The Dragon Keeper's Handbook: Including the Myth & Mystery, Care & Feeding, Life & Lore of these Fiercely Splendid Creatures

The Dragon Keeper's Handbook: Including the Myth & Mystery, Care & Feeding, Life & Lore of these Fiercely Splendid Creatures

by Shawn MacKenzie

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Here be Dragons... Not the slavering, whimsical monsters from childhood fancies, but real Dragons—fierce, complex, wondrous, and wild. They do not require our belief; they never have.

With hard science and myth, empirical wisdom, and original line drawings, The Dragon Keeper's Handbook is the draconic enchiridion for the modern world


Here be Dragons... Not the slavering, whimsical monsters from childhood fancies, but real Dragons—fierce, complex, wondrous, and wild. They do not require our belief; they never have.

With hard science and myth, empirical wisdom, and original line drawings, The Dragon Keeper's Handbook is the draconic enchiridion for the modern world, providing everything you need to know about these extraordinary beings. From disparate theories of Dragon evolution and the golden geometry of their form to modern conservation efforts and how to release a well-weaned orphan back into the wild, this book answers all your questions, even those you didn't know to ask. From awe-inspiring Cosmic Creators to wee pisuhänds guarding hearth and home, discover the habits and habitats of Dragons and pseudo-dragons both familiar and rare.

The Dragon Keeper's Handbook shows us how human and Dragon lives are bound together and why Dragons are now and ever-will-be relevant: In their wildness lie lessons for us all.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This note-perfect "nonfiction" book on fantasy creatures will be eerily familiar to anyone who's read the genre it emulates, down to catchy, vague chapter titles with explanatory subtitles; humorous, opinionated footnotes ("Flat-earthers do not make the world any less round"); and the occasional flight of impassioned rhetoric. The natural history of dragons is logically constructed and will enchant readers who like their magic to have rules (though if it were a real how-to, would-be dragon keepers would surely be impatient with the abstruse background). The mythic analysis section is deft and fascinating, though the line between metaphor and purported truth often blurs. The final detailed advice on dragon keeping is uniformly charming. Keeping true to form, there is no disguised plot, characterization, or dialogue, so this clever parody may be of interest only to a subset of fantasy fans. (Sept.)

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Read an Excerpt

The Dragon Keeper's Handbook

By Shawn MacKenzie


Copyright © 2011 Shawn MacKenzie
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-7387-2785-1

Chapter One

True or False: Dragon Species & Genetic Variations

When the sun rose over the primitive hominids of the ancient Rift Valley, there were Dragons. As late as eleven thousand years ago, our Mesolithic ancestors would have been well acquainted with Dragons both True and false. Indeed, with the exception of size, True Dragons have not changed appreciably since the latter half of the Paleolithic Era.

The same cannot be said of false dragons, or pseudo-dragons, of course. Their bloodlines are far more fragile, more open to mutation, than their True Dragon kin. This has led to a host of lesser dragons of every shape, size, and temperament cropping up in every corner of the world. Though often hard to find, the vitality and mutation rates of these ersatz dragons provide priceless indicators of planetary health. They may not be as flashy as their True kin, but, as any cryptoherpetologist will tell you, we need them nonetheless.

For those new to the mysterious and rare, cryptoherpetology is, plainly put, the study of "hidden reptiles." More fanciful circles refer to it as Secret Serpent Science or even Remarkable Reptile Research, but it's Dragon Studies, plain if hardly simple. Contrary to the assumptions of academe, cryptoherpetologists follow the same rigorous methodologies as do their more orthodox counterparts. Questions are raised; hypotheses formed; through observation, experiment, and empirical research, conclusions are reached; and results are shared. This may come as a shock to hard-core skeptics who view those working beyond the fringe of academia as hacks, eccentrics, or fools. Of course, if these skeptics bothered to look, they'd realize the sanctioned roster of natural sciences (and a few social sciences, too) has exploded in the last century, including a plethora of fields which would have been considered crypto studies as recently as a generation ago.

