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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Character in Dragons

I have always loved dragons. 

And I have always loved dinosaurs.  

But dragons are not dinosaurs.

While I love studying the creatures of this world for clues on how to make a fantastic creature feel like they could exist in it, I think that by making dinosaurs and dragons altogether interchangeable in our work, we are giving up on all the possibilities which each contains individually and for which they have been historically used in fantasy.

Tolkien makes a compelling case for a distinction between dragons and dinosaurs in his essay, On Faerie Stories:

I was introduced to zoology and palaeontology (“for children’') quite as early as to Faerie. I saw pictures of living beasts and of true (so I was told) prehistoric animals. I liked the “prehistoric” animals best: they had at least lived long ago, and hypothesis (based on somewhat slender evidence) cannot avoid a gleam of fantasy. But I did not like being told that these creatures were “dragons.” I can still re-feel the irritation that I felt in childhood at assertions of instructive relatives (or their gift-books) such as these: “snowflakes are fairy jewels,” or “are more beautiful than fairy jewels”; “the marvels of the ocean depths are more wonderful than fairyland.” 
Children expect the differences they feel but cannot analyse to be explained by their elders, or at least recognized, not to be ignored or denied. I was keenly alive to the beauty of “Real things,” but it seemed to me quibbling to confuse this with the wonder of “Other things.” I was eager to study Nature, actually more eager than I was to read most fairy- stories; but I did not want to be quibbled into Science and cheated out of Faerie by people who seemed to assume that by some kind of original sin I should prefer fairy-tales, but according to some kind of new religion I ought to be induced to like science. Nature is no doubt a life-study, or a study for eternity (for those so gifted); but there is a part of man which is not “Nature,” and which therefore is not obliged to study it, and is, in fact, wholly unsatisfied by it.

-J.R.R Tolkien from On Faerie Stories

In Tolkien's own Smaug, the dragon offers more than just a physical threat of violence, he offers a personification of greed (and a distinctly aristocratic greed, which refuses to share or recirculate wealth, that only consumes and consumes and keeps it in dark halls, leading to the ruin of the nation.)  

In John Gardner's Grendel, the Dragon is even more a philosophical threat over a physical one. The dragon reveals a set of philosophical beliefs to Grendel, and it is these that Grendel wrestles with, and is ultimately overcome by. This leads him to choose to become, and even embrace his position as, the villain in the Shaper's story. The dragon in Grendel personifies a deeply nihilistic view of the world: his final arguments about the purpose of life being that all human values are baseless and that everything we do will be made irrelevant. His best advice to Grendel is to "seek out gold and sit on it."  As nothing really matters anyway.  
Gardner uses the imagery and the archetype of the dragon to convey how coldly-calcuating, threatening and dangerous the idea is, and this is belief is ultimately played out through Grendel's own final meeting with Beowulf.

This type of symbolism in dragons offers something far more than a struggle of man vs. nature. It does what fantasy does best, it offers physical examples of man's internal struggles. And offers us a wealth of other conflicts, both external and internal.  

If we agree that dragons in fantasy should be something more than just animals, that they have an intelligence equal to or greater than humans, then we should seek to imbue them with an equal amount of human personality. 

So consider your dragons.  What is really inside them and how can you show it on the outside?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Let's Draw Real-Life Dragons

Drawing from life is hard. 
And drawing from life that insists on being alive and wandering off or slithering away is even harder. 

But it can be highly rewarding as well. There is a wealth of information that you glean from direct observation that you just can't get any other way. Like that someone taught that miniature monkey over there how to make obscene gestures and he has been making them at me for the past ten minutes.
But also more useful things like how reptiles breath, how they interact with one another, how they act when they are startled, or how they sit with jaws open to cool off (and not in the hopes that I will carelessly step there.)

These drawings were done at a reserve called Alligator Adventure, in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. This reserve is home to one of the largest crocodiles in the world, "Utan." (pictured above)
Utan is 20 feet long and weighs 1 ton.  He is in his own spacious exhibit, because he ate everything else.

He is a genuine monster, a horror from another age. In other places in the world his kind allegedly still kill more humans than any other predatory animal on the planet.

I doubt this chicken wire would really do much if he really decided he wanted to eat me, it looks like it's a screen door he might accidentally trip through on his way to the loo. But as you can see, I'm not worried at all. This is because I am wearing my sweet camo hat, which renders me pretty much invisible to him.

Here we got the head done, and then Utan decided he'd like a swim.  This was inconvenient, but you don't argue with 20 foot crocodiles.

So I moved on to the smaller lizards:

These juvenile alligators, like the juveniles of other species, could not sit still for more than 30 seconds. Drawing them proved fruitless.

Here we were able to catch a tail, and that is all.

Still there were fascinating tidbits that now get filed away for future projects on enormous, man-eating reptiles. How the water moves around them as they submerge is particularly fascinating.  

This alligator didn't like the way I was looking at him. That, or he didn't like my sweet camo hat. Either way, he eventually had enough and made a break for it.  But not before I snapped a photo which I would later use to cheat and fill in all the missing details.  Justin: 1, Alligator: 0

This guy knew that I knew that he knew that I knew that he was there and that he was NOT a log. I watched him slide into the water for crying out loud.  But that didn't stop him from slowly drifting up to the edge and pretending to be a log.  We all knew the game, and he knew that sooner or later, I would have to cross the water to get back to my car. And in my haste I'd forget that he wasn't a log.  And he'd even that score up a little.

But I knew a little secret called, "using the bridge."
Final Score: Justin: 2, alligator: 0