Are there Canadian dragons? And if there are, what are they like? Canada is far too young a country to have ever had a population that naively believed in dragons of the European variety. By the time Europeans settled the land, dragons were known to be myths, creatures of the imagination. Besides, leathery wings and smoking nostrils seem quite out of their element in moose and beaver territory. Once upon a time, Canada may have been home to dinosaurs and, upon the arrival of the first Americans across the Bering Strait, the megafauna, such as woolly mammoths, but ultimately the cold seasons are far too adverse to the breeding of reptiles–of any species, real or imagined.
There are monsters and demons particular to Canada, found in First Nations and early settler folklore. Nightmares such as the windigo, who was said to devour travelers who strayed too far into the bush. But dragons belong to another ecology than the vast boreal forests of the Canadian North, which so fits the particular flavour of horror associated with the windigo.
Modern times have only further driven away the dragons, as cities and other human habitations have tamed the wilderness to such an extent that even the windigo has become obsolete. Let alone the flying lizards of legend. Today a Google search for ‘Canadian dragon’ gives you pictures of dragon boats, roller-coasters, and Kevin O’Leary.
All this is not to say, however, that dragons have never been imagined in Canada. Only to say that the imagining of dragons encounters resistance. While dragons appear in the novels of many Canadian fantasy authors–I’m thinking of the dragon in The Darkest Road by Guy Gavriel Kay especially–two Canadian poets have drawn portraits of dragons: Michael Ondaatje in The Dainty Monsters and Gwendolyn MacEwen in The Shadow-Maker.
Michael Ondaatje’s most famous for writing The English Patient, but before he hit mainstream success, he was an experimental novelist and poet. His later poetry, in Secular Love, becomes increasingly autobiographical and confessional, but his first book of poems is The Dainty Monsters, a bestiary of poems published and printed by Coach House Press.
In “Dragon,” Ondaatje draws the fantastic beast as the quintessential ‘dainty monster.’ “I have been seeing dragons again,” claims its speaker, implying that he might be hallucinating, that he shouldn’t be seeing them, but he is. The initial image is almost a code that says ‘This is how dragons are in Canada': while canoeing in a lake the speaker sees a dragon “hunched over a beaver dam.” Far from the fire-breathing terror of villages and castles, this dragon “clutched a body like a badly held cocktail.” This is a dragon who is drunk and should go home.
Dragons are usually challenged by knights in shining armour who try to rescue princesses from their dens. But Ondaatje’s dainty dragon gets “tangled in our badminton net.” The only thing left of this dragon’s fiery breath, his greatest weapon, is “an extinct burning inside” as the speaker’s four badminton buddies and their “excited spaniel surrounded him.” This is a dragon entirely emasculated and surrounded by the artificial world that humans have built up around themselves. Rather than ravaging humanity, the dragon, representing the unknown dangers of nature, has now, in a world where nature is no longer the Other but tamed, become thing about as harmful as, say, a deer.
In Rat Jelly‘s poem “The Ceremony: A Dragon, a Hero, and a Lady, by Uccello,” Ondaatje returns to the dragon myth from the angle of an ekphrasis on the painting of Saint George and the Dragon by Uccello. His poem evokes the dynamism of the famous painting, which depicts Saint George, the Patron Saint of England, lancing a dragon through the eye. The landscape of the painting is somewhere between an artificial courtyard and a natural setting by a cave.
“A boy-knight shafts the dragon’s eye / –the animal with a spine of claws” writes Ondaatje. “The horse’s legs are bent like lightening. / The boy is perfect in his angle.” The painting is in movement but captures the perfect moment of the dragon’s death, an arrangement artificially staged like a ceremony. This poem reflects Ondaatje’s interest in the dialectic between order and the natural world that characterizes his Henri Rousseau poems, such as “Henry Rousseau and Friends,” and, I believe, anticipates his interest in the movement and caught motion, which becomes a principle aesthetic concern in “‘The gate in his head.'”