Granted, some central questions of Dragon Studies are hatched from eggs hard-shelled by myth, but that is hardly an unusual genesis when it comes to scientific inquiry. Before Thomas-Francois Dalibard and Benjamin Franklin played with kites and keys, lightning bolts were explained away as the temper tantrums of the gods: atmospheric javelins from the hands of Tlaloc and Zeus, sparks from Thor's hammer, etc. And, granted, the crypto sciences are frequently hampered by the inherent natures of their subjects. Draconic researchers contend not only with a meager fossil record and historical accounts more fiction than fact, but also with the very real risk of getting injured—even killed—trying to study Dragons in their natural habitat. But ordinary scientific pursuits are also complicated by access and hazards—the boon of particle accelerators and the dangers of space travel immediately leap to mind.

George Santayana wrote that

science is nothing but developed perception, interpreted intent, common-sense rounded out and minutely articulated. It is therefore as much an instinctive product, as much a stepping forth of human courage in the dark, as is any inevitable dream or impulsive action. (The Life of Reason, Vol. V, p. 307)

There are now (and may always be) people who diminish—even dismiss—the scholarly bona fides of Dragon Studies. This is hardly surprising in a world that is still debating the truth of evolution. We suggest that such parochial thinking betrays a perception deficit on the side of traditional academia rather than any problem with the crypto sciences themselves. One has only to think of strange quarks and expanding universes, of gravity's binding force and the ex quisite beauty of the double helix, to grasp the essential audacity at the heart of scientific curiosity, up to and including the exploration of the unknown and unexplained. If human erudition was limited strictly to that which was seen and appreciated by the powers that be, we'd still be diapered infants floundering in the intellectual sandbox.

That said, with open minds and courage enough for a stroll through the darkest dark, let's embark on a minutely articulated examination of Dragons, both True and pseudo.

True Dragons

True Dragons are among the universe's most perfect beings. This is a useful bit of information. Squirrel it away like a nugget of Fafnir's gold; take it out and burnish it now and then as we proceed.

There are three distinct species of True Dragons: Western or Occidental Dragons; Eastern or Oriental Dragons; and the Feathered Dragons of the Southern Hemisphere. While, from a distance, some of their larger poor relations can almost pass for True Dragons, there is one sure way to tell them apart: sacred geometry.

Were the early titans of sacred geometry—Phidias, Pythagoras, Euclid—staring in wonder at Hellenic Dragons when they had their Eureka! moments and codified the golden ratio? It is a reasonable conjecture. Being most-perfect creatures, True Dragons are proportionate to the sacred harmonies of the natural world. These proportions are easier to see in Western Dragons, their solid form standing four-square before us, crying out to be drawn and tape-measure quartered. Their physiques are in precise accord with the g olden ratio used in sacred geometry: a+b/a = a/b = φ [φ [approximately equal to] 1.618] (see Diagram 1).

The best way to understand the relationship of Dragons to the golden ratio is by looking at the parts first, then the whole. Plug the parts into the equation and—voilà!—all becomes clear.

Thus: Neck = A; Head = B

Neck + Head/Neck = Neck/Head = 1.618

These same proportions continue along the entire length and breadth of a Dragon's body:

Body = A; Head + Neck = B

Body + Head + Neck/Body = Body/Head + Neck = 1.618

Tail = A; Head + Neck + Body = B

Tail + Head + Neck + Body/Tail = Tail/Head + Neck + Body = 1.618

Wingspan = 2A [&fra;12; Wingspan = A]; Head + (Foreleg x 2) = B

&fra12; Wingspan + Head + (Forelegx2)/&fra12; Wingspan = &fra12; Wingspan/Head + (Forelegx2) = 1.618

Consequently, if a Dragon's head was 2 metres long, his measurements would be (approximately): Head = 2 metres; Neck (and Forelegs) = 3.24 metres; Body = 8.5 metres; Tail = 22.25 metres. In all, he would be roughly 36 metres from the first scale on his nose to the last on his tail. His wingspan would reach almost 27.5 metres. A formidably perfect being!

The divine ratio is less evident in full grown Eastern and Feathered Dragons, getting easily lost in their sinuous physiology. However, when still in the shell, their True-Dragon proportions are very noticeable. There, snug and secure, they grow, coiled in a neat golden spiral. The Fibonacci sequence provides the simplest approximation of this embryonic form and is a fitting approach for those of you who took a pass on post-graduate calculus (see Diagram 2).

