Dragon Slayer

I’ve been reading, recently, in an attempt to urge my brain towards creativity, and simply because this is what I do when I’m tired, stressed, and overwhelmed. As is my usual (in both writing and reading) I’m working on more than a single book. In no particular order, that would be: Handbook of Formulating Natural Cosmetics by Anthony Dweck (work-related), Beyond Order by Jordan Peterson (superb, dense, rich and chewy), How to Draw Manga (not my style, but interesting perspective), A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf by John Muir (since my plan to become a certified naturalist is on temporary hold), Beneath Devil’s Bridge by Loreth White (Boring enough I skipped to the end, which was at least a twist), Nightmare in Pink by John MacDonald (and others of his, which are all excellent), and The Stillwater Girls by Minka Kent (how can one book get so many things so wrong, and still get that many good reviews? I mean… so very wrong. All the wrong things and I should probably do a full review on this one but it would feel like a hit piece and it would be more of a helplessly clutching my hair muttering ‘that’s not how that works, that’s not how any of this works?’)

As you can likely ascertain from my asides about each title, not all of these are good reads. I definitely don’t recommend what I call the ‘bon-bon’ books in that list, the trashy thriller suspense titles I like as a mental relief from cogitating over Muir or Peterson or even MacDonald. Those are almost always KU, or the Prime First Reads title I get for free – and it’s worth what I pay for it. No, actually, there are months I don’t even grab a free book from their offering because they all look equally terrible, and I’d be losing money in using my time trying to read one. Sometimes I get one because it’s like poking at the gross thing, just to see how gross it really is inside. Yeah, I was that kid.

The good books, though! They get me to stop, and think, and take quotes to share with friends and family. Those are food for the brain. Beyond Order, in particular, is useful to me as a writer. Peterson is explicit in his work on how stories, and storytelling, is useful for mental health and human development.

He, like MacDonald, is clear on one thing: we all need a dragon slayer. Travis McGee may seem an improbable one, a beach bum with a quixotic urge to help the helpless, but nonetheless as you read MacDonald from the beginning (Brass Cupcake) the bleakness of the Floridian sun-drenched horrors does not conceal the underlying message of heroic efforts in the face of certain failure.

Reading Peterson and MacDonald at the same time is a peculiar experience, and I think you ought to try it, as well.

I’m struck by the words of a friend, when I commented on social media that I had not read MacDonald, in spite of my interest in pulp. He said ‘remember they were written in the 60s’ and I should probably go back and ask just what that was supposed to mean. Because yes, the sex is casual in the McGee books. Sometimes. Sometimes it is very much not, and I was surprised at the poignancy and McGee’s worship of the human female, wrapped up as it is in a nice concealing package of cynicism. If the friend was trying to caution me against misogyny, I’m not seeing it. What I am seeing, though, is the other thing that characterizes books of a certain era.

Heroes, dragon slayers who may be reluctant, but when called on they ride out into the dull certain fear of death, because by their death, they may win life for those around them. Not even those they care for, but the mission is to protect. End, stop, no qualifications. They ride against dark evil, the kind of men and women who destroy for the pleasure of destruction. Not against warped villainry that the reader is urged to find sympathy for. The fight is clear-cut. The hero must win through, or all is lost.

And win, he does. At a cost. There is always a cost to the effort of becoming better, as Peterson would put it. When we stop trying to become a better person, then we stop trying to live.

How many stories center around a desire for revenge that burned out of control, leaving only destruction in it’s wake? Cautionary tales, that show us the cost of paying back that which harmed us is perhaps more than the cost of simply bearing the hurt and learning to heal from it.

It’s turning the other cheek. Only, as we see from Travis McGee, sometimes we need a dragon slayer to ride in to the rescue before the blows continue. Only this far, and no further, he drives his lance into the mark at the village’s outskirts. I will let you go, dragon, if you stay on your side. When you come at the innocent again, then the consequences will fall. Innocent? Surely. Small sins are not the same as evil incarnate, and none are fallen here beyond picking up again and dusting off to set them on their feet. Innocent, compared to the dragon.

14 comments

  1. A very good friend of mine tried Peterson and bounced, hard. As it turns out, my friend doesn’t do story. He does language and ideas, but not stories. That’s not how he sees the world – he uses other mental tools. It took me a little aback, because I’m immersed in story and always have been. (My friend loves very heavy philosophy, theology, and literature. And Kipling and Robert Service and Robert Browning.) We both agree on the big things – the existence of evil and the need to deal with it, for example – but his methods and mine are a bit different.

    To not see the world through story . . . The idea had never occurred to me before. But then how often do fish think about water? *wry kitty grin*

    1. I tried Peterson out of curiosity, but started with his lectures which were fantastic and built on the philosophy and psychology classes I’d had in college. The book came recently, and I still have not read his first book. His recent podcasts have been quite interesting, as he is seeking a Truth most earnestly.

      I am also totally immersed in story and use that without thinking. So it would be alien to try and wrap my head around anything else.

  2. If you write in first person, I most strongly recommend the Travis McGee books as THE HowTo for getting that POV to sound easy and natural and immersive (rather than like a stop-action ego trip and wall-banging trigger, as is too often the case).

    What? you didn’t remember they’re in first person? that’s how well it’s done.

    MacDonald also wrote a few SF novels, but it’s been so long since I read ’em, that’s literally all I remember about ’em.

    1. I do write in first person, for some stories. Not all, and I usually try not to, as many people are like you and don’t care for it. I very much have been enjoying McGee.

      1. Not so much that I don’t care for first person (tho it’s not my first choice) as that I’ve seen way too much that sucks… to where it’s almost an automatic back-on-the-shelf. The exception being gumshoes, which sound really odd in 3rd.

  3. Somebody (G. K. Chesterton?) once said “Fairy Tales don’t tell children that monsters exist as they already know this. Fairy Tales tell children that monsters can be slain.”

  4. “Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

    What you cite is the placeholder Neil Gaiman wrote figuring he would look it up later. Then he forgot it was a placeholder.

        1. Nit Picker! [Wink]

          Seriously, it may have been a paraphrase of what he said, but I’ll still credit him.

          Oh, Tremendous Trifles is free in the Kindle Store.

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