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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

17 September 2021

On a visit to Norwich Cathedral, Malcolm Guite reflects on dinosaurs and dragons

THE other day, I had an appointment with a dinosaur, which makes a change from the meetings with the bright young things of Cambridge which were part of my life as a chaplain. The dinosaur was, I must say, an awe-inspiring creature. It was “Dippy”, the Diplodocus, who normally inhabits the special hall built for him in the Museum of Natural History, but who has been “on tour” this summer, and has taken up residence for a while in Norwich Cathedral.

His visit has been a great success, and has inspired something of “dino-mania” in the cathedral city: little dinosaur models and statues are everywhere, children are encouraged to follow Dippy’s dinosaur footprints, leading from all over town to the cathedral, and, at the cathedral itself, there are great queues of excited families waiting to see him.

But the cathedral has also arranged a series of evening talks, all taking place in sight of his enormous and intricate skeleton, and, indeed, under his great, arching, many-jointed tail.

I was there to give the talk “Of Dinosaurs and Dragons: The Awakening of Wonder”, though it scarcely needed a word from me to awaken wonder. I remember my own first encounter with Dippy as a little boy, holding my mother’s hand as we entered the Natural History Museum on a rare visit to England from Africa. My second meeting, more than 50 years later, was no less inspiring, but certainly more multi-layered. The extinction of the dinosaurs, after they had flourished so long, has given pause to an age in which extinction is not only visited by us on other species but threatened to us ourselves by our own folly, and the cathedral’s exhibition has drawn those issues out very well.

But that evening I was there to talk not only about dinosaurs, but about dragons! I reflected on the curious fact that we had already imagined dragons before ever we discovered dinosaurs, that the imagination had once more been the forerunner of reason. Perhaps it is not surprising, I suggested; for the mind of God, which imagined dinosaurs and breathed them into being as part of the marvellous evolutionary process of his unfolding cosmos, also imagined humanity, and brought us, too, into being, but made us in his image and endowed us with something of his divine imagination.

Perhaps those who first dreamed dragons were looking a little into the mind of the God who made dinosaurs; for, as Tolkien says in his poem “Mythopoeia”: “We make still by the law in which we’re made.”

And the name of Tolkien naturally led me on to dragons themselves. I read the tremendous account from Beowulf of the final battle with the dragon, and then the passages from The Hobbit which carry such telling echoes of the earlier poem, and I read C. S. Lewis’s wonderful account of the “dragoning” and “un-dragoning” of Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

But, all the while, it wasn’t the secondary creations of these fine authors, but the splendour of God’s primary creation, which was filling us with awe; for those two splendid structures in all their glorious intricacy — the cathedral and the dinosaur — are as nothing compared with the marvel of the human mind: the minds of those great scientists who painstakingly pieced together the evidence for Dippy, to show us the glory of creation, and the minds of the great builders and sculptors who raised the cathedral to the glory of the One who is beyond and behind all creation.

Dippy should rightly be at home in both the Temple of Natural Science and the Cathedral of Supernatural Glory.

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