A long time ago I used to be the guy who fed the string of exploding fireworks from the top of a Chinese restaurant that I worked at while the owners of the establishment put on an epic dragon dance like the one seen below. The fireworks were coiled up in a box that had over 50,000 tied to it and I’d have to stand on the roof and feed the lit explosions just over the dancing dragon below as it performed for a massive audience. My task was to keep the fireworks about two feet above the action but to protect anything from igniting the feed box, which was very dangerous work on my end, that I loved.
As I witnessed many oriental dragon dances I contemplated the difference in how oriental cultures viewed dragons and how the Occident, (western cultures) viewed dragons. They are very different ways of looking at the same thing. In the orient, dragons are a symbol of life renewing aspects. The dragon sheds its skin, and is seen as a serpent and life-giver in many respects. In the west, the dragon’s breath fire, are meant to be feared and usually sit on top of huge piles of treasure and are sought after to be slain. But why was this?
It was that primary question that sent me on a ten-year study and provoked me to quit college three times because nobody had a satisfactory answer for me in the field of philosophy. That might not have been the case if I had been able to attend Sarah Lawrence College where Joseph Campbell taught comparative mythology, or Leonard Peikoff’s philosophy classes at Long Island University, had I known about them when I was 18 to 28. But the books of those men were available, and I scooped up the work of Joseph Campbell and devoured them for the next ten years trying to figure out what was wrong with this whole problem of dragons in human society.
I spent many late nights at Waffle Houses all over Cincinnati reading till 4 to 5 AM over breakfast omelets pouring through all of Campbell’s classics meticulously, and it was this action that catapulted me into a lifelong study of myth, philosophy, and human culture that extended beyond the realms of classic anthropological and archeological study. The study of dragons in our culture actually is the skeleton key to understanding the conflicts of our age and it all begins with the grace of that dragon dance from my youth and the hypnotic fireworks I was tasked to feed during the ceremony. And it ends with the reason why I am so excited about the new Peter Jackson film translation of The Hobbit, which I so enthusiastically support at my site here.
My wife’s birthday was last night and my daughter, son-in-law and I went to our favorite Chinese restaurant in Liberty Twp to get my wife the only food she truly likes, Chinese from Panda King. My entire family loves the oriental family who run that restaurant and we’ve known them for years. The man and woman who operate Panda King are two of the hardest working people I know and their son grew up much like the sons I knew in my teenage years, working with the family business, doing their homework between orders and displaying a fantastic work ethic. It is that work ethic that I admire so much in the people of the orient. They have no fear of hard work and cannot be stopped once set in motion. So my wife wanted food from The Panda King for her birthday dinner and nothing else.
As we placed the order I showed my daughter the new preview to The Hobbit on her cell phone which she hadn’t seen yet and we mauled over the idea of how cool Peter Jackson’s version of Smaug the Dragon would be from that literary classic. As we spoke about it I looked all over the walls of The Panda King at the dragon decorations and thought about the dragon dances again. The difference between the eastern view of dragons and the version from the west displayed so vividly by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Hobbit is quite astonishing. The only thing the two cultures share in their view of the animal is the category of dragon as a mysterious creature.
About that time a young man who I had fired from his job about 7 months ago came in to order food and appeared to recognize me. There was that tension where words cannot cross a void and nothing is said as a result. He didn’t know what to say to me, and there was nothing I could say to him to bring comfort. Asking how he was doing would have been inappropriate under the conditions of his termination, and asking for an appeal to me would have been degrading. So he avoided eye contact with me, ordered his food and left unceremoniously, as my daughter and I continued to talk about Smaug from The Hobbit.
Running into former employees that I’ve had to terminate happens a lot. It happens when I get gas, and at various shopping complexes as I am out and about, so I’ve learned to shift into the proper gear when those encounters happen. Firing an employee or letting them go as a reduction-in-force is difficult, but the situation is always in their control. It is a failure in job performance that does them in, and they either accept that fact or they don’t. So the choice to be angry is entirely in their control.
