27 April 2012

Rerun: Reconsidering Kenneth Grahame's The Reluctant Dragon

Yesterday, I had reason to link to this post that I wrote three or four years ago. Upon re-reading it, I decided I'd like to dust it off, alter and add a few things, and republish it. It was good for me to think about it again, so I thought I'd share it. This is basically the same post, but updated a little.

The only thing I would add to all of this is that I think we ought not underestimate Grahame. We cannot know his intentions with certainty, but his book is a perversion of the legend of Saint George, the patron saint of his own country. I find it hard to believe that Grahame was unaware of what he was doing, that this was not a usurpation of, or attack upon, the traditional tale. The more I think about it, the more underhanded it seems to me.

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Truth and goodness and beauty go together so tightly that if you lose one, you lose all three of them.

--John Hodges, discussing Hans urs von Balthasar's Seeing the Form: The Glory of the Lord: a Theological Aesthetics in his lecture Reflections on Classical Education
Yesterday was the day on which I had planned to study the legend of Saint George and the Dragon. Or, actually, we were going to study Raphael's famous painting, and I was going to read Margaret Hodges' wonderful picture book to the children yet again in order to make sure that Neighbor M. also understood the legend.

Raphael's painting falls on deaf ears if one doesn't understand the significance of Saint George.

I was so excited, for I love reading this book to someone for the first time. I laid it proudly on my lap and announced that we were going to read Saint George and the Dragon. Neighbor M.'s face looked a little panicked, and she told me that her parents do not like dragons. She told me that dragons are bad {which they are}, and that they don't let her have anything to do with them.

Two things: {1} I was impressed with a little girl who obeys her parents wishes when they aren't around. She very obviously wanted to read the book. {2} I was convicted that I should never violate the conscience of a child. Ever.

So I told Neighbor M. I would write a note to her parents asking if we could read the book and study the painting. And I did. I tried to be brief in explaining the book and its significance to western culture, and how C.S. Lewis himself taught Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene and how I really didn't want them to think that I was a crazy dragon-lady.

Ahem.

And today, a nice note arrived with Neighbor M. saying that of course I could read her the book and study the painting, and that this is the way that dragons should be taught. The letter briefly explained that many of the dragons they had met lately were supposed "good" and "friendly" dragons, and that this is what they were guarding against.

This was a pin-prick of correction for me.

It was then that I realized something about one book on my shelf, and that book is Kenneth Grahame's The Reluctant Dragon illustrated by my beloved Michael Hague.

But first, let me add into the mix a quote from Doug Wilson, who spent some blogging time lately discussing the wildly popular Twilight Saga in terms of the twisting of traditional cultural symbols:
[E]verything in this fallen created order "answers to" something unfallen, with the possible exception of hyenas. In other words, the dragon is the archtypical emblem of sly, crafty, rebellion -- and this goes back to the Garden. Satan is that ancient dragon. If we read our Bibles rightly, we will pay attention to the symbols. Honor the symbols, people.

But of course Satan was a fallen something, and that something was, before he fell, an unfallen version of that same thing. My personal view is that he was one of the seraphim, which means that the seraphim are glorious, unfallen dragons, privileged to cry holy, holy, holy in the presence of God. But in this world, the one we live in, dragons still mean what they mean. That meaning was assigned to us. Shifting the meaning of everything around in this metamorphing way seems to me to be not so much a testimony to our literary prowess as to the continued craftiness of the serpent.
Kenneth Grahame, whom we all rightly love for his best work, The Wind in the Willows, was born only seven months before John Dewey, who almost single-handedly created the world as we know and experience it today through his experiment in rebellion which we call modern education.

I think there is an interesting correspondence in the birthdates of these two men. They were contemporaries in a time that resulted in the world being turned upon its head.

While Dewey managed to transform education from a study in the permanent things to a quest for societal change, here we see Kenneth Grahame recasting Saint George's dragon as a, well, a reluctant one.

He would rather read, truth be told.

The story goes, however, that the common people believe that dragons really are bad, even though most of the stories they are telling are falsehoods. The Boy, who has a sort of "wisdom" about him, and is a great lover of books himself, befriends the dragon. The Boy becomes the mediator between two worlds--the people, who think the dragon is bad, and the dragon, his great friend, who is so smart and lovable, but a little naive when it comes to understanding how serious the townsfolk are about eliminating him.

When Saint George arrives on the scene, the Boy sits down with him and explains the truth: The dragon isn't bad. But, the townspeople must be appeased. So, the Boy suggests a pretend battle, in which Saint George defeats the dragon, but in such a way that he survives, and then Saint George, the dragon, as well as the Boy and all of the townspeople, can finally live in harmony together.

When I consider that the original story of Saint George was considered by C.S. Lewis to be a great Christian classic, and that Spenser's dragon tale, like all ancient dragon tales, was actually a retelling Christ's once and final victory over that dragon from the Garden, well, I wonder just how much influence I allowed Michael Hague's artistry to have over me.

The book is full of lies, it seems: The dragon is real enough, but he's actually a harmless, kindhearted old soul, and very intelligent. {The uneducated people are the ones who believe the dragon is bad.} Saint George's battle with the dragon is a ruse, and also ineffective. The townspeople who think the dragon is bad are just silly and superstitious.

Do you seem what I'm aiming at here?

