Academic journal article Western Folklore

An Instinct for Dragons

Academic journal article Western Folklore

An Instinct for Dragons

Article excerpt

An Instinct for Dragons. By David E. Jones. (New York: Routledge, 2002. Pp. v + 188, acknowledgments, introduction, illustrations, bibliography, index. $17.95 paper)

Why are we so beguiled by the question of origins? What is it about the mystery of how and where a custom, story, or image became part of one or several cultures that keeps some scholars returning to the well of the past, whose waters seem never to quench their thirst? There's little need to rehearse the early history of folklore studies, dominated as it was by the question of how "the same" practice or narrative came to exist in diverse cultures: but why is it that even this late in the game, some scholars still pursue the unachievable goal of locating in time and space the chimera of the Urtext? Most folklorists learn early in graduate school to move on to more interesting and solvable issues. The origins question persists, however, even in the face of its fruitlessness.

David Jones, who teaches anthropology at the University of Central Florida, should have known better than to tangle with dragons, bereft as he seems to be of a much-needed arsenal of data, clarity, and logic. He tries to show, in a rambling and disjointed display of half-understood concepts from various sciences, how the dragon (a) is a pancultural image of danger; (b) is a composite of images of the serpents, predatory cats, and raptors that presumably terrorized our primate ancestors; and (c) is hardwired into the human limbic system (the so-called "reptilian brain").

The claim that a cultural manifestation is ubiquitous is quaint, given how antiquated the notion of "cultural universale" is by today's standards. One can attribute that to the kind of hyperbole that Jones employs in the excited defense of his main thesis. To posit multiple hypotheses and use them to argue one another, however, beggars one's patience. That an image is ubiquitous is indefensible; in the case of dragons, it's also demonstrably untrue, a fact that Jones tries to hide behind verbal shrubbery. Certainly images may be compounded of diverse elements, and one could comfortably entertain the idea that common dangers (and other human interests) might become codified in a single representative symbol such as the dragon. …

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