Guest Post, Sci-Fi Month

Sci-Fi Month: ‘Dragon Riding – Science or Fantasy?’ – a guest post by Katherine Roberts

Today, as part of Sci-Fi Month, I have a guest post written by the wonderful Katherine Roberts, author of The Echorium Sequence, The Seven Fabulous Wonders series, and most recently The Pendragon LegacyDon’t forget to check out the schedule for the rest of today’s posts. You can also Tweet about the event using the hashtag #RRSciFiMonth.

Dragon Riding – Science or Fantasy?

by Katherine Roberts

It was Anne McCaffrey who first introduced me to dragon riding. As a teenager, I devoured her Pern books, set on an alien planet colonised by humans who have bred dragons to help them fight off an alien spore called Thread, which falls from the Red Star. Although strictly science fiction, these books have a fantasy feel because the colonists have forgotten most of their early history, and no longer have space flight.

Anne McCaffrey’s dragons are amazing, beautiful creatures of different colours, from aristocratic golds, through bronzes and blues, to the lowly greens. They can fly ‘between’ space and time, and form an emotional bond with their riders upon hatching known as ‘impression’ – a bond so strong that the death of one partner often means the suicide of the other. My favourite books from the Pern series are “Dragonsinger” about a girl from a sea-hold who becomes a friend of dragons and a Harper, and “The White Dragon” about the son of a Lord Holder, who accidentally impresses the white runt of the hatching ground.

Many other authors have written about dragons and dragon riders, of course. J.R.R. Tolkien had his terrifying Black Riders, or Nazgul, who start off on horseback and progress to flying on what is surely dragonback during their hunt for Frodo and his friends in The Lord of the Rings:

“It was a winged creature: if bird, then greater than all other birds, and it was naked, and neither quill nor feather did it bear, and its vast pinions were as webs of hide between horned fingers; and it stank. A creature of an older world maybe it was…” (from The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien)

In this case, the dragons are villains rather than heroes, at one with their dark riders in their pursuit of the prey.

Tolkien’s Nazgul (fair use, copyright John Howe – image source)
Tolkien’s Nazgul (fair use, copyright John Howe – image source)

Friendly dragons are popular in books and films for children, including Cornelia Funke’s Dragon Rider and the TV series Merlin, where a dragon advises the young wizard. More recently, I came across dragons in Julia Golding’s Young Knights series, where they are the unwilling slaves of the Fey, kept chained in the dark until they have lost their bright colours.

On the non-fiction side, my publisher Templar produced Dragonology with its beautiful jewelled covers for students of dragon lore. And Peter Dickinson wrote a wonderful book Flight of Dragons, which takes a scientific approach to dragons, examining how it’s possible for them to breathe fire and fly.

Dragons were always going to feature in my Pendragon Legacy series, since Pendragon means ‘head dragon’. But I take a different approach to dragon riding, as my books are set in the Dark Ages after the Romans left Britain when dragons are thought to be extinct – killed off by heroic knights from the old stories rescuing damsels in distress.

Shadrake - artwork by Scott Altmann
Shadrake – artwork by Scott Altmann

King Arthur’s shield bears a red dragon design, scarred by battle. In the first book Sword of Light Merlin takes this shield from the dying king’s body and gives it to Arthur’s daughter, Rhianna, because he thinks she’s going to need it to defend herself against her evil cousin Mordred. The shield comes in useful when the first live dragon appears in the shape of an ice-breathing shadrake from the dark land of Annwn, which chases Rhianna and her friends when they leave the safety of Avalon.

The third book of my series takes Rhianna and her friends to Dragonland in search of Arthur’s crown, which was stolen by a dragon from the battlefield when the king fell and carried off to its lair. The Pendragon crown turns out to contain the ancient secret of dragon riding, hidden in one of the jewels as you might store data on a computer disk. When Rhianna wears the crown she can access its secrets, and her spirit escapes her body to fly with the nearest dragon. This is a useful skill, since it means she can see through the dragon’s eyes – but it also leaves her body chained in the dark at Mordred’s mercy.

My own theory of dragons is that they were dinosaurs, which somehow survived whatever disaster wiped out their species on Earth, and (being long-lived reptiles) lingered on into the middle ages to terrorise people. I can easily imagine hot-blooded young knights, in search of adventure or reward, riding out on dragon hunts to kill them. The poor creatures would probably have holed up in the high wild places, maybe breeding occasionally, but struggling to survive in Earth’s new climate and eventually dying out as humans took over. Did anybody actually ride them? I can’t say for sure, but there are just too many stories and legends to dismiss dragons as pure fantasy!

About the author

Katherine Roberts won the Branford Boase Award in 2000 and writes fantasy and historical fantasy for young readers. The final book in her Pendragon Legacy series Grail of Stars is published this month by Templar in hardcover, and the first three titles are now available in hardcover, paperback or ebook.

More details at or Twitter @AuthorKatherine. I also interviewed Katherine back in August.


18 thoughts on “Sci-Fi Month: ‘Dragon Riding – Science or Fantasy?’ – a guest post by Katherine Roberts”

  1. I haven’t voted as I think that it actually falls between leftover dinosaurs and storytellers. I feel that a lot of stories, myths and legends are just people’s ways of explaining things beyond their understanding, or things they have felt about places, or history almost forgotten etc. I think that there is the possibility that people have found fossils and in the pre-evolutionary beliefs have thought they were dragons. The interesting thing with beliefs and stories is that they can give life to thoughts and fears. I know that for example zombies and vampires etc. don’t exist. The rational, scientific part of my mind is completely certain of it… and yet… it is sort of a light-hearted answer because in a dark corner of my mind where the stories are lodged I can’t dismiss it, and I know that walking abroad at night that corner of my mind is dominant and anything could be out there just around the corner!I think dragons can quite happily fit either genre as if depends whether you have them as creatures of magic or evolved creatures. It is similar to telepathy, a talent (accidental McCaffrey reference there!) which can either come down to magic, or come from humans/beings having evolved to do so.

