by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Dragons have captured our attention from the moment they stepped into our collective imaginations. The latest iteration — involving such a creature and a boy named Pete — arrives in theaters later this week. These mythological representations of reptiles have appeared in virtually every culture’s storytelling, dating back literally thousands of years. However, the Chinese dragon and the European dragon have the most nuanced and discussed legacies, though the actual word dragon didn’t enter the English lexicon until the early 13th century. Psychologists and other academics have suggested that the dragon represents a universal conflict that human beings all face. But do such deep examinations still apply in Disney films like Pete’s Dragon?
In a word – absolutely.
The dragons of early mythology were after two things – gold and virgins. The irony being of course that neither are of any use to dragons. They can’t spend the gold and are unable to consummate their relationship with the princesses they capture. Still they hoard both in their caves until brave warriors or knights come to lay claim to them. Dragons are often used to represent the ego, which makes the desire for money and sex more understandable in the context of myths. Pete’s Dragon represents a more complex view of dealing with the dragons in our lives – it suggests we respect and befriend them, but not be afraid of them or allow them to lord over us. Here are four character archetypes we’ve watched deal with dragons and what we can learn from each.
1. BEFRIENDING THE DRAGON
Pete in Pete’s Dragon
It’s easy to write this Disney film off as fare for children. However, to do so would be to miss an important self-examination, for stories about dragons are never just for children. Elliott, the dragon in the film, is clearly capable of destruction. This is an important element in the overall psychological journey of the narrative. If we are ever to befriend the dragon, we must first acknowledge it and what it’s capable of. Acknowledging the part of ourselves that can be beautiful but also destructive if left unmanaged or threatened, is a necessary component of maturity. Every writer, and likely every person, has some element of who they are that has not arrived at full maturation. The quicker we can discover this part of ourselves and over time befriend it, the better chance we have of one day perhaps riding it through the clouds. (Pete’s Dragon arrives in theaters August 12.)
2. MOTHERING THE DRAGON
Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones
Many of us come to recognize that the dragons that exist in our lives are actually products of our own creation. We have birthed them. We have fed and nurtured them. Yet, for some reason we are surprised when they begin to flap their wings, fly away from us, and breathe fire. Mother’s must discipline their children. They must sometimes show tough love. Caring for the dragons that live inside of us can help us to maintain their loyalty as they themselves grow and develop. The dragon and the mother of the dragon begin to develop a relationship based on protection, mutual concerns, and love. Taking care of the dragons we birth in a healthy manner, can eventually produce healthy adult dragons that might one day care for and defend us in our own time of need.
3. SLAYING THE DRAGON
Bard in The Hobbit
While some dragons can be tamed and others can be befriended, there are dragons that simply must be battled and destroyed. It’s a topic of much discussion among fans that Bard, and not one of the most central characters, is responsible for killing Smaug in The Hobbit series. There’s an interesting lesson in Tolkien’s storytelling, however. Those things in our lives that we weaponize in order to destroy the dragon within us may not be what can actually perform this task. Sometimes, the lesser known aspects of our identities are called in to serve major roles. Sometimes, there are those in our lives who hold the greatest solutions, who we may have never suspected. In many ways, Smaug is only slain through the efforts of a great many characters in the story. The person who pulls the trigger, or in this case releases the arrow, often gets the glory. But their act, which should always be acknowledged, can simply be the straw that broke the camel’s back — or slit the dragon’s neck.
4. BECOMING THE DRAGON
Haku in Spirited Away
Miyazaki Hayao’s classic story is full of mythological motifs and psychological underpinnings. One of the most interesting is when Haku is revealed as a dragon. As we often view our battles with dragons as external processes or internal journeys, we should remember that we are actually capable of becoming the dragon. Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars saga individuates into his own dragon, of sorts, as Darth Vader. This is not uncommon for heroes. Seeing yourself in a mirror is the first step towards recognizing who you are and what you might have become. Self-analysis is a critical part of every writer’s journey. Why am I telling the story I am telling? Why am I uniquely qualified to tell this story? Has my own ego turned me into a dragon, hell bent on delivering a story of my own makings as opposed to a narrative I am called to? When we make peace with slaying the dragon that has become us, we become capable of resurrection, transformation, and new heroic journeys.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.