Now, let's return to Hans urs von Balthasar via John Hodges. If beauty is subjective {and Hodges says it isn't}, then I can say that Grahame's writing is so lovely and skillful, and Hague's paintings are just gorgeous.

However, comma.

If beauty is objective, because it is characteristic of God Himself, then Balthasar has something to say about this book. It has lost its truth; as Wilson exhorted us, we must honor the symbols. If dragons represent Satan, and Saint George represents Christ, then the message of Grahame's work is untrue in the sense that it is a rejection of ultimate reality. And if the work is not true , then it is a lie, which means that it is not good. And if it is untrue and double-plus ungood, then its beauty is a deception, an instance of darkness masquerading as light, and, like the adulteress in Proverbs 7, it looks pretty good initially, but her house is a highway to the grave.

All of this is to say that I've rethought the position which The Reluctant Dragon has had upon my shelf. Hodges says that true education rightly orders the affections. Children who are educated rightly, he says, don't just learn about Truth, but they learn to love Truth. If this is so, I have to ask myself the question, Am I encouraging a right ordering of affections if I hold up this book as something to love?
And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years...

--Revelation 20:2
*Thanks to CiRCE and Cindy, I will probably go crazy in the near future, but pleasantly so.

9 comments:

  1. Brandy, thank you for this! So much to consider.

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  2. Interesting. So would you extend this thinking to all books that portray dragons in a positive light or just to this book because it so clearly upends the original story? I am thinking specifically about My Father's Dragon and the series. We have read the first one and I was planning on reading the other two soon. Thoughts??

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    1. I hesitate to extend this anywhere and everywhere, and I haven't read My Father's Dragon, so I really can't comment on it.

      I think the best "exception" I can think of is the good dragon--which is actually a cherubim in The Wind in the Door or Wrinkle in Time--it has been a long while since I read these so I can't remember which. I love the way the author "honored the symbols" and the good dragon turned out to be unfallen. A very interesting take on dragons, and I hadn't connected that until I read Wilson's blog posts, but it seems that she managed to write a "good dragon" in line with symbols, which is quite an accomplishment.

      In general, I adore the ancient symbols, so I will always err on the side of dragons=bad every time, but I hesitate to say that everyone must do that 100% of the time, though I think this particular book is one where Christians must stand up and take notice. With that said, on the original post, Mystie had suggested bringing it out later in childhood and having a conversation about that. I did that with my oldest and he immediately understood its danger, so I think it'd be a good exercise. For that reason, I have my copy on a high shelf and didn't throw it out.

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  3. Oh - and How to Train your Dragon. If the symbol is the thing, then it's out the window. In How to Train Your Dragon, a tremendous misunderstanding about the motive for Dragons stealing flocks (not for themselves, but as tribute to the big horrible main dragon under the mountain) is corrected by "getting to know" the dragons. Decades of war between dragons and people are ended, and then both people and dragons partner for a peaceful life together. Just curious if you know this one, and find "love your neighbor" moral redemptive of reassigning the role of dragon.

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    1. I haven't read How to Train Your Dragon, either. I'm sorry! I am just no help! I believe KM once suggested reading A Landscape with Dragons in order to understand the importance of this. I haven't read that *either* {goodness! I'm just full of books I haven't read today!}, but she highly suggested it for folks who wanted to think it through.

      It is probably better to look at the ideal. If an author wanted to teach about loving our neighbor, how could one do that without dishonoring the symbols? It's always good to have an ideal in mind. I mentioned L'Engle above as one example. Lewis and Tolkien always did a good job. N.D. Wilson is a good modern example. That right there is thousands of pages which honor the symbols, so I personally have just stuck with these things and disregarded the rest.

      Part of this is time. I don't have time to read every "good dragon" book and see if it is still unacceptable, so I just use the old symbols as my gauge. If it honors the symbols, it likely gets a pass, and if it doesn't it isn't for us. This is one of the reasons why our older children didn't see How to Train Your Dragon {the movie} when it came out. But like I said above, someday we will have discussions with our younger children about this.

      It's something to think about. But since The Reluctant Dragon actually perverts the old story, I consider it unacceptable in an absolute sense. It destroys the allegory and mocks the faith.

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    2. I was nearly horrified when I read The Reluctant Dragon, mainly for what I thought was a shameless portrayal of the brave, honest and true St. George (who, even if he did not actually exists, stands for something True). Though "A Landscape with Dragons" is thought-provoking and an excellent read for all parents concerned with how the literature their children read shapes who they are and who they will become, I do think he takes it a little far. Kansas Dad liked it even less. (He's a theology professor at a Catholic university.) I wish I could give a good accounting of his thoughts on the matter, but it seemed to me that Kansas Dad thought O'Brien was too picky. Many of the books he would condemn are fun to read and probably not harmful, especially if read by a child or teenager who has been raised in an environment that encourages critical thinking and a solid foundation in the faith.

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    3. Thanks for explaining A Landscape with Dragons further. The hard part about discernment is that it can easily fall into the trap of overprotecting, which isn't the same thing, but often *feels* like it is. I still hope to read it someday, though! :)

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  4. Very helpful thoughts. Will be pondering this awhile.

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  5. Just now getting back - thanks for your reply to my question!

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I absolutely adore hearing your thoughts, but...*please* remember to play nicely!