At the bottom of the map in the front of the splendid new edition of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, with illustrations by Jemima Catlin, the area devoted to Mirkwood Forest is labeled with the simple inscription, “There are spiders.”
An un-cluttered description, to be sure, but for anyone who has read The Hobbit, you know no further elaboration is really necessary. In Mirkwood, there are spiders. Large ones. Fearsome ones, straight out of Tolkien’s nightmares. There they are, and to get through Mirkwood, you have to deal with the spiders.
Along the same lines, there was a supposed – but likely apocryphal – practice in old cartography of marking uncharted territories on maps with the Latin phrase “Hic sunt dracones,” – “Here be dragons” – next to a fearsome drawing of a sea serpent or other leviathan-esque monstrosity. Supposedly it was the cartographer’s warning to mariners – “we don’t know what’s out there, so travel at your own peril.”
That phrase was likely linked to another Latin one, “terra incognito,” which, I’m sure you know, means “unknown land.” Not quite as terrifying as dragons, but still, in an age where falling off the map was a distinct possibility, scary indeed.
Is there anything like the unknown which feels quite as, well, dragon-ish?
Here we are at the doorstep of a new year, just as Bilbo himself stood on the doorstep of the Lonely Mountain, anticipating a journey into the bowels of the earth to encounter the fearsome dragon Smaug. “Dear me, what a fool I was and am!” Bilbo says, cursing himself as he ventures into terra incognito that first time. He knows what’s coming, and he fears it.
When I think about the year ahead, sometimes I feel like labeling it Hic sunt dracones. I don’t know what dragons lie in my own path, but the thought of facing them, like Bilbo anticipating his encounter with Smaug, fills me with a certain amount of dread.
What dragons lie in your own path this year?
G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.” Neil Gaiman took this Chesterton quote and put it more succinctly: “Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”
So here’s to a new year filled with dragons, and spiders, I am sure. In my own path lies a nearly-finished manuscript which will, Lord willing, go out into the world soon to inspire families with truth, goodness, and beauty. Some days, this dragon seems quite toothless. Others, not so much.
In The Hobbit, just before the scene I described earlier, Bilbo tells Thorin Oakenshield, “I think I will go and have a peep at once and get it over with. Now, who is coming with me?” Brave words from the Tookish part of this little hobbit.
Well, so say I.
A new year lies ahead. Take heart, friends. And take up your sword. Bogeys are real, but bogeys can be defeated. For every dragon, there’s a Saint George waiting to do the slaying.
I think I’ll go have a peep at the dragon. Who is coming with me?