• Daniel Kephart

Smiting Dragons: A Guide to Conquering Terror

Where the sky is ablaze with fire and smoke, that's where you'll find what you seek most.

There is a kind of serpent worse than any other. Wreathed in black smog and breathing flame, it possesses dominion not simply over the dust of the ground, but even over the skies. Enter, the dragon.

In the west, the dragon is the greatest embodiment of fear and death. The serpent is that lurking danger, the existential threat waiting in the grass. The dragon, however, is the serpent swelled to the size of a monster. It rules the sky, because when a problem becomes a dragon it threatens the human view of the heavens as well as the earth. Worse still, it breathes fire--for the dragon is all-consuming--and belches smoke--for even the thought of the dragon is enough to choke.

Blessedly, we don't face dragons every day. If we did, life would be miserable. As it is, though, most of us will still encounter a dragon at least once or twice across the course of our lives. When we do, there are only two options: Capitulate or confront.

Capitulating is usually the easier move (at least, in the short-term). Giving in to the dragon here often involves a form of serious denial. Specifics aren't necessary. Sadly, we are all too familiar with what it looks like when someone refuses to acknowledge a serious problem brewing in their life. From a metaphorical standpoint, this denial is closely tied to the smoke and fire the dragon exudes.

Yet the dragon is also in some sense divine, because it illumines the path towards a meaningful life. If the dragon is the seemingly insurmountable obstacle between the hero and her destiny, then the dragon also marks with great clarity the path that must be taken. In the apocalyptic literature of Christianity, for example, the figure of Satan is portrayed as a dragon of cosmic proportions--one so mighty that he sweeps a third of the stars from the sky with his tail (Revelation 12:3-5). In this same chapter, the dragon is specifically marked as the enemy of those who follow the path of the Good.

When faced with a dragon, the appropriate response seems to be to engage it head on. Hence, when Gandalf fights a Balrog (which, while not technically a dragon, is a winged creature of smoke and flame that seems to strongly resemble a dragon) he challenges it with a fire of his own, a "secret fire." There is a suggestion, in Tolkien's mythos, that to smite dragons we must first be prepared to do it on behalf of a greater good. This is why it is Bard of Laketown--the humble fisherman--and not the greedy dwarves who slay the great dragon Smaug. This is why Gandalf the Grey's defeat of the Balrog causes him to be reincarnated as Gandalf the White. Defeating the dragon requires that some element of our current way of life be sacrificed.

This is incredibly optimistic. For one thing, it suggests that our dragons can indeed be defeated. Secondly, it suggests that when we willing make sacrifices in the name of confronting the dragon, we are resurrected and reborn. Like Gandalf, we return to the same world, yet are altered in a substantial way. For my part, I believe this has to do with the self-knowledge such an experience imbues. The alcoholic who walks away from his vice in the name of family learns that not only can he survive without his drug, but that he is the sort of person who has the willpower to make such a choice.

Defeating the dragon, then, is an exercise in sacrifice and self-denial. That's true of most confrontations with the various serpents in our lives, but especially so when one such threat becomes a dragon. That's why the fire image is so critical to dragon mythology: Fire strips away impurities, just as any confrontation with a dragon will. This is, in no small part, why the most heroic acts arise when people are faced with unbelievable tragedies. When the chips are down, really down, then it becomes clear very quickly what people are made of.

This is central to the resurrection motif that undergirds western society. There is an assertion in classical western thought, almost destroyed during the Enlightenment, that humankind is spiritual as well as physical. In other words, your actions matter. They matter so much, in fact, that even death can be faced fearlessly if the good being sought after is lofty enough. Socrates, one of the key figures in the development of western philosophy, encapsulated this perfectly when he uttered his now famous statement upon being sentenced to death: "Do not worry for me. My enemies may kill me, but they cannot harm me."

Socrates understood, to his credit, that a life lived properly renders death impotent. Smiting dragons, it turns out, is no small part of living a meaningful life.

So go forth, hero, and find thy dragon.

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