On the Tomb of Mary of Burgundy, Bruges, Belgium.

Not all stories are told in words.  A work of art can have enormous impact where language is simply too limited.

Traveling in the city of Bruges in Belgium a few years ago, I chanced upon the tomb of Mary of Burgund with its marvelous effigy sculpted upon her death in 1482.  I was swept away by its peaceful beauty and the tale of human emotion that it imparted.  For the length of my stay, the tomb became a place of pilgrimage.  My visits to her moved me daily and, when I finally had to tear myself from her side, the memory became a steadfast source of calm and comfort.  These are the words I wrote on my return home:

“Her golden effigy lies in comfort on marble brocaded cushions.  Carvings of filigreed silk cover her body in sumptuous imitation of her living gowns, caught eternally in restful poise on her sepulchral bedding.  Her eyes speak of holy faith, but also of human spirit, lively and playful.  Her blossom mouth, small but elegant is pursed in a wry smile as if the new mysteries were just a continuous part of the rich humor of her life.  The small soft chin, no Hapsburg jut for her, points upward with indomitable courage.

Mary’s hands are clasped in prayer.  Unlike those of her father, Charles the Bold, on the tomb next to her which tilt toward his head in supplicant prayer, her hands reach straight upward as if she is about to open her arms in encompassing embrace.

At her feet, two small dogs lie obediently.  The hounds turn their heads up towards their mistress with cunning smiling faces, lapdogs well-used to play and cuddle looking for a game or a loving chuff of their heads.

What love inspired this wonderful monument!  The effigy is brilliantly crafted from death mask by artisans who worshipped her alive.  Surely their work was guided by the grieved father who sought to capture an eternal memory of her dear form.  Although she may have been insignificant by historical record, her tomb lies centrally in a majestic chapel of an important church in her father’s capital.  The father enshrined her at the very heart of the magnificent edifice, leaving only room for himself to pass the eternity of days next to his beloved daughter.  Mary's hands are worn and polished - grabbed by pilgrims and supplicants seeking her graceful intervention for their prayers.  More moving still, her right cheek has a burnished patch as well.  Imagine her father praying each day by her side and then touching the beloved face as he did in life, until the monument bore the permanent imprint of his love." 


Gestures Made and Unmade

In an earlier century there was the concept of the beau geste.    This was defined as a gesture made with no thought of reward or return.  It needed not be a thing of magnificence; just an action without fanfare that somehow made someone’s life a little better .  In the 1800’s it might involve stepping aside so that your brother could marry the girl.  In today’s parlance, it may be paying for the lunch of a soldier in uniform.

For a certain type of person there is pleasure in gestures of this sort.  Besides the satisfaction of knowing you have done a little something for someone - the “random act of kindness” - there is also a bittersweet pang in knowing that your gesture may never be discovered.  Sometimes humans like to feel the ache of being overlooked.   The longing hurt of unrequited love gives sweetness to the one that is consummated.

There is another kind of gesture that can fill the heart with longing.  It is the gesture unmade.  I think that many humans have generous souls but the realities of life may force us to avoid showing them either from inconvenience or from diffidence.

The other day, just before Valentine’s, I had given in to the temptation of buying a dozen succulent chocolate-dipped strawberries for my wife.  Now she loves chocolate and strawberries, but no one needs twelve of the delightful confections.  On the way home from the store, I walked near to but not quite past a bus stop where two homeless people were sitting in conversation.  It was a beautiful day and they seemed content – pleasantly wiling away their shared destitution.  My heart sang out to me to share my candies with them.  What were two strawberries to us?  But what a sweet, simple and pleasant gesture it would have been – a true beau geste. 

I didn’t do it.  Shyness and the untimely arrival of a bus stole my organic opportunity and if I had doubled back to them, the action would have felt forced and unnatural.  But those were just excuses.  The gesture died unmade and I regretted its passing.

Literature is full of examples of the gesture made, but I think the unmade one is at once more dramatic and more poignant.  Does the actor rue his lack of action?  When a word would have saved his friend, does Henry II regret not saying it in Jean Anouilh’s Becket?   Does Scrooge’s regret over not showing small kindness to Bob Cratchit lead to his ultimate reclamation in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol?

