In Bhutan, it is difficult not to think of dragons. They are everywhere — on the flag, on lapel pins, painted on walls and carved in wood. Just about every establishment is called Druk, from five-star hotels and airlines to the roadside barber. It is a somewhat fearsome totem for such a friendly country. Bhutan’s national animal is the Takin, a half-pig half-goat that moves with the ponderous solemnity of a cow and is quite entirely charming; but I feel, if they felt they could, the Bhutanese would declare the dragon their national animal and have done with it. Up in these mountains, as one young Bhutanese student said to me last week, it’s hard to disentangle legends from truth — an idea that Omair Ahmad attempted to investigate in The Kingdom at the Centre of the World, his history of Bhutan.
I got a little taste of this blend at the Mountain Echoes book festival in Thimphu this past weekend, where there was an entire session devoted to the search for the Yeti. The festival, which is run jointly by Indian and Bhutanese organisers, is one of the most pleasant I have been to — lots of local participation, authors who’ve studied the customs of these hills, even a session on Bhutanese hip-hop that was unexpectedly brilliant. Wherever you went in Bhutan’s trendy capital you’d see notices and leaflets for it; shop-owners and waiters and taxi drivers would ask if you were going there; and people came in from all over the country, some in specially hired buses. Bhutan’s thriving literary scene was in evidence also at the festival’s book stall, which was stocked with dozens of titles from local authors — including folk tales for kids, some of which, you guessed it, featured dragons. In the monsoon, when mist curls along the tops of the high mountains of the Land of the Thunder Dragon, it’s not hard to understand why legends feel so tangible in this country. People across the world write about, venerate, or worship dragons, but when the thunder cracks across the foggy mountain passes of Bhutan, you are certainly willing to believe that they’re more real here than anywhere else.
But why dragons? Why precisely does this most improbable of creatures, a giant scaly flying fire-breathing beast, have such universal appeal? Cultures that are otherwise vastly different have evolved the myth of the dragon independently. The myths have been persistent, even into the age of civilisation. Pliny declared in his Natural History that dragons were of course real, but only found in India, where they ate elephants. Centuries later, Carolus Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, was run out of Hamburg for declaring that a seven-headed hydra on display there was a fraud. We know that no animal contemporaneous with humanity could have given rise to such legends; sadly, only on the pages of Jurassic Park have humans fought dinosaurs.
Yet perhaps dinosaurs did give rise to the legends after all; giant fossilised eggs, or huge partial skeletons with dangerous looking teeth are found across the world. It’s easy to forget that dinosaurs roamed the world for far longer than we have; and, indeed, that fewer years separate us from the Tyrannosaurus Rex than separate that toothy monstrosity from the Stegosaurus.
The dinosaurs have vanished, but the dragons live on. They form the backbone of myth, both literary and spoken. Middle English’s greatest work is Beowulf, which ends with a battle between the king and a dragon incensed that a golden cup has been stolen from his hoard. J R R Tolkien was, of course, an Oxford philologist and scholar of Middle English; he translated not just Beowulf but also the brilliant and gem-like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which the hero also battles dragons. It isn’t surprising, therefore, that in The Hobbit he gave us modern literature’s best-known dragon, the enormous and egotistic Smaug. For him, dragons were the only real reason for fantasy: “The land of Merlin and Arthur was better than these, and best of all the nameless North of Sigurd and the Volsungs, and the prince of all dragons. Such lands were pre-eminently desirable. I never imagined that the dragon was of the same order as the horse… In whatever world he had his being it was an Other-world. Fantast, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was a profound desire. I desired dragons with a profound desire.”
Apparently, the whole point of dragons is that they aren’t, and can’t be, real. His original drafts of A Song of Ice and Fire did not have dragons; but George R R Martin was eventually convinced by a friend to put them in, and what would the world’s greatest modern story be without them?
So dragons, perhaps, are so popular, so influential, so beloved precisely because they cannot be real. They are as unbelievable as a South Asian nation that strives to be happy, that preserves its forests, that has no traffic lights, and that cooks both beef and pork. But I am happy to report that Bhutan, at any rate, is real.