Here at last—and available in open access—is Robert Blust’s passion project The Dragon and the Rainbow. How is that Blust, most widely known as one of the world’s greatest experts in comparative Austronesian linguistics, came to write a book about dragons, and how is this book connected to contemporary scholarship more broadly? In this introduction I hope to contextualize The Dragon and the Rainbow to help readers appreciate the origin and argument of this unusual volume.
While this book may at first appear to be a departure for Blust, it has many things in common with his other work. To begin with, while some of his colleagues may be surprised that he wrote a book on dragons, few will be surprised that it is over 120,000 words long. Blust was a man of endless energy capable of producing massive synthetic works, including his 638 page Eight Languages of The Admiralty Islands, his 845 page The Austronesian Languages, and his 1,106 page Thao Dictionary. And this is not to mention the online Austronesian Comparative Dictionary, a work which would, if printed, run over 9,000 pages (Lobel 2022:143). The length of this volume, then, is no surprise.
Neither is the passion with which Blust makes his arguments. Drive was a central part of Blust’s personality, along with an unyielding insistence on integrity and intellectual consistency. As a result he always took a principled stand, even if that meant walking a lonely path. For instance, as a child in the early 1950s he refused to say the pledge of allegiance because of the atrocities of settler colonialism. This insistence on justice for indigenous people seems ahead of its time today, even if it seemed unpatriotic when Blust was a child. This volume reflects Blust’s insistence on following evidence wherever it led him. Integrity and consistency were central values for him. For Blust scholarship was a moral mission, and every typo was an ethical outrage. The Dragon and the Rainbow is born of that same rigorous insistence that drove the rest of his professional work. In this volume he has followed the evidence wherever it led him, regardless of whether his conclusions appeal to the preconceptions of others.
The central question of this book is: Why are dragons found universally across all cultures, and why are they often associated with rainbows? Like so many things in his life, Blust pursued this question regardless of whether others found it interesting. Indeed, he pursued it despite the manifest fact that in many places dragons are not associated with rainbows. In the preface of this book Blust describes the skeptical reaction that he sometimes received when he described this process to people. It is important to emphasize that while some may have found Blust’s project quixotic, a knee-jerk skepticism fails to recognize the depth and ambition of The Dragon and the Rainbow, as well as its connection to ongoing and important debates in the human sciences.
Readers will notice that Blust draws repeatedly on Edward Tylor (1832–1917), the first person to hold an academic appointment in anthropology. In Tylor’s day (to simplify greatly), anthropology consisted of the natural history of humanity, with special reference to ‘preliterate’—that is, colonized—people. Where had they come from? What were their histories? Had, for instance, the bow been invented once and then knowledge of it spread across the world, or had it been invented multiple times in different places? In my own conversations with Blust, he often emphasized the importance of these early studies of the origin and diffusion of culture traits. While Tyler is cited in this book, we also often discussed Boas and the ‘four-field’ vision of anthropology (see below) in which historical linguistics was just one part of a broader attempt to document the human past. The Dragon and the Rainbow, then, is rooted in this natural-historical project.
The Dragon and the Rainbow seems unusual to contemporary scholars because of transformations in the academy since Tylor’s time. Anthropology classically had a ‘four field’ approach to the natural history of humanity, drawing on ethnology, archaeology, anatomy, and philology to paint a complete picture of our species. Since then, the capacious discipline of philology has lost its unity and splintered into many specialties. In anthropology today, it has been replaced by linguistic anthropology, which studies language use in interactional context as a form of communicative practice. Linguists following the legacy of Bloomfield and Chomsky, on the other hand, tend to study grammar as an autonomous mental phenomenon whose structure could be revealed by examining the intuition of fluent speakers. Historical linguistics, Blust’s area of expertise, was once central to philology. Today, however, it has no clear institutional home, and practitioners find themselves in departments of linguistics, anthropology, literature, and history. It is important that we look beyond the current academic division of labor to understand that Blust’s project seeks to reconnect psychology, history, cognitive anthropology, and other approaches in a synthetic way which has salutary novel elements as well as a deeper scholarly genealogy.
