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Archive for September, 2013

Last Fall, I began my quest to discover any folk stories where King Arthur did battle with a dragon. This week I’ve come pretty close.

The tale of Sir Tristan and his forbidden love for his uncle’s wife, Isolde, is one of the greatest Medieval romances. Its origin was separate from, possibly pre-dating King Arthur. The basic story of Drystan (Tristan) and Essyllt (Isolde) is part of the Mabinogion, the Welsh national myth, which was written down in the 1300s but is undoubtedly much older. As years passed and tales were told, the legend migrated over the English Channel into Brittany. It was adapted by French troubadours and connected loosely with the enormously popular King Arthur story cycle. So in the later versions of Arthurian lore, Sir Tristan sometimes appears as a knight of the Round Table, or representing Cornwall as an ally of King Arthur.

Tristan was the son of Rivalen, King of Lyonesse, and Blancheflor, sister to King Mark of Cornwall. Orphaned and raised in obscurity, Tristan found his way back to Cornwall and served as King Mark’s champion. (It’s a long story. You can read it here.)

And Tristan had his work cut out for him. King Mark received a challenge from Duke Morholt, the brother-in-law of Ireland’s King Goram. Morholt, a monstrous giant, demanded tribute from King Mark. What he got was a duel with Sir Tristan.

The two knights met on St. Samson Island. Upon his arrival, Tristan sank his own boat, saying that only one of them would sail away from this battle. The fight was fierce, the warriors mighty, and each took wounds from the other. At length, Morholt fell. As he lay dying, he taunted Tristan that he too was doomed, for Morholt used a poisoned blade. No one could cure him except Morholt’s sister, Queen Isolde of Ireland.

Sir Tristan took the boat back to Cornwall, but then allowed Sir Morholt’s retainers to return his body to Ireland. Queen Isolde and her daughter, Isolde the Fair, were grief-stricken. As time passed, Tristan realized that Morholt’s words were true. His wounds became infected and gave off a foul odor that drove most people from his presence. No physician nor magician of Cornwall could heal him.

Tristan knew he would die if he couldn’t get Queen Isolde to cure him. She wasn’t likely to do that if she knew he was the man who had killed her brother. So Sir Tristan disguised himself as a bard named Tantris. “Tantris” was received in the court of Ireland and played his harp so beautifully that Isolde the Fair wanted him to tutor her. He couldn’t do that if he died, so Queen Isolde plied her craft and restored him to health.

“Tantris” still needed time to recover. For forty days, he rested and taught Isolde the Fair how to play the harp. Afterward he returned to Cornwall, and Queen Isolde never knew she had cured her brother’s killer.

Thus the romance of Tristan and Isolde the Fair began with deception. The legend continues in my next post.

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This is a poem I wrote long, long ago when I was deeply involved with Pern fandom. Enjoy!

NOW YOU HAVE A DRAGON

by Deby Fredericks
1988

Together we wandered the green hills of spring.
The flowers of summer to me you did bring.
Wherever we rambled, in love we were free.
Now you have a dragon, you’ve no need for me.

The Weyrman came down from the vault of the sky.
The dragon spoke to you, in joy you did cry.
Away you went with them, a Weyrman to be.
Now you have a dragon, you’ve no need for me.

So I am forsaken, and all my life I’ll mourn.
My parents say I should not live all a-lorn.
The gray hills of autumn I tread in the rain
And with withered blossoms I weave me a chain.

I see you go flying, so high and so free;
Now you are a dragonman, you’ve no need for me.

(Wow! Has it really been 25 years?)

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Here is Urban Fantasy as it would be if Monty Python did it. Novelist Fforde is a Welshman, well known for his murder mysteries, who’s decided to try his hand at YA. The Last Dragonslayer is the first of a series, Chronicles of Kazam.

Kazam’s world is the opposite of most urban fantasy, where magic and magical beings reappear after some time in hiding. Magic has always been known in the Ununited Kingdoms. Unfortunately, its prime was back in the 16th Century. The power has dwindled steadily, until fifteen-year-old Jenny Strange is struggling to keep her magician agency/retirement home afloat at all.

Into this setting comes a prophecy that the very last dragon is about to die. Each dragon has its own country estate, or Dragonland, bounded by magical barriers that instantly vaporize people who enter to harass the dragon. News of Maltcassion’s impending demise creates a huge rush of real estate speculation, military ambition, and frothing media.

At the eye of the whirlwind is Jenny, part ingenue and part adventurer, who wants to do the right thing — spare Maltcassion and stop a war between her home kingdom of Hereford and its neighbor — but is buffeted by increasingly dangerous circumstances. Maltcassion is a fine draconic character, urbane, conniving, and not at all bothered to die. I won’t give away his end game, but it was a suitable triumph after four centuries of imprisonment.

The story moves quickly, with telling that’s glib and flippant and about 1/2-inch deep. Fforde has created a lot of fun and cool details, and I felt he could have slowed the manic pace just a little to give his readers a better look. Maybe it’s just me.

This book is being sold for ages 12 and up, but there’s very little fighting and no sex, so I think you could go even younger. Any fan of Monty Python should enjoy this book.

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My last post was a picture of a sheet metal dragon sculpture at the local fair, but what I didn’t know was the book I’m currently reading also has a metal dragon in it. Interesting how life makes those little connections, isn’t it?

