Thursday, April 14, 2005

“Rodents of Unusual Size? I don’t think they exist.”

The Movie: The Princess Bride, 1987 (William Goldman, screenwriter, from his novel; Rob Reiner, dir.)
Who says it: Cary Elwes as Westley, aka The Man in Black and The Dread Pirate Roberts
The context: Westley reassures Buttercup (Robin Wright) that they have already faced the worst of the Fire Swamp in escaping the Lightning Sand and bursts of flame; she asks about the third peril, R.O.U.S.’s. Immediately after Westley says this, one attacks him.
How to use it: As a statement of bravado.

The National Zoo didn't get giant capybaras until after I left Washington, so I had to go to Munich to see one. I'd never even seen pictures of them, though Goldman describes them pretty well in his book.

They are such unlikely-looking creatures that my brain at first refused to process what I was seeing; I wanted to make them wallabies, or bears, or something that resembled an animal I'd seen before. It was the first time I really understood that we can't see things we can't imagine; if your brain tells you that something is not possible, you don't see it, even if it's right in front of you.

I was thinking about the corollary to this on Sunday, when Maeve and I went up to The Cloisters. The Cloisters is my favorite museum in New York, and Sunday was the first time I ever saw it in good weather. It's most famous for its collection of unicorn tapestries, but what caught my interest this weekend were all the varying depictions of dragons.

Dragons, we all know, never existed. So why does almost every human culture have some idea of a dragon? European dragons breathe fire, while East Asian dragons are water monsters. Some have wings, some have legs, but all are basically giant serpents with superior motor skills.

A quick Internet search shows a vast body of academic research on this issue, and I haven't had time to do more than browse. Some speculate that early civilizations found dinosaur skeletons, and deduced the existence of dragons from them. Others say it's more likely to be an extension of the eternal human fear of snakes. Either way, it's a testament to how wildly the human imagination can embroider the tiniest scraps of facts.

1 comment:

Madley said...

The Cloisters is my favorite NYC museum as well! In the 7th grade our band played a suite of songs about New York and "The Cloisters" had a really high D for the first clarinet and I had to work really hard to get it... and ever since then I'd wanted to visit the darn place.

I love all the religious art -- and there's not a clarinet in sight.