On the Use and Abuse of Dragons

Who doesn’t like an immense, terrifying, awesome Dragon thrown into a fantasy story? The problem I often find, however, is handling a dragon with… respect? Dignity? The first thing I suppose a writer needs to consider is sentience. Is your dragon a beast or a conscientious entity? Is it somewhere in between? The answer to this has a number of repercussions. It seems almost certain that a dragon will get used in some way. In the few stories where I can think of that the dragon doesn’t get exploited (David Eddings, Terry Goodkind) this is when it only appears in a few scenes and is mostly treated like a beast of nature that you should leave well alone… a bit like if you’ve stumbled across a moose in the Canadian outback.

Reddit picture of moose to show scale

More often, though, if a dragon pops up in a fantasy book, they’re likely to become a minor or major element in the story. Interestingly, although much of contemporary fantasy is inspired by J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and its precursor, The Hobbit, contemporary authors seem to avoid taking a page from Tolkien’s book with regards to dragons. While Tolkien kept to his medieval inspirations by casting dragons as an obstacle or quest to defeat and overcome, dragons in contemporary fantasy seem to take the form as a resource, an item that must be captured, conquered, tamed, and brought under control. By taming a dragon, the hero conquers not only nature, but also the supernatural, finding an unlimitless supply of power. Consider Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, for example, an alternate history which reimagines the Napoleonic Wars with dragons as an air force in the army. (Although,I confess, I haven’t read the entire series and my memory of them might be faulty.) Novik’s early precursor, Anne McCaffrey, employs dragons in a similar way in her Pern series; here, McCaffrey’s dragons are bioengineered to fight a pestilence that falls from the sky. In each case, the dragons are sentient, taking an active part in the war they’re bred for. But the fact remains that, though sentient, they are still bred for these activities, domesticated much like a hunting dog and given no other purpose except to kill or be killed.

While these examples show sentient dragons that don’t seem to dwell on their own purpose in life – no existentialist crises here – there are, of course, examples where dragons are aware of the way in which they’re being exploited and destroyed. Though I haven’t read the complete series, Robin Hobb’s Liveship and Wild Rain trilogies is one such example. Another that leaps to mind is Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory’s Obsidian trilogy (which I first talked about here). Although I lamented the slow pace in the first book, the second book moves along at a brisk speed. In the first quarter of the book, we meet the dragon Ancaladar, who has been hiding away as he doesn’t want to risk bonding with a mage. Once a dragon forms a bond with a mage, the mage is able to access unlimited sources of power to fuel their spells. Thus, while Lackey and Mallory’s worldbuilding specifies early that magic has a price, they created a deus ex machina in the form of dragon. Unfortunately for the dragon, the dragon’s immortality is taken away, shortening to match the life of their bondmate. So not only do they get used as a battery pack, but they’ll be discarded soon after. Unlike (most) of the dragons of Pern or Temeraire, Ancaladar does object to being exploited, but as he usually ends up complying with his bondmate’s request, all this shows is that Lackey and Mallory have at least taken some time to consider the feelings of their non-human characters. The drawback, however, is that a dragon with an unlimited supply power risks functioning as a deus ex machina when things go wrong. Their ability to fly also adds to this effect. In a fantasy world where long-distance communication is often a problem, a dragon removes this obstacle fairly effectively. The authors must find other ways, then, to maintain narrative tension.

Finally, we have dragons that are purely beasts. They may form a bond with humans similar to a wild animal that may be raised from infancy, but, at the heart, they are still savage animals. In these scenarios, dragons are even more heavily exploited. Owning a dragon means – almost literally – owning a form of power. Consider George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, for example, where many of the characters try their best to take control of the dragons. Afterall, the Targaryen dynasty was established through dragons, as Aegon the Conqueror was only able to take over Westeros because of these beasts. Other instances of dragons-as-beasts makes the exploitation of dragons even more explicit. In Jane Yolen’s Pit Dragon trilogy, for example, dragons are bred for fighting, in a gladiator-style dragon cock-fight. It’s a brutal and savage use of dragon-kind, made even more so as the trilogy slowly conveys that the dragons are much more intelligent that the humans give them credit for. J K Rowling treats them similarly in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (although one wonders what was the thought process that went into deciding to use school children as dragon bait for these gladiator-style games. But I digress.)

I suppose my question to all of these authors is why? What is the purpose of adding dragons to your worldbuilding? Do they even have a purpose beyond sheer desire? Have they set out to say something meaningful about the way we perceive animals and nature, the way we see any object that is of use to us – whether sentient or not – and set out to find ways to exploit it? Or is this simply a secondary side effect of the world we live in? Is exploitation the underlying force that moves us all?