This guy in Panda King chose not to be angry and took responsibility for his actions, so his lack of desire to be confrontational to me earned some respect that he had won back just a little bit from how I felt about him upon termination.
When the food was done cooking the owners put it all in a giant box that it took to carry it all home. I joked to them about coming home with us to eat it all. The couple gave me an odd look not comprehending what I was saying as the thought of leaving their work in the middle of the evening was not even a consideration, even joking. And there-in-lies the fundamental difference between the east and the west, as much as I admire the oriental work ethic and their very dedicated preservation of strong families in their culture, they do not function very independently. Independence is not important to them culturally. The people of the orient think in terms of collectivism, as a complete organism of which they are but a single cell. They are naturally altruistic by their cultural heritage and as much as I admire them as a social organism, they think very different from the way I do. This is why their dragons are revered as life-sustaining, because the dragon to them is the state. This is why oriental cultures tend to fall toward communism. This is the case certainly in China, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, and if the politics is not literal communism, then it might be monarchy, feudalism such as what is found in Japanese cultures or an out-right dictatorship. The people of the orient are prone to sacrifice their individual lives for the benefit of the collective whole.
When J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings he set out to bring Great Britain a proper mythology for their culture, which England did not have. England through their reign of empire had a hodgepodge of many cultures as they imported the King Author legends from France, which had its roots in the troubadours of romanticism. But England lacked an authentic myth to unify its people, so Tolkien set out to give it one with his characters in the literary classics of Middle Earth. As a professor at Oxford he saw firsthand the spread of socialism throughout London society and as a veteran of World War I he had some very unique perspectives into the progressive conditions that spread after the Treaty of Versailles. Tolkien the intellectual kept his mind free from politics like many creative people and instead delved into creating his own world mythology which reflected the concepts of our actual life. Walt Disney and George Lucas have done that in the United States and in England Tolkien was taking his observations of human behavior and painting them against stories such as The Hobbit in 1936.
Tolkien was so prone to withdrawal from contemporary politics that he lashed out in anger at those who declared his Lord of the Rings as an anti-communist parable comparing Joseph Stalin to the Dark Lord. Tolkien saw his work as reaching beyond the politics of the day even though he was clearly reacting to the events through the mechanism of myth.
The Hobbit is in essence a treasure hunt, not too unlike that of Disney’s beloved pirates from Pirates of the Caribbean. Bilbo Baggins was conscripted from a group of treasure hunters led by Gandalf seeking to take back their kingdom and the treasure guarded there by the dragon Smaug. This takes the home-loving Hobbit Bilbo on an adventure of the lifetime and lead directly into the events that become Lord of the Rings, which is a much more sinister story about evil and the nature of its influence. In The Hobbit, Smaug is the perfect embodiment of the classic occidental dragon motif as seen in this clip from the 1977 cartoon adaption of The Hobbit.
Notice Smaug is a pompous, arrogant creature who uses brute force to guard his treasure taken from the surrounding kingdoms. And he sleeps atop it guarding each and every item. Bilbo the Thief, the (pirate) has been tasked to steal an item from the dragon’s lair. The dragon in these stories represents The State, the institutional control of an organization that takes and steals by force the wealth of the people who have their rights to their creations. So the dragon is the villain in occidental mythology where the creature represents a destruction of individual liberty, and the right to their personal wealth. The dragon does not have a right to hoard the looted wealth of the people in its lair. This makes the dragon slayer, the thief of Bilbo Baggins a hero in this case.
However, if the same story were told in China, Bilbo would be the villain and it would be the dragon who would be the hero. Because in that culture the dragon is the revered creature, the state and the survival of the culture is the paramount concern. But in European post renaissance mythology, before Karl Marx spread his disease across Europe, it was the individual desire for conquering one’s personal dragons that become the concern.
