Trying Hard to Get It Right in Andre Norton’s Dragon Magic

Dragon Magic is the most ambitious single Andre Norton novel I’ve read so far. It spreads across four historical periods in four parts of the world, plus the contemporary (as in 1972) United States. It tackles racism in various forms, along with the hierarchy of the schoolyard. And it throws in a handful of magic.

The setup is similar to that of Octagon Magic. Kids learn important life lessons after sneaking into an old house with a witchy reputation, which is about to be gutted and sold. In this case the magical object that keeps calling them back is a jigsaw puzzle depicting four different dragons: Norse, Mesopotamian, British, and Chinese.

Each of four kids is mysteriously compelled to complete a quarter of the puzzle. New kid Sig ends up in the middle of the saga of Sigurd the Volsung, as a sidekick with a withered hand. Black kid Ras/George has a dream or vision about being a Nubian prince enslaved by a Babylonian king. Wannabe cool kid Artie gets to fight beside the (more or less historical) King Arthur against the traitor Modred. And adopted Chinese kid Kim lands in the middle of a complicated political situation in imperial China.

The dragons are more historical than magical, despite the enchantment that compels the kids to put together the puzzle. The Norse Fafnir is a literal monster of greed and acquisitiveness, the Mesopotamian creature is probably a late-occurring dinosaur, and the British and Chinese “dragons” are war leaders and their banners. Each adventure is about the kid learning important lessons for his own life, and learning to get along with other kids—they’re all various flavors of loners and misfits. There’s also strong pro-library propaganda: Each kid is inspired to go to the library and find out more about his particular period and character. This is right on brand for Norton, who had been a librarian.

Norton is trying hard. She really, really is. She makes a real effort to give us a diverse cast, each of whom goes back to his cultural roots, but she also wants to teach the lesson that we can all get along with each other. We can learn about our different cultures and see what they all have in common.

The lesson is particularly pointed in the case of Ras, whose birth name is George. His brother is Black Panther-style activist; he’s convinced young George to change his name to something more suitably African. There’s a whole subplot featuring the conflict between the brothers and their conservative parents; it ends with the brother leaving home and Ras being ordered to return to being George. Through his experience with the dragon puzzle, he realizes that everyone should learn to get along; that rebellion isn’t the best way to get things done.

Which is a strong political point, and frankly rather uncomfortable in the climate of 2019. Norton is trying hard to write a fair and balanced story about race in the United States. She is, for 1972, unflinching in her depiction of the Black experience. She wants her readers to see what the world is like outside of the white American bubble.

The story within a story is obviously carefully researched. Norton has read up on the period when Egypt was ruled by a Nubian dynasty, and she’s woven it in with the Biblical story of the prophet Daniel. Ras becomes a fallen Nubian prince, now a slave, and gets to be a part of Daniel’s victory over the priests of Marduk.

I groaned early and often as I slogged through this section. I’d survived the recap of the Sigurd story, giving it points for portraying a disabled protagonist, but confirmed in my conviction that prose style was not one of Norton’s strengths; I didn’t expect beautiful writing here, either. I had to acknowledge that ancient Egyptian archaeology has come a long, long way since 1972. She couldn’t have known about some of the alterations in thinking, including the recognition that much of earlier Egyptology is heavily biased toward Europe and the Middle East. We’re coming to see that the real orientation of Egypt was toward Africa.

And we know that skin-color racism is a very, very recent thing. Ancient Egypt had a strong anti-Middle Eastern bias—the “vile Asiatics,” they called them. They would not have been opposed to Nubia or Nubians on racial grounds. Political, yes; military at various points, for sure. But not because of Nubians’ skin color.

Ras as a slave, and a Black slave, being called out for his skin color, was just plain painful to read. There were so many stories Norton could have told about the Nubian kings, and so many ways she could have worked in some kind of dragon. Making it Mesopotamian, and then pulling in the Bible, pretty much epitomizes the problem of centering the study of ancient Egypt around the preoccupations of white European Christians.

In 1972 this wouldn’t have been as hard to take. My disadvantage is that I’ve studied the subject and I know what’s current in 2019. In short, this section did not age well.

The Norse section, as I noted, is also painful, in that it does not play to Norton’s strengths. She was at her best when she wrote fast-paced adventures in strange or alien settings. Complex characters were not her thing; nor was elegant prose. The story of Sigurd tries to be epic and noble, but it plods. It just never gets off the ground.

The Arthurian section plays better for me. It doesn’t try so hard to be all high and fancy. Its protagonist is plucky and smart in the Norton mode, and makes a nice contrast with modern-day Artie, who is the kind of kid who’s always tagging along behind the cool kids but never manages actual coolness himself. Artos has a lot to teach Artie, and his story has a level of reality and immediacy that the others never quite reach.

The final, Chinese section is, if anything, more painful than the Egyptian one. It does not help that the kid’s name is Kim, which is a Korean name. The Chinese form would be Jin or, in 1972, possibly Chin.

This basic error is striking because she visibly worked so hard on her research, to the point that the action gets lost in all the names and places and the political complications. As with the Sigurd section, the research rises up over the story and drowns it.

This is in no way assisted by the attempt to write “Chinese-style” prose. Which means many, many, many similes and metaphors, and everybody speaks in gnomic utterances.

It’s clear Norton is trying to give full respect and tribute to the material, and she wants to write in what she perceives as the style of the period and culture. But her prose skills aren’t there, and she’s not sufficiently versed in the culture or the language to pull it off.

There are a lot of good intentions here, for which I give her credit. But this was a tough one to get through—and I won’t even mention the complete lack of any female human beings in any of the historical stories. I’d have thought she’d be over that by 1972, considering how well she’d been doing with female characters in the previous decade or so.

I’ll read Fur Magic next—hopefully with less struggle and more enjoyment.

Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Her most recent novel, Dragons in the Earth, a contemporary fantasy set in Arizona, was published by Book View Cafe. In between, she’s written historicals and historical fantasies and epic fantasies and space operas, some of which have been published as ebooks from Book View Café. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, a blue-eyed dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.

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