Musings: Dragons – Puerile or Prejudice?

I realise this is waaay too early to start posting musings and opinions – this blog only has two subscribers so far after all – but nevertheless I read something yesterday that got me thinking. Followed by a long train journey today where I was too exhausted for reading, and I had plenty of time in which to think. So whether anyone is reading this or not – and if you are please comment if you have opinions – I decided to put pen to paper (metaphorically at least).

Now the thing that got me thinking was a passage in Jorge Luis Borges’ The Book of Imaginary Beings – an early ‘encyclopedia of fantastic beasts’ – or a modern version of a medieval bestiary – depending on your opinion (I go with the later).  Unlike most similar encyclopedias I’ve read, Borges treats the creatures he deals with as firmly imaginary and openly discusses their symbolic origins, changing symbolism, and use in fiction. But I’m not writing a review of this book yet (I’m still only on ‘D’ and reading one entry a day), no, what got me musing was this passage regarding ‘The Western Dragon’:

Time has considerably tarnished the prestige of Dragons. We believe in lions as reality and as a symbol; we believe in the Minotaur as a symbol, though no longer a reality; the Dragon is perhaps the best known though also the least fortunate of fantastic animals. It strikes us as puerile, a creature of childhood, and its puerility contaminates the stories in which it figures. But we must not forget that this is a modern prejudice, perhaps inspired by the excess of Dragons found in fairy tales.

I thought this was a very accurate bit of analysis. I’ve never really stopped to think about it too much before but although some of my absolute very favouritestest children’s books ever feature dragons, I do find them cliché, puerile, and a sign of a hack writer when I see them in adult fiction and will always avoid an adult fantasy book with a picture of a dragon on the cover.

I love dragons, but I hate them. I think they’re the shit, but I also think they’re just plain shit. I love this but I would like to beat whoever owns this round the head. Am I just prejudiced against dragons in adult fiction or is there a genuine reason to dislike them in it.

Normally I hate it when someone makes this sort of snap judgement against a whole type of fiction – I loathe the tone of my mother’s ‘oh’ when she hears the book I’m reading is a fantasy, or the way my granny suggests that people who enjoy Lord of the Rings just haven’t read widely enough to realise how bad it is. I should be rallying against people saying ‘dragons in adult literature are puerile’. But I actually think they are right.

Dragons work well, brilliantly, in children’s literature because they’re a creature we’re all familiar with from a young age. They work badly in adult literature that wants to be seen as serious for the same reason – I expect someone writing for adults to come up with something more original than grimdarking or sexing up a kiddie’s book. Ok now that’s a really simplistic explanation, I know, but if I had to put it in simple terms that’s how I would describe it. I love dragons in folklore, in legend, in children’s books – I can’t get enough of retellings of St. George and the dragon, the Linton Worm, Nidhogg, but I see a dragon on the cover of an adult book and I just think ‘this is just a really cheap way to get geeks like me to buy your books’.

Of course it doesn’t help that every young-adult/adult book I read as a teenager that featured dragons was terrible. And normally I would try not to hold that against the whole of the genre, except these books were meant to be good dragon fantasy. They were popular, the author was well-known, they were recommended to me by fantasy lovers, and they were absolutely shit.

Now I’ll give it that Tehanu by Ursula K. Le Guin is widely regarded by the internet as a massive step down from the previous Earthsea books. But I didn’t find either Earthsea or Le Guin’s dragons remotely compelling even before that. Books one and two were ok (mainly two, one was meh) but book three, where the dragons apparently start playing an important role left so little impact on me I can’t remember any detail of the plot and I only remember Tehanu because it was so very very terribad and introduced me to the awful concept that is the ‘half-dragon’.

