Sunday, July 1, 2018

'Here Be Dragons' — Sailing Off The Edge Of The Map

"Here Be Dragons";
art by Antonio Javier Caparo
Last month, Kim Falconer gave us a wonderful post on the origins of dragons, including how our innate terrors may have been one driver for the presence of dragons in myth and legend.

Kim mentioned several other great reasons for the power of dragons over our imaginations. However, I've found myself returning to the association with fear, but also with awe and danger, that is encapsulated by the phrase "Here Be Dragons."

These three potent words appeared (in Latin: Hic sunt dracones) reputedly on a 16th century globe (the Hunt-Lenox Globe ca. 1510), and have since become a popular catchphrase for those regions where a mapmaker's knowledge runs out.

From The New York Public Library: Hunt-Lenox Globe

In this sense, the phrase was a synonym for the unknown and all the potential dangers that went with it—when exploration meant navigating perilous oceans in small and fragile vessels. For a very long time, too—until the last 250 years, in fact—such voyages were made without any accurate means of measuring longitude. On land, travel also meant going beyond the known, not only in terms of terrain but also of people, language, customs and cultures.

A tale of Shangri La
Yet the payoff for the dangers and fears that went with venturing the unknown was the hope of wonders: whether encountering dragons, discovering the fabled city of El Dorado, or happening upon a Shangri La of the Ever Young. For when the voyager passes the edge of the mapmaker's knowledge, she sails the ship of adventure into territory that is confined only by imagination...

The territory of dragons, indeed—but also of Fantasy fiction, both in Children's and Adult literature.

As early as the tale of Jason and the Argonauts, from Greek myth, the heroes sail to the mysterious land of Colchis to recover a magical golden fleece, which is guarded by a dragon.

In CS Lewis's children's classic,  The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the ship sailing to the world's end has a prow that is carved (rightly we feel) into the shape of a dragon.

Perhaps more than any other author, Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea novels capture the sense that isolated and unknown terrain, 'beyond the known world', is the territory of dragons. These are powerful, awe-inspiring, but also frightening beings such as Orm Embar and Kalessin.

Such tales are not restricted to children's literature, however. Robin Hobb's Liveship Trader series (Ship of MagicThe Mad ShipShip of Destiny) involves voyages to unknown and dangerous waters—inhabited by sea serpents that have their own connection to dragons. Although the most perilous terrain of all of may be the hearts and minds of the protagonists...

In Guy Gavriel Kay's The Wandering Fire, the ship Prydwen is almost destroyed by the giant sea serpent called Soulmonger—an unknown peril lurking in the deep ocean.

Sometimes the boundaries that must be crossed and the dangers encountered are more metaphysical in form. For example, in Elizabeth Knox's Dream duology (Dreamhunter and Dreamquake), the dreamhunters must pass a mystical border to capture and bring back dreams. Yet not all the hunters survive and not all the captured dreams are benign...

At one time, too, the words for 'dragon' and 'demon' were close to synonymous. Courtney Schafer captures this overlap in Labyrinth of Flame (Shattered Sigil #3). Here, the remote deserts are inhabited not only by physical dangers and unfamiliar peoples, but the working of magic has intersected the unknown power and danger of demons.

These are only a very few examples and I'm sure you can point to many more. But as on the Hunt-Lenox Globe, so too in Fantasy fiction: when the protagonist and reader sail off the edge of the map together, they enter the territory of 'dragons', where fear, awe, and danger; treasure, wonders, and magic, may—and almost certainly will—all be encountered.

Helen Lowe is a novelist, poet, and blogger whose first novel, Thornspell (Knopf), was published to critical praise in 2008. Her second, The Heir of Night (The Wall Of Night Series, Book One) won the Gemmell Morningstar Award 2012. The sequel, The Gathering Of The Lost, was shortlisted for the Gemmell Legend Award in 2013. Daughter Of Blood, (The Wall Of Night, Book Three) is Helen's most recent book and she is currently working on the fourth and final novel in The Wall Of Night series. Helen posts regularly on her “…on Anything, Really” blog and is also on Twitter: @helenl0we

1 comment:

Kim Falconer said...

I love this post, Helen, especially the highlight of dragons as a metaphor for the unknown.

I wonder if there is a very different relationship to the unknown in Eastern philosophies, hence the celebration of dragons in China vs. the fear of them in the west.

Of course, in Fantasy, we are free to explore both sides in the same context.

Great examples.