Can you hear the violins? BBC’s Merlin and the Arthurian Canon

I’ve done so much close reading analysis that never made it into my published pieces. If you are working on publishing something yourself, it’s a hard lesson to let your darlings go. i.e, you might have this terrific piece of analysis, but it might not add much to your overall argument and/or because of word length or copyright requirements, you need to find a way to be concise instead of digging into the full quotation.

The following is material I’ve had to cut from an article published in Fantasy Art and Studies (details here; you can also find discussions of my problems with publishing this piece here). It (the cut material) focuses on BBC’s Merlin (2008-2012). As my final published piece took a survey approach, I couldn’t spend as much time to dedicate to Merlin as I had originally hoped. The first draft of this piece (a conference paper) focused almost exclusively on the television show. It took me years to figure out that I needed to cut back my attention to the show in order to let the argument come through. (University 811 Writing tip: If you’re struggling to get a piece published, you may want to consider the focus of your piece and then apply an outline approach.)

The Knights of the Round Table never fully get together in BBC’s Merlin as Arthur and titular character Merlin takes the places of the knights on their adventures. The show is clichéd in terms of production: dialogues, background music, costume, and even lighting. Not only are there violins playing when Guinevere and Arthur kiss, but there is a ray of sunlight breaking through between them[i]. But by abiding in these clichéd conventions, the writers are able to transform all the major and minor plot lines of the Arthurian legend to a point where they are barely recognizable, and still remain a quintessential Arthurian story. Merlin often ignores much of the canon. The character of Merlin is not depicted as a wizened old man, but as a young adult, the same age as Prince Arthur, and furthermore, he must hide his magical powers and take the role of Arthur’s manservant. In many of the Arthurian stories up to this point only those of noble blood can be a knight. But the British television show Merlin challenges this doctrine. Lancelot does not descend from nobility. And even Guinevere is simply the daughter of a blacksmith and the maid of Lady Morgana. It is interesting that in these feminist Arthurian novels, though the novelists argue for gender and religious equality, they still abide by a class system. While Guinevere’s right to rule usually came from matriarchal power and Morgana descended from a long lineage of priestesses, this still indicates the aristocratic right to power. While in Merlin, Arthur is also still the son of a king, more emphasis is placed on secondary characters, specifically the title character of the show – Merlin.

Although Arthur is initially depicted as an arrogant, spoiled, rich boy, through his friendship with Merlin and his love for Guinevere he slowly begins to appreciate the value of the people of the other classes. His transformation is in keeping with a conception of courtly love. As Larry D. Benson suggests in Malory’s Morte Darthur (1976), what distinguishes courtly love from other love is the concept that: “love is not only virtuous in itself but is the very source and cause of all the other virtues, that indeed one cannot be virtuous unless he is a lover”[ii]. Merlin and Guinevere’s influence inspires Arthur to show kindness to the lower class, which in turns inspires incredible loyalty in his knights (as they often emerge from among this class):

GWEN. You claim titles don’t matter to you, but you behave like a prince and expect me to wait on you like a servant. Saying it means nothing if your actions betray you. […]

ARTHUR. You’re right. You have me invited me into your home and I have behaved appallingly. […]

GWEN. Because I thought you’d shown some humility. You had done something kind for me even though I’m just a servant. A good king should respect his people no matter who they are. [iii]

The resulting code of Arthur’s knighthood is established around these perimeters. When King Uther refuses to let Arthur rescue Guinevere when she is kidnapped as she is only a mere servant, Arthur’s determination to rescue Guinevere further marks a redefinition of the knight’s code. The knight must “always put the service of ladies foremost”[iv]. However, “a lady,” in Malory’s time, would only indicate a woman of noble birth. Merlin challenges the class structure, and expands this perimeter to include service all women, children, and people in need of aid. A knight, then, is not one of noble blood, but one who demonstrates this characteristic of nobleness.

              In Merlin, Arthur replaces the other knights in undertaking quests, as well as taking on other motifs associated with Lancelot. He is briefly betrothed to Princess Elena[v], a figure who is paired with Lancelot (and was made by famous by Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, circa 1842). Arthur also rescues Guinevere several times (and at least thrice from kidnapping) when it is usually Lancelot that plays Guinevere’s rescuer. It should be noted though that, like its feminist predecessors, Guinevere in Merlin unfortunately still needs to be rescued. Arthur additionally takes on the “knight of the cart” motif and the “fair unknown” motif – motifs traditionally associated with Lancelot. In “The Sword in the Stone”, “the knight of the cart” motif serves as a mechanics that forces Arthur to consider the state of his kingdom and wonder if Tristan’s hatred of his kingship is warranted: “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I don’t deserve to be king”[vi]. Arthur’s arrogance is transformed into a temporarily humility, as he considers his own qualities as a king. Similarly, when Arthur adopts the “fair unknown” motif in an earlier episode, it serves to confirm that he is a good knight (and therefore, worthy enough to be the King of Camelot one day): “I fear that people respect me because of my title. […] When I’m competing as William, my title doesn’t matter, nobody gives me any special treatment. So when I win this tournament, if I win this tournament, it will be because I deserve it. Not because I am Prince Arthur”[vii]. Arthur demonstrates a belief in a meritocratic conception of kingship, where his right to lead is not determined from noble blood or divine right.

