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 www.katherineroberts.co.uk or Twitter @AuthorKatherine. I also interviewed Katherine back in August.

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Fantasy Friday

Fantasy Friday #1: Common Themes in Fantasy Fiction

Fantasy Friday

Fantasy Friday is my new feature, made to replace Why You Should Read This Book. It will be posted every other Friday. It’s pretty self-explanatory: I do a feature on something to do with the genre. Sometimes it will be a book recommendation, sometimes showcasing a book or series I’ve loved and other times it might be a discussion post. You’re more than welcome to join in with this feature, let me know if you make your own Fantasy Friday post!

Today I want to talk about: common themes in fantasy fiction.

1. Royalty

In many fantasy worlds, there is a monarchical system, or the story often involves bringing back the rightful heir to the throne (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). Or, as in the series A Song of Ice and Fire, there are many rival houses fighting for the throne, each with their own aims and ways of life. Or in books such as Prince of Thorns, the story is told from the point of view of a member of the royal family – but Jorg is perhaps not your typical monarch! Like King Joffrey Baratheon, many royals are not best suited to ruling the people – it often seems to me that in fantasy fiction, rulers go either way. They are either evil and hated, or wonderful and kind. And you know, sometimes they just deserve to be slapped.

e.g: The Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire, The Broken Empire, Graceling Realm

GO TYRION!!

2. A ‘Chosen One’

Often, our once normal seeming main character finds out that they are destined to do something. Just look at Harry Potter. It feels like a bit of an overused concept – the idea that this one person is the only one who can bring peace to the world – but it works. Peter V. Brett has a interesting spin on this with his Demon Cycle series, where the Deliverer could either be Arlen or Jardir. This sort of plotline often involves a prophecy of some kind, predicting the events that the hero(ine) has to undertake.

e.g: Harry Potter, Eleven, Percy Jackson and the Olympians

3. A ‘Dark Lord’

And with the Chosen One comes the Dark Lord! The evil foe that our Chosen One has to overcome, and many series actually just use the title ‘Dark Lord’ (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter). In many books the Dark Lord seems to do little himself, and frequently uses minions or messengers (Nazgul, Dementors, Death Eaters) to do his bidding.

e.g: Harry PotterThe Lord of the Rings, The Echorium Sequence, Mistborn

4. An epic quest

Many times in fantasy novels, our heroes have to save the world – and they’re the only ones who can do it. Whether it’s destroying a magical object or an enemy force, it’s normally a long and arduous process with many trying events.

e.g: The Lord of the Rings, Wheel of Time

5. Elves and dwarves

Although fantasy novels tend to cover many different races, elves and dwarves seem to be the most common. And, as in Tolkien’s work, rivalry between the two is common. Of course, the two mythological races have been part of folk tales for many centuries – but it was Tolkien that gave elves their taller form that is frequently seen in fantasy today. In The Lord of the Rings elves are a proud and majestic race, in stark comparison to their down-trodden counterparts in the Dragon Age series, where elves are enslaved.

e.g: Anything by Tolkien, Dark Legacy of ShannaraDragon Age

You tell them, Gimli.

6. Dragons

Tough old beasts, dragons. Sometimes they’re not too bad. But other times… you don’t want to get on the wrong side of Smaug. I really see them as the ‘ultimate’ fantasy beast, there’s something about them that is both terrifying and fascinating at the same time. They often appear majestic, the fantasy equivalent of the lion. Often king of the mountain, rather than of the jungle though… 

e.g: The Hobbit, Dragonriders of Pern, A Wizard of Earthsea, Eragon, The Neverending StoryA Song of Ice and Fire

7. A question of loyalty

With our Chosen One and his epic quest, comes the trusty companions. But sometimes they’re not so trustworthy. Whilst it is not always the fault of the character – for example, Boromir turning against Frodo at the end of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring/beginning of The Two Towers because of the influence of the Ring – there are many sudden betrayals and shocking twists when it comes to friendships.

e.g: The Lord of the RingsPercy Jackson and the OlympiansThe Demon Cycle

8. Knights

Brave knights in shining armour, swooping down to save the damsel in distress… yeah, not always a feature in fantasy. Often you’ll find that the knights aren’t quite as brave or honourable as they should be. A Song of Ice and Fire is full of Sers, and many of them are not at all deserving of such a title – but it’s the kind of place where you don’t rise up the food chain by being nice. Plus there are many fantasy novels based around Arthurian legend, which of course feature knights, and play upon the familiar figures in their own way.

e.g: A Song of Ice and Fire, The Mists of Avalon, The Pendragon Legacy

9. Assassins & thieves

I always find something fascinating with this particular type of person. In video games I tend to play the sneaky assassin type classes (my newest Skyrim character is a heartless assassin and a thief). There has to be someone for the knights to protect the common people from! But then there are stories like Graceling where the main character does not want to do these things, but has no other choice.

e.g: Throne of Glass, Graceling, The Lies of Locke Lamora, Assassin’s Apprentice, The Princess Bride

10. Magic

And of course – magic! A very, very common theme in fantasy, it works in so many different ways. In Harry Potter, it’s a case of waving your wand and saying the right words. In The Name of the Wind, magic, or ‘sympathy’, requires some sort of sacrifice. Magic in The Demon Cycle series is dark and involves demon remains – whereas the Abhorsen trilogy covers necromancy. And sometimes magic just doesn’t feel like the right word for the kinds of skills characters have; it feels too juvenile.

e.g: Harry Potter, The Name of the Wind, The Demon Cycle, The Black Magician trilogy, Abhorsen trilogy 

If you want to join in with this week’s Fantasy Friday, feel free to leave your link in the comments!