Naming and Training the Dragon

Maybe it was more apt than I realised when I called Year Two ‘Enter the Dragon’. I knew there would be challenges. What I underestimated was the extent and reach of the challenges.  Even though I’d earlier thought my PhD is the dragon, a mess of things have been creeping out from the dusty past recently and provoked my fears. I knew that I would be approaching the point at which my last PhD research floundered and that I would need to confront my fears and inadequacies associated with following through the research and finishing. There was also a collection of personal stuff that was another major contributor to not finishing last time. So, maybe this is the dragon, I thought, the confluence of all these things that I have to overcome in order to succeed this time.

I have a fondness for dragons. As I wrote in that previous draconic-themed post, some of my favourite stories involve dragons as positive or neutral characters. Some of the baddies are rather fun too, that ‘love to hate’ kind of way. Part of what appeals to me in a good dragon story is development of characters that are deep, thoughtful, and clever in ways that are completely not human. Obviously, there are still some in evitable anthropocentric elements because these are stories by humans and if they were so completely alien we wouldn’t be able to make sense of them. The appeal of these dragon characters is from having their own ideas, priorities and ethics, sometimes meshing well with human priorities and other times not. Recognising the value in and for itself of a radically different ethic yet retaining a capacity for shared and mutually beneficial action, and basic liking between humans and dragons has an elegance beyond mere allegory.

Dragons remain dangerous characters, reptile rather than mammal, and somewhat alien. Their logic in the better stories is at some level inscrutable to humans, aside from rare glimpses when a human character does get it and enables this for the reader as well. There is always the chance that dragon actions may result in harm to humans, either intentionally or unintentionally. Of course, there are the dragon characters who have no care for humans or are decidedly misanthropic. Fafnir would be the figure par excellence of this. The grudges of centuries woven into seething resentment ready to lash out at any human but especially one descended from those who were the cause of the grudges in the first place. All the poison you could imagine wrapped up in a glorious armour of golden scales with a single weak point. Slaying the dragon is a magnificent trope for overcoming obstacles or adversity and gaining a rich reward. All the hero is required to do is find that weak point and make the perfect shot to end the torment. You’d think it would be perfect for facing down my fears, wouldn’t you?

No.

My PhD dragon is defying allegory and trope. It isn’t the worries about the research process. It isn’t the remembered personal stuff from last time either. Those things are the Ghost of PhD Past. They aren’t the dragon.

Then ‘How To Train Your Dragon’ popped back into my head. Training dragons is a very different approach to facing the danger. One of the pivot points of the story is that everything that the village of Burk knew about dragons was wrong. They had seen a surface danger and the immediate reaction of ‘kill on sight’ became the only way of dealing with the problem. The main problem with this is there wasn’t just one dragon and so slaying dragons is only a temporary fix. Hiccup starts out wanting to kill a dragon to impress his father but meeting the dragon changes everything.

Toothless concept art

While it starts out heavily anthropocentric – that Hiccup is training ‘his’ dragon for his own purposes – there is a shift in the story. It becomes more and more collaborative and Hiccup learns from Toothless as much as Toothless benefits from Hiccup’s intelligence and inventiveness. It is arguable that if you turned the story on its head, you could see that Toothless and the other dragons train their humans, and I think this illustrates the point. Of course, there are other dragons in the story that are bigger and badder, and they get slayed. The underlying problem is discovered and overcome, although not without cost. Hiccup and Toothless end up with matching injuries that bring them into stronger synchronicity.

So how am I going about meeting and getting to know my dragon if ‘training’ it is a more useful notion? Of course, I have to face my fears, see them for what they are, and see through them. That’s hard work in itself considering that I am around the point of progress in my research where things started to go pear-shaped last time. A surprising amount of emotional reverberation from that struck me recently, hence the beginnings of these reflections. Perhaps they are getting in the way of seeing the dragon for what it is.

I’m pretty sure there will be more times when I struggle – fears aren’t like ‘baddie’ dragons to be slayed in one fell swoop. If one were to anthropomorphise then one might attribute sneakiness and cunning to the increasing subtlety and insidiousness with which they can reappear. I’m not completely sure yet that I have a good concept of my dragon other than working out what it isn’t and that I want to ride it because I’ll be able to go places that I couldn’t otherwise.

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