by Pamela Wharton Blanpied
Random House, 1980
Reprinted by The Boydell Press, 1997
Found: on a New York City subway
Let’s say you’re a cattle farmer. You wake up one morning to find half of your herd missing. This is troubling not only because they’re your livelihood, but because this has never happened before. And so you invest in some fencing and a pair of savage guard dogs — only to wake up the next morning to bloodshed and disrepair. What could this be? A resurgence of wolves? Bored, countryside saboteurs? Sinister rival dairy farmers? ... Dragons? If you’re farmer living in the imagined modern world Pamela Wharton Blanpied creates in Dragons: The Modern Infestation, then it’s probably dragons.
Dragons is a book my friend Erik found on the R train in Brooklyn. It was just there on the ground, all stepped on and wet with winter muck. I didn’t think much of it initially, but now the image makes me furious. That’s because Dragons, a satirical take on academia through the lens of the scientific study of dragons, is brutally funny and, at times, beautiful.
First published in 1980 by Random House and then reprinted in 1997 by The Boydell Press (an academic publisher out of England), Dragons is divided into three sections: a history of the modern dragon infestation; a dense, exceedingly scientific section called “Anatomical and Behavioral Characteristics”; and finally, excerpts from the working papers and field reports from renowned verminologists Marta Froedlich and Philip Marsden.
What’s most stunning about this book, though, is not simply the joyful absurdity contained within, but the critique of humanity and our collective complacency with simple, surface-level understandings of how the world works. Blanpied argues that dragons roamed the Earth well before the “Modern Infestation,” but humans chose to ignore the forest fires (or “fire falls,” as they are called in the book), the growing loss of cattle and puzzling wide-scale property damage, chalking it up to vandals and political dissidents.
“The record of the early years of the Modern Infestation” is a tribute to the human ability to insist that there is nothing new under the sun. Individual pieces of evidence were fitted into explanations based purely on pre-dragon assumptions. If there is no culturally sanctioned explanation for the experience, we tend to ignore it or fail to notice it at all. This argument is a bit reductive, but it’s no less cutting and hilarious because of its brutal truth: We often only attempt to understand what is immediately visible and knowable.
Blanpied doesn’t end her critique here. She goes on to tackle the human desire to fetishize anything new and shiny entering the world. After multiple reports that a lone dragon was living atop a hill in Iowa, occasionally coming down for a beefy snack, the town’s residents go wild in the worst way: setting up bus tours in order to gawk at the dragon, licensing action figures and clothing, and even taunting the beast in order to get his attention. At first, the dragon ignores this, but finally decides he’s had enough:
“However on the second day of tours the first busload carried equipment designed to stir [the dragon] up a bit: cattle prod and fireworks. The dragon killed the entire busload. He deposited the driver’s body some distance away from his observation site in dense bushes and proceeded to eat the fleshy parts of all the passengers but two old men.”
humans never win. In a big way, this is the question Blanpied is
presenting throughout: What if some beast appeared on this Earth that
was finally a match for humanity? The answer for Blanpied seems to be that we’d
respond horribly and ignore the fact that a superior being could
possibly exist. We’d ignore its power and focus on its cool factor.
Thankfully, the book isn’t just one long tirade against humanity’s deep embrace of ignorance. Section two, the most biologically focused piece of the book, is also funny:
“The distinctive dragon bellow vibrates with the hollow roar associated with big cats, though the sound can be much louder on occasion and is usually more bass. [sic] It can be a mere thrumming, a kind of modified purr or, as a warning or threat, it can literally be earthshaking. … Contented dragons, especially in the company of other dragons underground, bellow simultaneously, working the vibration into a long, repetitive song, with intricate rhythmic variations and subtle harmonies. They take pleasure in this group creation and become enraged if interrupted.”
Blanpied even gets a little metaphysical with it when it comes to attempting to comprehend the lifespan of a dragon:
“Folk tradition insists that dragons are immortal. This is highly unlikely. It is true that insofar as we can ascertain on the basis of present evidence no dragon has ever died a natural death. This does not mean, however, that no dragon will ever die. They are tied to a lifespan that exceeds our understanding of that term.”
Mostly, Dragons: The Modern Infestation is packed with slow, deep burns, but there’s also a palpable sense of hope lingering throughout. The imagined verminologists about which Blanpied writes have a profound love and respect for dragons that goes beyond fascination or fetish. If we could just have an ounce of compassion, just a bit of reverence for the things around us that we cannot immediately explain or understand, perhaps coexistence with all other living things wouldn't be so bad. Or maybe this is just a silly book about dragons.