In contrast, Lancelot’s decisions in Merlin are still fueled by a desire to serve Guinevere, returning to the outdated model of courtly love which is found in Chrétien and Malory. While he is identified as the “bravest and most noble of them all”[viii], and though he demonstrates all the aspects of chivalry, Lancelot is too submissive and humble to be accepted as a strong hero. Lancelot willingly embraces his death (smiling with his arms spread in acceptance and welcome as he walks towards his death) solely because Guinevere asks him to “look after [Arthur]. Bring him home”[ix] and thus he dies in Arthur’s place. Lancelot’s action and speech mocks the notion of equality. “Ever since I was a child,” Lancelot says when we are introduced to him, “I’ve dreamed of coming here. It’s my life’s ambition to join the knights of Camelot. I know what you’re thinking. I expect too much. After all, who am I? They have their pick of the best and bravest in the land”[x]. His deference is disturbing because, through the character of Merlin, the audience is well aware of how the nobility, and especially King Uther, treat the servant class. Though in other Arthurian stories the adultery brought about the destruction of the court, we see in Merlin that Arthur is able to persevere past their betrayal. The Lancelot-Guinevere storyline serves only to mark Arthur’s fortitude and compassion, and further distinguish the qualities of nobleness that should be found in a knight.

[i] Merlin,“The Once And Future Queen” 2.2

[ii] Benson, Malory’s Morte Darthur, 297-298

[iii] Merlin,“The Once And Future Queen” 2.2, my transcription throughout

[iv] Malory, 47 and 53

[v] Merlin, “The Changeling” 3.6

[vi] Merlin, “The Sword in the Stone, Part 2” 4.12

[vii] Merlin,“The Once And Future Queen” 2.2

[viii] Merlin,“The Darkest Hour, Part 2” 4.2

[ix] Merlin, “The Darkest Hour, Part 1” 4.1

[x]  Merlin, “Lancelot” 1.5

PSA to the “Let’s not make this political” crowd

“Let’s not make this political.” Except – EVERYTHING is political. Everything. Waking up in the morning to get ready to go to work? Political. It’s an act that supports capitalism, the 9-5 workday, the need for job security to provide for yourself and your family. You’re doing what’s “right” and you can feel happy with that. So you get up and get dressed with work-appropriate clothes. Political. What’s work appropriate? Who decides?

“Let’s not make this political” – so you haven’t agonized over questions of identity, your way of life. You can get up and go to work in the morning without worrying about childcare needs, disabilities, your legal status to work. You’re wearing “work-appropriate” clothes because you can afford to buy whatever’s considered work appropriate. Maybe you slip on high heels because it makes you look and feel more feminine. But only if you birth certificate is stamped with an F of course. So bully to the people who can’t fall in line, right?

“Let’s not make this political.” But your very identity is a political statement. And I’m not talking about identities that you might think of as “other”, outside of the norm. How do YOU define yourself? “I’m a working mom”. Political. You live in a society where women are allowed to work, but need to consider child care needs at the same time. “I’m a high school graduate.” Political. How did you afford your education? Was it provided by the government? Did your science curriculum include evolution? Did your history and literature curriculums consider global perspectives? What about perspectives from different ethnic and cultural groups from your OWN country? Did you think there was only one?

“Let’s not make this political.” So you fit in the status quo and don’t want to rock the boat. But what about the people who don’t fit into the status quo?; who are persecuted because of it? And do you see what’s wrong with identifying people who sit outside the expected norm as political? Maybe you’re angry because you think they’ve made a choice and you personally should not be effected by that choice. But consider for a moment if parts of your identity was not a choice. “I am citizen of this country because I was born here.” Not a choice. You can not choose the country of your birth. Just as you can’t choose your skin colour or gender and sexuality. (And people who identify as a gender different from the one assigned at birth or to a non-heterosexuality are NOT making a choice.) “I grew up rich. Poor. Middle-class.” Not your choice. But are you still expecting people who did not choose their identity to live up to the same requirements as everyone else?

