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CARPE LIBRUM: Revisiting childhood memories and characters for unexpected joy

Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world. 

The Flight of Dragons

Harper & Row, 1979   

By Peter Dickinson

Illustrated by Wayne Anderson, pgs. 132          

The Dragon and the George

Doubleday, 1976

By Gordon R. Dickson, pgs. 244

new4In the 1980s an animated film titled “The Flight of Dragons,” appeared on television. Though it never had the marketing push of “GI Joe” or “Transformers,” if mentioned to most people of my age group, their eyes will light up. The fantasy genre exists for many purposes—the most obvious is escapism in the form of literature. But it also serves to teach values, mores and problem-solving skills in narrative form.

At the core of most fantasy literature is the quest and companions who accompany a hero. Immediately, the ideas of problem-solving, follow-through, teamwork, and loyalty are at the forefront of the reader’s mind, but presented in a palatable, delightful, exciting tapestry that take readers outside of their own lives and into a world which feels heroic. Right now, I need a little escapism while I try to gain some perspective from a different angle, so I decided to go back and revisit some of my childhood. Thankfully, I had two books waiting for me.

A few months ago, while lamenting I could no longer play my VHS (recorded from the television in 1986) copy of “The Flight of Dragons,” I commented to a friend if he ever saw a DVD in a store to pick it up and I would pay him back for it. This led to a discussion about the book it was based upon, and the next day he presented me with a copy of Peter Dickinson’s “The Flight of Dragons” and handed me a copy of Gordon R. Dickson’s “The Dragon and the George.” He commented how much of the film’s plot actually came from Dickson’s novel.

Dickinson’s “Flight of Dragons” is an oversized book lavishly illustrated by Wayne Anderson. The story is sort of a natural history of dragons, whereby he explores how they could possibly take flight, breathe fire, hoard gold, and what the natural life cycle from an egg would look like. He compiles a tremendous amount of research on dragons from scholarly text, classics and contemporary literature. An entire chapter is devoted to “Beowulf.” It is a book that can be approached from many different directions and still gives satisfaction. The art alone is worthy of time spent with it. Anderson’s illustrations are captivating. It could easily be sold as a coffee-table fine-art book. For some it would be a nice compendium of dragon lore culled from across traditions and neatly contained in one place. For others, it is an interesting meditation on how we communicate and validate information and experiences. Part anthropology, part art history, part folklore study, it uses the structure of a natural history book to explore all themes. It’s a compelling and exciting look at the mythical species. Put simply: It is creative.   

Gordon R. Dickson’s “The Dragon and the George” does include many of characters from the film and the awkward exposition of a human inhabiting a dragon’s body during a quest. In the text, we encounter Jim Eckert, a stymied graduate student of history whose fiancée, Angie, has suddenly been transported to another dimension. He goes after her with intent to effect a rescue, but accidentally lands in the body of a dragon named Gorbash. He arrives to find the other dragons talking with great glee about “The George” they have found. Apparently, they refer to all humans as “Georges” (sort of remincient of calling the Viet Cong “Charlie”).

flightofdragonsWhile the film does not follow the novel perfectly, it does incorporate a talking wolf, an older dragon named Smrgol, Sir Orrin Neville-Smythe, Carolinus the magician, and the essential nature of the quest to overcome dark forces. Actually, the resolution of the novel is far more satisfying than I expected. Though it has a few clunky moments with world building, the action is compelling and exhilarating. It was exactly what I needed for a bit of a respite from a long and stressful week. It was oddly like coming home to something I loved and discovering a completely new group of people all at the same time.

The male characters are well-developed, but there are only two female characters of note: Angie, who spends most of the book being sought after, and Danielle, an archer of uncommon strength and courage. Dickson models Danielle after an Amazon, but at least she is an object of strength and admiration instead of fragile neediness. Honestly, the book was written in the 1970s, and there are some really dated tropes included, but I still enjoyed every page.

It can be hard to revisit a beloved childhood memory as an adult (so often it can only be done with nostalgia), but to find a deeper more intriguing relationship with the material is an unexpected joy.

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