“Fairy tales,” Neil Gaiman once wrote, “are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
Narratives can teach us that we can win against our demons, or, I suppose, that we can lose. They also teach us the costs of fighting and of persevering. There is a strength to knowing one isn’t in that fight alone. And a strength in knowing that success is what happens if you keep going through failure after failure.
Modern fairy tales can also teach us other things. I was thinking about this again, in regards to The Shape of Water. We can learn that the one wearing a dragon skin may not always be an enemy. Just as ones wearing human skin are not always friends.
Of course, anyone who grew up a little bit Different already knows this. The ones wearing human skins (and standing, often as not, in judgement over our own) are not always friends, do not always have our best interests at heart (even when they’re supposed to) and sometimes set out to wound and erode.
One could make an argument that a dragonish heart is what makes a dragon — that someone who behaves so poorly is a dragon no matter how human the skin they are wearing. But we all know what assumptions are made when difference is so palpable and what pressures are put upon the different.
Through the cultural forge, we sometimes learn that it is easier to hate ourselves than it is to incorporate the truth that society can be quite as unfair as it is. If you believe in the justice of judgments passed upon you, it’s an ugly feeling, but the cognitive dissonance is so much less that it can be a relief, at least temporarily.
So stories where monster and beloved are one and the same are distinctly powerful. Through people sympathizing with the ugly, the broken, the overly powerful, the weak, the different and the peculiar, we learn not only that dragons can be beaten, but that they can be appreciated. They can be supported. They can be loved.
Knowing that you can be loved no matter how monstrous you appear to yourself or others is at least as profound a statement as that that evil can be defeated. That you do not, in fact, have to stop being a monster to be loved. That there is nothing wrong at all with what many people find to be monstrous.
Here are a few films for when you feel like an unloved dragon:
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
What We Do In The Shadows