I put the quality of J.R.R. Tolkien’s thinking in line with the Founding Fathers by way of intellectual capacity in what he was trying to achieve. Tolkien had the ability to behold very large ideas much the way Ben Franklin did, and was able to see beyond the political trends of his day to tell very powerful myths in an attempt to hold his culture together. Tolkien was creating a mythology which directly leads to philosophy, two ingredients that are paramount to holding a culture together.
Political science and other feeble attempts to bypass the process of myth always lead to social decay. Mythology is needed in order to form complicated social concepts which give context to large ideas. This is why the new documentary called Finding Joe, which is about the power of Joseph Campbell’s scholarship in creating a new field of endeavor called comparative mythology which will soon become a major field of study like anthropology, sociology, and even physics is now, because there is power in myths and the words that form them. So much so that societies will rise and fall based on the strength of their mythological messages.
But that is the difference between the east and the west and these ideas are in open conflict with each other. The hippie movement of the 60’s and into the modern-day sought to study the east as the premier mode of thinking using examples of India, Tibetan Buddhism, and Japanese Zen to challenge the thinking of western thought. It was even Jane Fonda who basically made love publicly with communist North Vietnam using her sex appeal to win over millions of American’s into communism.
But it cannot be disguised what lingers in the heart of mankind. And all the open conflicts of our day could be seen in Panda King where my daughter and I were buying my wife dinner for her birthday. My friends who run the place genuinely enjoy seeing me when I come to place an order and our friendship exists completely in respect. But they do not understand my motorcycle riding, my cowboy hats or my outlandish dress on occasion. They do not understand my strong desire for individual liberty. And I do not understand their blind obedience to collectivism, or their selfless natures. I admire it in some respects, but I do not, nor do I wish to understand it. When I see a dragon I wish to slay it and mount it’s head on my wall so I can hang my bullwhips from its teeth. When they see a dragon they want to do a dance and celebrate its nature.
And the fellow who I fired was a young fellow who was confused by all this stuff. He thought that work was optional, that he could show up when he wanted. He often wore symbols of the Yen and Yang on his jewelry and had a fascination with the Peace symbol. He thought that he could make up his own hours and that if he lost his job he’d just collect unemployment. So I gave him directions to the unemployment office and told him to get in line because he was now on it. He huffed and puffed and bragged on Facebook about how was going to stick it to me and what a bad guy I was, but in the end he had lost his job because he did not perform the tasks he was hired to do. He was functioning from a faulty philosophy. He wanted the collectivism of the east without the hard work, yet he still wanted the individuality of the west, again without the work. That young man is a victim of no mythology, but rather a grouping of broken symbols that had lost their meaning leaving his mind vacant of resolution. This gives him little social value in that he cannot even be hired like Bilbo Baggins to steal treasure from a dragon resting atop a pile of gold.
If you want a long sustaining society that will always hold itself together, the orient has the problem licked. They are a stable people who can have a continuous society that lasts for generations, but they are willing to give up individual liberty to have it. The Occident, (the west) tends to burn itself out quickly in the absence of strong family values since the innovations of one generation to the next die out as the great minds of one age find the descendents of the next one much like that guy I had to fire. Without the work ethic to sustain an idea, they quickly die out and the culture disintegrates. But, it is in individual endeavor that innovation thrives, and it is in the Occident that we developed aviation, computers, the internet, electricity, and virtually all technological marvels. Because the keys to a good life, the treasures of mankind are underneath the dragons of society and those dragons must be killed to gain those treasures. You cannot dance around them and throw sacrifices at those dragons and expect the dragon to give you treasure. Instead the dragon will only ask for more. So the dragons must be killed, so that society can prosper and advance with each slain monster.
American society will thrive once it stops feeling guilty for the dragons it kills, because we are not like those in the orient. We are unique, and it is our task to kill dragons and steal their treasure for our use. That is the mythology of the west, and one that at a subconscious level, we all understand.
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