Posts Tagged ‘Lucy Ford’

One of my favorite American animated series was Avatar, the Last Airbender, which aired on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008. The show is a children’s adventure set in a quirky, Asian-influenced fantasy world. By turns hilarious and dramatic, it presents the struggle of Aang, last of his tribe, to fight off the rapacious Fire Nation. He’s joined by many friends, chief of whom are Katarra and Sakka from the Southern Water Tribe and Zuhko, a Fire Nation prince who (late in the series) becomes Aang’s comrade in arms.

In Avatar, magic takes the form of “bending.” Through moves similar to a martial art, bending allows people to control one of four elements — Earth, Water, Air and Fire. In charge of it all is the Avatar, the only person who can command all four elements simultaneously. He’s responsible for maintaining the balance of nature and negotiating between spirits and people.

In this series, dragons play a small but important role. As in Asian myth, the dragons are long and thin, with elegant manes and whiskers. Dragons exist in both the physical and spirit worlds. They are wise guardians and advisors to all humans, but especially to the Fire Nation. Dragons were the original source of firebending, although it can’t be said they willingly taught this skill. An enterprising man named Wan watched a white dragon swooping gracefully through the sky. By copying its movements, he was able to master his new element.

Wan taught others what he had learned, and eventually his followers grew to become the Fire Nation. Centuries passed, and it became a tradition that the most powerful Firebenders had dragons as companions. Not pets, mind you — companions who help and protect them but also seem to provide a moral compass.

Throughout the series, there’s a dichotomy of dragons representing yin/yang or good vs. evil. Red dragons are virtuous beings who accompany the most enlightened characters. Blue dragons are vicious creatures who join with forces of hate and greed. It’s a striking way to show who some of the characters really are.

In my next blog, I’ll get into some of the specific dragon characters in Avatar.

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In ancient times, the kingdom of Ethiopia was ruled by King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia. The queen was  beautiful, but proud. She bragged that both she and her daughter, Andromeda, were more lovely even than the Nereids. These sea nymphs were famed for their dazzling beauty and served in the court of the sea god, Poseidon.

Upon hearing Cassiopeia’s boast, Poseidon became very angry. He sent a sea monster named Cetus to ravage the coast of Ethiopia as punishment for her vanity. Descriptions of Cetus vary, from a dragon-like monster to a whale with a dog’s head and massive tusks. Whatever its true form, Cetus caused tremendous flooding and devoured anyone he could catch.

Cepheus and Cassiopeia consulted an oracle of Apollo, who informed them that Poseidon’s wrath could only be soothed by the death of Cassiopeia’s much-boasted daughter. Thus Andromeda was chained to a rock near the sea to await her death-date with Cetus. Fortunately for Andromeda, a hero named Perseus found her before the dragon did.

Perseus was a son of Zeus, returning to Greece after slaying the dreaded Medusa. He had quite the gear on: a Sword of Adamant, loaned by Zeus himself; a Helm of Darkness, loaned by Hades, god of the dead; a mirrored shield, loaned by Athena, goddess of wisdom; and winged sandals, loaned by Hermes, messenger of the gods.

With such divine favor, it should be no surprise that Perseus made short work of Cetus. He wooed the beautiful Andromeda and married her over the objections of her previous betrothed, Phineus. Unlike a lot of the classic heroes, Perseus and Andromeda enjoyed a prosperous marriage. Their children ruled the kingdom of Mycenae, and the great hero Hercules was one of his descendants.

Unfortunately for Cassiopeia, Poseidon still held a grudge. He placed the proud queen in the stars, seated on her throne. But some sources say this chair actually was an ancient torture device, meaning Poseidon had consigned her to eternal agony.

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To recap, we were talking about what we all would like most about being a dragon. The possibilities were a) flight, b) scaly armor, c) fiery breath, d) long life and wisdom, or e) the hoard.

The winner, by a narrow margin, is flight! That sense of freedom just appeals to so many people, including myself.

Number two was fire-breathing. Interestingly, in the classic dragon tales like Fafnir, it’s the breath weapon that was most dreaded. Although Fafnir breathed poisonous gas rather than flame.

Somewhat to my surprise, nobody wanted to be rich or wise. The modern world is so commercial, I figured a lot of people would want the hoard. Perhaps we’re already wise — at least a little.

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I’ve had a few votes in on my informal poll, but not enough to reach a firm concensus. So let me expand on the options and say what I think are some advantages of each.

A) Flight. Besides the incredible fact of flight itself, you could swoop down on unsuspecting enemies. Or, if your enemies weren’t worth your time, you could fly away and let them chase you if they wanted.

B) Scaly armor. Sure, let those little creatures ping their arrows off you. That’s all they’d do — ping!

C) Breath weapons. When you get tired of the pinging, simply breathing out will take care of the problem. That would be pretty handy, you have to admit.

D) Longevity and wisdom. Obviously, nobody wants to die. I believe that wisdom is often overlooked. With long life comes the ability to savor lots of experiences. Wisdom helps you know the difference between idle amusements and significant achievements.

E) Hoard. Money is a big temptation for me. It is, as they say, always the right size.

F) Alien perspective. One comment suggested that dragons having their own priorities and take on life is worth considering, as well.

Anybody else have an opinion of the coolest thing about being a dragon?

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Q: Where does a dragon go to relax?

A: It sits in the sauna.

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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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