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The Dragon Paradox

Apr 16, 2024
The problem started with a book. Actually, I guess it started with a show, “Dragons: A Fantasy Come True,” that I watched, enthralled, one school night. And you could say I became a little obsessed, not just with the


s, but with the


found in the show's title. If


s aren't real, the show asked, how come seemingly every culture, no matter how far apart, has legends of the same creature? …It's a question that ruined my life. Title: The Dragon Paradox “Who are you?” "I am the Dragon Le Choy!" . There is an obvious solution to the dragon


, I, who was seven years old, would have told you. "Dragons are real animals, they can just like, turn invisible or something, and that's why scientists haven't realized." And to be fair to my younger self, the global prevalence of the dragon myth is truly remarkable: it has a fascinating effect. anthropological mystery that we must unravel here.
the dragon paradox
But my young man was not here for that, he was going to prove that dragons existed as living, breathing creatures. So, I went to a primary source. I had... some books about dragons when I was younger, but actually, I had a book about dragons. Dragonology is the ur text that really started to slowly cook my mind with dragon fever. These pages seemed to contain answers to all my burning questions: how dragons breathe fire, how they take flight, the consistency of their dung (yes, really). And it was all written from the perspective of a false naturalist; no wonder he treated it like a royal guide.
the dragon paradox

