I sort of hate Puff the Magic Dragon. Unlike other children’s songs, my dislike of it isn’t because it features an annoying melody or inane lyrics – folk is one of my favorite genres and Peter, Paul and Mary are rightly considered a classic band. Instead, I don’t like it because it makes me cry, and not in the good, freeing Let it Go way. Honestly, I hate its message.
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 for other priorities, Puff gets sick and old, retreating back into his cave. “Without his life-long friend, Puff could not be brave” is possibly one of the best and saddest summaries of the death of a friendship I can imagine.
What I hate about the lyrics is not that they describe Jackie as losing interest in his imaginary friend – that does certainly happen. What frustrates me is how inevitable it makes that process out to be. 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. By making him representative of all children, it’s suggested that Jackie’s abandonment of imagination may be sad, but can’t be avoided. Of course we give up those things we loved in childhood. Growing up is about the Real World – as an adult, there’s no place for make-believe.
But I reject the assumption, the idea that childhood is the place for imagination and adulthood is all about hard-headed, pragmatic truth. Of course, imaginary friends don’t have corporal forms, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have a place in our lives. After all, if you’ve ever been affected by a fictional character, 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 actually helped create one. In all of these situations, you have a connection with someone who may not exist physically, but does have a reality, even if it’s only in your head.
And 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 viewpoints we may have never considered, 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, whether they’re about pretty vampires, fundamentalist evangelical action heroes, or time-traveling aliens.
Beyond individual stories, we need imagination as both individuals and society.
Notably, the song describes what happens to Puff, but not Jackie. When an imaginary friend – and most likely the imagination that created him or her – fades away, what happens to the child? Without a robust imagination, I think it’s easier to become apathetic, self-centered, and stagnant. By helping you imagine what another person may be going through, imagination enables empathy. By allowing you to imagine how you can be a better, more loving person, it enables growth.
As societies are made up of individuals, ultimately, it’s the same for society. We can’t make 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, the embodiment of the Martin Luther King Jr. quote: “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 or dinosaur or 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.