“Let’s not make this political” is a statement of privilege. And wait. Hold up. Beford you feel attacked by the word “privilege”, let me clarify that privilege doesn’t mean you didn’t struggle or suffer. Privilege means that you didn’t have to jump over *some* hurdles. You know the adage “walking in another man’s shoes”? Well consider instead running an obstacle course but your obstacle course has less obstacles than another’s. Or maybe obstacles in different places or of different difficulties. Unfair, right?

“Let’s not make this political.” You fit in the status quo. And people who don’t- well – that’s their problem. Except. Refusing to take a stance IS a choice. Refusing to take a side equates to choosing to continue with the status quo. And while the status quo might not personally effect you, we live in a community, a society made of up various individuals with a wide range of needs and interests. Politics is about addressing the needs of all. Are people hurting, suffering, struggling because they can’t fit in to the status quo? And are you okay with that?

“Let’s not make this political.” I laugh and cry when I see this statement made with regards to the arts (especially film, music, and literature). All art is political. Each artistic choice is a political choice. You’re reading a story. What’s the identity of the character? Is it explicitly defined? That was the author’s political choice. Maybe the character isn’t explicitly defined. So you assume that the character is a cis-white-male because it doesn’t have any details indicating otherwise. Here, YOU’VE made a choice, as a reader, a choice to identify the character as a cis-white-male because it’s not otherwise stated.

“Let’s not make this political.” Okay. So maybe you’re not worried about rocking the boat and keeping things calm. Maybe you’re ANGRY at things you see as political. You’re favourite movie is being remade but they’ve replaced the cis-white-male main character with someone who is LGTBQ+ or a visibly different race or a female or a disabled character. And you’re ANGRY at what you see as a political choice. That anger is a political choice too. But I’m sorry that society has failed you, that you can’t open your heart to empathize and be compassionate with all members of your community.

“Let’s not make this political.” = I personally am not effected/affected by this and I don’t care about the people who are. That’s statement in itself is a choice; a political choice. And a heartless one.

An Unexpected Journey – Re-Reading The Hobbit Chapter 1

Gif from Hobbit film, with Bilbo Baggins running, captioned with "I'm going on an adventure!"

After a 2020-apocalypse-driven hiatus, I’m diving back into reading with a Tolkien re-read. I hope you’ll join me on my adventure!

I haven’t read The Hobbit in nearly a decade. I’m sure the events of chapter one amused me when I was younger. But as my 34th birthday has passed me by a couple weeks ago, this time I was struck with feelings of ire on behalf of Mr. Bilbo Baggins. Here’s this polite, friendly guy, greeting a stranger with a hearty “good morning” and from that small interaction Bilbo gets stuck with a houseful of uninvited guests demanding seedcakes and telling him how they like their breakfast done in the morning.

At least most of the dwarves are a friendly, affable sort. But Thorin Oakenshield … well I wouldn’t him as my employer. Someone who’s too good to help clear the dishes? No thanks. Tolkien does an amazing job of painting a picture of someone who is puffed up with his own importance, while also indicating that the pride isn’t deserved. (Reminds me of the Tory party…..) Just look at his lineage. Grandfather Thrór is ran out of the North for reasons unknown. Luckily he stumbles across a huge pile of gold in his new mountain and declares himself King under the Mountain. In the South. (Nevermind the dwarves in the North.)

All that gold attracts a dragon, of course. Damn those greedy dragons. Which means Thorin is forced to flee with Grandpop and Dad and a handful of unnamed dwarves. (He doesn’t mention his dear mum. Guess dwarves are born from the ground or something.) The mighty king and heirs are forced to (make their people) work for a living. The horror! Instead of doing fancy smithing work for kings, the dwarves have to resort to the lowly job of blacksmithing and working mines. Thorin’s pride obviously takes a huge hit that his people have to do something so base. (Can you all see me rolling my eyes?)

I’m not sure how I would react if this guy showed up on my doorstep, judging my character while ordering his breakfast. To Bilbo’s credit he handles it with – not exactly grace – but with extremely good manners, going so far as to sacrifice his share of the cakes in order to be a good host.

Of course, it must have been the Baggins part of his nature that has instilled all that politeness and respectability as Tolkien goes on for a lengthy paragraph to state that the adventure-spirit comes from his mother’s side. And not just from his mother, the (im)famous Belladonna Took, but potentially there’s a fairy wife in the Took ancestry too. So the mother’s line damns him twice over. (Un)Luckily for Belladonna, she loses both identity and character when she becomes Mrs. Bungo Baggins. She stops going on adventures, gains respectability through her new name, and her husband builds her a beautiful and luxurious home – with her money. And really, what more could a woman ask for?