Despite his use of terms like ‘universal’, Blust does not argue, as perhaps Jung might, that all humans have dragons buried somewhere in their subconscious. His argument is more subtle. In several times and places in history, he claims, human beings independently invented a belief in rainbows and dragons because of the visual and material properties of rainbows such as their occurrence in the sky during times of sun and rain, their serpentine shape, and other factors. Given the regularity of these natural phenomena and the uniformity of human nature, he argues, we may expect to find the same concept—the dragon—developed independently in different places. In doing so, Blust is in essence taking a path out of Tylorian anthropology which is uniquely his own, one very different from the paths which others have taken.
Blust believed that the origin of dragons has an inherent intellectual appeal despite the manifest fact that he is one of the very few scholars currently working on this project. In typical Blust fashion, when only one in a hundred people are interested in a problem, but that one person is him, it is the ninety-nine people whose variation must be explained away. I would argue that most people should be forgiven for focusing on the pressing issues of the day given the urgent challenges of climate change, pandemics, increasing economic inequality, and a changing global order. Even Tylor did not study survivals out of abstract intellectual curiosity. A Quaker, his goal was to reveal the superstitious and primitive elements infecting Christianity in order to purge them and create a church truer to Christ’s vision for the faithful.
But let us set these quibbles aside. Blust’s project is thus bigger than just one book—even a book this big. It is a program of research that will require an entire intellectual community to fully bring to fruition. What would a Blustian approach to dragons look like? What work remains to be done?
First, we must continue to develop the logic of Blust’s methods. Modern anthropology convincingly criticized Victorian approaches for ripping concepts out of context in order to compare them. These older approaches created objects of study like ‘totemism’ or ‘myth’ which had no natural unity and whose coherence was an illusion created by the presuppositions of the scholars who studied them. To his credit, Blust deals with the issue of ‘lumping’ and ‘splitting’ instances of the culture trait of ‘the dragon’ in his book. However, we must go further and develop a methodology examining the logical consistency of Blust’s synthetic project. If it is fit for the purpose of tracing the origin of dragons, perhaps it could be used in other areas as well. More work on this topic needs to be done.
Second, we must continue the empirical investigation of Blust’s claims. Currently, his assertions lack a fully sound evidential basis. Some dragon beliefs are the result of diffusion, he claims, and some the result of independent invention. But which are which? And why prefer independent invention as a mechanism over diffusion? Blust claims all instances of dragons-as-rainbows extant today have not changed in thousands of years, whereas instances where dragons are not rainbows are the result of historical change. Sadly, Blust provided us with a comparative Austronesian dictionary that traced the diffusion of culture traits across vast areas of time and space, but he did not give us a work of comparable scope for dragons. Indeed, how could he? Even a man as tireless as Blust had limits. We need modern, high-quality, detailed studies of dragon beliefs to document and reconstruct the natural history of discourse which Blust could only gesture to in this volume.
Third, we need a fuller account of the cognitive pathways which, Blust claims, turn rainbows into dragons in the minds of humans. Blust presents little biological argument for this biological claim, nor does he reconcile it with the fact that human perception is shaped by the arbitrary and contingent cultural categories to which humans are socialized. Blust is too careful to give in to biological determinism, but did not have the time to provide us with a more nuanced account of the interaction of these different causal forces. What is the relationship between historically specific cognitive categories, species-wide perceptual capacities, and the organoleptic properties of objects? Future researchers interested in dragons will have to answer these questions, hopefully by building bridges with relevant contemporary work in other disciplines.
How many scholars will take up the gauntlet that Blust has thrown down in this volume? It is hard to say. Regardless of whether this book is the beginning or the end of a Blustian approach to the study of dragons, we are lucky to have it. No one can deny the effort that Blust has poured into The Dragon and the Rainbow. There is no doubting that this volume should be celebrated for its originality and passion. In all of these areas, The Dragon and the Rainbow is a unique volume by a unique scholar, and an important part of his legacy.
Department of Anthropology, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa