By her own admission, Anne McCaffrey had found Dragonquest (1971) very difficult to write, to the point where she more or less burned down the first draft and started again. Which understandably did not make her overly inclined to start writing its sequel—especially since she had other non-dragon books to write. But five years later she published a companion novel aimed at younger readers, Dragonsong (1976), swiftly followed by a sequel, Dragonsinger (1977), both set during the time of Dragonquest.
She clearly still had more to say about dragons.
This eventually led to a short story, “A Time When,” published by the New England Science Fiction Association in 1975, which McCaffrey expanded into a novel, The White Dragon (1978), one of the first science fiction books to land on The New York Times Best Seller list.
The predecessors to The White Dragon had all focused on struggle of one type or another: the struggle of a vengeful woman against a patriarchal society that had deeply failed her (and dragons!) in Dragonflight; a fragile political coalition fighting a growing, unpredictable environmental threat (Dragonquest); and two young and talented outsiders desperately trying to earn their places on Pern (The Harper Hall Trilogy). The White Dragon took a distinctly different approach, telling the story of a young, highly privileged guy—in the full sense of that term—cementing his position as, well, a still young but even more privileged guy.
It’s not that The White Dragon lacks the environmental themes of its predecessor, although these themes are considerably muted in this book. Or harpers—Masterharper Robinton and several characters from The Harper Hall Trilogy make appearances in this book, although that trilogy’s fascination with music is almost completely absent.
And it’s not that Jaxom, Lord Holder of Ruatha Hold, the protagonist of the novel, lacks problems, or doesn’t feel the need to prove himself. For one thing, he is an orphan. His mother died in childbirth on the same day that his father, the conqueror Lord Fax, died in a duel with F’lar. Jaxom has since been raised by his milk mother, Deelan, who isn’t in the book much, and former dragonrider turned master craftsman weaver turned Lord Holder Lytol. And despite—or perhaps because of—his rank, he is bullied and harassed by the other boys of the Hold. Nor is he exactly a “real” Lord Holder; his guardian, Lytol, does most to all of the work of running the Hold.
For another thing, despite not being a “real” Lord Holder, Jaxom is both a Lord and a dragonrider—a combination strictly forbidden by Pern’s rules. Dragons belong in the independent, autonomous Weyrs, as protectors of those living in Holds and Crafthalls, who in turn send tithes (read, taxes) to the Weyrs. A Lord Holder with a dragon doesn’t just screw up this system financially and socially, but is a Lord Holder with too much power. So, as a dragonrider, Lord Jaxom cannot be the Lord Holder of Ruatha Hold. Unfortunately, since Jaxom’s father killed most of the Ruathan family, the Hold only has two other claimants—Lessa and her son F’lessan, both dragonriders, and thus equally ineligible—in theory opening up Ruatha Hold to any claimant.
Lessa, however, holds another role, as the senior Weyrwoman of Pern and the acknowledged co-leader of the Northern Continent. Her word carries weight. And that weighted word wants someone of Ruathan blood to remain as Lord Holder of Ruatha. That is, Jaxom—the only other person with Ruathan blood. Only a few drops, granted, but that’s still Ruathan blood. Lessa doesn’t want the Hold going to anyone else
SPOILER: Absolutely none of this ends up going anywhere, except to introduce a secondary theme of the novel, population expansion and resource deprivation, a nice follow-up to Dragonquest’s focus on the various ways of combating invasive species.
The reason it doesn’t go anywhere is because Jaxom’s small dragon, Ruth, is not a normal dragon. He’s so abnormal that Jaxom’s initial, uncertain flight on his back takes place in front of several carefully watching dragons and human witnesses—including neighboring Lord Holder Groghe, the charming and ubiquitous Masterharper Robinton, Journeywoman Harper Menolly (popping in from her own novels), and several dragonriders. The concerned dragons tell Ruth to land after just a few minutes in the air, and warn Ruth that although the flights can gradually become longer, Ruth still must be careful. But even after this proof that Ruth is a proper dragon, given his small size and unusual color, the dragonriders agree: Ruth can and should stay at Ruatha Hold.
Meanwhile, now that Jaxom can fly, he’s forced to attend various classes with other promising young people. It’s mostly an attempt to prevent a repeat of the previous “well, the last people who knew how to do X died, so, now we’ve lost that technology” that caused so many problems in the first novel. These lessons include an astronomy meeting with Wansor, who has finally figured out the orbits of the other planets in this system, and concluded that these other planets are responsible for the fluctuations in the orbit of the Red Star—allowing everyone on Pern, with a little bit of advanced math, to figure out just when Thread will arrive.
