Here Be Dragons

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At the most recent Hutchmoot, Andrew Peterson and I gave a talk called “Writing Close to the Earth.” Andrew got on the subject of sehnsucht, that unexplained and unsatisfied longing that was for C.S. Lewis such an important clue to the meaning of the universe. Lewis’s autobiography Surprised by Joy is punctuated by moments in which some earthly experience awakens him to the truth that there is more to the world than mere earthly experience. A little model garden in a biscuit tin, Arthur Rackham’s illustrations of the Ring Cycle, a flowering currant bush—seemingly commonplace things—each gave Lewis “the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing” for a world beyond this world.

In Andrew’s words, these episodes are “moments that are lodged in our memories as significant, though we don’t always understand why—moments where the veil is lifted for a moment, and we’re left with longing, or with a new revelation of the wild beauty of the world.”

Andrew asked the audience to describe such moments in their own lives. There were a lot of mountain vistas, sunsets and sunrises, encounters with music and with art. For me, the question brought back a memory that sheds light on all the fiction I’ve ever written.

Once when I was eighteen or nineteen years old, my father and I were puttering up a familiar stretch of Georgia’s Ocmulgee River in a small aluminum boat. As we passed a sandbar that I had seen a hundred times, I was startled to see it move. Only it wasn’t the sandbar that moved; it was a great, thick alligator, ten feet long at least, with a tail as big around as a saw log. Though I had been coming to the Ocmulgee River all my life, I had never seen an alligator in its waters or on its banks. But there he was, as big as life and twice as natural.

The alligator was terrible to behold. But he was thrilling to behold too. Awful and awesome, after all, used to be synonyms. If he had wanted to, the alligator could have swept us out of our little boat and eaten us up. I understand that alligators don’t ever behave that way. But it wasn’t the understanding part of my brain that first reacted first to the sight of this monster. Nor do I even think it was my “lizard brain”—the seat of the fight-or-flight reflex—that awoke at the sight of the great lizard. No, I think this alligator awakened the part of my brain (or, more appropriately, my soul) that responds to mythology—to old stories of dragons and monsters that lurk at the edges of the worlds that we humans try to keep civilized and comfortable.

I had seen alligators before, at the zoo and in the Okefenokee Swamp. But this one lived only ten miles away from my house. He was in “my” river, where I had been coming all my life. A week earlier, I had swum across its muddy waters, not a mile from the very sandbar where this great reptile lay like Smaug on his pile of treasure.

The rivers in the southern half of Georgia once teemed with alligators. I had heard rumors that a few still survived in the Ocmulgee. I dearly hoped it was true, that the world where I lived was still as wild as that. But it didn’t seem likely. I lived in a world where the roads were paved and hot water came out of the faucet. We had a television, a VCR, a microwave oven. There were McDonald’s restaurants in my world and Top-40 radio stations and convenience stores that sold Coca-Cola and potato chips.

But also, as it turns out, there were dragons. For me, the alligator on his sandbar was a stab of Lewis’s Joy. I couldn’t get over it. I haven’t gotten over it yet.

My friends think it’s funny that every novel and short story I have ever written involves at least one alligator. I suppose it is kind of funny. But it’s more than funny. Alligators for me carry a lot of metaphorical freight. They remind us that just beyond the civilization and comfort that we carve out for ourselves, there is a wild beauty that is neither civilized nor comfortable nor even safe. They remind us that this world, the one where we live and move and have our being, is still a place of myth and marvel. Here be dragons.

Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.


14 Comments

  1. April Pickle

    Hear, hear for what be here! For this great description, for that wonderful session under the tent that lawnmowers and air conditioners could not hinder, and for dragons. Sweet, holy, terrible, real dragons.

    I loved Writing Close to the Earth. When Andrew asked us to think about moments that created longing, my mind immediately went back to a time when I was 13, and I was perched on a rock on the Crystal River in Colorado. To get to this spot had required a 4-wheel-drive vehicle, along with multiple instances of fearing we passengers would fall over the edge (so much so that we leaned from side to side in the vehicle to keep it balanced). When we finally arrived, I walked alone along the roaring river and found a rock I could climb. Everywhere I looked was dangerous beauty: mountains whose flattened trees spoke of avalanches, tall trees whose leaves glittered in the sun like jewels, water that moved at a swift speed but of which I could see through to the bottom. I remember wishing I could stay there forever.
    It’s interesting that the same summer I had a crush on a guy who wouldn’t notice me for a few more years. I’ve been married to him for 23 years now. It’s also interesting that as soon as we finished college, we moved to Colorado and stayed there for seven years. We drove to the Crystal River the first summer we lived there because I wanted him to see it, too.
    And a couple of summer’s ago, when you, JR, hosted the Flannery O’Connor Summer Reading Club online, it’s interesting that the story called The River (and Rebecca Reynolds’ helping me understand it) changed my life. So the fact that it was you who followed Andrew and then proceeded to talk about alligators and God breathing into Adam’s nostrils and Jesus spitting in the dirt.. golly, the session itself became its own sehnsucht.

