In Eastern mythology, the dragon is an awakener. The dragon brings storms, rouses the water in the sky, revitalizes the seed in the ground, and initiates a new cycle of life. In Western mythology, the dragon is a poisonous, deadly creature who lurks in marshes and mountains. It terrorizes villages, and seems particularly irritated by men like King Hrothgar in Beowulf, who flaunts his good fortune so noisily that he wakes the dragon Grendel from his dark den. While Western dragons are deadly, Eastern dragons reinvigorate life, prompting me to wonder if the forces that put us to sleep are the same forces that wake us up again.
In the 1990s, I was asked by Lynne Bezanson of the Canadian Career Development Foundation to write a mythic story about the changing times. It wasn’t long before the image of a dragon arose in my mind’s eye. Here’s the story, first published in A. Seeker’s Storybook, with another fabulous illustration by Richard Leach.
The Mountain Change
Once upon a time, there was a mountain range called the Change Range. It boasted the highest peaks in the world, and went all the way around the earth.
The people who lived on the slopes of Change were better adapted than anyone else in the world, because the mountain constantly rose and fell. They might go to bed at night in a deep valley and wake up the next morning on a high alpine ridge. As a result, the mountain people knew how to survive in any climate, at any altitude, and they were happy with their lot.
But then one day a terrible thing happened – the whole mountain range exploded! It spewed fire into the air, sending rivers of molten rock down to the valley. The earth quaked and split. Houses were torn apart and people were thrown off the mountain, hurled off ridges and swallowed up into the fiery abyss.
Those who survived fled the roaring mountain, leaving everything behind. They ran across the plain, across rivers and through forests until they reached a place of safety. Then as the sun set, they stood on a hill and looked back at the mountain.
They couldn’t believe their eyes, for the whole range was moving. It slithered and it wound from side to side like a snake. They realized that this was no mountain, this was a dragon! It shook and it roared, sending tremors around the earth, casting off centuries of soil, growth and trees. In the setting sun, the dragon’s green scales shimmered like malachite, and the high, craggy peaks of its spines shone like gold.
The people tried to make sense of what they saw. What did it mean? If the mountain range went around the earth, then the earth must belong, not to the people—but to the dragon. The dragon must have been sleeping, that would explain why the mountain shifted from time to time, and rose and fell at predictable intervals. But now it had awoken! Everything they had constructed—their buildings, their ideas, their science—collapsed with this new event.
“What is it doing here?” the people asked. But they had no answers. They only knew that nothing would ever be the same. The earth might be the dragon’s EGG for all they knew.
An old, old woman named Mrs. Chang sat on a rock and looked back at the faces of the people who stood all in a row on the hill, staring at the mountain. Some looked at the dragon with wonder, others covered their eyes, some covered their children’s eyes. Some were concerned, others puzzled, others excited. The whole range of human emotion played on a whole range of faces, young and old.
Now, some people returned to the mountain. Mrs. Chang was one of them. They had not lost the ancient stories about the origins of the mountain range. They began to gather together, collect the legends and learn how people had lived on the mountain before the dragon went to sleep. Slowly they adapted to the mountain’s movements, as their ancestors had done. They learned to “ride on the back of the dragon,” as old Mrs. Chang would say, and the dragon did provide.
Meanwhile, the people on the plains lived in constant fear. They never knew where the dragon was going to move next, so no one ever felt safe. As time went by, some of the plains folk decided to go back to the mountain in search of lost roots and loved ones. It took a great deal of courage to make the journey, but when they did, they were amazed to find that the mountain people had adapted and were making a livelihood in this new, fluid and beautiful place.
Before too long, the lights of houses and towns appeared along the dragon’s spiny ridge, all around the world, so the people on the plain could see where they needed to go if they wanted to stop living in fear.
Eventually everyone went to live on the back of the dragon, and then, as time passed, the dragon grew quiet again, and went back to sleep …