Why do we want to believe in dragons?
In 2012, a while after my first, somewhat dragonish book came out (The Ghosts of Watt O’Hugh), I wrote a little essay in which I asserted a ridiculous belief that dragons are real, adding, “I fully understand that I am probably completely wrong about this. Wouldn’t be the first time. But I will go on believing in dragons, because it’s nicer to believe than not to believe.”
By 2014, when my second book came out (Watt O’Hugh Underground), I guess I couldn’t really maintain this pretense anymore, but I still wished that dragons were real, and I wondered why.
So I wrote a follow-up piece for Suvudu, the really excellent science fiction website, examining this weird wish. When Suvudu went out of business, all its articles migrated to another really excellent science fiction website, Unbound Worlds. That one went under as well, and now this little essay, which is one of my very favorites, can be found nowhere on the web. (The link that used to lead to my essay now leads here.)
The reaction to my piece really interesting to me, because the basic thesis was that we, as humans, all have things we force ourselves to believe, even though we know that they are not true. But people would read my essay (with its title, “Why I believe in dragons”), then forward it along with some kind of supposedly supportive exclamation, like (in one case), “Moi aussi!”
Dragon-believers missed the point! Which is, why do we believe in nonsense?
Anyway, here it is again. It was originally published with an illustration from my daughter, who was 11 at the time, and which I also reprint here. I am not sure it is exactly what appeared last time, but it’s the latest draft that I can find on my computer.
I still kind of believe in dragons.
I love dragons as much as anyone
For the past few years, I’ve been writing a series of books about a gunslinger named Watt O’Hugh and his quixotic battle against a seemingly beautiful secessionist movement called Sidonia. But beyond the rip-snorting derring-do, careful readers will catch an obsession with dragons, and an apparently sincere quasi-scientific insistence that they really existed.
Is there a scientific thesis for the belief that dragons once existed?
This is the basic argument: All across the globe — in Israel, Asia and Europe – denizens of civilizations with no connection to one another, and thus no shared legends, reported dragon sightings. How could such a thing have happened if dragons weren’t real, a lost link between the dinosaurs and the birds, featherless flying reptiles, full of anger and love?
But there’s more to it than dispassionate science and history.
Why do I want to believe?
If dragons existed, then I take my name from an early band of ancestors, fearsome German/Jewish drachenmanner, or dragon-slayers.
But if dragons never existed, then, as my great-grandfather speculated in his autobiography, I take my name from an early bumbler who wandered from Greece to Galicia and tried to spend Greek coin (drachmas) at the local inn, causing much hilarity and an insulting nickname (Drachma-mann) that to this day my family has had to wear like a dunce cap.
I prefer the former theory, although I recognize that the latter is the more likely.
Otherwise – Drachma-mann! – I must hear the thousand-year-old taunts even now.
The villains in my book are “Sidonian” secessionists, who rule a Utopian society, and they offer their followers mathematical certitude, a warm security blanket that strips of us our sloppy humanity and makes us slaves. We all have delusions about ourselves and the world and the way things should be, and Sidonians use them to trap us.
Is it okay to believe in nonsense?
Is it indeed harmless to believe passionately in lies that make us happy?: I might win the lottery; global warming is probably nothing; I was put on this planet for a purpose; there could be fairies in the garden; everything happens for a reason; I’m just a cog in this big corporate machine and blameless for its crimes; the boss respects me a lot; there is some sense to Life; there is Hope after all.
In fact, foolish myth-making is a terrible sin, a kind of giving up, refusing to solve our problems and humanity’s problems. But casting loose our foolish myths is beyond human capacity, which is why disasters have befallen us, and why we are doomed.
Therefore, for all sorts of reasons, not least of them my empathy for that Greek man whose genes and social awkwardness I have inherited, who proclaimed himself an outsider when he showed a drachma at a Galician inn, whose first name is forgotten but who became a laughingstock forever, it makes me happy to believe instead that he never existed, and that dragons were real. One story is heroic, the other pathetic. I choose to believe the heroic one.
Watt O’Hugh and the Innocent Dead, by Steven S. Drachman, will be published by Chickadee Prince Books on September 1, 2019; it is available for pre-order in trade paperback from your favorite local independent bookstore, from Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and on Kindle.