Gwendolyn MacEwen’s Canadian dragon is not especially Canadian, but rather appears at first to take after the European kind like Ondaatje’s second dragon poem. But on second thought, her dragon might be Near Eastern–not Chinese, but Mesopotamian. Fascinated by all things exotic, MacEwen’s interest was in Tiamat, the Babylonian goddess of chaos who took the form of a dragon and whose body, after her death at the hands of Marduk, was used to create the heaven and earth. Although this myth doesn’t appear per se in her poem “The Taming of the Dragon” in The Shadow-Maker, the theme of chaos becoming order remains a primary concern.
MacEwen’s dragon has become dainty. “Once the monster’s jaws unfolded fire / but now how harmless are his claws / and all his teeth are capped with gold.” He’s even become a vegetarian: “between his teeth / are bits of flowers, for he’s sworn off flesh; he seems so glad and foolish.” Rather than positioning the dragon in modern-day Canadian spaces like Ondaatje does, MacEwen places him in the mental space of myth itself. The speaker, whom one can read as a creative poet-figure, mourns the loss of the dragon not because it is a noble creature, but because she mourns “how I used to stand / stricken white in his dreadful breath.” Her speaker needs a relationship with death in order to attain purity. White is the colour of purity and the albedo, the stage of purification in the alchemical process. Dragon’s breath, which is fire, is the agent by which she can achieve the albedo. But now that chaos has been tamed, she has lost the danger that provides the impetus to creativity.
The tamed dragon wears a wreath around his neck and “seems so glad and foolish” now that he has been rewarded with what could be laurels–the traditional symbol for poetic acclaim. MacEwen’s dragon shows how creativity, which thrives on danger and looming death, dies when it is tamed with praise and recognition.
Ondaatje and MacEwen adopt an attitude towards the dragon as an extinct animal, both finding within the monster a symbol for how the chaos and danger of previous medieval worlds have become order and tameness in our modernity. Canada is an inhospitable land for dragons, according to these poets, partly because it is and only has been modern. Differing from mainstream urban fantasy authors who find no trouble in writing dragons into the modern world, these poets reflect on why it is so difficult and jarring to imagine such monsters invading our comfortable, dainty lives. Yet imagine dragons they do.
What is gained by even trying to imagine such a connection to a mythic past in our seemingly unmythical and unhistorical world, which resists dragons so totally? Is it nostalgia? A desire to live among symbols? This is one of the great questions mythic writing and fantasy ask.
In “A Toronto Home for Birds and Manticores” Ondaatje’s speaker briefly expresses a desire for some kind of connection to myth–that a mythic past might emerge as a result of an archaeology not of dirt but of snow: “When snows have melted / how dull to find just grass and dog shit. / Why not the polemic bones of centaurs.” The question of “Why not?” is what Ondaatje asks himself in “Dragon,” but all he finds is an answer to the ‘not.’ MacEwen attempts to mythologize the city of Toronto in her Noman books, but as the title suggests, living a mythic reality in Canada is an alienating struggle.
MacEwen in “The Thin Garden” suggests that these great myths cannot be found in Canada, but must be found outside: “No traveller comes here from innocence / but for that myth the snow cannot provide, / and all our histories lie outside.” For MacEwen, this ‘outside’ was Egypt and Mesopotamia. She suggests what many fantasy authors–even ones willing to let dragons live in the modern day–have found to be true in Canada: the myths can only be imported from elsewhere–such as from the Middle East, or, I add, England and Europe–for want of an established native mythology. Of course, there are Native American myths aplenty, but for European-descended writers, there are those who claim that using First Nations myths is an act of cultural appropriation, a discouraging quandary.
In conclusion, we can say that there are Canadian dragons, but, in the imaginations of the poets examined in this post, once those dragons fly across the pond, they live within our climate of long winter seasons in a state of severe, disabling culture shock.