Once out of the egg, Eastern and Feathered Dragons mature in a manner corresponding to the golden ratio discussed above (see Diagrams 3a and 3b).

Also, if you get close enough to an Eastern Dragon—and are very polite—you will find that their scales, from tail to crown, multiply in a precise Fibonacci progression. There are reports that this is true of Western Dragons, too, though they are not exactly eager to have their scales counted. Consensus has it that Westerns are decidedly more titillative than their Oriental cousins, thus making for dicey fact checking even with the most affectionate Dragon. All else taken into consideration, it still makes perfect sense regardless of scale-by-scale documentation. As anyone steeped in Dragon Studies knows, a great many things must be taken on faith.

Western Dragons

What image comes most readily to mind when talk turns to Dragons (as it no doubt does frequently in your daily life)? Chances are it is that of the Occidental or Western Dragon.

From Siberia to Persia, through Europe and North America, these magnificent creatures have roamed the world, tipping their wings over mountains, steppes, river runs, and arid wastes. They are and always have been the most numerous of the True Dragons. They are also the most gregarious. That said, it is all the more puzzling that they have so long suffered the slings and arrows of atrocious public perception.

Through the centuries, Western Dragons have been depicted as fierce, bloodthirsty, winged fire-breathers who pilfer livestock, dine on ill-fated maidens, and guard their treasure-packed lairs from all comers. True, they do breathe fire—something to bear in mind when approaching them in the wild—and the y are attracted to precious metals and stones, especially when brooding. But the rest is mere fiction created by clerics in search of converts and/or knights who wanted something to brag about around the castle keep.

The temperament of the Western Dragon makes them adaptable to a splendid diversity of environments, including those in close proximity to quasi-urban centers. They are extremely bright beings who, contrary to popular belief, tend to be somewhat laid-back and retiring. And, like all True Dragons, they are loyal, often to a fault.

Vital Statistics

Mature Occidental Dragons measure between 8 and 12 metres in length, not counting their tails, with wingspans of proportionate size. Tails are close to two-thirds the total length of a Dragon but are flexible enough to curl neatly out of the way in intimate spaces. Well-conditioned Dragons are muscular with a pantherlike sleekness to their physique and can weigh in at two to three tons. True, this is massive; yet for their size, Dragons are actually featherweights—as they need to be—thanks to hollow bones and flight-sacs filled with lighter-than-air gases that help them soar aloft. Like human fingerprints, tail spades, neck furls, and spinal ridges vary from individual to individual, though there can be hereditary similarities within families. Such shared characteristics, subtle though they may be to human eyes, serve as effective identifiers within large enchantments and during forced migrations.

Western Dragons come in both scaly and smooth varieties—though scaly types are the more prevalent. Smooth-skinned Dragons sunburn with relative ease and thus are poorly suited to tropical/ subtropical/desert habitats. For skin care, both varieties look to regular bathing in water and dust—the latter serving to combat any external parasites that might find their way into draconic locales.

Colour among Western Dragons is positively prismatic, so much so that a weyr on the wing is like an impressionist painting hanging in the clouds. That said, some hues are more common than others—if anything about Dragons is ever common. Most frequently seen are green, blue, red, and variations thereon; the metallics (silver, bronze, and gold) are less typical. White Dragons are the rarest of all. Diet plays a considerable role in subtler shade distinctions. Dragons who, for example, enjoy a consistent diet of crustaceans and mollusks—especially langouste, mitten crabs, and abalone—ingest significant amounts of copper. This can give a red Dragon a warm, auburn tinge or a green Dragon a slight verdigris underhue. All Western Dragons have an iridescent, chameleon quality, which enables them to adjust their colour at will or whim and blend into their surroundings, a definite advantage when playing hide-and-seek—or fleeing for their lives.

Soft, leathery wings are one of the Western Dragon's most distinctive characteristics. Flexible enough to fold neatly along a Dragon's back, these ribbed appendages are strong enough to carry a Dragon into the oxygen-thin stratosphere. Unfortunately, a Dragon's wings are among her most vulnerable features. Scholars insist that many of the ancient tales of Dragon slayings were only possible once the Dragons in question had been grounded by having their wings grievously lacerated. For this reason, Dragons must take precautions and preen their wings daily: a wing-damaged Dragon is a vulnerable Dragon.