I am writing a book in which a business executive is seeing some of his labor force come to despair.  The executive is haughty and arrogant but not without heart.

“While most workers continued to thrive, a percentage simply dropped out.  They would arrive at work one day and simply stop functioning.  The lost souls were politely and gently turned out the door.  The corporation continued to issue paychecks in their names but what the fate of the checks or the workers was no one could say.  Nicholson would see them sometimes standing forlornly at the factory wall, but he always left them alone in their misery.  How often he wondered if a single word from him would have made a difference.”

Will this pang of ill-defined remorse lead to a rescue?  The plot is still unfurling in my head.

In real life, I urge you to give away your strawberries, for the good of others if not for your own peace of mind.  But reserve the gesture unmade perhaps for the good of the story you are telling.


Why We Love Dragons

Literature is full of flying lizards.  Some dragons blast fire from ravenous snouts.  Some dispense anile advice through mystic telepathic bonds.  Some make knights in armor look good.  Some demolish ogres and trolls.

Why is there a fascination with dragons above all other creatures?  Unicorns seldom appear in adult fiction despite widespread popularity among medievalists and young girls,  Although a basilisk made a brief and terrifying appearance in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets when was the last time anyone wrote a good manticore novel or a juicy echidna tale?  Yet dragons continue to dominate fantasy literature and even cross into general fiction as well.

Having worked on two as yet unpublished dragon books and with the promise of more on the way, I have puzzled over what attraction of these beasts keeps authors and readers revisiting them.  Here are some of the reasons why dragons have become loved and respected members of my cast of characters. There are universal points that have embedded them in the collective imagination.

DRAGONS ARE A BLANK SLATE – Other mythic beasts are hewn from rigid traditions.  The lore of vampires or werewolves weighs down any writer.  Tolkien's strict classification of goblins, orcs and other beasts forces an author to either conform or defend any innovation.

Dragons have no single tradition.  There are vast differences in the creatures from culture to culture and even within a solitary mythos.  They may be unimaginably huge or approachable in size.  They can come in any number of colors.  They can channel fire or ice or even water for their powers.  They may be winged or apteric.   They may be mindless and feral or wise and nurturing (but not tame).
This diversity of heritage gives rise to a range of characteristics, of personalities (or dragonalities) depending on the needs of the story.  Thus, the dragons in Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur can be vicious beasts whose whole purpose is to be vanquished by noble and saintly knights.  Tolkien’s Smaug can be a hyperintelligent but merciless and arrogant killer, making him one of the most developed characters in The Hobbit.  Saphira in Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle can be protective and sisterly to her young human partner.

No one can ever say they have heard all the dragon stories.  The limitless permutations mean that each story or book is as unique as the dragon itself.

DRAGONS ARE POWERFUL – At some point in every book ever written, the reader wishes for a character who can rise up and overcome the interminable obstacles that the author devises.  Dragons embody the power to do that very thing.  

While not immortal or indestructible, dragons are formidable to the point that no odds seem insurmountable.  Their ennobling strength gives them both versatility and attraction.  It makes them proud enemies that lend glory to the meekest of protagonists.  As heroes themselves, their power can be relied on to deliver a satisfying victory.

DRAGONS ARE MYSTERIOUS – The reader can never presuppose dragons the way they can a humanoid creature like a zombie or a vampire.  Every reader knows what a werewolf will look like before the creature even appears.  But the range of appearances and powers available to dragons make them impossible to anticipate. Even as the creature is revealed, there is so much residual mystery that they always seem to be on the verge of recognition like a voice in a dream.  

Since no one in a story ever knows all the secrets of dragonhood, the vagueness allows a writer to engage in a classic slow reveal.  Each small morsel provides new plot tensions and unexpected tangents.   A reader should be forever and deliciously uncomfortable in the midst of a dragon story.

DRAGONS ARE SCARY – In addition to their power and their size, their mystery and magic, dragons are physically unsettling because they are giant reptiles.  They are often linked with snakes, a source of primal and Biblical fear.  Scales impart a sense of tactile discomfort for tender-skinned readers, as well as a sense of untouchable hardness and coldness (even in the fire breathing ones).  Their reptilian otherness lends a nightmare aura which both thrills and fascinates.

