Dragons and writers can’t escape each other.
It’s not just that a dragon is a reliable addition to any story. It’s that writers and dragons are the same thing. They collect bits of the world*. When someone – an editor or English teacher or upstart hero – finally wrangles the mass of accumulated stuff away from them, the whole is recognizably different than the sum of its parts. With luck, it’s now classifiable as “treasure” (or “a first draft”).
In their quest, both seek unknown territory. Dragons are synonymous with those parts of the map where the cartographer gave up. Oh that’s good enough, they said: “Here be dragons.” Writers, unlike cartographers, can’t just add some colored shapes and go home**. They have to write themselves out of whatever corner they wrote themselves into – and where better to look for an unexpected plot device than the unknown? “Here be dragons” indeed.
But the last two paragraphs are just a roundabout way to get around to the idea of treasure, and all the things treasure stands in for. I blame dragons and writers because, in my experience, they’re usually where the trouble starts. The writers make the dragons and the dragons make the treasure. The treasure ends up in children’s books, and the children perk up their ears and listen because children love dragons.
Children love dragons for two reasons. Dragons are Cool – which is another way of saying their powerful ability to reshape the world is the stuff that every child craves – and they are indelibly linked to treasure. And children also love treasure***.
It’s not a mercenary reaction. Children understand that treasure is not defined by market value. The idea of “treasure” becomes meaningless once you separate out the individual pieces; it’s allure comes from the aggregate, the endless juxtaposition of textures, colors, and shapes in which to immerse yourself.
The people who write children’s books understand this, and I can prove it. Picture a treasure chest. I can tell you exactly what’s in it: a pile of gold-colored coins, loose gemstones and jewelry scattered throughout, and at least one gold chalice partially visible. There may also be a crown. The whole thing emits a vaguely gold-colored glow, like a nightlight.
That’s the treasure chest you saw in your mind every time someone said “treasure” in a book. That’s the treasure chest in the picture books your parents read you. Writers understand that one way to ensure a rapt readership is to include a treasure. And do you want to know why treasure is such an undeniable hook?
Picture your treasure chest again. I bet you thought about finding it yourself, and I bet you thought about keeping it. Maybe you planned how your life would be different if you had that treasure: you could live in a castle, or with dinosaurs. The point is, every good treasure is made up of four parts.
First: gold. Lots of it. Self explanatory, really.
On to the second part: treasure is indivisible. No one pictures “a piece of” treasure. “Treasure” is always composed of things massed to the point where the individual items are subsumed into the richness of the whole.
Third, a treasure is a thing to be wanted. That’s deceptively obvious, and I’ll return to it in a moment.
Fourth, people want treasure because it has the power to transform a world. Once you hold treasure, you hold the power to transform the world into your world. That’s why every child wants it, why every writer wants it (dragons, remember), and why every adult wants it too. Everyone wants to shape the world in their favor.
The reason everyone wants to shape the world in their favor traces back to the third point, the one about wanting things.
In stories, treasure is the thing everyone wants: the focus. In real life, treasure stands in for the things people want, the things they can’t quite focus on because of the life around them. Call it greed, call it desire; neither is really correct. It’s more of an urge and a compulsion, and it isn’t about an object at all. I’d say the feeling is like sugar ants under your skin****, but it’s less of a defined itch, tickle, or tingle, while having characteristics of all of those. It’s more of a diffuse-but-definite state of being. It’s a crazy frustration and sadness at all the things for which you’ll never know satisfaction, and sometimes, secretly, you don’t mind it at all. Sometimes, secretly, you know it’s the best proof you’ll ever come across that you’re alive.
Treasure stands for the things people want. That’s obvious. But what’s not so obvious is this: people need to want things. Specifically, people need to want unfulfillable things. Treasure is the perfect stand-in because it actually does seem fulfillable: we all have a picture in mind, a perfect treasure chest that glows like a nightlight. We’ll know it when we see it. And in the meantime, we’ll learn how wide the world is, how many places treasure could be hiding. We’ll learn how to look for things, and we’ll learn how to see both what’s in front of us and what’s a million miles away.
Did you ever read the Calvin and Hobbes comic books? They’re for children, and they’re written by a dragon masquerading as an author named Bill Watterson. The title of one of the books is There’s Treasure Everywhere. The trick is to know how to look without finding it.
*Further proof: both are noted for their tendency towards grumpiness and drastic reactions to being disturbed.
**I spent the summer taking a cartography course, and this is so far from true I choked as I typed it. Writers have a far easier time of it. All they have to contend with is writers’ block and editing, whereas cartographers have to make sure stuff is actually where they say it is in case someone, you know, checks.
*** Most children are, in fact, tiny dragons. Anyone who has met a two-year-old understands this.