Monday, May 03, 2010

Dragon Taming

Two recent movies feature updated versions of a very old fantasy meme: taming dragons.  In both James Cameron's AVATAR and the more recent DreamWorks picture, How To Train Your Dragon, the protagonists befriend what amount to winged reptiles (or their "Pandoran" equivalents) after intense and well-rendered sequences of the wild animals' capture and taming.

I imagine most falconers will watch these movies with a critical eye.  I found both films enjoyable and their depictions of this particular, hands-on wildlife interaction surprisingly palatable.  I have no idea what sort of research in real-world domestication the filmmakers might have drawn from (one sees glimpses of horses, cats, dogs, seals, birds, dolphins and lizards in the movements of the movie dragons), but the sequence of emotion and behavior in the animated creatures---and of their tamers---mirrors closely the experience of manning a bird of prey.

Maybe I am too big a movie fan.  But despite my worst expectations of modern Hollywood, these two entertainments manage to show very positive and (in context) plausible examples of close contact and cooperation between people and wild animals.  That alone, beside the amazing artistry and story-telling, is noteworthy in a time when one would expect little popular tolerance for this idea.

I left both movies wondering if it's possible that only falconers (or equestrians, or experienced dog trainers, etc.) could appreciate the complex human/animal working relationship these movies present.  But the more obvious answer, given the films' huge box office, is that millions of viewers must have recognized and approved it as well.

What could this mean?  Have we not drifted so far away from these elemental thoughts and ancient forms as our "humane" high priests would prefer?  If so, I am glad.  And I would say to others who enjoyed these films but have never considered pursuing falconry or coursing or riding horses: Give it some thought.

Not all the dragons are fantasy.



Heather Houlahan said...

Have not seen the Dreamworks pic.

My kvetch with this part of Dances With Smurfs is the instantaneous nature of the partnership.

As soon as you plug your USB port into the critter, the wild beastie suddenly Lives to Serve Forever. No further negotiations required, and no accommodation to the animal's realities by the "master" in this relationship.

Well, it's a fantasy movie, and that's a persistent fantasy about taming/training, so perhaps it's peevish to complain.

But I sweep up the mental mess of that fantasy in my daily work, mostly manifested in the plaint that "I looooove her, why won't she listen?"

Matt Mullenix said...


Great point about the Pandoran "USB" interface. It's certainly a facile animal training aid (and plot device!) :-)

The DreamWorks version is more recognizable to Earthbound animal trainers. There's food reward involved, plus containment, verbal and nonverbal communication, eye contact, and empathy.

More thoughts later...

Matt Mullenix said...

On the other hand, the "plug-in" aspect of the relationships in AVATAR might well make eye contact and empathy pointless behaviors from an evolutionary perspective.

It may be that our own biology (sans mental docking ability) had to develop other tools to facilitate communication between individuals (and between species).

At any rate, my point was more in support of the basic notions of animal contact and husbandry these two stories rely upon. Without the notion that taming a dragon is possible, there is no story.

A second level of appreciation comes from my recognition that, despite the technological metaphor of the USB port, these are personal relationships. They require mutual risk and investment; mutual care and understanding.

Animal/human relationships of the oldest kinds cannot exist without mutual respect. Conversely, some of the newest kinds (industrial, exploitive, solely commercial, etc.) encourage the opposite.

In the DreamWorks picture, a central plotline depended on the necessary cooperation between protagonists (human and dragon): The human couldn't fly without the dragon (no wings) and the dragon couldn't fly without the human fashioning and operating a prosthetic tail for the dragon. Realizing this mutual dependency is an important turning point in the story.

Something similar happens in falconry at the point in training when the hawk realizes there is more than a tidbit to be gained by following the falconer and dog. When it's clear to all parties that a group hunt is the goal, the relationship gets deep and strong almost at that instant.