Listening to Puff the Magic Dragon on the iTunes children’s radio station, I stopped and frowned. Then I started crying, snuffling, blinking sobs that I tried to hold back in front of Sprout. I once thought I liked this song, but my memory was different than the reality.
Unlike other children’s songs, my dislike of it isn’t because of an annoying melody or inane lyrics. That day, I realized that I hate Puff the Magic Dragon’s message.
Puff is More Than a Dragon
The first few verses describe a beautiful relationship between a boy and his imaginary dragon friend. Then, as little Jackie gets older, he cares less and less about Puff. As he neglects his dragon, Puff gets sick and old, retreating back into his cave. “Without his life-long friend, Puff could not be brave” is one of the best and saddest summaries of the death of a friendship ever.
The fact that Jackie loses interest in his imaginary friend is neither unusual or offensive in and of itself. Of course that happens. It’s a natural part of childhood.
Rather, it’s the fact that Puff stands for much more than an imaginary friend. The vividness and depth of his world suggest that Puff represents all of imagination.
Besides showing one boy abandoning those made-up worlds, they also portray the process as inevitable. In the lines, “Dragons live forever but not so little boys / Painted wings and giant strings make way for other toys,” it portrays Jackie’s experience as universal. It’s suggests that Jackie’s abandonment of imagination is sad, but can’t be avoided.
What We Lose When We Lose Imagination
In the song, growing up is about the Real World – as an adult, there’s no place for make-believe.
But I reject that assumption. I reject any idea that portrays childhood as the place for imagination and adulthood as all about hard-headed, pragmatic truth.
While adults understand imaginary friends don’t have corporal forms, that doesn’t mean that they don’t or shouldn’t have a place in our lives. After all, if a fictional character has ever affected you, whether in writing, television or the movies, you’ve had an imaginary friend of a sort. If you’ve ever written a fictional story, played a role-playing game, or acted in a play, you’ve helped create one. In these situations, you have a connection with someone who don’t exist physically, but does have a reality, even if it’s only in your head.
These adult imaginary friends aren’t just “entertainment” – they can be as important to adults as they are to children. They can help us feel like we aren’t alone in our struggles, see new viewpoints, and inspire us to be better people. They affect us on a cultural level as well. The stories we listen to and tell say a lot about who we are and who we’re becoming. That’s true whether those stories are about pretty vampires, fundamentalist evangelical action heroes, or time-traveling aliens.
Beyond individual stories, we need imagination as a society.
Notably, the song describes what happens to Puff, but not Jackie. When an imaginary friend – and more importantly, the imagination that created him or her – fades away, what happens to the child? By helping you imagine what another person may be going through, imagination enables empathy and growth. Without a robust imagination, it’s easier to become apathetic, self-centered, and stagnant.
On the bigger level, we can’t create a better world if we can’t imagine it first. When there’s so much injustice, greed, and hate in the world, it’s easy to lose hope. But imagination can provide us with the vision of a more equitable, more sustainable world. It can help us see the long arc that the the Martin Luther King Jr. quote describes: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I may never see the results of the changes I am trying to make, but I can imagine my son or his children benefitting from it. It’s not a coincidence that science fiction and fantasy have often tackled major issues of social change before non-genre media did.
So while none of us can maintain the illusion of a real-life dragon we visit by the shore, it’s good to remember our childhood stories and build relationships with imaginary friends.
My son, you don’t need to give up your dragon – or your fairy, dinosaur, princess or talking dog. Or whomever your imagination creates. And future imaginary friend, if he does forget you in a fit of Boring Grownupness, don’t worry – he’ll be back.