Upir’ Likhyi make Lestat look like an upstart.
But, best of all, del Toro writes in pictures. Few authors share that talent, most don’t, or work so hard at it as to throttle all imagination. Pictures just jump off the pages (generally straight for your throat). The book delivers such powerful imagery that it seems inevitable it wind up on the big screen at some point, with H.R. Giger or Wayne Barlowe doing creepy crawly nightmare designs of the kind that make you squirm in your seat.
And, last but not least, it’s tome one of a trilogy, so it’s going to get three times better (or worse, for the protagnists involved, or at least for the ones who survive).
Guillermo del Toro is the best thing that has happened to vampires since Vlad Drakhoul and Bram Stoker.
Guillermo is also embarking on a trans-continental book signing odyssey.
Here are the dates:
Monday, June 1, 2009 11:59 pm
7522 Sunset Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA
Tuesday, June 02, 2009 7:00 PM
Westwood – LA – Borders
1360 Westwood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90024
Wednesday, June 3, 11:59 pm
BARNES & NOBLE
267 7th Avenue
*With co-author Chuck Hogan
Thursday, June 04, 2009 7:00 PM
BARNES & NOBLE/Union Square
33 E 17th ST New York, NY 10003
*With co-author Chuck Hogan
Friday, June 5, 2009 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
FANGORIA’s Weekend of Horrors
Jacob K. Javits Convention Center
655 West 34th Street
New York, NY
*With co-author Chuck Hogan
Saturday 6, June, 1:00PM – 2:00PM
Forbidden Planet London Megastore,
179 Shaftesbury Avenue, London, WC2H 8JR
*Chuck Hogan only
Tuesday, June 16 7:00 PM
279 Harvard St.
Brookline MA 02446
For more information, you can always go to the official website