The Flower of the Imagination: a Case for Dragons

May 3, Feast of Sts. Phillip and James, apostles.

{Please note:  This is a Catholic-interest post, I'm afraid, but that doesn't mean non-Catholics can't chime in and/or enjoy.  Just keep in mind that I write from a heavily Catholic perspective and that a suggestion to dismiss moral value in the arts will be a bit irrelevant to the conversation!}

I've been troubled by a literary trend in the Catholic community that draws severe lines of categorization regarding moral archetypes.*  Harry Potter is the obvious example, an engaging albeit imperfect series with some beautiful moments reflecting Christian truth and values.  But the mere mention of the word "witch" cause some to banish it from their bookshelves forever, without even cracking open the cover.

There is more witchy to Harry Potter than the word, I'll grant, but what about other stories that rename symbols or use the imagery from another culture or civilization?  What about the well-loved A Wrinkle in Time, which merely uses the word "witch" tongue-in-cheek to stand-in for celestial beings, perhaps even angels?  What about the wizard Merlin who appears as a sage and a Christian in C.S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength, who is allowed to use the last bit of pre-Fallen Earth's command of nature to save the world and then to pass on?

In the same type of severity, dragons are dismissed as evil in all literature, and any treatment of a dragon as good is an inversion of truth.  As Catholics, we believe that what is not true comes from the Enemy--that is why he is called the Father of Lies.  But are all symbols so iron and non-negotiable?

In the east, dragons are wise and often benevolent, associated with luck and prosperity.  It's hard to say that this is an inversion, since the civilizations of Asia are far older than those of western Europe, except in the sense that they're symbols are opposite ours.  Which would only make sense, as we are on opposite sides of the globe.

But, people argue, in the Bible the serpent is cursed by God, and should always be associated with evil. Well then, say I, what about Moses's use of the snake on the staff--not even a real snake, but a seeming idol!--to heal and perform miracles?  With this task he was charged by God Himself.  It seems that even in the same cultures, sometimes symbols can be inverted.

There's a similar case for witches.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word witch first appears without any negative connotation; it's not until several centuries later that a second usage appeared that was more or less synonymous with the idea of witches we have today--devil-worshipers or evil spirits (citation as soon as I get back to the library).  Even then, the clear-cut dichotomy of magic being always evil did not exist** and in fact didn't become the majority belief until the late Middle Ages.  Before then, the belief in the supernatural other than God lived side-by-side with a deep devotion to the Church.  One need only look at Ireland as late as the first half of the twentieth century.

I have a theory that the reason why no one saw a problem with this apparent hypocrisy was because it was kept in the proper order: God was Lord.  And the other creatures or ways were rendered impotent, with the sign of the Cross or a a consecrated Host.  Dracula illustrates a superb example of the sovereignty of Christ.  Modern supernatural thrillers would be over a lot sooner if they'd just call the exorcist to bring in the Eucharist.

Vampires are another archetype enjoying a great revival at the moment.  Though as far as I know, vampires have in every time and place been on the evil spectrum of archetype, I have no problem with the modern obsession of redeeming them . . . so long as it is done believably and does not indulge in what Flannery O'Connor calls "sin against art."  I think clinging to the original archetype of the vampire as something dangerous, depraved, and hungry for redemption (John 6:54, anyone?) is what makes him so attractive to modern readers--not that the archetype is inverted so that vampires now appear good rather than bad.***  Our generation is all too familiar with the attractiveness of evil . . . aware of the that strong, thin thread of the Holy Spirit, calling us to salvation.

When I was younger, I used to believe that there were far more absolute truths than there actually are.  Absolute truths about what is beautiful and modest, what is the proper form of worship, who is in the right and wrong on particular political and philosophical issues, even absolute truths in parenting.  But experience and gentle discipline from God have taught me otherwise.

That is not to say that we shouldn't approach our reading material with caution: those with sound formation have a far greater chance for sifting the truth and beauty from the trash and poison in modern literature.  Those struggling or with young children have greater need for discernment.  But if we sweep all stories with non-evil dragons, benevolent witches, and less-than-saintly protagonists into the same off-limits categories, we risk experiencing the deepness that is the story of our Redemption.  We skip to the Resurrection at expense of the Cross.  

We must find a way to kill the weed without uprooting the flower.


*  For further reading, see A Landscape with Dragons by Michael O'Brien.  (Kindle version available here.)
**  I've twelve months of post-graduate study on Arthurian literature and a Master's thesis under my belt to affirm the ambiguity of the magical figure in the Dark and Middle Ages.
***  I speak with limited knowledge on the subject, as I have not read the grandam of supernatural romance, the Twilight series.



  1. Wonderful!! Thank you for writing on this topic with such clarity. Truly I think you could expand on this and submit an essay to, say, Dappled Things. :) (Speaking as a slush sorter there I would certainly be delighted to see it cross our virtual desk!)


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