DRAGONS ARE ECO-FRIENDLY – Since dragons source their power from nature, they are inherent champions of the natural world.  A modern reader, cognizant of environmental concerns, may recognize the power and freedom of the creatures as a testimony to the strength of Earth.  Dragons often are pitted against the nature-smothering forces of civilization.  Even when they are killers, we recognize their inherent beauty in the same way we are attracted to a waterfall or a volcano.

DRAGON CAN FLY – All humans enjoy reading about creatures that can soar through the air.  One of the most challenging and pleasurable parts of writing my books was to convey the sense of wonder in the flight of my dragon.  Such a scene is fairly easy to describe from the perspective of a human catching a ride, but readers don’t want to be carried through the sky.  They want to fly themselves.  I tried to describe it from the dragon's point of view.  Does she feel the cold wind as it buffets her?  Does she feel the air cushioning her?  Does she delight in the sense of speed and power? 
“Her heart soared and raced.  She gave a great dragon grin and leaped from the platform.  Wind rushed by her, but… she embraced it.  She felt the cool air caress her outstretched wings and lift into a smooth line.  She tested her diving and her soaring and found the moves to be as natural to her as walking or stretching.  She even went through a quick roll, exhilarated at the power of control.”  (K. Mankin, Dragon Symphony, Chapter 13)

My dragon, Allegra, courtesy of MtnGoddessStudio

There are surely other reasons, personal and distinct, for a dragon's ability to captivate.  I confess to being under the spell of the magical and mystical creatures.  A golden dragon sits by my keyboard and tells me her story on a daily basis.  Even when I am not writing about her, she fills me with inspiration and wonder.  And when I close my eyes, I dream of flying by her side, my wings pushing me through the air with insouciant power.


The Things We Write

Humans are story-tellers.  More important, humans are story-hearers.  Stories define our understanding of life from our very earliest moments.

The spoken story comes first for us.  It may be as simple as "How big is Baby?  So big!"  This classic familial game has all the hallmarks of a narrative.  There is a subject (Baby).  The subject has an internal struggle (to determine how big she is).  In the end, after interminable suspense (to Baby at least), the tension is released  (She is "so big.")  Homer could not have developed a more classic heroic journey.

From there the stories become personalized as we try to express them for others.  We narrate our lives with excitement and awe, no detail too small to leave out.  Ask a toddler to talk about her day in school and then count the number of times she says "And then," stretching the tale out to encompass her whole experience.. 

As the stories are told and heard we have the inevitable desire to preserve them.  The simplest and oldest means is with graphic representation; pictures on a cave wall are very similar to the crayon drawings in the kindergarten theme-book.  Pictures evolve into pictographs and then into writing.  "Go Dog Go" becomes "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer."  This in turn gives way to "A Wrinkle In Time," to "Catcher In The Rye," to "Look Homeward Angel" with thousands of stops and tangents along the way.

Even without the written word, the stories find ways to be heard.  They may emerge as music or dance, as songs with or without words.

Stories will hide in the strangest of places.  They lurk in anatomy textbooks in medical school, in investment prospectuses, even in historical documents - anywhere that an idea struggles to be understood by a human being.  The surest way for us to make our meaning clear is to incorporate it in a recognizable narrative, even if that narrative does not begin "Once upon a time...," but rather "When in the course of human events..."

The problem with being a story-hearer is that we sometimes forget to listen for the story.  We may be too caught up in the form or format.  If the words are complicated or in a language we don't know, then we may not try to understand them.  If they are too dry or even too ornate, they may not seem worth the effort. Finally, if they involve complex interpretation, such as the that of wordless art forms such as dance or music or art, we may simply not be able to find the story.

But even if we don't fully understand, it is so important to keep listening.  Remember that Baby has no idea what the word "big" means.  She has only the vaguest sense of being "Baby."  It is with the nurturing repetition of the narrative that she begins to realize "Baby is me" and "Baby is so big." When she masters this understanding, she can then move on to other abstractions like "Baby is growing," "Baby has thoughts," or "Baby has dreams."

I feel that it is important as an artist to emphasize the story and the story-hearing.  Twist the story around.  Tell it backwards.  Make up a language if needs be.  But always strive to maintain the connection between the art and the story-hearer at the other end.