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The good, the bad and the draconian: A Landscape With Dragons by Michael O'Brien

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I'm starting this topic for a specific reason: I want to know if anyone, particularly literary Catholics hereabouts, are aware of any good, in-depth critiques of this book. 

I also have a secondary reason relating to dragons as they have been portrayed specifically in the literature of Western Christendom. 

A Landscape With Dragons is a conservative Catholic examination of good and evil and imagery in children's literature and entertainment. O'Brien's basic thesis is that in contemporary post-Christian culture images and themes of good and evil are often highly muddled, compromised by pagan or Gnostic impulses. I wouldn't disagree with this basic premise, but I disagree with many of the particular applications he makes. 

Among other things, O'Brien is concerned with good or friendly portrayals of dragons and other monsters, which he sees as a symptom of a Jungian impulse to embrace or befriend our dark side, to tame evil and turn it into good. 

He is aware of good or mixed portrayals of dragons in Eastern and classical mythology, but chalks that up to blurring of lines between good and evil in dualistic cultures. In Western Christendom, informed by the New Testament, he says, the dragon received its definitive imaginative form as an embodiment of evil, a stealer and hoarder of treasure, a killer of innocents, etc. 

I've critiqued O'Brien's thesis in the past, but I'd like to write more about this. First, though, I'd like to know what if anything has been written. I am aware of some critiques of O'Brien, many of which focus on his anti-Harry-Potter writings, but I don't know of any critiques specifically of A Landscape With Dragons or of this argument that dragons ought to be images of evil. 

Beyond the question of specific critiques of O'Brien, I'm obviously interested in cases in the literature of Western Christendom that complicate O'Brien's narrative. The draconian associations of Wales and King Arthur Pendragon are obviously one example. Anything else come to mind? 

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4 hours ago, SDG said:

He is aware of good or mixed portrayals of dragons in Eastern and classical mythology, but chalks that up to blurring of lines between good and evil in dualistic cultures. In Western Christendom, informed by the New Testament, he says, the dragon received its definitive imaginative form as an embodiment of evil, a stealer and hoarder of treasure, a killer of innocents, etc. 

First, ugh. Way to dismiss a whole hemisphere's literary heritage. Second, O'Brien reminds me (ironically?) of Frank Chin, who in his introductory essay to The Big Aiiieee argues (against Maxine Hong Kingston) that myths are, by their nature, fixed and immovable (Thus, when MHK combines the story of Mulan with another mythic character, Chin says she's selling out to white culture and bastardizing Asian storytelling).

Third--I've not read the book, but this sounds like a rather doctrinaire application of Northrop Frye's archetypal criticism, along the lines of people insisting that Campbell's Hero's Journey is always and forever the way stories get told.

Quote

Beyond the question of specific critiques of O'Brien, I'm obviously interested in cases in the literature of Western Christendom that complicate O'Brien's narrative. The draconian associations of Wales and King Arthur Pendragon are obviously one example. Anything else come to mind? 

The Bible itself associates Leviathan with primal chaos and disorder, but its appearance in the Book of Job is quite a bit more complicated than that. I'd say--but I'm no scholar in the area--that the dragon in Beowulf, while still a kind of primal evil, operates on a more complex level as well.

Here's a Draconika entry on Western dragons.

Again, I've not read the book, but based on your summary here I'd be inclined to question the very idea that archetypal symbols can only ever mean one thing. It's reductive and goes against everything we know about the way stories develop (to take a modern example: detective stories, which mutated a whole lot from Bel and the Dragon through Sam Spade and beyond). [I also find the idea that there was ever a time when the Christian Imagination wasn't shot through with elements of paganism fairly laughable, but that's a whole 'nother kettle of fish]

EDIT: Here's a critique I just found, but I'm sure you've already seen it.

EDIT EDIT: Not a literary Catholic--more anarco-Protestant--so all the above with a grain of salt.

EDITx3: Threads:

Moral Awakenings of Monsters

Shrek 2, where something of this sort comes up.

I could have sworn we had a thread called something like "Humanizing the Grotesque," but I can't find it now.

Edited by NBooth

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Yes, NBooth, I found that critique. It does have some helpful stuff, much of it mirroring what I've already written myself. 

Anyone else? 

Any other non-evil dragons in historic Western literature or art (i.e., pre-20th century, certainly, the older the better) anyone knows of? 

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First, here's a reasonably good collection of classical/medieval sources for dragons associated with evil/the devil. Note that medieval Christian commentators build the "evil" allegorical interpretation on classical descriptions of dragons.

This collection might be helpful, but from the review, it sounds like it might be a linguistic challenge, but the essay by editor Honegger is worthwhile: Good Dragons Are Rare: An Inquiry into Literary Dragons East and West. Honegger's earliest examples of non-evil Western dragons are a 12th century fable by Marie de France (just in a footnote), "The Dragon and the Peasant" and Kenneth Graeme's The Reluctant Dragon (1898), which he says is probably the origin of most misunderstood monsters that follow.

 

Edited by BethR

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Interestingly enough, while I was in China last week I visited a museum in Wuhan with a graduate student at HUST who told me that there's some debate, lately, about whether Chinese dragons should even be called dragons; some scholars are suggesting that the proper name for them is simply the Chinese name, long ( ) [and that, implicitly, calling them dragons is a Western misreading of Chinese mythology]

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