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Archive for September, 2012

Several months ago, I touched on the video game Skyrim, which has a major story line involving dragons. Now that I’ve been able to play it thoroughly, I give the game very high marks. Not that this surprised me; I’ve been a fan of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series since Morrowind was released in 2000.

These games feature great graphics, great music, and great voicing. They are what’s called open-world games, where your character can roam anywhere, explore everything, join guilds and decide the fate of worlds (or just track down a stolen necklace). In most video games, you can only play the one story line over and over, with various character classes. With an open-world game, every character is different and the story never unfolds the same way twice.

Another thing I really like about Elder Scrolls games is that you have to play solo. No crowded online worlds where strangers hit on you, or kill your character and steal its equipment. And no tawdry auction houses where people try to turn a fun amusement into a full time career. Thank you, Bethesda!!

Well, what about those dragons? Visually, they are impressive creatures: big and spiky and full of mean. According to the Skyrim lore, dragons were the originators of all magic and brutal masters of the lesser races. When a dragon unleashes its breath weapon, it is essentially shouting its power in dragonese. Beyond that, however, most of the dragons don’t have much to say. They all attack you for no reason, and Alduin himself was a bit of a weenie.

Although the graphics in these games just gets better, the story is not quite as good as in the previous game. There’s no central figure like Martin Septim of Oblivion. However, the storytelling in Skyrim is still vastly superior to most other  fantasy games (don’t get me started on Diablo III…) and the replay value is outstanding. I spent a good six months playing different characters in Oblivion, and I expect to do the same with Skyrim.

Since the game has now been out for a few months, you can get used copies for a reasonable price. But even if you opt to buy new, you still get your money’s worth. I can’t recommend this game highly enough.

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Dragonology was the first of the popular “Ology” series — novelty books that present fantastic subject matter as if it was a science, within a fictional framework. The reader is drawn into exploring folklore through the presentation of incredible “careers.”

It’s easy to see why Dragonology is so popular. The book is big and colorful, jammed with all kinds of great art, and there are lots of fun touches. Pull-out cards with letters from famous dragonologists. Samples of “dragon skin” to touch. Lift-the-flap pieces that show dragon anatomy inside and out. A “dragon script,” which fascinated my daughter endlessly when she was 10. (It looks, to me, an awful lot like Futhark runes of Scandinavian antiquity.)

The material included is part traditional lore (dragon legends from all over the world) and part new fiction (the dragonologist society of the title). There’s even a faux conservation statement about the rarity of dragons in the modern world. This is a great way to introduce kids to dragon lore.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find out a lot about The Templar Company. They’re a publisher based in Britain, sure. They credit Wayne Anderson, Douglas Card, and Halen Ward as illustrators, but there’s nothing to say who wrote the text. That’s a bit of a disappointment to me. I guess this is one of those for-hire projects where the authors signed away their right to be recognized.

Dragonology, published in 2003, started the Ology series off with a bang. It’s grown to encompass lots of SF and fantasy adventure, from aliens to pirates to wizards, and more. Even if you’re well over ten, Dragonology is still a pretty fun read.

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After a couple of weeks delving into the realm of various large reptiles, I’m returning to where my blog began: reviews of books about dragons. Jessica Day George’s “Dragon Slippers” is the first in a series for middle-grades. (That’s grades 4 – 6, for those of you who aren’t children’s writers.)

The initial volume is a fun riff on the legend of a young maiden sacrificed to a dragon. As in many of these books, the maiden rescues herself. The dragon, it turns out, is not a ravaging beast, but a quite civilized collector of shoes. Set free, young Creel sets off in pursuit of her dream, which is to own her a fine dress shop. But before she goes, she wins the right to take one pair of shoes from her unwilling host. She chooses a pair of beautiful blue slippers. Little does Creel know the power in her new shoes, or the danger it will bring upon her kingdom.

The dragons in this book live in hiding, separated from humans they once had a warmer relationship with. Upending another myth, George sets her dragons up not as greedy hoarders, but as connoisseurs who carefully select items for their enjoyment. Each dragon has its own passion: in addition to the shoes, dragons collect stained glass, and even dogs. In a series of clever twists, the various collections actually play a role in the unfolding plot.

Creel’s adventures bring her up against a wicked princess, and into collaboration with a good prince who looks like he will become more than a friend. The whole thing is somewhat light and fluffy, though engaging. Most of the characters are silly in one way or another. Nevertheless, it makes a good read for kids in the target audience, or for adults who want to relax with something quick and light.

The books in the series are Dragon Slippers (2007), Dragon Flight (2008), and Dragon Spear (2010). George also has written a number of stand-alone novels, all based on fairy tales and published by Bloomsbury USA.

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Now we come to the very largest, and possibly the most dragon-like, living thing on Earth: the salt water crocodile. Crocodiles are a large family, with a fossil record to the Eocene age (after the dinosaurs, but before deciduous trees became widespread). The crocodile clan includes a lot of really big animals, including American alligators (13 feet average, but up to 19 feet), Nile crocodile (average 16 feet, but up to 18 feet), Mugger crocodiles (10 feet average and up to 16 feet) and black caimen (up to 13 feet).

But the Saltwater is the undisputed champion. These bad boys routinely get to be 16 feet long and older males frequently exceed 20 feet. Obviously, we all know they are ambush hunters who hide in water and lunge out at unwary prey. That can definitely include people; all the animals I’ve listed except for the caiman can be man-eaters. Salty and Nile crocodiles claim several hundred lives every year in Africa and through Southeast Asia.

