Sunday, January 6, 2013

Dragon Slayers, Ancient and Modern

The recent massacre of children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT has led to renewed speculation and discussion of modern gun culture, as well it should. This was an unspeakable crime, and unfortunately not an isolated one. That there is a growing body of such bloody incidents in the annals of crime is a curse on the so-called “free world”.

It has been said, by people on both sides of the gun ownership issue, that the root cause has absolutely nothing to do with gun ownership and everything to do with media and/or mental illness trends. Others, of course, say gun ownership with a “might as right” attitude is the root cause of these tragedies.

I will go out on a limb and assert that these approaches, nay, these excuses, are inherently and completely incorrect. My proof resides in the whole history of the human race, as encapsulated within the ancient literary formula:


This literary formula extends from the Ancient Hittite, Vedic, Persian, Greco-Roman, Baltic, Celtic and far Northern European traditions. Scriptures of all traditions are filled with stories that follow the same formula. Histories, myths, charms, prayers and victory songs contain this same formula, over and over again.

Aside from the interesting philological implications, this formula indicates a more basic sociological truth: humans have always used violence to overcome adversaries and other adversities.

Violence in society is nothing new, but perhaps the purposes and reasons for using violence have changed.

Our ancient literary evidence indicates that the hero’s purpose was to return or create order from chaos.


In essence, maintaining order is what the modern police person is supposed to accomplish. A sense of social responsibility lies at the heart of our best readings of this formula; the hero is the person who has the courage to attack a monster (whether that be a dragon, a tyrant, an anti-hero, or some other) that threatens the equilibrium of the community. Not everyone is cut out to be a police person, not everyone is capable of being a hero, in that ancient understanding of what heroism requires.

What we are seeing, in these modern massacres, is the aberration of the formula:


This version of the formula is also present in ancient literature, generally within the context of a larger literary expansion that shows the following:


If you think about it carefully, you will realize a great deal of modern literature, not to mention film media and games, contain this very formula, more or less.

The point I make is that human beings are violent, no less so now than in past epochs. We like to think that we moderns are more sophisticated, more rational, more urbane, more prone to desire tranquility and peace, more likely to follow rules with a sense of social responsibility and obligation. This assumption is incorrect, even to the point of tragic delusion.

The National Rifle Association (NRA), in proposing that institutions such as schools invest in armed guards on patrol, clearly suggests that its membership populates the hero category. “Arm all the good guys,” is the new refrain. Parents and educators look on this proposal, as well they should, with revulsion. Do you want your child attending a prison in order to obtain an education? What sort of social value does it impart, that our schools might become army garrisons?

The second amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as ratified by the states and authenticated by Thomas Jefferson, reads as follows:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

When considering this statement, two essential bits of information are almost always forgotten, in the deafening volleys of rhetoric that abound within the public discussion of this issue of guns and gun ownership. First, the population of the United States, at the time this amendment was ratified, was sparse and widely spread over enormous territories; in such times, the need and ability to raise a militia against foreign enemies was only a sensible precaution in an era of colonization and empire-building. Guns, in addition to providing a modicum of frontier protection, were important tools in bringing food to the table.  Second, the American Constitutional amendment bears direct relationship to a clause from the 1689 English Bill of Rights, one that disallowed the monarch from disarming Protestant subjects—thus restoring a right that had previously been available equally to all free male subjects and making amends for what a Catholic monarch had done due to a perceived threat of uprising. The framers of the U.S. Constitution were clearly trying to make it impossible for a federal overseer to have power to disarm the populace.

While grocery stores and farms are more congenial modern ways of bringing food to the table, guns are still used in the subsistence lifestyles of rural and indigenous peoples. Semi-automatic and automatic weapons, whose design and engineering are for war and for the indiscriminant killing of people, not wild game, are inappropriate for use as tools for the modern hunter.

The United States has an Army, a Navy, a National Guard, a Coast Guard, States police and highway patrols, County Sheriffs, and local law enforcement, as well as an astonishing array of privatized bonded security agents. With all of that firepower, why would the public need to raise a militia? Conversely, the United States does not have a centralized database for arms and ammunition sales, nor does it have a single federal code for the registration of weapons. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) does not have any authority to do what is necessary to aid all areas of law enforcement in the necessary regulation of firearms.

The following formula is illogical and is a social anathema, but is being bandied about by gun advocates:


The NRA continues to issue its disingenuous rationalization:


If this is true, and certainly a great deal of our world literary traditions bear it out, then what is needed is regulation and enforcement of responsible ownership of firearms.

Killing is an irrational response, and has always been.

The NRA wants to sell the following formula to the public:


When so much of our newspaper is taken up with this reality—


—I wonder that anyone can imagine the NRA vision to be correct.

Meanwhile, I think we need to work on a different equation, completely, one that has nothing to do with weapons, their ownership and regulation:


If humans want a peaceful world, this is the formula we need to work out. If few are cut out to be police, and not everyone is capable of being a hero, then we need to start working on the root causes of violence as a natural, if irrational, human impulse, for the sake of our children, and our children’s children.

We need to write, and come to revere, an entirely different kind of story, all together.


To explore the literary traditions to which I have referred, and the poetic formulae I have shamelessly borrowed, see this fascinating book:

Watkins, Calvert, How To Kill A Dragon; Aspects of Indo-European Poetics. Oxford University Press, USA, 2001