Underground Reading: Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
Monday, April 08, 2013
I'm afraid this isn't going to be a conventional review, more a series of, er, discursive notes, all rather indelicately glomming together to form one of my more specious arguments.
As far as an actual review:
I think the Dragonlance Chronicles - Dragons of Autumn Twilight (1984), Dragons of Winter Night (1985) and Dragons of Spring Dawning (1985) - is of a time and a (hand-wavey, theoretical) place. I've reread the three books recently, and that's not really an experience I'd recommend to anyone else.
For the sake of this blog post/ramble, I'm more interested in the Chronicles influence, which I believe has been criminally downplayed.
So... what makes a book an influential fantasy - and by that, not just having an impact on one author, but across the entire genre? For the sake of some sort of structure, I'd argue that the answer is a combination of both innovation and ubiquity.
The former is pretty straightforward. Unless there's something innovative or new involved, there's no change to measure. Reiterating the status quo may be a type of influence, but we can't measure a negative. A book needs to do something different for us to track how those changes promulgate.
Similarly, without ubiquity - not just presence, but omnipresence - we can't assume that a book had the opportunity to make an impact. Arguably, for something to be an influence on this scale (genre-wide), it needs to be so large that it doesn't even matter if another author has read it. We can assume that someone in the publishing chain (from the rights team to the commissioning editor to the sales director to the copy editor to the agent) has read it and we can assume its presence is so vast that, even subconsciously or indirectly, its innovative presence has been somehow communicated.1
One example - just to set a benchmark. George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire is a major influence. It is the best-selling series in fantasy, and its presence on HBO has brought more new readers to genre fiction than anything since Harry Potter. Martin's work is a mainstream success, it has recognisable reference points that can be found in the fantasy books that followed and it is very, very good (that latter point isn't actually relevant in this context, but still a Nice to Have). It is hard to make any sort of claim that Martin's books aren't influential on modern fantasy.2
Ground rules established.3
Which brings us back to another series, predating Martin's by ten years, that possesses the same critical combination of ubiquity and innovation: Dragonlance.
Ubiquity is the easy part to demonstrate. Dragonlance, the intellectual property, was created by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis as a shared universe for TSR, the then-owners of Dungeons & Dragons.4 The Dragonlance books and gaming modules were both published in 1984 and the setting was an immediate hit.
By 2008, there were more than 190 novels set in the Dragonlance universe with total sales of over 22 million copies. The role playing setting also thrived, appearing on and off in Dungeons & Dragons' many editions. There was were collectible trading cards, comic books, miniatures, tabletop and computer games and a shockingly bad movie. TSR, a non-book company, was one of the largest publishers of the 1990s, all off the back of this one series.5
At the time, Dave Langford panned the first book for being "inspired by an AD&D campaign full of chunks ripped bleeding from Tolkien". And, certainly - and let's get this out there now - the writing is pretty appalling.6 I can't defend it for being good, but, beneath the obvious Tolkien analogues (of which there are several), the series did do things differently.
Here are seven things that Dragonlance did differently - all seven of which we can now see everywhere in contemporary fantasy. (Beware, I'm not throwing in specific examples, but feel free to insert Martin, Sykes, Abercrombie, Newton, Jemisin, Weeks, Erikson, as you see fit...)
1. Death of major characters. (Er, spoilers!) Fundamentally, the series's co-production as a role-playing game gave the authors a radically different approach to fantasy fiction. The protagonists in epic fantasy can't die. They're chosen. They're destined. They're heroes. But, at the same time, role-playing games are made fun by the tension of death. Without lethality, there's no game. Weis and Hickman raised the stakes by killing off major characters in the Dragonlance Chronicles. Of particular interest: Sturm. The armor-clad, super-honourable, child-of-destiny style knight. He doesn't even get the dignity of sacrificing himself nobly, he just gets skewered to establish someone else's character. Dude doesn't even live until the final book.
Moreover, by establishing this relatively early in the series, Weis and Hickman dialled up the tension every time someone was in danger. There are certainly incidents where people die and come back (Riverwind, Tasslehoff), but there's an element of chance involved - folks also die and stay dead (Flint, Sturm).
