How a child deals with dragons signals adult mental health
By Josie Glausiusz
June 11, 2014
A retired Brit has spent 13 years shaping a 150-foot-long privet hedge near his cottage in East Rudham, Norfolk, into the form of an enormous dragon. “I was standing at my kitchen sink one day and thought the hedge was boring so decided to do something with it,” John Brooker, 75, told the BBC last month.
I was especially happy to read of Mr. Brooker’s endeavor because dragons have been on my mind of late. My three-year-old daughter has developed a fear of them at bedtime.
This led me to wonder why mythical beasts hold such a strong grip on the human imagination. Dragons were not always seen as entirely mythical, either: in medieval bestiaries—illustrated treatises on animals, both imaginary and real—dragons, unicorns, and griffins were described alongside elephants, lions, and goats. Such bestiaries drew upon a second-century A.D. Greek text, Physiologus, whose unknown author—thought to be a Christian ascetic living in Alexandria, Egypt—drew moral tales from the animals’ behavior.
But dragon legends most likely originated, as well, in sagas told about real, predatory beasts: Nile crocodiles or tigers or the lore woven around fossils of dinosaurs and whales. As David Quammen describes in his book Monster of God, mythical monsters such the Biblical Leviathan—from whose mouth leap sparks of fire, and whose nostrils breathe smoke and kindle coals—are “one culture’s sanctified exemplum of the alpha predator,” the “great and terrible flesh-eating beasts [that] have always shared landscape with humans.”
One of my favorite descriptions of a fantastic flesh-eating sea beast appears in The Whale Book, a facsimile and translation of illustrated manuscripts compiled by 16th-century Dutch amateur biologist and illustrator Adriaen Coenen. The “great and wondrous” Norwegian sea serpent, he wrote, “has hanging hair and very sharp scales, is black in color and has keen, brightly colored eyes.” More than 200 feet long, it “usually lurks near rocks and caves beside the coast near Bergen in Norway,” and only leaves its cave on summer nights to eat calves, lambs, and pigs. From time to time, “it can rise high out of the water like a column and then drags the people out of the ships and eats them.”
Why should monsters and dragons appear so early in children’s imaginations? Psychoanalyst Selma Fraiberg, author of The Magic Years: Understanding and Handling the Problems of Early Childhood, wrote that the world of early childhood is both magical and unstable, even spooky. As a child gropes toward reason, he or she “must wrestle with the dangerous creatures of his imagination and the real and imagined dangers of the outer world.” The child’s future mental health does not depend upon the presence or absence of ogres in his fantasy life, but rather, she said, “It depends upon the child’s solution of the ogre problem.”
My daughter’s solution, it seems, is to discuss and dissect the salient features of dragon world before bedtime. In the encroaching darkness, we talk about what we’d do if we saw a dragon walking down our street, what we’d say to it, and how we’d fight it.
My friend and fellow science journalist Patricia Gadsby puts her perspective on dealing with childhood fears: “We all know there be monsters under the bed, which is why we perfect the long-jump as children.” Dragons, she says, are stand-ins for inchoate adult fears. To defeat that dread, “it helps if the dragon has goofy teeth, and you can laugh at him/her/it.”
And then I realized why Mr. Brooker’s bushy garden dragon made me so happy. It was not so much that he had turned a hedge into a fearsome, voracious creature. It was that he had transformed that fearsome, fire-breathing creature into a hedge.
Josie Glausiusz writes about science and the environment for magazines that include Nature, National Geographic, Scientific American Mind, Discover, New Scientist, and Wired. From 2013 to 2015 she wrote The American Scholar’s “On Science” blog. Her Hakai Magazine article, “Land Divided, Coast United,” won Amnesty International Canada's 2015 Online Media Award.