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From: “Barra the Bard”
Date: Tue, 7 Feb 2017 13:06:41 -0500

Jane,

Wish I could see it, sounds gorgeous!

During these dark winter days, now that Christmas is over, I’m using a red and gold dragon tea cosy each day, and was thinking about my favorite dragon tales (no, Bob, this is NOT my reply to your challenge! Still mulling that over.)

There are two Chinese dragon tales I used to tell at the Pittsburgh Dragon Festival. I learned both from Joe Healy, and Joe Wos used to do an illustrated version of the first one, “The King Who Loved Dragons.”

A prince was born in the year of the Dragon, so of course he grew up being taught about the wonderful qualities a dragon king should have. (Note: Eastern dragons, unlike the Western ones we know from St. George and other European legends and folktales, are not harmful. Instead of fire, they are creatures of the sky, of clouds and rain, ensuring the rice crop’s growth, and are therefore venerated in Asian countries.) He must be wise and generous, just and strong. So he had a fat little dragon night-light, and a dragon pull-toy, and a dragon kite, and dragons embroidered on his clothes. As he grew older, he had dragons embossed on his bow and sword, and of course at his birthday, he was given all kinds of dragon gifts, in various media: pictures, sculptures, wood, cloth, jade, etc. In time, he became a young king. Not long after, he summoned to his court all the artists in his kingdom. “I am the dragon king,” he said. “I love dragons! And I know exactly how the best one in my collection should look. One of you will make it for me. It is golden, with red scale along its back and tail, with five claws on its forefeet and six on its back feet, great wings half-opened, sitting on a cloud. The artist who succeeds will be given titles and wealth and land, and be my official Court Artist. But if you try and fail to make it as I wish, you will lose your head.”

To his surprise, one after the other, all the artists declined. Some were ill. Some had to go on important journeys. Some were ill and had to go find healing. Some were much too busy. All had some excuse—except for the youngest, who had just qualified.

“I can make your dragon for you, Your Majesty,” he said. “But it will take me a year and a day. May I return at the last hour of that day to give it to you?”

The King wanted it sooner, but the young man was adamant. if he was to do it right, he needed all that time. At last the King agreed, adding, “And if you do not come, I will have my guards find you and kill all your family and you.”

“I understand, Sire,” bowed the artist, and left.

The King impatiently waited as the months, weeks and days dragged by. Finally it was the final day, and he alternately dozed (because he hadn’t slept well the night before) and sent asking if the artist had arrived yet. All the Court was gathered at the end of the day, eager to see.

At ten minutes before the deadline, they heard footsteps coming rapidly down the hall towards the throne room. Guards opened the doors, and in came the artist, carrying his paint-box in one hand, and with an easel and canvas under the other arm.

“Do you have my perfect dragon?” demanded the King.

“It’s not quite time yet, Sire.” The artist set up the easel and opened the box. “Please tell me once again how the perfect dragon looks.”

“It is golden, with red scale along its back and tail, with five claws on its forefeet and six on its back feet, great wings unfurled, flying out of storm-clouds over mountains,” the King said.

As he spoke, the artist whipped out his palette and began painting.

“My executioner is right here,” warned the King.

“But the time is not quite come—ah!” and as the first gong of the water-clock struck the hour, he stepped back. “Please come look, Your Majesty.”

Everyone watched as the King rose from his throne and walked around until he could see the painting. “Careful, Sire! The paint’s still wet,” cautioned the artist.

Silence.

The King’s face lit up. “Yes!” he exclaimed. “It’s perfect! That’s it! You may go, Executioner.”

The artist was given beautiful robes, titles, riches, lands, and they had a great feast. But later, as everyone was leaving, the King called him back. “Tell me,” he said. “You made my dragon in less than five minutes. Why is it that you insisted you needed a year and a day to make it?”

The new Court Artist smiled. “One of the first things artists learn is that it is human nature for patrons to change their minds after they commission a work. You too, Sire, changed a few details on your perfect dragon between describing it to all of us and today. I spent that year learning to paint a dragon in less than five minutes.”

Love that story! It was the first one I accompanied with my harp.

The other one I tell as a sequel to the first, although it can stand alone:

“The King Who Demanded Dragons”

Many years later, the Dragon King of the first tale died, and his step-son became King. This young man was determined to be even greater than his father, and had unfortunately been raised by his mother, who had taught him to believe he was smarter, stronger, and deserved to have whatever he wanted.

One day he sent for the Court Artist, now an old man, and demanded he attend him at once. A message came, explaining that the artist was very busy and was ill.

The King sent his guards to drag the artist in.

Before the entire Court, the King arrogantly and rudely informed the artist that he had one day to create a mural of a dragon, or he would lose everything, including his head.

“I will begin when I have the materials and the paint-box on my desk,” said the artist. “But I must have the room to myself and privacy to work.”

“Very well,” agreed the King. “I’m going hunting.”

So the materials and box were brought, along with the key to the throne room, and the artist began painting. Meals were left outside in the hall.

The Chamberlain knocked on the door at the end of the day, to tell him that the time was up; the King and his Court must come in.

“Just a moment,” called the artist. “It is not quite the hour.” Bending down, he opened a tiny secret compartment in his box, lifted out a small vial, and taking the tiniest bit of a shimmering substance on the tip of one finger, touched it to either eye of the dragon in his mural.

Again the Chamberlain pounded on the door. “Open, by order of the King!”

“I am ready,” came the reply, the door was unlocked, and everyone poured inside.

From floor to ceiling, a splendid mural of the kingdom was visible, and in its center, one claw balanced on the highest mountain, was a magnificent dragon, wings unfurled.

“Not bad, old man,” the King said. “I’ll have it painted over tomorrow. Dragons are so old-fashioned! You are no longer my Court Artist.”

“Good,” said the artist. “I shall retire forthwith.”

“Of course, you won’t need your belongings anymore; I’ll send my men to take them tomorrow.”

Picking up his box, the old artist looked at the young man for a moment. “You have much to learn,” he said thoughtfully. Looking at the mural, he called, “Wake and fly!”

“Look!” cried one of the courtiers, pointing.

The King looked—and saw that the dragon in the mural had turned its head to look directly at him. The great wings began to flap, and then the dragon flew out of the mural. in one claw he picked up the artist—but in the other, he picked up the startled king. Then he burst through the window, flying away.

They were never seen again.

No one touched the mural.

It is not wise to challenge dragons—or artists.

–Barra

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