Today marks the Vernal Equinox, the date in which the amount of daytime and nighttime are equal, bringing to end the long dark winter nights, ushering longer sunlit days. It’s typically a time of celebration, but in the kingdom of Urland, the Equinox is a day of woe. Urland’s King Casiodorus long ago made a pact with Verminthrax Pejorative, the feared dragon that terrorizes his lands: The dragon will leave the kingdom in peace in exchange for a virgin sacrifice offered up twice a year on the Vernal and Autumnal Equinox.
In the sixth century on the Vernal Equinox, a small band of men from Urland, led by the young Valerian, make a three-week journey to Craggenmore, the home of the sorcerer Ulrich. Once there, they beseech the sorcerer to rid their village of the dragon so that no other women, who are chosen by lottery to become the sacrifice, will be sent to their deaths. After Ulrich agrees to help, he and his young apprentice Galen join the group in their journey back to Urland, but along the way, the King’s men impede them and kill the wizard, leaving no one but the inexperienced Galen to defeat the beast.
So begins the events of Dragonslayer, the 1981 dark fantasy film directed by Matthew Robbins, who co-wrote the screenplay with Hal Barwood. The DVD, which was re-released last year by Paramount as part of their I Love The 80’s series, is hard to come by. A more difficult acquisition is the novelization by Wayland Drew, which I never even knew existed until I happened upon it in the used books section of a comic book store in Arizona when I was on vacation there last month.
After shelling out a cool $1.50, I became the proud owner of a very worn paperback copy of said novelization. While my new acquisition did seem deteriorated at first sight, at least it still contained the “special 8-page insert of fabulous full-color photos from the movie,” that it so proudly boasts on the now fully detached back cover. Amongst the photos are scenes of a maiden facing her doom at the claw—seriously, just the claw—of the dragon; Ulrich and Galen with the Urlanders; a gruesome shot of another one of Verminthrax’s victims being feasted upon; and Galen appearing before the King, as well as approaching the dragon’s lair and then readying to battle the dragon at the Lake of Fire. And then there’s the money shot: Verminthrax!
What I enjoy about novelizations is how from them you usually learn much more about the characters, their unrevealed backgrounds, and most importantly “what they were thinking.” The Dragonslayer novel does not disappoint in this respect, offering up much more information than you could possibly imagine.
The first chapter alone is filled with information never revealed in the film. It opens on the eve of the spring equinox and introduces us to this world of dragons and wizardry through the perspective of a bat. Yes, a bat. I had to re-read it several times to grasp that the first three pages are indeed what the bat is experiencing: its hunger, the hunting of its prey, and then it nearly becoming the prey of the dragon. As the bat flies off to safety, we’re left inside the tower of Craggenmore where the old sorcerer Ulrich has just fought off the dragon with magic. Ulrich is gazing into a liquid-filled stone bowl; within it, he sees events of the past, present, and future. One of the visions shows Galen’s origins as a young boy endowed with magic so powerful his frightened parents had the sorcerer cast a spell to hinder the boy’s abilities, which were to conjure up creatures. It was this spell that is causing the now near-adult Galen to be so magically inept, even though he’s the apprentice to the most powerful sorcerer in the land. What Ulrich did to Galen plagues him, filling him with regret, with his only wish now to train Galen, his sole heir, well enough to one day take his place.
Aside from the detailed backgrounds on Galen and Ulrich, we are also given insight into Verminthrax’s history. By the time we meet the dragon in the film, the fire-breather is nearing the end of its life. It’s filled with pain and bitterness and appears to be nothing more than a savage beast on a killing rampage. But according to the novel, the 400-year-old dragon was actually once carefree, young, and naive, and spent a long time searching for a mate. While the dragon is an androgyne, it is able to reproduce and if you ever wanted to know all there is to know about androgyne dragon reproduction, then this is the book to find it in.
The dragon was also confused the first time a human came to try and slay it. This is revealed in chapters that are written in part through Verminthrax’s perspective on events. Obviously, that first would-be hero failed and we learn about the many others who tried and failed, too. This is why King Casiodorus didn’t send out his own heroes to battle the dragon.
The pact that King Casiodorus made with Verminthrax is what drives the story, so the novel digs deep back in the past to show what led to the King’s decision to offer up the sacrifice to the beast. The King had learned of the three ways in which to kill a dragon: the hero’s way, which is a physical attack on it; a sorcerer’s intervention, because it’s said that sorcerers carry the guilt for creating the dragons and therefore cannot resist the urge to confront them; or the use of res potentissimum, a powerful amulet made by the man who carelessly created the dragons. But the King didn’t have confidence that they could succeed with any of these methods, so he decided to instead give the dragon something it seemingly desired—a young maiden on each Equinox—in the hopes that it would keep the dragon away for the rest of the year. Luckily, his solution worked.
The Lottery is also a major detail of the story, but the women who lose their lives because of it are shown in the movie simply as bargaining chips. The book not only gives us their thoughts as they meet their fate, but also what their lives were like before their lot was chosen. One girl in particular was the best friend and intended betrothed to Valerian. By learning about who they were, it makes their sacrifice that much more painful to bear.
The Dragonslayer book is one of the best novelizations I’ve ever come across. If you are a fan of the movie, but always wanted to know more about the Dragonslayer universe, you’d be wise get your hands on this book. Like I mentioned, it’s not easy to come by, so if you don’t happen upon it in a used bookstore like I did, you can find some used copies from third-party sellers online.