Why are Americans afraid of dragons?
Exploring an essay by Ursula K. LeGuin
It feels like our world is on fire. And while audio fiction is seeing rapid growth, I disagree that podcast listeners are simply searching for escapism.
What if fiction is one of the most effective ways to understand and process the world around us during these turbulent times?
I am forever grateful to my friend Jasmin for turning me on to a series of essays written by fantasy and speculative fiction author Ursula K. LeGuin. In this article, I will be focusing on one specific essay, “Why are Americans Afraid of Dragons? (1974).”
For fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it is true. Children know that. Adults know it too, and that is precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living.
LeGuin is not one to shy away from difficult truths.
They are afraid of dragons, because they are afraid of freedom.
We live in a world where we have allowed imagination to be relegated to the domain of children, and even then we attack its development by upholding Puritan values that aim to create compliant workers at best. Standardized testing and capitalistic norms become the Orwellian ideals by which we sculpt and inhibit future adult citizens.
And so we find ourselves in a world that is afraid of dragons and the imagination.
I think we have a terrible thing here: a hardworking, upright, responsible citizen, a full-grown, educated person, who is afraid of dragons, and afraid of hobbits, and scared to death of fairies. It’s funny, but it’s also terrible. Something has gone very wrong.
Fiction can be pleasurable and also an escape — no argument. But it is also a method for understanding and coping with the world around us. It allows us to unpack the larger conflicts from the social constructs and beliefs that constrain our options and actions.
In the light of corporate ladders and financial spreadsheets, fantasy is to be feared as it tempts the pure of heart with hedonism, vice and the fall of society. As if Sodom and Gomorrah was the land of gay dragons, blood thirsty unicorns and rampaging hobbits.
Discipline can be applied to play and imagination no differently than any other form of pursuit. And yet, an MBA holds so much more perceived weight than an MA.
I think that a great many American men have been taught just the opposite. They have learned to repress their imagination, to reject it as something childish or effeminate, unprofitable, and probably sinful.
LeGuin firmly believed that this socially learned fear of all things fictional and fantastical was tied to our patriarchal society and that men, young and old, were those most expected to abandon the trapping of play and imagination.
And while I have seen people of every gender suffer from these fears, I can’t argue with the truth of her words. The pressure to conform is one of the most compelling social forces and as a young man, I was constantly urged and shamed into leaving childhood things behind me.
But if we can’t imagine a different world, we risk building the very walls of the prison that holds us.
So I arrive at my personal defense of the uses of the imagination, especially in fiction, and most especially in fairy tale, legend, fantasy, science fiction, and the rest of the lunatic fringe. I believe that maturity is not an outgrowing, but a growing up; that an adult is not a dead child, but a child who survived.
So many of us are in need of hope. We are searching for the tools by which to survive, individually and collectively, and to equate fiction solely with escapism is to completely miss the point.
Fiction and our imaginations are perhaps the most powerful tools by which we can process and unpack what is possible.
May the child within each of us survive to guide humanity in the fight for what is needed in this new world.
Sean is the co-founder of the proudly fiction-based Fable and Folly Network and a co-creator of Alba Salix, Royal Physician and Civilized. He can be reached via Twitter or email.