The Age of Dragons

This will sound silly, but hear me out.

Dragons are back in popular culture in a big way – if they ever really left. First and foremost are the Game of Thrones dragons, along with the Peter Jackson Hobbit Trilogy dragon Smaug, and the How to Train Your Dragon series for kids.

Dragons are probably easier to devise and render cinematically than they’ve ever been before with the advent of CGI, but moreso than with Aliens or Giant Space Robots, there’s an incredibly rich archetypal dimension to the Dragon that is rarely explored in any depth.

The Archetype of the Dragon is thousands of years old, and spans cultures across the world, East and West. According to David Kaar, who conducts the workshop on the Dragon Archetype that got me started on this idea, different types of Dragons mix three main features: a serpent-like tail, panther-like claws, and raptor-like wings – which reflect the three major types of predators that our primate ancestors would have feared.

No doubt there were many, various sightings and discoveries over the course of recorded history that would give some credibility to tales of great deadly beasts – whales, giant squid and octopus at sea, snakes and alligators in wetlands, and an occasional fossil of a real dinosaur unearthed and memorialized in tall tales for generations.

A predator-of-humans is unique already in a world where humans are pretty securely at the top of the food chain. Additionally, the Dragon Archetype is given lots of greater-than-human attributes; often they are hyperintelligent and can speak many languages, they live for hundreds of years though they’re not presented as immortal or as gods – they do reproduce and grow older over time. They are fiercely powerful but not specifically malevolent; they will eat people who bother them but they mostly don’t seem to care about the goings-on of humankind. And, they can be killed – this is specific to several myths that I know of – a missing scale allows a hero’s sword or arrow to penetrate their tough armor and pierce the dragon’s heart.

All of this seems archetypally significant to me – a predator-of-humans bigger and older than any of us, sitting at the heart of a mountain on a vast hoard of gold – not interested in spending, merely accumulating.

What would a world look like in which humans were not at the top of the food chain? How would we live differently if we were threatened by something greater than one another, an embodied creature with agency rather than a natural disaster or a disease?

The Dragon is also different and apart in a specific way from a baroque Christian cosmology full of archangels and demons, such as the literary worlds of Dante or Milton. The worlds they imagined were full of superhuman creatures, but all of them were on one team or the other, which determined their orientation towards humans. Evil Demons hated humans and their whole goal was to make us miserable, whereas Good Angels had our best interests at heart, wanted us to be happy and go to heaven, etc.. Either side was human-focused, it was all about us. Whereas Dragons couldn’t care less, ultimately.

What I want to suggest is that we actually need this archetype, it’s more relevant now than ever. Though there may have been a time when dragons could only exist in the realm of metaphor and fairy tale, today we have the technological wizardry within human civilization to summon them for ourselves.

Think about it for a second: what’s bigger than a human, lives longer than we do, is more powerful and infinitely more wealthy than any of us, is extremely deadly but for the most part doesn’t care one way or another about the lives of individuals? There’s even a hint in the name of the creature, and the status we give it via our laws and trade pacts:

The Corporation. Corporate means “body” of course, and to “Incorporate” is essentially “to form a body.” We’ve confused ourselves culturally and politically, in my opinion, by thinking that we’re talking about a human body… controversy over judicial decisions like “Citizens United” take umbrage at the idea of “corporate personhood” – but what has been made corporeal is not, nor ever was intended to be, a human being. No, it’s much more useful to think and speak in terms of “corporate dragonhood” – as silly as that may sound at first.

The movie “The Corporation” very successfully lays out a point-by-point case for the Corporate Person as, by definition, a Sociopath – but the situation is much more grave than that. Sociopaths are “inhuman” in the sense that they’re incapable of empathy towards other humans. But Dragons don’t care about humans because, well, why would a Dragon care about humans? What interest could they possibly have in us besides our gold?

