Red, white, and blue. No green in the United States’ flag, unlike Brazil’s. Nothing green about our leaves, either. Those that haven’t turned to ash and smoke are changing color and falling on their own.

The fire next time has sparked every year by this time, somewhere in California or the Amazon, and it burns unabated somewhere down the front page. I take it to be a kind of hunger, a parched thirst, an insanity, really–or bewitchment–that we go on reading the news at all. But we read it compulsively, first thing in the morning and in the middle of the night, be it on an actual news outlet or the ever-expanding hell of social media, and like Tantalus, we can only gnash our teeth.

In that time we could, if we chose, write our myriads of books, or read the myriad more books we’ve been wanting to read or re-read, or play a little video games. The uses of free time, even for such small choices as what to read or whether to write, are an enchanted wood, in which besides the many paths not taken, there are the will o’ the wisps luring us off to impossible feasts and dances, to deep darknesses thronged with monstrous spiders. The wood is crossed by forgetful streams, but it’s also flown over by emperor butterflies, if The Hobbit is any guide:

In the end he poked his head above the roof of the leaves, and then he found spiders all right. But they were only small ones of ordinary size, and they were after the butterflies. Bilbo’s eyes were nearly blinded by the light. He could hear the dwarves shouting up at him from far below, but he could not answer, only hold on and blink. The sun was shining brilliantly, and it was a long while before he could bear it. When he could, he saw all round him a sea of dark green, ruffled here and there by the breeze; and there were everywhere hundreds of butterflies. I expect they were a kind of ‘purple emperor,’ a butterfly that loves the tops of oak-woods, but these were not purple at all, they were a dark dark velvety black without any markings to be seen.

He looked at the ‘black emperors’ for a long time, and enjoyed the feel of the breeze in his hair and on his face; but at length the cries of the dwarves, who were now simply stamping with impatience down below, reminded him of his real business.

– in The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, by JRR Tolkien

Somewhere in the wood live the elves, and somewhere else, off-stage, lurks the Necromancer…but that’s a story for another time.

Like The Hobbit, most video games sooner or later face us with a dragon. It might not be the ultimate evil within the world of the game, but for symbolic power a dragon is hard to beat. Tolkien, again, makes the point once and for all:

A dragon is no idle fancy. Whatever may be his origins, in fact or invention, the dragon in legend is a potent creation of men’s imagination, richer in significance than his barrow is in gold.

– from Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics

Along with a handful of other images–trees, fire, water, the underworld–dragons have to be about the most concise way of imagining all of what is at stake in our favorite stories. They incorporate each of the others, with their green scales, fire breath, flowing movement, flight and depth–and they guard the treasure.

Starmen.Net EarthBound Walkthrough: Magicant (2)
The dragon sings you the sixth melody in MOTHER
In EarthBound, in exchange for a book, we get the power to breathe fire…
…with an item that temporarily turns us into dragons

So when the real world gets to be too much and we’d really rather read fantasy books or play video games than watch another debate between the Red Dragon and the Blue, I don’t think it’s just escapism. If there is a solution to the real problems we face, I think it is there, implicit, in The Hobbit and EarthBound and Final Fantasy and the rest. In playing and reading, we are getting closer to it: saving the world.

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