The 1963 Peter, Paul and Mary song, “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” has become part of the soundtrack of my life. As a child when I heard the song I remember listening carefully so I could understand the story, as well as enjoy the music. Puff’s grief at losing his friend touched a part of me that still aches for him. I remember how I cried when I finally understood the lyrics. I still cry nearly every time I hear it. I couldn’t articulate why this song touched me when I was young, but now I can. I’ve always wanted the story to continue; I want Puff to learn that loss is a part of life and to feel joy again. I’ve always felt a kinship with Puff.
One theme of this ballad is that life changes and childhood innocence fades. To survive, we must accept the changes that come in life. Puff couldn’t when little Jackie Paper grew up and stopped visiting him, so Puff withdrew into his cave and “ceased his fearless roar.” I’ve retreated into a “cave” a few times in my life, and eventually, I climb out and get on with the business of living; occasionally I have to learn that lesson again. Sometimes lesson is brutal and devastating, other times it simply stings a little.
As a child, I wanted to know what happened to Puff, and as an adult, I want to explore what comes next for him – not literally rewrite the song, but to write about what happens after such a huge loss; I still want to help Puff heal and move on. I’d like to believe that magic does exist and that dragons are real. That’s why I write – I create stories and write poems because I want to know what happens after the end – and creating stories is magic. The endings aren’t always about living happily ever after – that’s a load of crap that fairy tales sell. I confess that sometimes I do want that happy ending, but even more than that, I want to know what happens next, and I want my characters (and myself) to grow, learn, and enjoy what life has to offer. I suppose I’m really trying to say that I have hope that all the “Puffs” in the world can dust themselves off and get on with the business of living. I’ll never stop learning that I need to dust myself off and get on with life after a loss – even when what I lose was never really mine to begin with (few things in life are).
Puff’s cave is a symbol for withdrawal and seclusion, and the original song implies that Puff’s grief is permanent and irreconcilable. Yet, Peter, Paul, and Mary* have slightly altered the lyrics in recent years, now singing the last chorus in the present tense. Puff now frolics near his cave by the sea: immortality and contentment intact.
Mythological magic dragons are immortal, but humans are not. Slipping into a cave only worsens or prolongs the problem (whatever that cave is – caves have many names and disguises – alcohol, drugs, recklessness, traumatic disorders – the list is lengthy). We do need to retreat sometimes, but we must emerge from the cave, walk into the daylight, and feel the warmth of the sun. If we aren’t living, we are dying. Puff emerged from his cave; he mourned the loss of his friend Jackie Paper and roars at pirate ships as they pass. Puff no doubt treasures the memories of his friend, and has some new friends now. Dragons can be quite friendly, once you get past the tough scales. Puff’s immortality resides in us, just as the friends and loved ones we lose live in our hearts.
Now that Puff’s story is resolved, I have a few things to say about Jackie Paper. He never came back to visit Puff, and It seems that Jackie grew up and abandoned the concept of play that not only children but also adults need in order to be well-rounded. Without what seems to be silly nonsense and “play” in our lives, we become stifling jerks and bozos. Honestly, some adults take themselves FAR too seriously.
Often as adults we forget that there is a time to play and enjoy life doing things that aren’t “productive.” What the hell do we work so hard for? Shouldn’t we enjoy the simple silliness of play sometimes? A little healthy playtime would lighten up some of the executives, politicians, nitwits and blowhards in the world, don’t you agree? We should make snow angels, sing in the rain, jump into a pile of leaves, ride a rollercoaster, blow soap bubbles, and eat dessert first more often ~ we only live for a little while, and then we are gone.
If we don’t enjoy life and play a little every day, what’s the point?
The website, Songfacts http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=1276 , has more information on the background of the song and the Ogden Nash poem that inspired it. The site also provides the song lyrics and the text of Nash’s poem, “The Tale of Custard the Dragon.”
If you’re interested in the AC-47 gunships used in Vietnam nicknamed “Puff the Magic Dragon,” you can find more information from the DC-3/Dakota Historical Society at this site: http://www.dc3history.org/ac47_puff.htm