Thursday, November 12, 2009
Earlier this week I finished Michelle Knudsen's The Dragon of Trelian (my full review at the link). For any of you scratching your heads and trying to come up with why the author's name sounds familiar, yes, she's the author of Library Lion, one of my seven year old's favorite picture books of all time (and it's pretty high on her dad's and my lists too). I picked the book up because it was penned by Knudsen -- I love her story-telling, and I'm always curious to know how someone known for good crafting in one genre tackles another. The answer here is: well, and quite creatively. It's a solid mid-grade fantasy.
Of course, it got me to thinking about dragons again. They do keep popping up. Remember this post from a few months back, when I found myself musing about the different ways in which dragons were presented in Tolkien and Rowling? Since then I've read three more dragon tales: this one, Rosemary Sutcliff's The Minstrel and the Dragon Pup, and a re-read of Margaret Hodges' picture book version of St. George and the Dragon.
It does seem as though dragons are getting a major make-over in fantasy literature today. While the more traditional tales (either older stories, or ones based on older stories, like Hodges') keep dragons in traditional roles, the newer tales, while maintaining many of the things we love about dragons -- their fierceness, scaliness, and fire-breathing capabilities -- have softened their image considerably. I keep thinking of those "soft lenses" that get used on Hollywood starlets, the ones that made their features look slightly blurred and dreamy and a bit more beautiful than they might look in harsher light.
The title dragon in Knudsen's story gets this softer treatment. His name is Jakl and he's an orphan. A young princess named Meglynne finds him, adopts him and cares for him, and ends up sharing a strange, mystical connection with him (think Vulcan mind link, only cross-species).
That seems to be part of the new package: it seems like lots of people have secretly wanted dragons for pets/companions, and these days those kinds of stories abound. I know this isn't a precisely new element to dragon stories (Kenneth Grahame and Ruth Stiles come to mind, as earlier representatives) but it does seem to be making a comeback. I suspect that may be due almost entirely to Hagrid, the Hogwarts gamekeeper who gave Norbert his own teddy bear...
The other recurring elements I'm seeing in this trend: viewing dragons as somehow misunderstood or mistreated, and seeing them ultimately fight on the "right" side. Part of the fun in Trelian is seeing the dragon fight with and for the princess. Indeed, there's a heart-stopping moment where you realize, once the major battle against the baddies has been won, that the dragon might be brought down by unobservant good guys who just aren't used to seeing a dragon fighting to protect the castle and its inhabitants. My favorite line in the whole book, uttered by the magician Serek: "The dragon is, ah, on our side."
Almost makes you wish you could steal an imaginative page from a dragon PR agent. I suspect it would read something like this. "Baby, the days of type-casting are so over! I know you're tired of breathing fire and looking like a bad guy, but you don't have to limit yourself to those kinds of scenes. Remember Norbert! Remember Jakl! Be subversive! Hold out for the ground-breaking roles!"