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It's really no wonder I became so obsessed. However, there was a problem: none of my fonts were aligned. Books and documentaries disagreed about whether dragons were friendly or aggressive, two-legged or four-legged, a few meters long or a few hundred. Looking directly at global myths and legends only frustrated me even more: everything seemed inconsistent, as if these things were made up... But I wasn't ready to give in: 'obviously,' I assured myself, "there are multiple species of dragons, and different species." cultures have interacted with different ones.” This taxonomy-based explanation for the divergences in folklore was the loophole that many of my favorite dragon media employed anyway.
the dragon paradox
So, I began obsessively categorizing dragons in fiction and. mythology, disqualifying interpretations that didn't meet my made-up criteria for 'real dragons' If a dragon had hair: It wasn't a dragon, if it couldn't fly: It wasn't a dragon, if it sang about reading... actually those dragons. They got a pass, I thought blue was cool. Looking back, this total obsession with ranking is... kind of fun, and kind of, uh... I spent a lot of time wandering around imagined realms during this period, researching and looking for dragons And while I remember being happy, I also remember feeling isolated and generally confused by the fact that everyone seemed to interact with the world so differently than I did.
the dragon paradox
And somehow, I thought the solution was… to talk more about dragons. I felt that if I could explain the topic well enough, if I could unravel the taxonomy and resolve the paradox, I could… I don't know. So it almost felt like fate when at the peak of my dragon-themed social idiosyncrasy, DreamWorks released the first film How to Train Your Dragon: A Story About Dragons, but Also About Otherness; maturity; empathy; loneliness; and being an outsider because you like dragons too much. Yes, it's no surprise that this movie struck a chord with my young self. At its core, How to Train Your Dragon explores why a social outsider might sympathize or even relate to the non-human or monstrous.
At the beginning of the film, the main character Hiccup desires social acceptance, which in his Viking culture requires physical strength and an unthinking willingness to commit violence against another demonized person (in this case, dragons), two traits he clearly lacks. When he finally gets the chance to slay a dragon and get approval, his guilt prevents him from finishing the job: "I did this." Instead, he nurses the creature back to health, and although Hiccup believes that the reason he befriended the dragon instead of killing it is because he is weak and thinks too much, it becomes clear that the real reason is because he couldn't. avoid connecting with the dragon. situation.
He encountered a scared, lonely, and ostracized being and saw his own reflection. Now, I'm not going to act like I was young: I was aware of all of these issues. I was mainly drawn to the designs of the dragons, the music (Loud Musical Driving) which is just...what riding a dragon actually sounds like, I'm sure, and the fact that the narration stops around the hour mark to show us a detailed RATING SYSTEM, LET'S GO. Although, on some level, I connected my experiences to the protagonist's, I honestly wasn't self-aware enough to do so more than subconsciously. I remember thinking, 'wow... it sure would be hard to be an overly obsessive social castaway, good thing everyone thinks I'm 'the coolest'...
It can be challenging to reflect on your past self. (The door creaks), I was recently cleaning out my childhood attic and found some old drawings of dragons that brought back...found memories. Memories of sitting alone, creating sketch after sketch. I remember how tightly I gripped the pencil, as if I was trying to make dragons exist through the strength of my small hand. In the book "An Instinct for Dragons," anthropologist David E. Jones theorizes that creating draconic monster art is a deep-seated human instinct, derived from an intrinsic fear of reptilian predators. Although most scholars disagree with Jones' findings, I certainly remember that my art comes from somewhere primitive...
The truth is that no single explanation for the cultural universality of dragons is entirely sufficient. Looking around the animal kingdom, there are all sorts of species that could have given rise to scaly legends in the minds of ancient people (heck, the word "dragon" comes from the Latin "dracōnis", a term synonymous with "large snake"). , but not All cultures with myths about dragons exist around formidable reptiles. Dinosaur fossils have a broader distribution, and one can certainly imagine how such remains could also conjure up draconian images, but direct connections are difficult to definitively demonstrate. The anthropological origins of dragons are probably not a straight line.
The fiction is simple, the truth is... well, it's confusing. I think that's part of why my child held so tightly to the idea that dragons were literal creatures. He wanted them to be direct, categorizable, something he could understand and control. At least I could... know my facts about dragons. Perhaps it is natural for those who struggle or have struggled with human interaction to seek knowledge of the monstrous. I've been rereading Ryoko Kui's monster-centric Dungeon Meshi manga now that it's being adapted into an anime, and it's... a little strange how closely some parts relate to my personal experience.
Well, in a way. What begins as a standard fantasy adventure narrative quickly goes off the rails, when the protagonist, Laios, an archetypal knight in shining armor, is revealed to be a monster fanatic determined to study and, uh, cook every creature in the world. dungeon. . It's like The Lord of the Rings meets an episode of Chopped—it's downright bizarre—but Dungeon Meshi ultimately offers a surprisingly nuanced reflection on what it means to process the world differently. Throughout the series, we are shown that Laios cannot pick up on social cues in the same way as his peers, nor does he recognize that most people don't want to hear an endless barrage of monstrous facts.
Although often framed through a comedic culinary lens, Laios' desire to understand the non-human ultimately stems from his difficulties connecting with the human. Perhaps Dungeon Meshi's greatest achievement is its ability to take you into the perspective of Laios. Like How to Train Your Dragon, the narrative is willing to slow down and linger on the granular details of its world, getting so specific with food preparation that if you had monster parts on hand, I think you could cook these foods. It's a story as uniquely obsessed with the biology of monsters and their classifications as its protagonist, and it teaches the viewer to think in the same terms.
And even if you don't share the same...particular enthusiasm, that desire to know a topic inside and out, to fully understand the rules of a topic, is, at least for me, something you can relate to. Although my obsessions are not exactly the same - I never wanted to eat dragons - I do know what it feels like when an interest is all-consuming. But try as he might, the taxonomy of dragons seemed impossible to fully digest: there was no way to unravel it. The truth I finally had to face is that the definition of "dragons" across cultures was vaguer than my sources had suggested.
It turns out that "dragons" don't exist in the same way that fish don't exist. Well, that sounds strange; What I mean is that we all understand what fish are, but since all land vertebrates are descendants of fish, there is no taxonomic definition of "fish" that does not include... humans. In this way, much animal taxonomy becomes blurred. For example, "reptiles" make sense as a category of similar scaly creatures, but since birds are descended from dinosaurs, they also technically fall into Reptilia, which doesn't feel right. That doesn't mean these terms are useless, just that the categories of life aren't as neat as they seem, and folk nomenclature like "dragons" works the same way.
In my attempts to make dragons fit into an inflexible structure, I remember following models I had seen in books, labeling wingless dragons as "drakes" or legless dragons as "wyrms"... but in reality, all he was doing was applying false rigidity to terms that were more fluid in the myth. The worst offender was how I called any two-legged dragon a wyvern and, okay, this is a rant I've been doing before, but she's very close to my heart. On the Internet people still claim that any dragon with two legs is automatically a wyvern. In the comment sections of The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones you will find commentators who repeat this doctrine, saying that Tolkien or George RR.
