“If a dragon is taught to value nothing but gold, and think of its own worth as equal to that of its hoard, it will naturally disdain both discipline and law in the pursuit of treasure.”
– William Laurence, League of Dragons
Temeraire, by Naomi Novik
This quote comes from a moment where Laurence is conversing with the Tsar of Russia, and their talk has momentarily touched on the treatment of dragons by mankind. Throughout the series, we have seen many cultures with many differing approaches regarding the relationship that exists between humans and dragons. Some are more just than others, but easily the worst and most despicable of them all is in Russia. Here, in defiance of all reason, they see dragons only as fearsome creatures, kept alive out of necessity but treated most cruelly.
Now, however, the Russians have been getting a look at dragons from other nations, seeing how civilized they are. Most peculiarly, to them, Laurence and his dragon, Temeraire, have returned some valuable paintings which they came by, after such were stolen from Moscow by Napoleon’s forces. It baffles them, that a man should be able to persuade a dragon to part with treasure of any sort, ignorant of how little persuasion Temeraire needed. He’s a dragon, not some mindless, greedy, bloodthirsty beast in the wild, though the Russians believe such to be one and the same.
Laurence makes this comment, then, in an attempt to illustrate that dragons are, in fact, thinking, feeling creatures, much the same as any man. It doesn’t seem to have worked right then, but it later proves that the Tsar may have taken this more to heart than it seemed at first.
What I love most about this quote, however, is we can remove the word “dragon,” and substitute the word “man” in its place, and it remains perfectly accurate. One can then substitute any concept, such as glory, fame, the honors of men, the bedding of women, the consumption of fine food and drink, the possession of luxury to an excess, the power to do ill things and get away with it… any number of things, which the world tells us we are supposed to want.
Whatever we are taught is most valuable, whatever we are told is the measure of our worth, that is what we, as humans, tend to pursue with all our might. Our approaches may vary at times, sometimes using disciplined patience, sometimes scheming, sometimes brute force, but always do we seek to obtain what we believe will increase our worth.
That ignores our inherent value, and that of others, as human beings first and foremost. It also lends itself to every selfish appetite, sometimes to the point of mad obsession. It can even, when we fail at our goals – even if those goals are the most noble and humble thing of simply having and providing for a family – bring us low into depression, believing ourselves to be complete failures, worthless.
As always, it is a question of what balance we find within ourselves. What are the passions we are pursuing, and why? Whatever it is, do we do so in order to define our worth? Or do we already know our worth, and merely seek to enrich our lives and, by extension, the world around us?
I personally hope for the latter, both for myself and for others. It seems, to me, the happier road.