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Archive for August, 2012

No, I’m not hallucinating. I’m just going to step away from folklore for a moment. In the past I’ve talked about the largest flying dinosaurs and birds that we know from fossils. Now I’ll be taking a look at a few living creatures that resemble dragons.

Tuatara are often referred to as “living fossils.” The two species living today are survivors of a reptile family that thrived during the age of dinosaurs, 200 million years ago. Tuatara look a lot like lizards, but they aren’t. Their backbones are rather like those of fish, their legs are rather like those of amphibians, and their back ridges are rather like those of crocodiles. Amazingly, tuatara also have a photo-sensitive area that’s sometimes called a “third eye.” Scientists aren’t sure what it’s for.

These are not the world’s biggest reptiles, but they do reach a respectable 2-1/2 feet. They are long lived, up to 100 years, and they are slow to mature and reproduce. Environmental changes, like hunting by humans and invasive rats, have reduced their range considerably.

Tuatara were once found all over New Zealand. Modern populations can only thrive on small islands were rats are not present. These are mostly around the North Island of New Zealand. Rat extermination does seem to help young tuatara survive, and conservation programs have helped expand their range.

However, research shows that the ambient temperature plays a role in determining whether eggs develop into male or female animals. There’s some concern that, as global warming increases, fewer and fewer female tuatara will hatch. Eventually these ancient survivors may join the rest of their kin in extinction.

Native people in New Zealand had a number of folk beliefs about tuatara. They were believed to be messengers of Whiro, the deity controlling disasters and death. They were also considered to be divine guardians who kept people about of taboo areas. Women did not eat tuatara meat, and evidently some women tattooed images of tuatara on their bodies — presumably to guard their fertility. Today, native people regard tuatara as national treasures and an important part of their heritage.

 

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New Zealand author Sherryl Jordan offers a Medieval fantasy with an interesting combination of realistic history and science. There’s no magic at all, unless you count the dragons themselves. The setting is in England, and the tale is told from the viewpoint of Jude, a farmer boy turned hero who struggles to understand himself and the world around him. Joining him on his quest is a young Chinese girl named Jing-Wei, who originally works as a freak in the circus that takes Jude in after the tragic death of his parents.

I have some question that there truly were Chinese enclaves in England at the time of Black Death. The description of foot-binding and the suffering Jing-Wei endures to reverse it, is certainly wrenching. I also enjoyed many details of life in the monastery where Jude and Jing-Wei recover from their ordeal.

The dragon of the tale is part cipher and part force of nature. Though certainly impressive, the character was a little disappointing. However, the means Jing-Wei devises to combat it is interesting and true to science.

This book is good for ages 8-12, but might not hold the interest of older readers who are accustomed to more edgy material.

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Episode 4 includes the short story “The Changling Daughter” and runs about 16 minutes. You can hear is on Podbean or my web site.

If you like the story, please leave feedback. And, by all means, tell your friends who like fairy tales about The Dragon King podcast.

Time notes: Introduction, 0:10; Story, 0:50; Author comments, 13:50; End credits, 15:10; Total run time, 16:30.

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Pardon me while I step away from the topic of dragons to tell you that MY NEW BOOK IS OUT!!

Yes, Sky Warrior has released The Seven Exalted Orders. What’s it about? Young wizards on the run from an oppressive system, and the other young wizards who are trying to catch them. Plus romance, intrigue, and second chances.

Currently The Seven Exalted Orders is available only in e-book form, but a paper edition is possible in the future. You can buy it through Smashwords or Amazon.

Thanks for bearing with me, and of course, any feedback on the book would be welcome. Not to mention referrals to your friends who have book blogs.

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I didn’t think this was possible, actually. My impression was that all Asian dragons are creatures of pure goodness. Legend proves me wrong, however.

My last post on this topic explained that, if you’re looking at a dragon picture, you can tell some things about the subject by how it is portrayed. This applies just as much to wicked dragons. An evil dragon will always be shown flying downward, away from the heavens. The expression is scary rather than lively, and its body may appear skinny or sickly. Also, it may have flaws such as bushy eyebrows and whiskers on its nose that symbolize old age. A bad dragon is likely to be colored white or black, the colors of mourning and negative emotions respectively.

Happily, there are fewer evil dragons than good ones in Japanese lore. Here are a few I learned about.

Yamata-no-Orochi was a sea dragon with eight heads. A man-eater, its belly was always always bloody and seaweed grew on its back. Legend tells that it was slain by a warrior named Susanou after he got all eight heads to drink sake.

Uwibami was a terrible flying dragon who snatched men off horseback and devoured them.

Another evil sea dragon was Yofune-nushi. This dragon preferred young women, and was slain by a girl named Tokoyo. According to the story, she blinded the dragon with a dagger, then sliced its neck open when it reared back in pain.

Far less vicious is O-Goncho, the white dragon of famine. Pictures I’ve seen indicate this dragon is sad rather than angry. The O at the start of his name is a sign of great respect, so perhaps at shrines people would pray for him not to come to their land.

As a final word on dragons in Japanese art, dragons are associated more with Buddhist belief than with Shinto, the traditional religion. Shinto shrines tend to be guarded by statues of shishi (lion-dogs), kitsune (foxes) or monkeys. Dragons do appear in shrine architecture, but they’re much more common in Buddhist temples.

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Episode 3 of my podcast is now up on Podbean or my web site. This week’s short story is called “The Beggar of Banberelle.”

As always, any feedback would be welcome.

Time notes: Introduction 0:10; Story reading, 0:50; Author remarks, 15:24; End credits, 16:25; Total run time, 17:55.

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Continuing on the thread of dragons from Japan, I’d like to mention a few specific characters that crop of up in folklore. First, let me explain that Japanese illustrators give us a few clues in their work that tell us if dragons are “good” or not.

A good dragon is shown flying upward, not down. Its body appears healthy and supple, with a vigorous pose and lively expression. Although many Chinese illustrations show the dragon with a pearl or sun, the Japanese pictures I’ve seen don’t seem to have that accessory.

Color is a big indicator of the individual dragon’s identity. Even so, it’s often difficult to tell which dragon is being depicted unless there’s something like a story or song associated with the art. With that in mind, these are some characters I learned about in my research.

Fuku Ryu is a green dragon who brings good luck. This dragon is one of the most popular, gets mentioned a lot, and seems to be the model for a lot of dragon tattoos.

Ryu Jin is an important character, king of the sea and defender of the Shinto faith. He rules from a large coral palace, but often moves about on land in the form of a human. He is known for great wisdom and kindness. When people drown at sea, it’s said they have gone to Ryu Jin’s kingdom, the same way Westerners might say a drowned sailor “is in Davy Jones’s locker.”

Sei Ryu is a blue-green dragon that comes from the east and is a bringer of rain. There’s some confusion with Sui Ryu, another rain dragon. When Sui Ryu is in pain, the rain is red with its blood. Now, who would ever want to hurt a wonderful dragon that brings the rain?

Ka Ryu, the smallest dragon, is bright red. In some stories, its body is made of fire.

Han Ryu is very large and has stripes of many colors. Though it flies high, it can never reach the heavens. Sounds like something we can all relate to.

Speaking of the heavens, there is also a goddess, Benten, who watches over all dragons and stops those who are doing harm. When she has to intervene, she descends from the heavens on a dragon’s back.

That’s a good sample of good Japanese dragon characters. On Tuesday, I’ll be looking at the other side of the coin.

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