Peter Dickinson, |
The Flight of Dragons
reissued by Overlook, 1998)
Peter Dickinson is an award-winning novelist, a hopeless romantic and a wide-eyed dreamer. To write The Flight of Dragons, he became a scientist.
It's true. In a brightly written and gorgeously illustrated "textbook," Dickinson sets out to prove the existence of dragons. Believe it or not, he does a pretty job of it in a series of compelling, convincingly intertwined arguments. (Don't rush out to find a dragon, though -- Dickinson says they're extinct. Too bad.)
He tries, and succeeds, to "put together a coherent theory which is at least as probable as the theory that dragons are completely legendary." That means tackling draconic particulars like breathing fire, flying, nesting on gold and consuming noble virgins.
Although by no means dry, Dickinson's text certainly sounds scholarly, and his arguments are persuasive. For instance, he delves deeply into the physics and mechanics of flight to ascertain the weight and wing spans necessary to get a dragon-sized creature off the ground. He determines that, to fly, a dragon would have to be nearly weightless, using its bat-like wings for navigation, not actual flight.
Like birds, he concludes, dragons would need to have hollow bones. Unlike birds, he believes dragons also had gaseous sacs providing lift -- like natural zeppelins.
Sounds a little far-fetched, maybe. But Dickinson doesn't stop there. Tackling dragon evolution with Darwinian thoroughness, he extrapolates further theories from that initial assumption. The dragons would breathe fire to vent the volatile gases, he explains, lest they explode in messy combustion. The dragons' unique chemistry would lead to corrosive blood, which would dissolve dragon corpses after death, leaving no fossil record. And, because of their light weight, frail bones and gaseous interior, dragons would be extremely vulnerable to well-armored men with pointy swords.
Dickinson even goes so far as to explain the details of dragon evolution and life cycles, as well as the specific techniques of dragon-slaying. He provides chemical and biological rationales for the legendary dragon's gold hoard. As a bonus, he maps out dragon sightings in Britain and contrasts traits of the European and Chinese dragons. (Chinese dragons were wingless, did not breathe fire and were generally more benevolent than their Western counterparts.)
Dickinson must have done a great deal of research into biology, zoology and other natural sciences -- not to mention dragon lore -- to prepare an argument so complete, so articulate. I can only imagine how much fun it must have been to prepare his case and then find the facts to defend it.
Scattered throughout the book are supporting passages from ancient texts (the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Homer's Iliad, Beowulf, the Mabinogion, the Prose Edda, Pliny's Natural History and the Bible and modern stories (Anne McCaffrey's Dragonflight, Gordon R. Dickson's The Dragon and the George, Ursula Le Guin's The Farthest Shore and J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. I'm not sure what they prove, but they're interesting and fun to read nonetheless.
Dickinson's text is complemented by the extensive artwork of Wayne Anderson, who draws good dragon. He provides a colorful mix of realistic and cartoony art, both in color and black and white, which accents without overwhelming the writing.
The Flight of Dragons is an excellent "resource" for anyone who believes -- or wants to believe -- in dragons. Even skeptics might come away doubting those dogmatic scientists who place dragons solely in the realm of fantasy and imagination.
[ by Tom Knapp ]