August 2014

Sessily Watt

Facing the Raven's Eye

Jo Walton's Victorian Dragon

Why the fascination with dragons? Why the dragons dipping and diving in the parchment of old maps, pins folded into the oceans' corners? Why the hundreds if not thousands of dragons printed on paperback covers? Why the dragons that decorated my bedroom wall in high school? Dragons in flight beside dragons perched on rocks. Dragons in gold and green and red. Those dragons were the twelve pages of a calendar, but I couldn't bear to let them go when the year came to an end. It's a frequent fascination. Dragons are the end of the world -- fire and air and nothingness -- and the symbolic shape of the fantasy genre. "Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?" asked Ursula K. Le Guin in her 1974 essay about the place of fantasy in the United States. (It's the puritan in our collective psyche, she says.)

In Le Guin's own great work of fantasy, the Earthsea books, the wizard Sparrowhawk parleys with a dragon while standing alone in a boat. The dragons of Earthsea have the potential to be vicious forces of destruction that villages and kingdoms have to ward off. They are hoarders of wealth and winged creatures who prefer not to do battle over water. They are also, initially, as other as any alien. As with J.R.R. Tolkien's classic dragon, Smaug, we encounter the dragon in A Wizard of Earthsea through the eyes of a hero, a human whose foibles are as familiar as our own. The dragon is cunning and speaks in half-truths. It can't be wholly trusted and seems connected, as metaphor or embodiment, to the many forces in the world outside of human understanding and control. It is death and luck and disaster held by scales and wings.

Jo Walton's dragons in Tooth and Claw are also winged creatures that gather treasure, but there is no human hero to battle or parley with them on the reader's behalf. Hers is a world solely populated by dragons, except for the hinted at Yarge, but nevertheless a world no more other than that of a Victorian novel, the plot and setting of which she has wrapped around the traditional dragon of Western mythos. In opening notes she describes her project, saying, "It has to be admitted that a number of the core axioms of the Victorian novel are just wrong. People aren't like that. Women, especially, aren't like that. This novel is the result of wondering what a world would be like if they were, if the axioms of the sentimental Victorian novel were inescapable laws of biology." Rather than the dragon as a force of destruction encountered by a human hero, her dragons are the enforcers and victims of a rigid status quo. The maneuvering for wealth and social heights, so common in the Victorian novel, becomes tied to the Western stories of dragons and their hoards of treasure. Those who are well off sleep comfortably on piles of gold; those who are not sleep on rocks or dirt. Similarly, the link between status and power is made explicit. Dragons grow by eating other dragons, but only those of higher status have regular access to dragon meat, making them more powerful physically, as well as economically and socially.

The plot, as in many a Victorian novel, involves marriage and inheritance. Dignified Bon Agornin, on his deathbed in the novel's first sentence, has five children. The oldest two have been provided for, with his oldest son a parson for an Exalted family and his oldest daughter married to a dragon of Illustrious rank. But providing his daughter with a dowry worthy of her marriage has left considerably less for his three youngest. Avan, his second son, is not yet large enough nor wealthy enough to hold the estate and is making his way in the city, where losing a position can easily mean being eaten. Haner and Selendra, his other daughters, have to make do with miniscule dowries and few options besides marriage. Worse, they can be visibly "ruined" by any male dragon that comes too close, as a female dragon's color will change from a maiden gold to a bridal pink, and any pink dragon without a husband is shunned in the polite society of the powerful.

Bon Agornin has tried to provide for his youngest children, but his son-in-law, the Illustrious Daverak, has a different idea of how the world works. Thus do the powerful push things awry, as the powerful so often do for heroes who are so obviously deserving, at least in the reader's eyes. Much of the satisfaction from the plot derives from seeing the heroes battle against the unjust actions of the more powerful. Avan struggles financially and in court to win his inheritance anew, while Haner and Selendra search for a place for themselves, either in marriage or under the protection of others. All three fight against steep odds. Their honor is often threatened. Much like in the sentimental Victorian novel, however, satisfaction is limited -- our heroes' successes and failures are made on society's terms, creating a more just state for them but not necessarily for others.

Walton is clear in her notes that unlike those novels that "[put] in the things the Victorian novel leaves out," she specifically set out to write a Victorian novel. What is new here is not the plot or its resolution -- some of it borrowed from Anthony Trollope -- but the pairing of plot and dragon. The dragon is woven through Victorian society, giving it a strangeness that points out how different their goals were from our own. A country estate, for example, acquires a harsh resonance when the servants' wings are tightly bound and the farmers' children eaten by the landowning family. For me, at least, this has often been the pleasure of the Victorian novel: to see a world that is so complete and so sure of itself, and so very much not mine.

This replacement of the human hero from the encounter with dragons also points to the human greed and violence within the stories. Destruction does not only come from without. Neither is destruction the only form of violence. Walton's novel shows the savagery inherent in a social order that is often thought of as prim and proper, a backdrop for courtship. While I was mildly disappointed to have that social order only slightly troubled by the end of the novel, there was joy too in the accomplishments of our heroes and in the feeling that good, however small and individual, might exist beside injustice. And a question lingered after the last pages, not a "why," often so limiting when it comes to art, but instead a "how." How might a dragon embody the violence of our times? I'd like to read an answer.