The recent remake of the movie Pete’s Dragon has prompted some discussion on the Internet of whether it is ever permissible, from a Christian point of view, to depict dragons as friendly, which happens in the movie.
Some, pointing to comments made by novelist Michael O’Brien in his book A Landscape with Dragons, have answered that they should not be.
Here are 10 things to know and share . . .
1) No Church teaching
Regardless of what one thinks about friendly dragons, it’s worth bearing in mind that there is no Church teaching on this subject.
You’re not going to find a papal or conciliar document that says, “Dragons may never be depicted as friendly.”
The matter is thus one of opinion, and Catholics can have a legitimate diversity of opinion on the matter.
Having said that, here are my thoughts . . .
2) The purpose of play
A few years ago I did a video on whether scary Halloween costumes are okay, and in it I discussed the basic purpose of play and the instinct toward play that God built into human nature.
You can watch the video here:
The short answer is that God designed our species—and others—to enjoy play which involves simulated danger. The purpose of this is to prepare us to face real (non-simulated) danger.
That’s why kittens and puppies “play fight”—to prepare them for the actual fights they’ll have to deal with as adult dogs and cats.
In the same way, humans—both children and adults—enjoy various forms of play (including stories and sports) where there is a form of simulated danger. By facing our fears in situations where the danger isn’t real, we are better prepared to face our fears in situations where the danger is real.
To get us to engage in these simulations, we have to find them fun, and so God has arranged it so that we enjoy games and sports and stories and rollercoasters and numerous other kinds of simulated danger (provided the situation doesn’t get out of hand and the danger doesn’t become real).
3) The origin of monsters
This impulse to play is the origin of all fiction, and it is the reason that monsters are found in the folklore of every people.
Stories and legends about monsters allow us to mentally enter situations of simulated danger, facing fearsome creatures much more powerful than we are—whether they are dragons, gorgons, giant spiders, werewolves, alien invaders, or what have you.
4) Two types of dramatic choices
When we tell a story, we must make dramatic choices, and there are two basic types of dramatic choices:
- Play to expectations
- Throw in a twist (i.e., something unexpected)
Most of the time, storytellers play to expectations. Readers want much of what happens in a story to feel familiar. But they don’t want everything to be predictable, so they also want twists.
Good storytellers find the right balance of playing to their audience’s expectations and then throwing in twists to surprise and intrigue the audience.
Meeting the audience’s expectations is the rule and twists are the exception. Otherwise the narrative risks disintegrating under the weight of too many twists—or the audience will simply develop a new set of expectations.
5) Two types of monsters
If you combine the previous two insights, it leads to two different ways of presenting monsters in stories:
- What the audience expects—i.e., the monster is bad
- The audience gets a twist—i.e., the monster actually isn’t bad
Most of the time, storytellers choose the first option, but there is nothing in principle wrong with the twist of a friendly monster.
Indeed, sometimes such tales can even teach valuable lessons, as with the story of Androcles and the Lion.
Friendly monster stories are the mirror image of another standard plot: betrayal—where, someone the protagonist was counting on (a friend, an ally, a spouse) turns out to be untrustworthy despite initial appearances.
Betrayals happen in real life. Sometimes people very close to us stab us in the back, and experiencing stories about that can help prepare us for when it happens to us for reals.
In the same way, sometimes things we perceive as alarming threats in real life (corresponding to the monsters in stories) can turn out to be no big deal—or even beneficial.
Every child has this experience multiple times growing up: They irrationally fear things which actually are no threat at all and may even be helpful.
Even as adults we sometimes fear things in situations that turn out to involve needless worry.
It’s a huge relief when we—as children or adults—discover that we don’t need to be afraid of something that formerly terrified us.
And it’s a relief for an audience to experience the same thing in story form when the characters make the same discovery.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with telling a story about a perceived danger that turns out not to be a problem—any more than there is telling a story about an ally who betrays the main character.
They are both legitimate story types.