A new (and actually old) archetypal framework for the corporation is immensely helpful in thinking about the problems that beset our world today. We flatter ourselves when we think that powerful, evil humans are the cause of what’s wrong in the world today – that at this very moment some corporate CEO is cackling away in their office suite about how badly they’re screwing over the Working Man. Whereas, every account I’ve ever heard of an actual interaction with a CEO presents them as engaged, friendly, highly socially evolved people. They are well compensated for their service to their particular vast and sprawling, powerful and deadly Dragon – whether it’s GE or Cargill or Disney or Germany or any of the other few dozen that rule the world today.

Does this distinction matter at all? I think so – because like any archetype, it tells essential, impersonal truths about the forces at play, macro and micro, in our world – and understanding the archetype actually provides valuable, actionable information about how to interact with these forces. Rules for dealing with dragons have been true, with some minor variation, around the world for thousands of years.

Archetypes exist because they’re useful metaphors, or schema, or frameworks for understanding the world. You don’t need to interact with any literal kings to understand and explore the King (or Queen, or Sovereign) Archetype, and see how it can provide useful perspective in decisions you make about your house, your family, your finances.

So what can we say about the modern corporation via the Archetype of the Dragon? Well first of all, they just don’t care about humans, and they cannot be persuaded, cajoled or regulated into caring about humans. Those who work for them and do their bidding receive preferential treatment and rewards for their service, but not loyalty. When you engage with a Dragon, on a contractual level, it may honor the contract, or not, but if you walk away in one piece, walk quickly and be grateful to escape unscathed.

Challenging a Dragon, and/or trying to steal their treasure, is almost always unwise. Destroying an insignificant human is not a big deal, certainly not a moral issue, for a dragon. It will be quick, probably not that painful but certainly devastating, via bite, claw or fire, because individuals are ultimately not very interesting to Dragons. It generally takes another Dragon to get their attention – and they generally only interact with each other to mate (merge) or murder (hostile takeover?), taking another Dragon’s hoard and adding it to their own.

And, as in myth, there is usually one missing scale somewhere, a single vulnerable point, almost impossible to find and strike. Once in a great while a warrior comes along who succeeds in finding one of these points, through both careful study and lightning reflexes, manages to hit it, do some real damage, and if they are incredibly lucky, escape with their lives.

Contemporary examples definitely include Edward Snowden and whoever leaked the Sony emails – for the moment, anyway, data security has been the most obvious vulnerability of the international corporation. Osama bin Laden, arguably, dealt the biggest blow of our generation against one of the biggest Dragons, Corporate America, which is still reeling.

It’s perhaps disheartening, first and foremost, to look at the Corporate Dragon this way. Humbling to realize that one is not, in fact, at the top of the food chain after all – but hopefully it is at least a slightly more accurate way of looking at the world we live in, its dynamics and challenges, than allowing the stubborn delusion to persist that individual malevolent humans are really in charge.

This re-orientation can make life better, though. You do not get to be a Dragon, and I do not get to be a Dragon. That power is never really possessed, not by the CEOs or movie stars either – they will only ever have the dubious privilege of serving a Dragon infinitely greater and more powerful than themselves. Any of us can pursue this service, and be rewarded, though close proximity to such creatures is highly dangerous and should not be undertaken lightly.

Like I said, Dragons are not immortal, and they’re certainly not infallible – they rise and fall over the course of hundreds of years. The Dragons are running rampant today because of the massive growth of industry and technology powered by the wanton use of fossil fuels in the last couple hundred years – but it may not always be so. Any of us, or our children, or our children’s children, may live to see what comes after the Age of Dragons – but I doubt it. I think the Post-Dragon Age is still a hundred years off, at least.

When all of this Global Corporatism is eventually in the past (since nothing lasts forever), and the Age of Dragons has receded into myth again, there may be tales told of vast creatures who could circle the world in an instant, whisper secrets in the ears of millions of humans at the same moment, rain fire and death from the sky on a whim, demand the slavery of entire cities in tribute to its greatness, and hide away the wealth of the entire planet in dark, inaccessible corners where no human is allowed to venture.

At that point, there may be a newer, better word for those huge and terrible entities than “Dragons” – but I can’t think of one today.

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