Dragons (Time Life Enchanted World)

This entry is part 14 of 56 in the series 2022 Reads

As with other books of 2020, this comes a while after I read it. 

We visited my grandmother’s house in Quebec when I was a kid. That was the trip when I discovered one of my cousins shared my interest in RPGs. It was also the trip when I noticed our uncle’s book collection. He had piles of graphic novels—all in French, of course—but he also had what I remember as a full set of the Time Life Enchanted World books. If you were growing up in the 1980s, you probably knew someone who had them, or at least saw the ads on TV:

Supposedly, people at Time Life talked about their book series with expressions like “books as furniture,” but leafing through them as a kid, I ended up very badly wanting that book series.  

Sometime after we got back to the Saskatchewan (where my family lived), I got a paper route and soon after, I convinced my dad to call and order the books for me. It lasted something like three months before—for whatever reason—my dad called again, this time to cancel the deal. (I suspect I’d fed all the collections from my route into a video-arcade game at the local corner shop, including what I owed the newspaper company, and that this was my punishment or consequence or whatever.) I had received the volumes Night Creatures, Ghosts, and Fairies, and that was it. I read them from cover to cover many times each, and was enthralled: each was, to young me, a kind of smorgasbord of tales from across history and around the world, and the art captivated me. 

Over the years, I picked up a few more volumes in used bookstores, but none of them ever made it to Korea with me. However, last year I happened onto someone selling the full set as an auction online, and I lucked out: if I remember correctly, I paid $5 for the entire 21-volume set, not including shipping to Korea (via a parcel forwarding service). They’re heavy books, so shipping wasn’t really negligible, but it still worked out to only a few dollars per volume, and I was happy to finally have this thing that I’d wanted so badly as a kid. 1

Anyway, now that I have the Enchanted World books, I figured this would be the year I’d make my way through the whole set (orm anyway, get started on it). I don’t remember what the word is for nostalgia for things one never actually experienced, but that’s the kind of read this is. It seems fitting that—as someone who never cared all that much about dragons, that this would end up being the subject of the volume that I more or less picked at random to start with.  

It turns out that the volume a reasonably well-done survey of dragons in myth and legend, with a pretty vast breadth of references. The main focus is on Western Europe and Northeast Asia, since the differences between Chinese-styled dragons and European ones makes for a dramatic contrast. However, the book goes into Babylonian myths (Tiamat and Marduk!), Persian tales of dragon-hunting, a Japanese myth, folktales from Hungary, Wales, England, France, and Germany, dragons in classical-era myths and stories, and more. I suspect the entire series is like this: mostly dominated by European folklore, plus some Chinese and Japanese stuff, with a smattering of Middle-Eastern content. That’s not so bad, even if the exclusions are a little hard not to notice: for example, I was a bit surprised not to see even a brief a discussion of nagas, which to me seem a bit like the missing link between the Northeast Asian “dragon” and the European one, for example. But only so much can fit into a book of this size, and it’s also not really an academic treatise, so it’s easy to understand why they’d just focus on, you know… stuff that people would readily recognize as “dragons.” 

With these books, it’s as much about the art as it is about the text, if not more so. The prose is professional and workmanlike—and there is some effort to present a coherent thesis about the topic, even. (In this volume, the argument seems to be that dragons symbolize nature and the chaos from which it springs: they’re emblems of cthonic forces in the world, and their eradication goes hand in hand with the human “mastery” of nature. Evidently COVID and climate change alike both suggest that humanity’s declaration of triumph over nature was somewhat premature, but then, we already knew that.)

Still, it’s the “lavish” illustrations (as Vincent Price’s line goes in the ad) that I imagine will bring me back to these books after having read them, just as it was the art that caught my attention in the first place. 

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  1. I’ll be honest, I’d love to have the Mysteries of the Unknown books—they’re sort of the slicked-down Fortean woo-woo equivalent of the Enchanted World books, and are filled with the kind of nonsense that fascinated me as a teenager. I hear the Time Life series on the old west is pretty good, too. But I never see those on auction with a starting bid of for $5, somehow…)

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