This is a continuation of the previous post on A Landscape with Dragons. My comment grew to be too long so I decided to make it a new entry.
O’Brien does acknowledge the oriental use of dragons, but like Dom says his focus is on Western culture. And that being the case I think he would agree that context is important. He wants to argue that in context of western culture, the dragon has a particular symbolic value that cannot be changed. He points specifically to the fact that in the Book of Revelation the dragon is the symbol of the arch enemy, Satan himself. (Likewise in Genesis the serpent is symbol for Satan.)
Because of that the dragon is not just any symbol, but a most potent one. I do find this argument persuasive to some degree. In our culture now it is all the rage to diminish evil, to brush it away as if it were nothing or even to glamorize it and befriend it. That can be spiritually dangerous.
…the loss of our world of symbols is the result of an attack upon truth, and this loss is occurring with astonishing rapidity. On practically every level of culture, good is no longer presented as good but rather as a perjudice held by a limited religious system (Christianity). Neither is evil any longer perceived as evil in the way we once understood it. Evil is increasingly being depicted as a means to achieve good.
Reminds me of Fr. Corapi’s talk on spiritual warfare at the recent Boston Catholic Women’s Coferenece. He warned about the modern tendency to think we are too sophisticated, too educated, to believe in Satan as a real being, hell as a spiritual reality. This can leave us more open to being influenced by evil spirits, which the Church teaches do exist.
And I do discern the trend O’Brien is describing. Good vampires, good witches and good demons in Anne Rice and on shows like Buffy, Angel and Charmed. And I can see the real world outcomes of these trends especially clearly here in Salem. Last fall the local Salem crazies had signs out for a vampire’s ball (originally they had it booked in the local Knight’s of Columbus hall, if you can believe it!)
Theer is a woman I know from my parish who is a former witch. Dom says she has stories that will send chills up your spine. SAlem is littered with occult shops and fortune tellers and witch-themed tourist traps. How many people start to dabble in this stuff just for fun? One day I saw a girl buying a book of love potions in one of the tourist shops. It is possible her experience with the occult will begin and end there. But for a certain number of people those relatively innocent games are just the beginning.
So I can certainly see O’Brien’s point when it comes to these other traditional symbols of evil. Which is why I’m on the fence when it comes to dragons.
As I think about O’Brien’s position I think the story he opens the book with is illuminating. When he was six or seven he and his brother were afraid of a monster in their room. Their mother had them draw pictures of the dragon they were afraid of and then stab them with knives and skewers and then burn them. For O’Brien the dragon is a personal symbol of fear and his battle with evil.
He later contrasts his mother’s method of helping them conquor their fears by destroying them with modern books which have the child befriend the scary monster. O’Brien points out that in one story a demonic being becomes a friendly guardian for the child and he asks: “what has become of guardian angels”?
Such works seek to help children to integrate “the dark side” into their natures, to reconcile good and evil within and, as our friend expressed it, to “embrace their shadows”.
On one hand I find O’Brien alarmist and too extreme. On the other, a little voice asks if I’m perhaps not cautious enough.
Kate I agree that naming evil for what it is, to know it and reject it is a good thing. For example in our baptismal vows we reject Satan, the father of sin and prince of darkness, and all his works and all his empty promises, we reject sin and the glamour of evil and refuse to be mastered by sin. But looking over the passage O’Brien refers to I see it for the first time and am a bit disturbed:
“Echthroi! You are Named! My arms surround you. You are no longer nothing. You are. You are filled. You are me. You are Meg.”
Now this is one of my favorite books and I always read this passage as Meg filling Nothing with something, rejecting the unnamers by naming them. But I could see how to an uneasy soul that is tempted by the darkness, this passage could be read as her embracing the evil and befriending it. I know that within the framework set up by the book she has negated the evil ones by naming them. But O’Brien has a point. In our world it doesn’t quite work like that. True, when we recognize evil as evil it gives us power to reject it. And I think that is the reality L’Engle points to. But in our world spirits are sometimes not that easy to tame. If I told a spirit “You are Melanie” I’d be treading dangerous ground. And I could see how a desire for the kinds of psychic powers Meg and her brother have could make the occult appealing to some children who couldn’t clearly discern the difference between fantasy and reality.
Update: Dom has linked to this entry and the first one on his blog and some good conversation is going on there. (Some people are reluctant to register on my site.) Among other things, Dale Price has two good historic examples of dragons being baptized as Christian symbols.