  2. WesternWind

    Myth! Am I the only one who thought of the C.S. Lewis definition of the word here? I’ve loved the concept of longing since I first ran across it a year or two ago. (That was when it was put into words, not experienced; when it was understood.) I haven’t seen an alligator in a long time, and never in the wild, but this certainly sparked my imagination. And it made me remember all the moments when I have looked out into my small backyard, and imagined that it stretched on for miles, and that it was populated with Elves.

  3. Silmaril

    Forgive me if I sound corny, but one of my most significant memories of “sharp longing” is the first time I heard Andrew Peterson’s “In the Night”

  4. Silmaril

    At the risk of sounding cheesy, one of my most significant memories of “sharp longing” was the first time I heard AP’s “In the Night” from the Counting Stars album…I was only 14, and it’s stayed with me ever since.

  5. SD Smith

    I loved this. I hated missing that session. But it was crowded and my nerves.

    It was cool to read this, as today I spent a little bit of time between holding my very sick girl and taking care of my somewhat sick self to read up on St. George. Some people believe he really killed a crocodile. But either way, still pretty awesome.

    I love those people who have reminded us that Christianity is a dragon-fighting religion. I know Doug Wilson is one and it sure comes out in his son’s novels.

    Good word, JR.

  6. Matthew Benefiel

    Wow Jonathon, way to bring out the feelings. I’m right there with you. It’s interesting to consider what awakens that desire to imagine and write. I’ve always been a day dreamer and when I tried to write it fell apart, until the day I saw danger and uncertainty in my story. Struggle is the essence of a story: what will the alligator do, how will I react? From there experience comes into play and broken heart goes a long way.

  7. Lisa

    One of the things that drew me to C.S. Lewis in the first place was his descriptions of how the some moments and seemingly ordinary things carried hints of another world. It was the first of many “Wait, you too??” moments that characterized my response to his writings.
    The last time this happened to me was a couple of years ago when I stepped outside in the early dawn, just going to start the car to take my kids to school, and I just “happened” to look over and see a bird flying towards me, a dark silhouette against the lightening sky. A crow, I thought, but I paused for a moment, it was really quite big….a raven, I amended. Then I stood transfixed as it got closer, and I watched as an eagle flew right over my head, just above the roof, so close I could hear the whisper of its wings.

  8. Dawn

    I had to go and find the passage you were hitting on so well in this post from Lewis’ “Weight of Glory” I love that there are those of us who get that nature is not something to be worshipped but is the “first sketch” into something greater. It is a symbol into a truer world.

    “And this brings me to the other sense of glory–glory as brightness, splendour, luminosity. We are to shine as the sun, we are to be given the Morning Star. I think I begin to see what it means. In one way, of course, God has given us the Morning Star already: you can go and enjoy the gift on many fine mornings if you get up early enough. What more, you may ask, do we want? Ah, but we want so much more–something the books on aesthetics take little notice of. But the poets and the mythologies know all about it. We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words–to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses and nymphs and elves–that, though we cannot, yet these projections can, enjoy in themselves that beauty grace, and power of which Nature is the image. That is why the poets tell us such lovely falsehoods. They talk as if the west wind could really sweep into a human soul; but it can’t. They tell us that “beauty born of murmuring sound” will pass into a human face; but it won’t. Or not yet. For if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendour of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy. At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in. When human souls have become as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience, then they will put on its glory, or rather that greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch. For you must not think that I am putting forward any heathen fancy of being absorbed into Nature. Nature is mortal; we shall outlive her. When all the suns and nebulae have passed away, each one of you will still be alive. Nature is only the image, the symbol; but it is the symbol Scripture invites me to use. We are summoned to pass in through Nature, beyond her, into that splendour which she fitfully reflects.”

  9. Jack Golightly

    I think these come moments in all sizes, and though they are certianly not subject to our own conjuring, they can be a real part of our every day lives. I am sorry for those who do not long for the promise in these experiences and have worked to desensitize themselves to them.

    “Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”

  10. Stacy Sublett

    I should tell you about the gator that tried to eat Howard Davidson. True story, and it involves an aluminum jon boat, too. His daddy’s farm pond was fed by the Ocmulgee. Every spring there’d be a gator in the pond. We used to have to keep a flashlight on his eyes when we’d be out there all night fishing for catfish with frozen chicken livers.

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