In addition to being able to lurk in water, most crocodiles are fast runners over short distances. They have a fearsome set of teeth and a lot of mass to hit with. Sounds pretty dragon-like to me! However, they opportunistic hunters and merely grab what comes near, rather than setting out to hunt prey. It pays to be alert in croc or gator country.

Like the goanna I mentioned in an earlier post, Saltwater crocodiles appear in Aboriginal legend. One folk tale tells that the Crocodile once was the only creature that had fire in its camp. The Rainbow Bird asked the Crocodile to share, but he wouldn’t. After many requests had been rebuffed, the Rainbow Bird got angry. He swooped down from a tree to snatch a stick from the fire, but he missed. Later, the Crocodile turned away, and the Rainbow Bird grabbed a burning branch. He flew up into the trees and vowed to share his prize with humans. Rainbow Bird put the fire stick on his rump. (I assume this means the color of fire was on his feathers afterward.) From that time on, crocodiles only lived in water, and the Rainbow Bird lives in desert areas.

I’ve enjoyed exploring legends about reptiles here on Earth, but the thread has gone about as far as I can take it. At least, until someone proves the existence of the Loch Ness Monster!

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As promised, I’m finally coming to one of the most obvious candidates to be considered a “real dragon,” the famous Komodo dragon. These are the world’s largest lizards (though not the largest reptiles) at 10 feet long. They currently dwell on four islands in Indonesia, though they once ranged more widely. One of these, Flores Island, is the same place where “hobbit” fossils were found in 2003.

Like gorillas, Komodo dragons were rumored to exist long before they were officially “discovered” by Dutch colonial authorities in 191o. Such an impressive creature immediately became an object of fascination. Indeed, an expedition to Komodo Island is named as one inspiration for the famous movie, “King Kong.” Realizing how few of these animals actually existed, the Dutch acted to ban sport hunting and limit live collection for zoos. Today the dragons are recognized as an endangered species and protected by the government of Indonesia.

The origin of this species is subject to debate among herpetologists. Some believe their ancestors were smaller monitor lizards who reached the islands by sea. Finding themselves the sole predators on the islands, they grew much larger, a phenomenon known as “island gigantism.” However, fossil evidence suggests they may be survivors of a large monitor species that lived in the region during the last Ice Age, when many animals were super-sized compared to their modern descendants.

Like all monitor lizards, Komodo dragons are carnivores who ambush prey and also feed on carrion. The common wisdom is that their mouths are so full of bacteria that their bite causes lethal infections. They bite once and follow the prey until it succumbs. Beginning in 2009, analysis of skulls showed that they actually are venomous. As if they weren’t already scary enough?

Also like all monitor lizards, Komodo dragons are smart and at least semi-social. It isn’t the close clan we think of from wolves or lions, but they do have a hierarchy with the biggest animals on top, and in some cases Komodo dragons may form monogamous pairs. In zoos, it’s reported that these lizards can tell one person from another, and that they may like some keepers more than others. They have been known to play with items in their exhibits.

Even more amazing, Komodo dragons in zoos have demonstrated parthenogenesis. On at least three different occasions, females produced eggs without being mated to a male. The eggs that hatched were all males. This suggests an evolutionary strategy to sustain the species in isolated locations, like islands.

Come back next Tuesday for the last stop (for now) on our world tour of “real dragons.”

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Any time you have a 6-foot or larger beastie in the environment, it’s bound to be noticed by native peoples.  That definitely applies to monitor lizards, the dragon-like reptile family I’ve been focused on in this blog thread. Not only have various species been hunted as food, but they also act as characters in fables and myths.

Goannas are a sub-family of monitor lizards, some 30 species found mostly in Australia. Together with the Perentie, another large monitor, they appear frequently in Indigenous Australian folklore. They are a totem animal in some Dreaming stories.

In the tale of “How the Goanna and Perentie Got Their Colors,” it is said that the two lizards agreed to paint each other for an important ceremony. The Perentie carefully painted an intricate design on the Goanna, but the Goanna was in a hurry and just slapped some paint on the Perentie. When the Perentie saw itself reflected in a pond, it was angry and chased the Goanna into a tree. The Perentie cursed the Goanna to always live in the trees, while the Perentie lived among rocks and boulders. To this day, each of them lives apart.

There are also more modern stories about Goannas, dating to the colonial period. One is that, because they are so large, goannas will grab a whole sheep and drag it away from its flock. By implication, goannas could also be a danger to small children — but this seems to be more a story to scare tourists than anything real.

Goannas were believed immune to all snake venom. Some said this immunity came from drinking out of a sacred spring, or eating a magical plant. Native Australians once rendered goanna fat to use as a medicine. Apparently it was sold like “snake oil” among European settlers.

Another lizard used in folk medicine is the Rock Monitor of South Africa. In countries heavily affected by AIDS, some residents apparently have stopped the standard medical treatment and instead inject themselves with Rock Monitor blood.

In India, the Bengal Monitor is believed to be poisonous — though sometimes only its breath is poisonous, or sometimes only in the monsoon season. There, too, the fat is rendered as a medicine. According to legend, a war in the 1600s was decided when a general climbed the walls of a fortress using ropes tied onto a Bengal Monitor.

Next time, I’ll talk about the biggest lizard in the world — the Komodo Dragon.

 

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Yes, this is the last episode of the series! I hope you’ve enjoyed my tales in the style of the Brothers Grimm. Get ready to switch gears with the Martial Arts fable, “Lady Swallow.”

You can listen to the podcast on Podbean or my web site. Comments are welcome. In fact, I always get a kick out of hearing which story people liked or didn’t like the most, so let me hear from you!

Time notes: Introduction, 0:08; Story, 0:55; Author remarks, 20:11; End credits, 21:30; Total run time, 23:05.

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