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Last Weekend

We were at SpoCon, our local SF convention. I was on panels and my daughter was helping out our friend who is a dealer. Here she is, showing off one of the puppets.

Cora & Friend

Cora & Friend

In The Farthest Shore, we can see the author reaching for a deeper understanding of dragons. Not only the magical monsters, cunning yet savage of appetite, she had shown in the first volume. In the fourth volume, Tehanu, and in the collection, Tales From Earthsea, her unique vision takes shape.

Years before, Tenar (a.k.a. Arha, viewpoint character in The Tombs of Atuan) returned to the Archiepelago with Ged, bearing an artifact of great power and promise. Yet she herself chose not to be part of that promise. After studying for a time with Ged’s former teacher, Ogion, Tenar opted for a “normal” life. She married, raised her kids, and the story begins with her recently widowed and taking on management of the farm where she lives.

This book takes place at the same time as The Farthest Shore and in the aftermath. Ged and Arren have gone on their quest, and nobody knows where they are. Piracy and banditry are everywhere. Indeed, Tenar saves the life of a small girl, raped, beaten and shoved into a fire by grifters. She strives through the novel to raise this scarred angel with some sort of normality.

One of the stories Tenar tells to the foundling Therru embodies Le Guin’s evolving concept of dragons. “When Segoy raised the islands of the sea in the beginning of time, the dragons were the first born of the land and of the wind blowing over the land. So the Song of Creation tells. But her song also told that then, in the beginning, dragon and human were all one. They were all one people, one race, winged and speaking the True Language. They were beautiful, and strong, and wise, and free.”

Some, as this legend goes, chose to be wild and fly without anything to tie them down. These became dragons. Others clung to things they had built, and they became humans. The enmity between these two arose when humans feared the dragons might destroy or devour all they had made.

It’s a really interesting idea, explored both in Tehanu and in “Dragonfly,” the final story in Tales From Earthsea. It appears that boundaries are shifting, and some humans can make the transition back to being dragons. I haven’t yet read the latest Earthsea book, The Other Wind, but I look forward to it so I can see what resolution Le Guin came to, between her human and draconic characters.

If this thread seems to stop and start, it’s because I’m re-reading the books as I go. Some I have. Some I thought I had and can’t find. Some have been added since the series was written and I’m coming to them late. Some I buy for my Nook and some I borrow from the library. It’s been a journey worth taking, though. Le Guin is a master, and Earthsea is her masterpiece.

So I come to the third book, The Farthest Shore. This presents Ged, who started A Wizard of Earthsea as a youth and progressed to maturity in Tombs of Atuan, as an older man. He’s the Archmage now and a wise, patient teacher. But another gifted youth, Prince Arren of Enlad, comes to Ged with a terrible puzzle: all over Earthsea, magic is losing its strength. After some discussion with the other master wizards, Ged and Arren set out to discover why.

Arren is the viewpoint character, giving us fresh eyes on Earthsea and the horrific consequences of magic slowly lost. We see former magi mistaking a drugged haze for magic. Villagers turning against their sorcerers, claiming magic was mere fakery all along. Yet it isn’t only magic that’s dying. Artists and crafters of all sorts forget their arts. Robbery and slavery are rampant as social order breaks down.

Earthsea’s dragons are equally affected by the erosion of magic. After all, these creatures are pure magic. Their language is the original language of the world’s creation. In the latter half of the book, Arren and Ged come to the western reaches, where they find the dragons going mad, no longer recognizing their own names. Some fight each other blindly. Others fly and scream fire, knowing something has happened to them but no longer able to understand what.

In these passages we meet two major dragon characters. Orm Embar is known as the mightiest of all, and Kalessin is the eldest of all. Each retains enough sanity to help Ged by battling along with him (Orm Embar) and by greeting him at the end (Kalessin). Here is Le Guin’s description of Kalessin, when Arren tries to protect Ged from his approach. “The old dragon Kalessin looked at him from one long, awful, golden eye. There were ages beyond ages in the depths of that eye; the morning of the world was deep in it. Though Arren did not look into it, he knew that it looked upon him with profound and mild hilarity.”

Just as Le Guin had questioned some of the earlier fantasy tropes that were popular in the day, we see her examining her own treatment of dragons. In A Wizard of Earthsea, the great dragon of Pendor was a typical savage creature with an appetite for destruction. Beginning with this book, we see her creating a new narrative about who dragons are. In this LeGuin joined fellow author Anne McCaffrey, whose Pern series began its run in the same year the Earthsea books did.

The saga continues next Tuesday.

More about the video game Dragon’s Dogma (Capcom, 2012).

As with most games any more, you have great freedom to choose what your character will look like. Characters can be male or female without penalty, and can appear of any race and age. So you could make your character look like a Tolkeinian dwarf or a small child or a grizzled old woman. You also get to design your main pawn to your liking. None of this affects gameplay.

Another feature that’s become common in fantasy games is that you can hire other pawns up to a total of four (including Arisen and main pawn). If you are online, you can use other people’s main pawns. I’ve found it very interesting how some people dress their pawns. (A fighter in a g-string. Really?) You can give equipment to your pawns and have them carry things for you. On the down side, they continually make inane comments like “Tis a grand fortress,” and there’s no way to turn off the repetitive chatter.

Although you can tailor your character’s appearance, there are only three character classes: Mage, Strider or Fighter. These can move up, if you wish, to Warrior, Sorcerer and Ranger. Each class has only a limited set of attack skills to choose from, and they don’t stack up. If you change classes, you select new attack skills from a new list.

There are no secondary skills. I missed being able to choose from a wide array of skills, the way you can in games like Oblivion. None of that “warrior with a bit of magic” in this game.

