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Monday, July 12, 2010

Without a Dragon's Protection

Up to its second to last line, this opening page might have been torn out of James Hilton's 1934 bestseller, Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Set a generation earlier than the given work, Hilton's unabashedly sentimental novella portrayed the life of its eponymous self-effacing hero, Arthur Chipping, a career schoolmaster in an English public school.

In Hilton's story, having retired after decades of teaching Roman History and Latin at Brookfield School, Mr. Chips is called back to service during World War I, which has sent younger teachers off to the trenches. For Hilton, the period between World Wars represented an oasis in civilization—or the mirage of an oasis, soon be obliterated by Hitler and the smashing of the Versailles Treaty. In another novel written just before Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Hilton celebrated this oasis metaphorically, through a fictional utopia set high in the mountains of Tibet. That novel was called Lost Horizon, and the utopia was Shangri-La—a term that's since become synonymous with the notion of an earthly paradise, often with a pejorative intent.

I mention all this because, up to the last paragraph, there's something dreamily quaint about this opening passage. Here is Master Jack, the schoolmaster in his tweed waistcoat, comforting and admonishing his eleven-year-old charge, Nick Parker, in his oak-lined study bristling with anthropological artifacts. Through the study's window "shouts and screams" drift in from the rugby fields where Nick has gotten into a scrap with one or several of his schoolmates. It's not the first time; indeed, three days into his first term and Nick has already earned a reputation for fighting. Nick's teacher—no stranger to combat himself (he lost an arm in the Great War), lends Nick a "fresh white handkerchief" to blow his bloody nose into.

All of this is conveyed very deftly in an opening passage that's alive to all the senses: sight (the pink color of Nick's blood mixed with his saliva), sounds (the shouts and screams from the rugby field), textures ("knicknacks of wicker and weave"—note how alliteration and meter create their own texture). A good ear for dialogue ("To you, Nick, they happen a lot") together with a sharp eye for telling details (the objects cluttering the master's walls) make this a winning opening. In a few paragraphs I feel I know Master Jacks and his pupil. And though—excepting the last lines—there are no throat-grabbers here, still, there is conflict, and I for one would read on to discover why Nick is having such a hard time fitting in with his fellow students.

Then comes the dragon in the last paragraph. Suddenly I've traded the gentile Shangri-La of Mr. Chips and Dead Poets Society for Tolkien's Middle Earth. True, the title should have warned me, and did, though as soon as I started reading I forgot the warning.

These days, dragons are as ubiquitous in works of literature as angels, witches and vampires—a truth that I confess to lamenting. The moment we introduce supernatural phenomenon into fiction we undermine the human element, with curses, spells, and potions augmenting (if not replacing entirely) psychological cause and effect. The fantasy genre to which such phenomenon belong doesn't just allow for impossible events, it insists upon them. Though traditionally—as with Tolkien—fantasy novels are grounded in medieval settings, thanks to Ann Rice and Harry Potter we may now expect witches, vampires, and dragons to pop up anywhere, including a boarding school between the World Wars.

Starting with the dragon that guards the golden fleece at Rhodes, on through the unnamed dragon in Beowulf and Tolkien's Glaurung and Smaug, with each decade the number of dragons in books has multiplied, with the past decade furnishing us with no less than a hundred novels featuring the mythological serpents, making me wonder why Saint George ever bothered. Why in 2010 so many readers and writers still share this obsession with our medieval forebears may be explained partly by a dissatisfaction with the fruits of Christianity and science, and the wish to return to more innocent and colorful myths.

Though I share those dissatisfactions, I can live without dragons. But that's the personal bias of someone who prefers to stare down the real monsters rather than embrace mythological beasts. That said, injected into this otherwise quaint scene the allusion to dragons in the final paragraph is jarring, and the author might better prepare us for it by dropping a hint of some kind earlier—a set of dragon's on the walls of the teacher's study?


  1. Hey, Peter!
    Just wanted to first say that I appreciate the critique you did on MY first page. (the "Narrating from the great beyond" one) After a complete rewrite, the whole manuscript is better.

    Also, I agree with your statement here about the abrupt introduction of the Dragon theme in this page. It seems rather out of place, including the sudden change in dialogue, with the older man addressing the boy first as "Nick" and then as "Custodian," with no hint of explanation.

    I don't agree, though, with your general panning of Fantasy as a whole, though. I know it's a matter of taste to some extent, but I also wonder why there is the idea that fantasy elements make the story unbelievable.

    Certainly, we don't see dragons, or elves, or fairies in the world around us, but have we so lobotomized ourselves that our imaginations can't span the gap? Are we such Modernists that we must discredit intangible, far-fetched, miraculous ideas as being worthless and foolish?

    Admittedly, writers of Fantasy do have a tendency to become so enamored by their created realms that they forget to inject the Human element into their stories. But I think it's unfair to write off the whole genre simply because of a few less-skilled authors.

  2. "The moment we introduce supernatural phenomenon into fiction we undermine the human element, with curses, spells, and potions augmenting (if not replacing entirely) psychological cause and effect."

    I have to disagree with this assessment of fantasy and sci-fi. While it's true there's a lot of poorly-done speculative fiction out there, that doesn't mean all of it uses the tropes and settings to replace character development. In fact, a lot of F/SF magazines are now looking largely for 'character driven' stories. I think the best F/SF uses its settings/tropes to make us explore these things in unusual ways. (Vonnegut's work, for example, or 2009 WFA winner 26 monkeys: )

    For that matter, I can think of plenty of un-genred fiction which is sadly lacking in the character department. Dan Brown, anybody? John Grisham? Clive Cussler?

    Ultimately, setting and genre are tools--just as much as character development is a tool. Each can be used well to make a story interesting and worthwile, or used poorly to drive it into cliché and oblivion.

  3. I knew I would take some heat over my statement—which was not a condemnation of the genre, but, as I wrote, a personal bias--and not against fantasy per se, and even less against speculative settings and genres--heck, ALL fictional settings and genres are speculative!

    All I'm saying is that once characters are able to sprout wings and cast spells it does somewhat undermine more subtle character psychology and development. Which isn't to say that mainstream or literary fiction haven't produced their fair share of shallow characters.

    I'm a great fan of Vonnegut's by the way. We met cute one day at a birthday party of his--his 86th if I remember well. He was puffing away on one of his famous Pall Malls, talking global warming when I made a dumb quip about him contributing his share of CO2 in cigarette smoke. He gave me a hard look and said, "Fuck you!" From there things went well. A really sweet man.

    Anyway, Stewart and Isaiah, I take both of your points well. In fact I don't disagree.