SPOILER TWO: Before everyone leaps in to protest the physics here, Wansor’s conclusions here turn out to be entirely wrong in a later book. I can only assume that at this point in the series, McCaffrey hadn’t quite worked out the size/density/orbit of the Red Star—all kinda key factors in figuring out something like this—but in the meantime, let’s just be kind and note that Wansor has only been doing this astronomy thing for the equivalent of five years now. Mistakes are understandable.
And since this is a lesson moment, let’s pause for some definitions:
Milk mother: More or less the same thing as a wet nurse—a woman already nursing her own child who agrees to nurse another child, though in this case, combined with actually fostering the child.
Milk brother: The milk mother’s son (presumably a daughter would be called a milk sister), someone the foster child is supposed to feel a debt of gratitude, since if not for the milk brother, the child would not be alive. Jaxom isn’t exactly on board with this entire definition, for the record. Or should I say on dragon?
Firestone: It’s come up before, but I forgot to mention it: a substance that dragons have to chew before they can release the flames that burn Thread away in the sky.
Threadscore: Also something that’s come up before, but I forgot to mention it: the wounds left by Thread. Extremely painful, frequently leaving noticeable scars.
Timing it: The relatively new term for something initially introduced in Dragonflight—traveling through time on a dragon.
Anyway, the astronomy lessons bore Jaxom, who has heard it all before and is more concerned with, well, proving that Ruth is a proper dragon (that is, a dragon who can chew firestone and produce flames) and with proving that he, Jaxom, is a manly sort of manly man who yes, has no problems getting girls even if he’s not interested in making a match with a daughter of a neighboring Lord Holder.
The dialogue about this is Not Great, so let’s move on to the next bit: Jaxom’s Adventures in Trying to Teach Ruth How to Chew Firestone. These adventures include Jaxom wondering if he could or should conquer other holds, deciding to pick up a girl as cover for his actual activities, stealing firestone from the Ruatha Hold watchdragon, deceiving his guardian Lord Lytol, and cleaning up firestone vomit—this last not exactly enough to make Jaxom endearing.
Which is just one of many problems that pop up early in this novel. To be fair, some of these problems —most notably the sudden introduction of a number of characters from The Harper Hall Trilogy—were probably inevitable. Those novels, featuring cameo appearances from various Dragonquest characters, had been popular, and the decision to drag Menolly and later Sebell and Piemur into this novel certainly makes sense from a “what would my fans want?” point of view.
And, to be fair, getting to see Menolly again and finding out what happened to her after the Harper Hall Trilogy is great. I love seeing her talent and skills acknowledged, and I love knowing that she’s continuing to create music and have adventures. If anything, those adventures have even expanded: In her own books she did outrun Thread and Impress nine fire lizards, while in this book, she rides dragons, sails to distant continents, hangs out with the most important people on Pern, and explores ancient ruins. This is all pretty great.
But her introduction into this novel feels forced and awkward, as does her character transformation from shy, diffident girl feeling a desperate need to prove herself, to a confident character who doesn’t hesitate to slug a wounded Jaxom. To be fair, Jaxom is being more than a bit of a jerk here, and Menolly has slugged other people before this in her own books, including the spoiled sons and daughters of Lord Holders, so that’s perfectly in character. And to be equally fair, this not entirely convincing character transformation also appeared in the last book of Menolly’s series, Dragondrums —a book which appeared one year after The White Dragon.
Her friendship with Jaxom feels equally forced. Which is slightly puzzling: Menolly and Jaxom, after all, are about the same age. They both Impressed by accident, while trying to save fire lizards and a dragon respectively. But they otherwise have little in common; indeed, Menolly’s previous interactions with Holders of any type have not been particularly positive. And many of Jaxom’s thoughts about Menolly feel less like thoughts Jaxom—or anyone—would have, and more like reasons to keep her in the book.
Take, for instance, the moment when Jaxom starts running through a list of his friends who might be willing to help him steal firestone so he can teach Ruth to be a proper dragon. This works well as a handy list of Jaxom’s friends—and as a quick illustration of just who is attending these classes—but Jaxom’s conclusion, that Menolly would be just the person, makes no sense. In her own books, certainly, Menolly challenges and changes the status quo—but out of her love for music and talent. She’s not a rulebreaker. Indeed, she often lectures others on the need to follow the rules, and tries very hard to follow them herself. And more to the point, in this novel, she’s not a dragonrider, and has no direct access to firestone. How is she the ideal person to help steal firestone? Because McCaffrey wanted to emphasize her friendship with Jaxom to give a reason for a journeywoman Harper to have adventures with a dragon.