Early imagination-challenged naturalists described Western Dragons as having equine heads, which is not only inaccurate but also unfair to Dragon and horse alike. Though both sport long, rather spatulate crania, Dragons are much broader across the brow than horses. This is an evolutionary quirk that accommodates resonance chambers for sonorous communication (speech and song) as well as their third eye, a species-specific enlarged pineal gland.

Teeth and horns distinguish Western Dragons from more mundane fauna as well as from their Eastern and pseudo kindred.

Male and female alike, Dragons are born with vestigial, temporal nubs. These harden by their fifth year and grow in a family-specific fashion, either straight, spiraled, or in a tight curl. Within these three general categories, Dragon horns can be as varied and spectacular as the vast treasury of antelope racks. They are used for defense and display and do require considerable care.

Look a Western Dragon head-on and you cannot help but notice a formidable mouthful of teeth—fifty-six to seventy-two in number. That's enough to give the most intrepid naturalist pause! However, contrary to popular misconceptions, they are not all savage sabres like those flashed by carnivorous sauropods or modern crocodilians. In testament to a Dragon's inclusive diet, thirty-six deep-rooted bicuspids and mandibular molars back up her impressive frontal array of fangs and incisors. With dental plates like these, Dragons can easily rend and masticate flesh, bone, and shell as well as grind up a variety of foliage, from delicate leaves to crisp, cellulose-laden branches.

As wide ranging as Western Dragons are, it is important to bear in mind that this makes them the most likely of the True species to cross human paths. When this happens, always remember: they were here first. The trespass is ours.

Eastern Dragons

Honored rather than reviled, Eastern Dragons have fared far better in the popular imagination than their Western relations. Though their range is limited to the more temperate parts of India, all of China, and the western Pacific Rim, they have wandered in spirit around the globe. They are represented in Dragon festivals across Europe and the Americas, including Dragon Boat Festivals in locales as diverse as Lethbridge, Alberta; Denver, Colorado; and Kiev in the Ukraine. That these beings are revered as one the wisest o n Earth reminds us that the differences between Eastern and Western Dragons are as much cultural and philosophical as they are physiological.

An extreme loss of habitat has made Oriental Dragons not only rare but reclusive. Survival has taken precedence over their once benevolent, even extroverted, existence. As understandable as this is, it puts cryptoherpetologists at a distinct disadvantage, having to rely more on hearsay and legend than on empirical knowledge. This should in no way deter serious Dragon aficionados, particularly those who prefer to learn firsthand rather than from books. In short, the field is open for exploration.

That is not to say that we don't know some remarkable things about these sinuous beings. Oriental Dragons have a traditional and well-deserved reputation for being honorable, benevolent, lucky, and very ingenious. In dynastic China, the descendants of the First Celestial Dragon, Golden Lung, symbolized power and good fortune and inspired near-divine awe. Though the people of China often referred to themselves as Lung Tik Chuan Ren—the Children of the Dragon—only the emperor was worthy enough to display the Celestial Dragon's likeness. The emperor was China personified. Imperial robes and banners were embroidered with the auric five-toed Dragon so that his sovereign self—and, by extension, all China—might came under Golden Lung's personal protection. This is a far cry from the put-upon Occidental Dragons fending off questing knights at every turn!

Vital Statistics

Legend has it the Oriental Dragon is a being of nine aspects or anatomical resemblances: head of a lion (or camel); horns of a stag; eyes of a hare (or demon); ears of a cow; neck of a snake; belly of a tortoise; scales of a carp; paws of a tiger; and claws of an eagle. They are also described as being an amalgam of all the other zodiac animals—the quintessential astrological hybrid. Interesting theories, to be sure, though seeing any creature as a patchwork of others is not only bad science but demeaning to all concerned. We advise against it.


Excerpted from The Dragon Keeper's Handbook by Shawn MacKenzie Copyright © 2011 by Shawn MacKenzie. Excerpted by permission of Llewellyn. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Shawn MacKenzie (North Bennington, VT) had her first Dragon encounter when she was four years old, when she happened upon an a copy of The Dragon Green by J. Bissell-Thomas. A sci-fi/fantasy writer, she is an avid student of myth, religion, philosophy, and animals real, imaginary, large, and small.

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