There are three basic theories about the world, Prince

At last the abbot said, his voice slightly quaking, his gentle lips atremble, “There are three basic theories about the world, Prince. One is that it is essentially good, one is that it is essentially evil, and one is that it’s neutral. What a wise man understands is that none of that is true. The world is a hodge-podge. Our human business, therefore — since our chief attribute is consciousness, and our greatest gift from God is, as Dante said, free will — our human business is to clarify, that is, sort things out, put the good with the good and the evil with the evil and the indifferent with the indifferent. Only when reality is properly sorted out can there be stability or hope for the future in either the individual or the state.”

“Hmm,” said the prince.

“That,” said the abbot, “is the reason you have really no choice, as a prince and a feeling creature, but to kill the dragon Koog.”

“I’m not sure I follow the logic,” the prince said.

“What could be simpler, my dear prince? A dragon is a confusion at the heart of things, a law unto itself. He embraces good, evil, and indifference; in his own nature he makes them indivisible and absolute. He knows who he is. Surely you see that!”

For a moment the prince did not answer; no sound whatever came from him through the darkness. Then: “Perhaps I’m a little tired,” he said.

“Put it this way,” said the abbot. “Dragons all love life’s finer things — music, art, treasure — the works of the spirit; yet in their personal habits they’re foul and bestial — they burn down cathedrals, for instance, and eat maidens — and they see in their whimsical activities no faintest contradiction!” The words made the abbot gasp, as if the deep immorality of dragons was somehow personally threatening. Almost with a snarl the old man continued: “Dragons never grow, never change. Did you ever hear of a dragon committing suicide? Of course not! Believe me, nothing in this world is more despicable than a dragon. They’re a walking — or flying — condemnation of all we stand for, all we pray for for our children, nay, for ourselves. We struggle to improve ourselves, we tortuously balance on the delicate line between our duties to society and our duties within — our duties to God and our own nature.”

He grew more animated. The room was in absolute darkness now, the fire in the hearth had died completely, but Armida could hear the abbot pacing, hurrying back and forth, occasionally bumping into the little tables. He continued: “We human beings glimpse lofty ideals, catch ourselves betraying them, and sink to suicidal despair — despair from which only the love of our friends can save us, since friends see in us those nobler qualities we ourselves, out of long familiarity, have forgotten we possess. That, of course, is why the suicidal person is so difficult around his friends. I know all about these things, believe me. I don’t live here at Suicide Leap for nothing! ‘Get rid of all friends,’ thinks the poor mad suicidal, ‘and the end becomes a possibility.’ So he insults his friends, teaches himself to hate them; yet even then secretly he hopes they will save him; even then he reaches out, bawls for new friends! Ah, these contradictions! Fiends are legion, we discover; our noblest hopes grow teeth and pursue us like tigers! Well, never mind; to be human is, inevitably, to hate oneself sometimes, to hunger for the perfect stability and in a way the perfect justice — or at least perfect punishment for our numerous imperfections — called death. What was I talking about? Ah! Yesss, the dragon. Old Koog.”

He stopped pacing, stood perfectly still, lost in the blackness. “A dragon, my dear prince, light of my life, has no such feelings as these I’ve just described. His existence is a malevolent joke on ours, a criticism, cosmically unfair. While the good man throws away his life to gain life, twists and strains and, with luck, transcends himself — by perilous battle achieves self-respect and the honest admiration of his neighbors and friends — and while the bad man with still a speck of decency throws away his for the love of that microscopic speck, the dragon flies out in the service of mad whim or sits at his ease for a thousand years on his useless emeralds and rubies, his gold cups and silver cups, and scornfully laughs! Does that really not disturb you, Prince Christopher? Do you feel no rage at all at a thing like that?”

After a moment Prince Christopher’s voice came from the darkness: “Perhaps I should sleep on it.”

— John Gardner, In the Suicide Mountains

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