But the real problem is Jaxom, the least sympathetic protagonist in the Pern books so far. Writing unsympathetic characters was not new ground for McCaffrey—she had even included their viewpoints in earlier Pern books. But in those viewpoints, she had scrupulously included just enough to show that even her most antagonistic characters had some reason for their grievances.
Jaxom is an exception to the rule. Oh, he certainly tells himself, and his dragon, and readers, that he has real problems. And, as mentioned above, he does have real problems. But most of those problems stem from unbelievably good luck and a remarkably privileged position. He’s a Lord. He’s a dragonrider. He—unlike every other main character save F’nor introduced so far—has not one, but two caring, involved, and alive parents focused on his welfare. He—unlike every other main character so far, including F’nor—was not required to do physical labor as a teenager. To be fair, he does end up doing that in this novel—as part of attracting a girl. But it’s presented as Jaxom helping out as a favor, not as Jaxom needing to do the work.
Jaxom doesn’t appreciate any of this—except for his dragon—in the slightest, leading to a lot (and I do mean a lot) of whining.
It’s pretty typical teenage behavior. So typical that I feel I should note that I liked and identified with Jaxom much more when I was fourteen than I do now. But at the same time, it leads Jaxom to make some major misjudgments. He is convinced, for instance, that by treating him as a sickly child, his milk mother Deelan has fostered the resentment of his milk brother, Dorse—something that, in turn, leads Jaxom to resent Deelan.
It seems equally likely that Dorse’s resentment comes from another cause entirely: jealousy. As Jaxom’s milk brother, Dorse gets to share Jaxom’s things—but is never regarded as Jaxom’s equal. Indeed, when the idea of fosterlings and playmates for Jaxom is raised, Dorse is never even mentioned. Instead, everyone (well, everyone other than Dorse, at least) agrees that Jaxom needs to have companions of his own rank—that is, children of other Lords. Groghe sends over his son, who becomes Jaxom’s new companion. Dorse soon vanishes from the novel. So, to be fair, does Lord Groghe’s son, but there’s a fairly strong hint that he’ll be back.
It’s no wonder that Dorse harbors some resentment.
Not that Jaxom—with an amazing ability to look at all of his advantages in life and see them as problems—realizes this.
He’s almost a poster child for whiny, privileged wealthy guys everywhere.
Enough to make the book not worth reading? No. Because in yet another stroke of luck, Jaxom happens to be in a novel that he’s not worthy of, glimmers of which also appear in these early chapters.
A few of those glimmers are introduced, unsurprisingly, by Masterharper Robinton, who with his usual penchant for thinking in very useful plot summaries, notes that Pern has now shifted from the invasive species crisis to an overpopulation crisis. Concerns about human overpopulation had gained prominence throughout the 1970s, making it a natural theme for the novel—helped by the setup in previous books. The fight against Thread has gone so well, and birth control among the holders is so limited (or unavailable) that multiple Lord and regular Holders have an abundance of sons—and no land to give them. Those of you who are thinking that, okay, then they can just be harpers or mechanics or weavers—something useful, that is—should probably drop that thought, since the Lord Holders want their kids to be, well, Lord Holders.
In their slight defense, we do see many of the Lord Holders in this book working as land managers or helping to harvest or plant crops or later, provide building materials. Against that, this land hunger, especially for the unexplored lands of the Southern Continent (which could, Lord Holders, be kept as nice nature reserves, a solution that would fit the environmental themes of this novel), has a distinct sense of greed about it. Not to mention that the Oldtimers exiled to the Southern Continent and the settlers who suddenly had the Oldtimers foisted on them might just want to have a say in this.
But The White Dragon doesn’t just have a whiny, privileged protagonist and discussions of environmental issues and population pressure. It also has the little white dragon, Ruth—arguably the real draw of the novel. We’ll get to Ruth in upcoming posts.
Mari Ness currently lives rather close to a certain large replica of Hogwarts, which allows her to sample butterbeer on occasion. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Fireside, Apex, Daily Science Fiction, Nightmare, Shimmer and assorted other publications—including Tor.com. Her poetry novella, Through Immortal Shadows Singing, was released in 2017 by Papaveria Press. You can follow her on Twitter @mari_ness.