Allegedly, Dragon’s Dogma is an open world where you can wander anywhere, gather materials to craft items, and explore caves or ruins. I found the landscape pretty small compared to games like Skyrim. Most locations are related to various quests, so you can’t just wander around exploring ruins and such.

The story aspect is also fairly limited. You have one main quest and a number of side quests which you pick up at message boards in the inns and taverns. Characterization of the NPCs is cursory. More frustrating for me, there are no dialog options for my character to say all the snarky or heroic things I wanted to say. Perils of a novelist playing video games, I suppose.

That said, the main plot does have a payoff in a climactic scene where Grigori (the dragon) poses a really interesting, lady-or-tiger challenge for the Arisen. You make your choice and pick up the pieces. My decision led me to another big confrontation where my choice affected the direction of the game. Indeed, the first time I clicked the wrong button and ended up transforming my character into a dragon, which flew off to afflict the land. Not the ending I intended! I like this approach, since in so many fantasy games you just cut people down, take their stuff, and go on without a thought.

All the above may sound like I’m down on this game, but I’m not. Though it isn’t as good as Oblivion or Skyrim, I found myself planning my next character as I approached the end of the game. So it will have replay to keep me busy for a while, and I’ll pick up some of those quests I passed on the first time. I know there’s an expansion, called Dark Arisen, and I’ll probably pick that up at some point.

Dragon’s Dogma hasn’t been a bad way to spend my summer, all in all.

Dragon’s Dogma

This is a video game that has been out for a few years, but it’s new to me. (I always buy games a few years later; it saves money, plus if I get stuck, I can find hints online.) Dragon’s Dogma a fantasy adventure released by Capcom in 2012. The original game is in Japanese, and you can see this in small ways, such as characters who bow or make “namaste” hands when greeting each other. The theme song also contains cultural references such as the wind pushing someone toward their destiny, which are typical for anime song lyrics.

The setup in this game is that a simple fisherman or woman is working in their village when suddenly a dragon swoops down to wreak havoc. After a cut scene, in which the fisher person has his or her heart cut out and swallowed by the dragon, that person awakens and proceeds on their journey as “Arisen,” a warrior with magical powers. They soon discover a race of humanlike-but-not-quite-human Pawns, fearless and loyal, who can be enlisted in a quest to regain the Arisen’s heart.

The dragon character is called Grigori, and he’s everything you could want in a dragon. Huge, red, winged, fiery breath. At the same time, he’s a bit… not boring, but just what you’d expect. The only surprise is that Grigori is quite talkative. When you fight him, he supplies a constant monologue about how puny you are, how superior he is, and his philosophy that humans should accept their inevitable demise. This chatter, again, is typical for battles in anime, where foes often spend as much time debating philosophy as they do crossing swords. I guess this could be the “dogma” referred to in the game’s title.

Come back Tuesday, and I’ll tell you more about actual gameplay.

It’s been a long, long time since I covered this topic! This is where I speculate about real creatures that are dragon-like in some way. Well, I’m happy to report that a new fossil of a large prehistoric bird has been unearthed.

Actually, it was unearthed twice. Pelagornis Sandersi was originally excavated near Charleston, South Carolina by Albert Sanders of the Charleston Museum. The bones were collected in 1983 but then sat neglected in a drawer, according to news reports. Thirty years later, Sanders invited fellow paleontologist Daniel Ksepa to explore the museum’s collection. Once Ksepa realized he had found a new species, he named the giant fossil bird in Sanders’s honor.

Pelagornis is indeed huge compared to most fossil birds. Its wings would have stretched up to 7.38 meters/24 feet across. When gliding, it could have reached 49 mph! Among its interesting features are tooth-like combs projecting from its beak.

For many years, scientists had believed birds had a certain size limit, and that if they grew any larger they would not be able to fly. Pelagornis shows that a bird with much wider wings could still take to the air, albeit with a relatively small body compared to its wingspan.

Previous to Pelagornis’s discovery, the largest known fossil bird was Argentinavis magnificens. It was thought to spread its wings up to 19 feet/6 meters. Argentinavis had a somewhat heavier build than Pelagornis. The largest birds now living, such as Wandering Albatrosses, have a span up to 10 feet/3 meters.

Click here if you want to read the full LA Times article from July 8, 2014.

I promised more Earthsea dragons, and I’m here to deliver. But first, a correction. In my chronology of the Earthsea books, I left out the most recent book. The Other Wind was published in 2001 and continued the saga of Ged even further.

The second novel in the series is The Tombs of Atuan. This will always be my favorite. It was the first I found in my junior high school library and it features an amazing setting. Those tombs! An underground labyrinth, which the heroine learns to navigate in total darkness. It set the stage for many D&D games to come.

Arha is High Priestess to the Nameless Ones, primordial spirits of darkness who brood in the deeps and silence of Atuan. She originally was named Tenar, but her name was stripped from her in a midnight ceremony. She grows up as Arha, the Eaten One, and questions nothing of her ordered fate until the night she discovers a stranger in her dark domain. It’s Ged, of course, come in quest for one of the great treasures given up to the Nameless Ones long ago. Arha traps him, but then must decide what to do with him.

As part of her deliberation, she interrogates Ged, who had mentioned he is a dragonlord as well as a powerful sorcerer. Arha sneers, “Tell me, what is a dragonlord?”

“One whom the dragons will speak with,” he said, “that is a dragonlord, or at least that is the center of the matter. It’s not a trick of mastering the dragons, as most people think. Dragons have no masters. The question is always the same, with a dragon: will he talk with you or will he eat you? If you can count upon his doing the former, and not doing the latter, why then you’re a dragonlord.”

Kinda tells you everything you need to know about dragons in Earthsea!

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