How to Kill a Dragon, Aspects of Indo-European Poetics by Calvert Watkins ’52?. The erudition which went into this book is mind-boggling. Consider that to reconstruct proto Indo-European, the unwritten language from which almost all languages from India to Ireland descend, requires knowledge of numerous dead languages with their separate alphabets from ancient Hittite, thousands of years BC, extant in some miraculously uncovered clay tiles, to Medieval Irish. Then add that the purpose of this book goes beyond the language itself; it proposes to reconstruct a proto poetics by discovering patterns which must have been in that prewritten language, patterns which indicate that making art out of words is as old as our species’ first invention of language. This is the achievement of Watkins, who methodically analyses poetic formulas that can be accounted for only by positing a common source. For instance if you were to take our common formula Once upon a timeand discover a nearly exact use of cognates in the same context in another language, assuming that there was no possibility of lateral transference, you could conclude that the formula came from a common parent language.
Unlike other linguists who sweep by word-by-word analysis to jump to the elements of myth, Watkins stays close to vocabulary, formula, and figures of speech, particularly merism. (an example of merism would be the expression “to search high and low” i.e. to use opposites to indicate the whole. Watkins uses the example of “last but not least,” where the merism is made more memorable by alliteration.)
The second half of this book deals directly with the sentence “hero slays dragon.” Watkins finds the hero and his reptilian adversary in Beowulf, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Rig Veda, Old Iranian Holy Books, Celtic and Germanic epic, not just in the triumphant killing itself but in the vocabulary employed. He also uncovers how the slaying evolves and changes – hero sometimes slays hero or gets slain himself.
At the end, I felt as though I had slain a dragon; this was a tough read. How to Kill a Dragon could easily be a text for a year-long course. For scholars excited by understanding our deep past, this is a must-read.
One more word about how I got hold of this book. It was about $50 at Amazon, and once in a while I will spring for that amount if there is no alternative. Maria Fahey’s book on Shakespeare and metaphor was pricy, but there was an option to rent it for a couple of weeks. I have not found that possibility with any other book. In the case of this book, I found a PDF of it at a wordpress site for free. My family thought I was cheating the author, but he died a few years ago, so we decided that I wasn’t really ethically obligated to his heirs. I feel reasonably sure that he would have been pleased that I made the effort to understand his work.