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This blog is a day late. Sorry! Yesterday I had the opportunity to join my husband in climbing a mountain and picking huckleberries while sipping wine. You can tell how I chose to spend the day. But I’m back now to gratefully accept the One Lovely Blog Award.

onelovelyblogaward

This is my second time; the first was back in May of 2013. I’d like to thank Princess of Dragons for thinking of me. She’s a young writer in Britain who posts clips and shares fun facts about dragons. I hope you’ll check her out.

Now I give Seven Facts About Me:
1) My day job is as a substitute school secretary. This helps inspire me to…
2) I also write for children as Lucy D. Ford.
3) I have two kids, who are teenagers. They inspire and distract me, sometimes both at the same time.
4) My favorite color is aquamarine.
5) Most days, I need coffee to do my best work.
6) I also like having music on when I’m writing. Movie soundtracks are the best, but I like all sorts of rock, pop, folk and electronica.
7) Biking is my favorite form of physical activity.

And I’m passing the nomination on to three blogs I didn’t nominate last time. These are all independent writers and I want to help them spread their fame. They are:
1) Legends of Windemere, by Charles Yallowitz. He writes heroic fantasy and comments on the writing life.
2) C. N. Faust, by the eponymous author of gothic and urban fantasy.
3) Shannon A. Thompson, who writes urban fantasy/romance and whose blog also covers the writing life.

Please take a look at all these fine blogs, and I’ll see you again on Tuesday!

Dragon Circles

Fairy rings are one of nature’s weird and cool phenomena, a circular formation of mushrooms growing on the ground. They can occur anywhere, from tundra moss to forest, but are most visible in fields and plains. Formations can be full circles of mushrooms, partial circles or arcs of mushrooms, rings and arcs of darker green growth without mushrooms, and areas with dead growth at the center. Rings start out small and grow outward. They can persist for hundreds of years and reach many yards across.

Modern science explains that fairy rings are caused by mushrooms growing beneath the soil. Over sixty mushroom species have been identified in association with fairy rings. However, because they are so visible and striking, people before the scientific era had all sorts of stories about what caused the mushrooms to grow this way.

The most common name, of course, is fairy ring. They have also been called pixie rings, elf circles, and fairy circles. All over Europe and as far away as the Philippines, fairy rings are associated with tiny spirits. Europeans believed the grass in the middle was dead because fairies had trampled it while dancing. Other cultures blamed witches or the Devil churning butter. Many tales recount the disasters befalling mortals who ventured into fairy rings.

But, in Tyrolia, legend held that these formations were caused by dragons. If a dragon flew by and stopped to rest, wrapping its tail around it, the heat of its body burned the ground. After that, nothing but mushrooms could grow for seven years or more.

Maybe Tyrolian dragons liked mushrooms for their supper?

In The Other Wind, Ursula Le Guin brings closure to the longest arc of her Earthsea Books. This arc has to do with death, how people fear it, fight it, and in her world have changed the reality of death itself. In Earthsea, the real world is beautiful, sunny, fertile and bounded by the sea on all sides. Their afterlife is the Dry Land: barren, dusty and dark, where souls forget all they once loved and even parents and children can pass each other without recognition.

In A Wizard of Earthsea, the beast Ged brings into the world is his own knowledge that someday he will die. In The Tombs of Atuan, Arha/Tenar’s life is dedicated to the ancient, evil Nameless Ones who dwell in eternal darkness. In The Farthest Shore, Ged and Arren pursue a wizard named Cob who sought immortality and nearly drained the life out of Earthsea. In The Other Wind, the dead are literally tearing down the wall between Earthsea and the Dry Land. For Lily, the wife of a sorcerer named Alder, retained enough memory to recognize her husband and reach out to him across that wall.

Woven with this are other great changes. In the first three Earthsea novels, Le Guin wrote from a traditional perspective in gender roles. Only men did great magic and carried out great plans. No woman was even allowed to enter the Mage’s School on Roke. Women’s magic was dismissed; phrases like “weak as women’s magic” and “wicked as women’s magic” pervade these books. So great was the separation between men’s magic and women’s magic, wizards were required to be celibate, put away mere fleshly concerns, and devote themselves entirely to magic as a High Art. Ordinary magic and working with village folk was left to lowly witches and sorcerers.

Le Guin must have come to realize the stereotypes she was perpetuating, for the later books explore women’s role in Earthsea. One short story in Tales From Earthsea describes how the School at Roke was founded on equal opportunity for men and women, but once it became successful, prouder men came in and pushed the women out. Another story details what happens when a woman, a magical prodigy, dares ask to study at Roke and the masters split on whether to teach her or turn her away. In Tehanu, Tenar tries to heal an abused girl, only to have her own son come and take away her farm because he is the new master and widows have no property rights.

But the crux of all is the story of Earthsea’s dragons. As I related in a previous post, legends state that in the dawn of the world, there were no humans or dragons, but a single race of immortals with human form but dragon’s wings. All spoke the Language of Making. But some fell in love with things they had made and grew fearful of losing them, while others had no interest in things and wanted only to fly free. This great division led to a magical bargain.

Those who prized flight gave up all things and ownership. However, they retained the Language of Making and their immortality. They went into the west and became dragons. Those who prized material wealth had to give up their magic in return for ownership of things. They went into the east and became humans.

What the humans didn’t understand at first was that they had also chosen to age and eventually die. And so a further split occurred. Some stood by their bargain, believing that when they died their spirits would reincarnate and so they were still immortal. These were the ancestors of the Kargish people, who despise all sorcery. However, the majority betrayed their promise. They studied magic again, eventually invading dragon territory and killing most of the mighty beasts.

Men thought that by living in the magical west, their souls and bodies would go on together, forever. Instead, the conquered land lost all its fertility and turned into the Dry Land. Human souls who went to the Dry land could never reincarnate. What Lily had tried to tell Alder was that the dead were not truly immortal. They were only trapped, cut off from the world and its healing cycles.

Through the final volumes, Tehanu and The Other Wind, Le Guin presents the possibility of renewal. That some humans can become dragons, that the dead can be released by letting go of bodies as the definition of oneself. What does it mean for Earthsea, for Roke with its rigid separation of men from women and high magic from low? That, she doesn’t say. Le Guin presents a seminal moment of change, but not all its consequences. That is for us to speculate upon — at least, until she writes more about Earthsea.

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.

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