The introduction of dragons (and other fantastic beasts) also marked the turning point in Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books for me – yeah, I said it, everything I read after the Alana quartet I was just going ‘this is shit, why didn’t she set it in another universe if she suddenly wanted dragons in her fantasy’. What I had appreciated about Song of the Lioness (and there wasn’t much to appreciate in the third and fourth) was that it was set in a fantasy world where magic was a thing, but that the setting didn’t rely on the existence of your typical fantasy-world menagerie of recognisable mythological creatures. Suddenly introducing them, almost regardless of how they were used afterwards, just stank of cheapening the setting for broader fantasy appeal. Of course it didn’t help that the protagonist of that quartet was an irritating Mary-Sue who was the child of a god and who her ‘experienced’ older teacher totally wanted to (and got to) bone. Bleh. Giving her a pet baby dragon (called ‘Kitten’ how cute!) was just the icing on the cake.

And McCaffrey, oh where to start on McCaffrey… actually she annoyed me less than the other two precisely because I never found her writing good enough to care as much about in the first place. But she does better represent all that is annoying about dragons in adult lit. They’re telepathic! They’re ‘bonded’ to their riders act like a form of transport for the heroes but actually it’s totally an equal relationship! They can force unwilling characters to have sex with each other! Actually I think (hope) that one is unique to McCaffrey. To be honest I didn’t hate the Dragonriders of Pern when I first read it, and I still don’t hate it now, but I never thought it was good either. It wasn’t the dragons that particularly put me off so much as the fact they’re not very well written or interesting. It’s so mediocre it’s not worth getting worked up about one way or the other. The only appeal it has, in fact, is the dragons (and later apparently the sci-fi) and that to me pretty much symbolises everything that is wrong with using dragons in adult fiction. They’re a gimmick to get people who love dragons to buy books, you don’t even have to make the writing any good and you can still sell a whole bunch of them, because people are only there for the dragons anyway.

Of course not every adult author who uses dragons is rubbish – I’m currently working my way through The Song of Fire and Ice (reading along with the TV series so it’s a very slow read through) and so far I’m loving it. But if there’s a dragon on the cover or the blurb of a book I do think it’s a pretty good indication that the writer may well be rubbish. It’s basically the animal equivalent of sticking a woman in a chainmail bikini tied up in a provocative pose on the front of a book – it signposts itself as ‘cheap trashy fantasy shamelessly pandering to a base that doesn’t care about the writing/plot as long as you throw in a few tired clichés’. Possibly it’s enjoyable trash (though I’ve yet to read a dragon book that was even that) but trash nonetheless. I need a strong recommendation from someone whose opinions I trust before I’ll consider picking up an adult book involving dragons. And that’s quite a sad state of affairs. I may be prejudiced, but I do think it’s a prejudice born from experience, and, judging by my family’s reactions whenever they have seen me reading a book with a dragon the cover, it’s one a lot of people share.

On a more positive note I just want to reiterate that I love love love dragons in children’s fiction. The first book I ever tried to write, back when I was about seven, was about a dragon. I still read children books featuring dragons.  Dragons feel at home in children’s fiction; they can be used in a much better variety of ways without it feeling stupid or trite because children’s books are allowed to be sillier, more fun, and include more obvious messages than adult fiction. ‘Dragons are actually misunderstood’ is a trite cliché in adult fantasy, in children’s it’s a valuable lesson in not judging people by their appearance or their reputation and not trying to solve all your problems with violence. Picture books such as There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon and How Droofus the Dragon Lost his Head also have the advantage of illustrations so damn charming that it would be impossible to dislike either book even if the writing that went with it weren’t so damn good.

So now that I’ve gone and hated on crappy fantasy that uses dragons as a cheap way to draw in fantasy fans I’m going to go the other way and recommend my absolute favourite children’s books featuring dragons to anyone still reading. All of these books are absolutely fantastic five star reads, aimed at a range of age groups from the very little to young-teenagers. They also contain much more positive and less troublesome gender roles than you’ll find in a lot of adult fantasy. Jane, and Jennifer Strange are the sort of heroines that every girl should have on their bookshelf growing up.

I also hear very good things about How to Train Your Dragon but to be frank, though fun, it wasn’t anywhere near these books in terms of quality. An enjoyable read but not a 5 star. The film, however, is Brilliant.

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