21 December 2005

Draconian Measures

In a review (not yet online) of this book in the latest Fortean Times, eminent cryptozoologist Dr Karl Shuker uses the magnificent word "dracontological".

I had thought that the Greek for "dragon" was simply "δρακος", as in the constellation Draco, and had deduced that therefore the word for the simple study of dragons ought to be "dracology", leading me to believe that "dracontology" must be the study of the existence of dragons, by analogy with "ontology". Sadly, I then remembered that the constellation names are all Latin, and that the Greek for "dragon" is actually "δρακων", so that "dracontology" is simply the word for dragon-study.

All of which preamble allows me to mention my personal favourite work of dracontology, Peter Dickinson's The Flight of Dragons, a marvellously loopy book which weighs all the available mythological evidence (the mask-like face, the flaming breath, the affinity with water), couples it with the crucial fact that dragons as described and depicted would have been too heavy to fly, and comes to the remarkable conclusion that dragons were actually the only examples in nature of lighter-than-air flight. Their biochemistry was geared up to producing hydrogen with which they inflated their flotation chambers to take to the air, steering with their obviously-too-small wings and burning the gas off in huge exhalations of flame when they needed to lose altitude.

Dickinson's theory, in which he charts how the traditional legendary dragon might have evolved from dinosaurs and survived to live contemporaneously with early humanity, is never particularly serious but always completely convincing -- a fabulous combination, which held me utterly entranced when I first read the book at the age of twelve. He even explains how their (evidently highly unstable) biochemistry would have tended to consume their entire bodies after death, explaining the otherwise troubling lack of dragon fossils.

The ex-library hardback copy I now own I acquired about ten years ago, but the edition listed at Amazon is evidently a modern re-release. I'd recommend it highly for any twelve-year-olds you may know who are obsessed with evolution and mythology. There may even still be time to get it as a Christmas present.

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