    1. This is very true. I think in the end it just boils down to the fact that as a race, we’re all sort of excited and terrified by the thought of these mystical beasties and beings out there, and even though our rational side says no we kind of WANT there to be something.I definitely need to read McCaffrey’s books… one day I’ll get round to it D=

    2. I’ll have to steal the first one off you some time! (unless this is the completely wrong person that I’m talking to but I think I know who it is ;D)

    3. Is my writing style that obvious? 😛 Alas, my anonymity is in pieces! 😉 You may of course, though I am not home until the weekend of the 23rd, I’ll bring back Dragonsdawn for you 😀

  2. The Pern books didn’t do much for me, but I do love how McCaffrey mixed fantasy and science fiction. These are far future books that take place on another planet with forgotten technology, it’s like a planetary romance. But then we’ve got an old fashioned and tribal community that trains and flies dragons. and viola – Sci-Fantasy was born! where did Dragons come from? I have no idea. I imagine mostly from story tellers embellishing tales of normal sized kimodo dragons, sort of the “the fish was THIS BIG” type of story telling. and then everything went nuts from there. We like oversize creatures in our stories, it gives our heroes something incredible to beat, making them more-than-human heroes, you know?

    1. When you put it like that it sounds even more appealing! Can’t go wrong with mixing two amazing genres ;)Hehe, I like that idea too. I guess it’s something we’ll always speculate over, and it’s kind of more fun that way.

  3. Dragons have to be real! Just have to be.Years ago, first time I read about dragons’ shapeshifting abilities, I believed I’d met several. I’m sure our ancient librarian was one. And those really old bookstore owners, the ones whose bookstores are in old multi-storied buildings with doors in unusual places, enticing you to step through into somewhere, those aren’t really people, they are dragons. I’m sure.I have an idea for a story about dragons that I’m going to write as soon as I finish my books on the go. One day….

    1. I don’t myself! I used to work in a bookshop when I was 18 and we had that book, and all the others like Wizardology in stock. They fascinated me, haha =D

  4. I think they are dinosaurs that did not get the memo that they were suppose to be extinct. Their is no other explanation that they HAVE to be real. 🙂

  5. Thank you for letting me guest on your blog, Rinn – I’ve just spent the weekend at the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, where plenty of dragons (and their authors) were lurking in the shadows!If you haven’t read any Anne McCaffrey yet “The White Dragon” might be a good place to start…

    1. I hope you had a good time at the con! =)I’ll have to look into that one, a friend of mine loves McCaffrey’s books so I shall have to steal them off of her 😉

  6. Hallo Rinn, Hallo Ms. Roberts!I have been curiously attached to dragons since I was a young girl, as “Pete’s Dragon” and “The Neverending Story” motion pictures left a profound effect on me! (I was going to include them on my sci-fi top film list, but I felt they might be considered more ‘fantasy’ than sci-fi?) Recently, I had the pleasure of reading Jackie Gamber’s “Redheart” novel which is the first in a series about dragons — I must confess, I was experiencing every emotion you could whilst reading a dragon fic book! I was enthralled with the world-building, the realism, and the ‘heart’ of the story! Which I think came out in my review! Laughs. The reason I bring this up, is because I haven’t had the pleasure of *reading!* a lot of dragon stories, although I did read “King’s Dragon” by Kate Elliott when I was seventeen! I have known about McCaffrey’s works for absolute ages, but never could sort out how to proper jump into them as a whole!? Her canon has such a depth to it, that for a beginner like me, it felt nearly too daunting to begin! Therefore, when I saw the title of this feature I knew I had to settle in for a good reading!Ooh, Ms. Roberts, coming out of “Redheart” where each breed of dragon is assigned a different ‘colour’ I think I might be able to pick up on the threading of McCaffrey’s works now! Isn’t that interesting!? Perhaps my reading of “Redheart” will be the key that unlocks the door into McCaffrey? Ooh, how delightful! The last time I found a literary key like this was when I read “A Wrinkle in Time” in order to read “Flatland”, “The Elegant Universe”, & “Lucifer’s Legacy”! 🙂 Whereas the bond between dragon and rider is reflective of what I saw expressed on Pandora in the film “Avatar”!! Eek. When I originally went into her worlds, I felt a bit lost and adrift because I didn’t have an relative connection to construct the worlds and context into my mind’s eye,… perhaps now, with a few wickedly smashing stories under me, her worlds will become alive to me!?I tapped “Dragon Rider” from a library book sale, Dragonology is either in my library or one I wanted to pick up at some point, as much as there is a keen interest for me in the Temeraire series! I enjoyed reading this feature, including getting a glimpse into your own novels as much as seeing where your inspiration to write them first came from! I will be adding your series to the list of dragon stories I want to read! Thank you for such a wonderful feature!

    1. Dragons are just fascinating, aren’t they?! Traditionally I’d classify most things containing dragons as fantasy, but as Katherine was discussing they could be fantasy OR science. Plus Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonrider series is often counted as science fiction. So it’s really up to interpretation I suppose =)I’m glad you’re interested in Katherine’s work now because of this post =D She writes wonderfully.

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