6) So what about dragons?
If it’s okay in principle to tell stories about perceived threats that turn out not to be dangerous after all (e.g., friendly monsters) then it would seem appropriate to tell stories about friendly dragons as well.
Dragons are just a subcase of monsters, and if friendly monsters are okay as a twist on a standard then friendly dragons are okay, too.
To argue against this, one would need to argue that dragons are somehow different from other monsters—that there is a special reason why dragons in particular shouldn’t be treated this way in fiction.
7) What might that reason be?
In his book, O’Brien does not state his argument as clearly as I would wish. However, he seems to advance two considerations for why dragons might be exceptions to the above rule:
- Dragons appear in the folklore of numerous cultures, suggesting some kind of mystical imprint on human nature (or something; this is where I find O’Brien particularly unclear)
- The image of the dragon is linked with Satan in Scripture
What can we make of these?
8) The culture argument
It’s true that dragons appear in the folklore of numerous cultures. What is in question is whether this has intrinsic mystical significance.
In his book, O’Brien writes:
Some modern mythologists lamely attempt to explain dragons as an inheritance from the age of dinosaurs, a kind of fossil-memory lingering on in the subconscious.
O’Brien is correct. The claim that dragons are based on an inherited race memory from the mammals that lived in dinosaur times is lame.
That’s not the way evolution works. Once a threat disappears, any genetic predisposition to fear it is gradually lost due to the absence of selection pressure on the relevant genes. The idea that humans would have inherited a genetic fear of dinosaurs after sixty million years is nonsense.
But that doesn’t mean dragon folklore isn’t based on dinosaurs.
The truth is that there are a large number of dinosaur bones buried in the earth and the forces of wind and water periodically uncover them.
We have records of the ancients finding such bones and discussing the giant, extinct creatures that must have once existed.
For example, in The City of God, St. Augustine reports that he and some friends were on the beach of the Gulf of Tunis when they found a tooth a hundred times larger than a human molar, and he concluded it must have belonged to some ancient giant.
At times, a cliff face would shear away, exposing an entire dinosaur skeleton to public view.
Thus one need not postulate a mystical (or whatever) imprint of dragon imagery on the human soul to explain the widespread appearance of dragons in folklore. The periodic discovery of dinosaur bones is enough.
The culture argument is thus inconclusive at best. But what about . . .
9) The Scripture argument
It’s true that Scripture does explicitly use the image of a dragon in connection with Satan.
It’s the book of Revelation, where John sees a dragon that is then identified as “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Rev. 12:9).
So, fine. Revelation uses the image of a dragon for Satan. That’s too slender a reed on which to claim that the image of a dragon can never be used any other way.
Indeed, unless you are prepared to say that every dragon that appears in fiction must be Satan himself then one must be willing to say that the image of a dragon can be used in other ways.
To paraphrase Sigmund Freud: Sometimes a dragon is just a dragon.
Worse, Scripture sometimes uses the image of a dragon in a positive sense.
10) Mordecai the Friendly Dragon
In the book of Esther, Mordecai has a prophetic vision in the form of a dream. In this dream:
And behold, two great dragons came forward, both ready to fight, and they roared terribly (Esth. 11:6).
So, like John in Revelation, Mordecai has a vision involving great and terrible dragon imagery—only in his vision there are two dragons.
Elsewhere, Mordecai gives us the interpretation of this symbol:
The two dragons are Haman and myself (Esth. 10:7).
Got that? One of the fearsome dragons represents the villain Haman but the other represents the righteous Mordecai, the defender of God’s people.
It also happens that these verses are found in the deuterocanonical passages of Esther, which means that their canonical source is the Greek text of the Septuagint.
When one checks this, one discovers that the word used for “dragon” in this case is the Greek term drakon—the exact same word John uses for “dragon” in the book of Revelation.
It thus seems, in view of Scripture’s own usage, that dragons can be depicted as friendly, powerful allies and not simply as manifestations of evil.
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