2. Unchivalric warfare. The War of the Lance, the book's central conflict, touches every corner of the continent. Civilian populations are uprooted, cities are occupied and destroyed, refugees are chased from one hostile land to another, innocent people are enslaved, assaulted, the whole horrible nine yards... What's not shown? Big epic battles. They are referenced but, with two exceptions, never shown. The heroes aren't larger than life figures, turning the tide of battle. They're scampering around at the edges, simply trying to survive. The war is bigger than they are.
And the war is messy. The quaint pastoral forest home is levelled by dragonfire. The noble elves are evicted by the high fantasy equivalent of nerve gas. People - innocents - are maimed, tortured, raped and killed, all because of some mysterious greater conflict, about which they know virtually nothing.
3. Flawed Elves. This seems like a relatively small point, but it is a noteworthy one. The Dragonlance Chronicles has revisionist elves. Dungeons & Dragons elves were always based on Tolkien's vision of ethereal paragons. Dragonlance took the same systematised elvish traits but interpreted the Elvish 'attitude' differently. The elves are still supernatural immortals, in possession of ancient wisdom and inhuman talent, but they're also terrible, terrible people. They're out of touch, jingoistic and arrogant; reactionary, isolationist and overtly racist. They possess the same superhuman physical characteristics as Tolkien's elves and, as a result, believe that they're the high fantasy equivalent of the Aryan Master Race.
4. Multiple POV characters. Something that's now everywhere. Again, easy to see the RPG roots in this one. A chosen one makes for a terrible game because a) that means the character can't die (boring) or b) one player is more 'special' than the others (unfair & un-fun). In Chronicles, everyone gets their say, and the perspective flips from chapter to chapter. The party splits and goes on a handful of different adventures, rejoins, splits again... each time we realise that what everyone is doing is of equal importance (or, arguably, no importance at all). Tolkien split the party, but not like this.
5. Ambiguous protagonists. Again something that's everywhere. As with the point above, it is silly to argue that Dragonlance invented moral ambiguity. However, the series combined the traditional fantasy archetypes (Sturm the knight, Tasslehoff the Spielbergian childlike fool) with more unusual fare. Tanis is self-loathing. Raistlin is evil. Caramon is an idiot. They all have their own motivation for taking part in the Big Quest, and, for none of them is a blind desire to "save the world".
6. Death of the prophesy. Dragonlance is, in its broadest sense, about free will, not predestination. There's no ordained resolution to War of the Lance - no cosmic hoops to jump through that will "solve" everything. The guidance from the gods is flawed, and generally boils down to "do what you can". The series even ends ambiguously: evil has not been wiped from the world, the land has not been healed and a hero has not arisen to save the day. This leads to the final innovation of the Dragonlance saga...
7. Philosophically neutral. The underlying concept for the Dragonlance world is one of balance. In the past, we learned that Good had won - the Kingpriest ran a shining empire that ruled the continent with an enlightened fist. Unacceptable, so the gods - all of them - chucked a mountain at the world. Thump.
Cut forward a few hundred years to the Chronicles. Civilisation has regrouped, individual countries and nations have formed again. But now Evil has the upper hand, and the sinister Dragonarmies are quickly conquering the world a bite at a time. The goal is to stop them, and, indeed, the book ends in an uneasy status quo with a haphazard alliance of "good" keeping a wary eye on a resilient, firmly-established presence of "evil".
It isn't just about the language, but the very concept. The heroes aren't vanquishing Evil. They're not removing Evil from the land or restoring the reign of Good. The goal is to maintain a balance. This isn't the result of a subjective definition of 'evil' ('cause Evil really is firmly established as nasty), but a belief that balance is the best we can do. Bad things will continue to happen. Life will never be fair. There's no Utopian conclusion - just constant vigilance and, at best, a kind of "alright".
I think Dragonlance's idea of neutrality is the most important innovation of them all. As a storytelling device, no longer needing a happy ending means that authors have more capacity to surprise and invent. This also makes positive resolutions, if not more deserved, at least better appreciated, as they are no longer expected. This allows for greater characterisation. And, above all, worlds in which things aren't always fair or sensical are closer to our own, which opens up the genre for fantasy stories that are more than parable or escapism.7
Philosophically neutral is a very big deal.
So if you accept all of the above (big if), why aren't the Dragonlance Chronicles better cited - or even acknowledged - as one of the major influences on contemporary fantasy?
Well, that calls for another list. (A shorter one.)
