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Control the dragon, conquer your fear

When Drogon mounted the tower in The Battle of the Bastards episode, displaying himself as a majestic monster, fans of the TV show Game of Thrones were awestruck. It was ever so gratifying to watch him obediently land on the ground, next to Daenerys Targaryen, the ‘Mother of Dragons’ herself.

Our fascination with dragons is rather ancient. Remember the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf? Towards the end of the story, when an aged Beowulf was unable to fight a dragon, his younger companion Wiglaf slayed it. It was probably the first account of a fire-breathing dragon. A little later came the Epic of Gilgamesh, in which Gilgamesh slayed the fire-breathing, fanged beast Humbaba. Then, there was the Norse legend of Sigurd killing Fafnir who was cursed to become a dragon. The Iranian epic Shahnameh too contains several stories of dragon slayers.

Many other works of literature contain stories of heroes slaying huge serpents, if not dragons. The Hindu God Krishna is known to have defeated Kalinga, an enormous and poisonous sea serpent. Interestingly, this story is very similar to the Greek hero Hercules fighting Hydra, also a giant sea serpent. Even the Norse-hero Thor slayed Jormungand, the serpent child of Loki.

It may well have been the case that ancient literature gave birth to the adage ‘Slay the dragon, conquer your fear’.

It’s fascinating how several stories can be so similar, despite being separated by continents with barely any connectivity. Anthropologist David Jones in his book An Instinct for Dragons hypothesises that humans–like apes–have genetically developed instinctive fearful reactions to reptiles, large cats and birds of prey. He observes that dragons have features that resemble these animals. And so, he theorises that this instinctive fear is why dragons are recurring mythical creatures in several cultures.

Dr Jones’ theory certainly seems to hold true for the dragons mentioned in ancient texts from across the world. After all, our ancestors did live in harsh conditions. It was only natural for them to fear such animals. And so, it may well have been the case that ancient literature gave birth to the adage ‘Slay the dragon, conquer your fear’. But what about the dragons in contemporary texts? Say, Smaug from J R R Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. Or Drogon, Rhaegal and Viserion from George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Are these dragons a representation of our instinctive fear as well? Maybe.

Tolkien himself is known to have explained in an interview that he was always fascinated by dragons because he found them terrifying. He had said: “Dragons always attracted me as a mythological element. They seemed to be able to comprise human malice and bestiality together so extraordinarily well, and also a sort of malicious wisdom and shrewdness– terrifying creatures!”

There’s a close connection between fear and thrill. Many of us revel in feeling threatened. We watch horror movies, read books with gore, or play games that make our hair stand up. We’d only be lying if we claimed we’re not spooked at all. In fact, it is this spook factor we seek out in such activities. It’s what thrills us. Even neuroscientists have found that the same parts of our brains respond to both fear and thrill.

Slowly, there seems to be a shift from dragon-slaying to dragon-riding. A rather subtle transformation from fear to thrill, it would appear.

In a study on the relationship between fear and thrill, adventure tourism researcher Dr Ralf C Buckley writes: “Suggestions of links between thrill and fear are longstanding. (…) Fear is considered a negative emotion, and thrill positive. Such links would thus represent a transition from negative to positive valence.” Is that what a dragon is–an amalgamation of human fears and thrills? Are we attempting to transform our negative emotion of fear into a positive thrill of witnessing a battle between a hero and a dragon?

According to psychologist Tishya Mahindru Shahani, it is certainly a possibility. She explains, “As humans, we’re innately curious about our dark side. So, we may seek to overcome our fears through thrills.” It is possible that a mythical hero defeating a ferocious dragon in literature or films satiates this need of ours, albeit vicariously, she says.

Traditionally, dragons have been depicted as ferocious monsters to be slayed by brave heroes. However, contemporary fiction paints a different picture. In Game of Thrones, Daenerys becomes the Dragon Queen not by slaying dragons, but by hatching their eggs, raising them and controlling them. In the animated movie How to Train Your Dragon, the protagonist Hiccup eventually earns the respect of his dragon-slaying Viking peers when he shows them dragons can be trained.

Slowly, there seems to be a shift from dragon-slaying to dragon-riding. A rather subtle transformation from fear to thrill, it would appear. It takes a lot of courage to slay a dragon, but a great deal more to train one. And so, the adage seems to be changing to ‘Ride the dragon, feel the thrill’. After all, why wouldn’t we love the idea of a ferocious dragon under the hero’s control? That would give the protagonist greater power. Today, then, dragons aren’t simply a representation of humans conquering their fears, but a test of power.

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