Back around 1960, so the story goes, Peter Yarrow found a bit of verse a friend had written and turned the words and his own melody into the popular Peter, Paul and Mary song, “Puff the Magic Dragon.’’
It’s a whimsical tune, featuring a rascally dragon named Puff and his young friend Jackie Paper, who brings his companion “strings and sealing wax and other fancy stuff.’’ Puff is the least fearsome dragon ever, but eventually Jackie grows up and leaves behind his magical, rollicking friend and his childhood innocence. Dragons, as the song say, “live forever, not so little boys.’’
It’s a much loved song for millions of people. If you view footage of the crowd at a Peter, Paul and Mary concert as the trio plays “Puff,’’ you’ll see women and men alike swaying dreamily along to the music, eyes half closed, sometimes wiping away a tear. Dragons like Puff offer no threat to those who know and love them and their song.
But we’re taught that dragons are fierce, frightening creatures. Sure, we eventually come to understand they don’t exist. Even so, when “Puff’’ was popular, some people protested the playing of the song. It had overtones of drug use, they said. “Puff’’ meant on a joint, they said. Jackie Paper referred to paper used to roll marijuana cigarettes, they said. They couldn’t see that it was only a feel-good song about the wonders of childhood and the loss of innocence.
Real or not, dragons have always been an object of fear for some. I’ve read and heard stories of how world maps, back in the days of sea-going explorers in ships with tall masts and broad sails, would plot the locations of known countries and straits and oceans. In unknown places that hadn’t been explored or charted, they’d mark the maps with words like “Here Be Dragons.’’ Such a warning struck terror in the hearts of the bravest of ship’s captain and crew.
Those maps and those stark warnings were at a time, of course, when a vast majority of people apparently believed the earth was flat. Sail too far into that region and your ship, if not attacked by dragons, would fall off the edge of the world. Most people have come to understand — and to accept, which isn’t the same thing at all — that the world is a globe, not a tabletop, although there are those who refuse to believe that and continue to find arguments for the flat-earth notion. Many years ago, my mom sent one of my kids a plaque that said something like, “Even if millions believe in something, if it isn’t true, it isn’t true.’’
Dragons, except for gentle “Puff,’’ seem to represent every kind of unknown danger or fear. I follow the controversy over the legislation to ban transgender young people from participating in girls’ sports, and I think someone is seeing a dragon where none exists. As I understand it, only once in the past decade or so has a transgender person played girls’ sports in South Dakota, and apparently activities association policy and community acceptance made that a non-issue. I don’t usually offer an opinion on current events, but it strikes me that the transgender sports bill is a search for an imaginary dragon.
I don’t say that to offend people who think legislation is needed. I really don’t. People are frightened of things they don’t understand, things they don’t know, things like dragons. Sometimes when people are frightened of something, their reaction is to chase it away, to lash out at it, rather than to try to know and understand it. In some instances, frightened people would prefer to slay a perceived dragon at once, rather than take the time to discover if it is friendly, if it means them no harm, if it simply wishes to be left to enjoy its life.
I think a fear of the unknown, of dragons, can apply equally to anyone who is different from us — minorities, members of the LBGTQ community, foreigners or immigrants. It would be sad if fear made us miss discovering a magical friend — or even just another human being.