Martin, they are idiots for giving their 'dragons' two legs: 'those are obviously wyverns!' And I get it, believe me I get it, if there's one person on this planet who gets it, it's me. You want clean categories, you want to be experts, but dragons in medieval manuscripts have never had a constant number of legs. I wish it were true that Wyverns were an exclusive subcategory for two-legged dragons, that folklore divided the creatures like D&D monster types. But mythological taxonomy, like biological taxonomy, is fluid... no matter how much my young man would like to pretend otherwise.
Seven-year-old me would have called this blasphemy, but the fluidity of definitions of dragons is something the media, frankly, frames as "real"... takes advantage of. How is it that seemingly every civilization, no matter how far apart, has legends about the exact same creature? Well, it's not like that, not really. The definition of "dragon" is so decentralized that countless probably unrelated creatures in different cultures can seem draconian if you squint. Many of the categories applied to dragons are arbitrary: it is questionable whether the relatively modern Western dragons are often called "true dragons", considering that the serpentine dragon model more common in other parts of the world is almost certainly older.
However, it's hard to let go, or at least it was for me, to resist that urge to group everything by type. It's hard not to wish the dragon rankings worked more like: "Let's move on to Nintendo's newest game, Pokémon", "- Pokémon -", "- Pokémon -". I think for a lot of people, the desire for rigid categorization of fictional creatures stems from a particular franchise. I never had a Gameboy or DS to play Pokémon growing up, but I didn't need to play to know that I liked their dragons. Specifically, I liked that they were categorized.
A series about 'types', Pokémon seemed made for me. I remember how ecstatic I was when I finally got my hands on an old Pokémon encyclopedia at a garage sale; Finally, I thought, here's a franchise that values ​​ranking creatures like me. But being a pedantic little whiner, I remember loudly objecting to what Pokémon placed in 'dragon type'. Many of the creatures given that title barely seemed scaly, scary, or… whatever.enough dragons to merit the designation, and other Pokémon that I thought should qualify didn't make the cut. I always thought this was just me, but while researching this video I discovered that many people share my opinion and have taken to the internet to complain.
People have strong feelings about Pokémon classification, a fact I learned when I mixed up regions in my old Pokémon Biology video, which is still the mistake I've received the most comments about. And I think that's great, seriously, I understand that kind of passion! But in the case of Pokémon's dragon type, I wonder if we're being a little... too harsh. Dragons in folklore are not as consistent as we like to pretend. If medieval artists didn't have to limit their imagination with what was considered a dragon, perhaps Pokémon artists shouldn't either. Maybe forcing things that are made to follow strict taxonomic parameters is… a little limiting?
Oddly enough, I think the How to Train Your Dragon series is what finally allowed my young self to overcome my obsession with fictional rigidity. Because those movies almost completely discarded the plot of the original books, and I remember not caring. And that was when I was at an age where if an adaptation was even slightly different from the book, I took it upon myself to worry. A lot. But these films had their own themes and needed to rework how dragons worked conceptually to fit those themes. In the books, Hiccup's dragon, Toothless, is a weedy little thing, not an intimidating personification of the unknown, and the Vikings and dragons get along well from the beginning.
But directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders recognized that a narrative about an outsider connecting with the monstrous required a reworking of established lore, and...even young me might admit, it improved the story. For the first time, I remember considering whether the fictional uniformity was perhaps... a little juvenile. I wish I could say that my fixation on dragon rankings ended peacefully, as a natural result of moving past the topic. But that's not what happened. At the peak of my adolescence, the fear of appearing immature, of being... an outsider, led me to work in the scorched earth, trying to erase any record of my "childish" interests.
You may have noticed that I used a stock image for my Pokémon encyclopedia; that's because I threw away the real copy. And I also wanted to throw away my dragon books, I would have if they hadn't been lost in a box years ago. The same is especially true of my drawings, which when I was a preteen were, like something I created, an unbearable reminder of the person I used to be. If they hadn't forgotten them too... Honestly, I could have burned them. And it is difficult, even now it is difficult, to overcome that fear of infantilism.
There is still, on some level, someone else's voice in my head telling me that I should laugh and belittle my past self for… what? Have imagination? I said at the beginning of this video that the question of how so many cultures have legends about the same creature ruined my life. Honestly, that's not... entirely fair. Yes, Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real came on TV one day with footage of what looked like a real scientist finding a dragon corpse. Yes, that convinced me that dragons were real, triggering a lifelong fixation. But is it the documentary's fault? The narrator says: "What if the legends... were true?" It was me, when I was seven, who heard "the legends are definitely true and it's your job to prove it." To be honest, I was probably always going to end up like... like I did, that's how I was born.
It's curious to be born different. You can feel the shape of this person you were expected to be and you wonder why you are not that person. And I still don't know exactly what... is wrong with me, I don't have a precise label or category for it. I think I'm fine with that. Likewise... as you've probably guessed, there is no single solution to the dragon paradox (which yes, I know, is not strictly a paradox). And maybe it's a conclusion worthy of complaint: that the real answer was the friends (or dragons) we made along the way, but... that seems about right to me.
Dragons have been with us since the beginning of civilization. In fact, it is possible that, like most languages, all draconic myths arise from the same ancient root. It's also possible that making dragons is just... something humans do. That we find them independently in pieces of driftwood, in the bends of rivers, in the patterns of the sky. There is evidence that a 3rd century Chinese historian labeled dinosaur fragments as belonging to a dragon around the same time that peasants did the same with whale remains a continent away, in Central Europe. And when I think about these humans from the past, linked through how they chose to imagine a more exciting explanation for the phenomena around them, I like to imagine a connection across time to my younger self. . .doing the same.
I've talked a lot in the past tense in this video, about who I was, the person I used to be. But I mean: a quick look at my channel and the vast amount of dragon and creature rating videos I've made, and it's clear that that's it... it's still a part of me. I've just found ways to manage my obsessions and channel them into new outlets, and while teenage me might be mortified, I think it's important to make peace with your past self instead of trying to bury it. While I was making this video, reviewing the remains of my childhood, I began to think that it had been a while since I had drawn anything.
So I picked up the pencil again. Dragons still fascinate me, and it's clear they fascinate the world too: still part of culture, changing shape as worldviews change, but always so beholden to strict categories. I wouldn't want it any other way. And as always, thanks for watching. This ended up being more of a personal essay than I had anticipated, but hey, if you liked this post, please support me by liking, subscribing, and hitting the notification icon, it helps me tremendously. See you in the next video and stay curious.

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