1. The writing really is awful. There's a lot of exposition, purple prose, heavy-handed systemisation, melodramatic dialogue... But, again, objective quality has never been a barrier to importance in fantasy. The same flaws - clunky exposition, predictability, melodrama - can be found, to varying degrees, in every major fantasy series. For better or for worse, infodumping and unrealistic dialogue have never been barriers to the appreciation of epic fantasy.8
2. It is tie-in fiction. For all its commercial success, tie-in fiction has always been criticised by the mainstream of genre readers. Why? Fantasy is a genre that's predicated on elaborate world-building and strong plotting. For tie-in fiction, the author doesn't get credit for the former. The world is established, the writer is merely 'playing' in it. Similarly, the plotting is discounted because there's a canonisation question. Either the writer is 'just' filling in gaps around an existing continuity (so they're not 'originating' the story) or they're going off-piste and ignoring the 'official' continuity. Damned if they do, damned if they don't.
Both of these reasons are, of course, bollocks. Writing in an established world is just as complex and noteworthy a skill as creating a new one, if not more so. Ask Hillary Mantel. The canonisation concern is equally as, well, naive - a way of declaring one imaginary story to be more 'real'. (I'm personally looking foward to the coming canonisation apocalypse, when the Game of Thrones TV series deviates from the books.)
[Nor, in the case of the Dragonlance Chronicles, is the tie-in label even accurate. The game and the novels were both developed by Weis and Hickman, written simultaneously and released within the same few months. The exact order is "The Test of the Twins" short story (March 1984), Dragons of Despair adventure module (March 1984) and Dragons of Autumn Twilight (November 1984). Of course, the fact that I have to scrounge up release dates to argue a point on which is more real: the novels about dragons or the game about dragons is inherently ridiculous.]
Still, despite the fact that Black Library, Doctor Who, Assassin's Creed and movie novelisations routinely outsell their genre peers, the geek hierarchy insists that tie-in fiction is somehow inferior.
3. The movie sucked. I mean, the movie really sucked. Thankfully, it sucked so hard that it managed to implode, like Black Hole, into a state of near-invisibility. Were it better known, Dragonlance's historical legacy would be further tarnished. As it is, once seen, it cannot be unseen. But ultimately, because of its (dramatic) failure to reach outside of geek culture, Dragonlance's ubiquity will be forever limited. As a media and commerical property, it has already peaked. Game of Thrones is on billboards. We can talk about it with our cousins and work colleagues. Dragonlance? Dragonlance will never be cool.
There is a lovely irony to way those last two points fit together, isn't there? We applaud those properties that climb 'up' to film and television, but have reservations about those that originate in non-book media.
Still, cool or not, Dragonlance has done more than almost any other post-Tolkien property in influencing fantasy. Its narrative and conceptual tropes can be found in every nook and cranny of the genre, and much of the modern low fantasy resurgence can be traced back to (or through) Dragonlance as well. If only the Chronicles were better books, or, perhaps, had a better movie, they wouldn't be neglected. Instead, despite their impact on the genre, the Dragonlance Chronicles are consigned to dustbin of its history.
1. ...which is why authors are often not the right people to talk about their own influences.
2. Big, big footnote here: Anglophone fantasy.
3. A second example: The Wire.
4. Anyone that complains about Disney buying their childhood should try and remember the awkward generational change-ringing that occurred when Magic: The Gathering bought Dungeons & Dragons. And then the death knell when Barbie bought them both.
5. Anecdotally, I remember that stores like Waldenbooks used to have shelves of Dragonlance books. In some ways, it was actually kind of hard to find non-Dragonlance genre fiction in a mall bookshop. Not that I tried until I was, I dunno, 19.
6. Not that appalling writing has ever been a barrier to the popularity of some fantasy fiction.
7. Escapism as part of the mix is great. But just as the best science fiction is about the present, the best fantasy is about reality. This probably belongs in another blog post.
8. The appalling writing does have an impact when it comes to the sequel trilogy, Legends. Legends does everything Chronicles does and more. It bravely includes having a hero with PTSD, a shining princess in a troubled marraige and an intriguing post-apocalyptic scene. It also screws further with the ideas of neutrality and destiny, and has a few good rants about 'heroism' and what it really means (or doesn't). Great stuff, except the writing is so bad, I'd just as soon bury the whole thing in a footnote and pretend it never happened.