Seeing as we’re between books right now, we thought we’d ask another Guest Highlord to bring us their stories of Dragonlance, since part of the joy of rereading Dragonlance is realising how influential and far-reaching they are. Everyone’s read Dragonlance—and, if not, isn’t now the perfect time to start? It is no wonder this series is so influential; it had its sticky claws in all of our childhoods. This week, writer Erin Lindsey tells us about her love for dragons and elves – even the ones who aren’t that nice.
Caution: unlike our normal reread posts, this contains spoilers for the rest of the Chronicles. But you probably would’ve gathered that from the title.
Dragons of Autumn Twilight wasn’t the first fantasy I ever read. That honour belongs to The Hobbit (or maybe A Wrinkle in Time – I’m a bit fuzzy on the chronology). But it was certainly the first fantasy I recall consciously thinking of as such – that is, as a piece of genre fiction, something noticeably different in content and style than anything I’d come across before. Maybe that’s because it was the first piece of speculative fiction I’d read that wasn’t explicitly aimed at children or tweens (or as we knew them back in my day, “pre-teens”). Regardless, I remember feeling, at the age of thirteen or so, that I’d discovered an entirely new universe to explore. And it was awesome.
Dragons. Talking dragons. And elves, of a completely different variety than I’d encountered before. Pointy-eared and beautiful, sure, but also kind of dicks. This was a revelation.
It was also transformational. Because not only was DoAT the first “adult” fantasy I ever read, it was also the one that stayed with me the longest – as a reader, and as a writer. While I devoured fantasy after that, it was many years before another book had anywhere near the impact Chronicles had.
Why is that? Until recently, I’d always assumed it was mainly because DoAT was a first for me in so many ways. But having just re-read Dragons of Autumn Twilight, I actually think it goes deeper than that.
To begin with, DoAT took a completely different approach to characterisation than many of its contemporaries in that the authors made an obvious effort to let readers really get to know the characters, to understand what makes each individual tick. My biggest complaint about Lord of the Rings and the main reason why I didn’t find it quite as engaging (yes, all right – put away your pitchforks and torches and hear me out) is that I just couldn’t relate to the characters in the same way as my thirteen year-old self related to the companions. The heroes in LoTR were too… heroic. Too distant and unfathomable. Conflict was largely externally driven, as were the characters’ motivations. Even Frodo, decked out as he was in reluctant hero garb, just didn’t let me far enough into his head or his heart to feel real. As a result, their adventures just didn’t have the same emotional pull for me.
That became a familiar complaint for me with epic fantasy – that the characters were too wooden and two-dimensional to carry the plot or hold my interest in the setting – and that lesson, more than any other, really stuck with me. As a writer, I put my energy first and foremost into creating engaging characters; setting, especially, takes a backseat. World-building is important, but ultimately you’re creating a backdrop for human conflict (or elf conflict, or dragon conflict, or what have you). A richly textured backdrop, hopefully, but a backdrop nonetheless.
DoAT taught me something about plot too, which is that tropes are not always a bad thing, and sometimes all it takes is one or two deft twists to make something familiar all your own. DoAT is troperrific, and to me that’s not a criticism. It obviously borrowed heavily from LoTR, as have many others, but that didn’t lessen my enjoyment, even on the re-read. Why? Well for one thing, everybody loves a good Ancient Evil yarn (especially if our heroes are guided through it by a wizard with a battered hat whose chief spell is Summon Bird, or its lesser-known but equally underwhelming cousin, Summon Feathers). More importantly, though, Dragons of Autumn Twilight is just a hell of a lot of fun. Lesson: you don’t need to reinvent the wheel to enjoy the ride.
Same goes for setting. There’s nothing terribly original about Krynn, at least not when it’s stripped back to its basics. But the beauty is in the details: the acid breath, the rose crystal buildings, the sad knights with biker ‘staches. And the names: Darken Wood. Deathmirk. (Seriously, deathmirk.) Again, we’re not talking Big Bangs here – we’re just admiring the stars.
What it all boils down to is this: elegant prose and complex magic systems and startlingly original plots are wonderful, but none of them is strictly necessary for a great read. What matters is that you care what happens next, and all that really takes is engaging characters facing conflict.
There might not be anything especially earth-shattering about that statement, nor am I suggesting that DoAT was the first or best embodiment of any of the lessons I took away from it. In that sense, the timing was probably instrumental; I was thirteen and impressionable. But it was still a lot of fun to go back to the book all these years later and see, in a very direct way, the legacy of that learning on my writing today.
And on my reading. Because to this day, I’m a sucker for talking dragons. And elves who are kind of dicks.
And especially, deathmirk. Do you suppose that’s trademarked?