The book in question is Codex Born, by Jim C. Hines. This is the follow-up to Libriomancer, in my opinion the best book of 2012. I’m saddened and amazed that it wasn’t nominated for anything.

Hines is one of those writers nobody seems to have heard of, but you should. His specialty is skewering tropes such as dungeon adventuring (Jig the Dragonslayer series) and TV girl detective teams (Princess series). The books are silly and funny and touching in just the right measure. Unlike many writers, who seem to follow whatever bandwagon is going by, Hines does his own creative thinking. Better yet, he asks his readers to think.

Magic Ex Libris is his current series, urban fantasies where libriomancer magic is based on books. These magi can reach into books and pluck out any item as long as it will fit through a physical copy of the book. Queen Lucy’s healing cordial? Check. Lois McMaster Bujold’s truth serum? Check. Magic-detecting sunglasses? Enchanted swords? Ionic pistols? Check, check, check. The concept is especially brilliant because Hines nods to so many living authors who are sure to notice him and nod back.

The trope he skewers in this series is broader than ever before, and comprises the entire way female characters have been treated in entertainment. If you’ve been reading SF news and blogs in 2013, you know that sexual harassment and discrimination has been a huge topic. Hines manages to personify the problem in Lena Greenwood, a dryad accidentally brought forth from the pages of a trashy novel.

Lena is exactly like smany female comic and movie characters: beautiful, kicking ass, yet compelled to be the “pefect mate” of whoever she’s romantically involved with. Lena struggles in this book to figure out how she can have any control of her own life, while Isaac, the actual protagonist, tries to figure out how he can love her without preying on her.

Oh, and they’re both trying to keep a horde of magical Devourers from reaching Earth. The dragon — you knew I’d get back to the dragon — is not so much a personality as the magical construct of a dead libriomancer whose magic was stolen and warped. The dragon is put together of cast-off machine parts, but despite this is extremely impressive in its limited time on page. Look for it.

In fact, look for any book by Jim C. Hines. Jig the Dragonslayer and the Princess books are suitable for all ages. Magic Ex Libris contains more sex (it’s urban fantasy, but pretty tame compared to most of the genre) and some discussion of power in sexual relationships which is likely to lose younger readers. Parents should give it a read and decide if they want their kids under 16 to do the same.

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This is a photo of a dragon sculpture on display at the Spokane County Fair this week. A friend took the shot. It’s sheet metal, about 10 feet tall, and wouldn’t fit into the display hall. Instead, they set it up in a nearby livestock barn.

I haven’t been able to find out any more about who created it, but it won a ribbon. Whoever it was certainly deserves the award for their cool design and welding skills.

sheetmetaldragon2013

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The legend of Quetzalcoatl has another interesting parallel in European myth: like King Arthur, Quetzalcoatl’s lore may be based upon the life of a real person.

According the Aztecs (as translated by their Spanish conquerors in the early 1500s) the Quetzalcoatl’s cult was so widespread among the Toltecs that all their priests bore the god’s name as their official title. And in the quasi-mythical city of Tollan (identified by some with Teotihuacan, near Mexico City) there was a mighty Toltec ruler named Ce Acatl Topiltzin. He was a wise leader who taught his citizens the arts and sciences (as Quetzalcoatl himself had been said to do). Topiltzin fell from power when he violated his own laws and banished himself on a raft of serpents (also as Quetzalcoatl had been said to do).

However, Topiltzin did not burn to death on his raft. He made his way across the Gulf of Mexico to the shores of Yucatan, where he encountered the Itza Maya people. The Maya were celebrating a festival to Kukulkan, another feathered-serpent god. Topiltzin was received as the second coming of Kukulkan. Whether by divine intent or human wiles, he ruled over Chichen Itza and bestowed much of the same learning he had granted the people of Tollan. Even today, feathered serpents are a major decorative element in Chichen Itza.

Alas, Topiltzin’s enemies pursued him as vigorously as Tezcatlipoca had pursued Quetzalcoatl. Topiltzin’s divinity was overthrown, and he was forced to flee to Uxmal, where he committed suicide. Perhaps he gave his life in a ceremony to restore divine favor, much like the gods who sought to restore the sun’s light in the Aztec creation myth.

Topiltzin may be centuries dead, but his legend lingers into modern times. Archarologists research his reputed dwelling places in search of clues about his identity and the life he led, just as British archaeologists search for clues about King Arthur. Others claim he was only a shadow created by Spanish missionaries who wanted to justify their conquest.

What is interesting to me about this story is that it shows the ebb and flow between a succession of peoples in Central America. Civilizations came and went, but the legend of Quetzalcoatl endures.

As an aside, I’ve been having a bit of trouble receiving some of the blogs I follow. My reader is no longer e-mailing your posts to me. I’m working on that, and just wanted you to know I haven’t lost interest in your blogs.

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Reviewing the Aztec creation myth reminded me how unique the cosmology of Central America was compared to Western myths we’re more familiar with. Europe and Asia were connected by land, though the passage wasn’t easy. Legends and stories could be transmitted even to regions as distant as China. So there was a certain synchronicity in the folklore of Europe and Asia.

The Americas, by contrast, were isolated by sea and existed in their own world. They had a separate synchronicity of thought and expression that passed from people to people. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that their idea of what a god should be was strikingly different from what people of Western traditions assume.

People in Central and South America did not love and admire their gods. They desperately feared the divine. Their creation myths were full of disasters, and their rituals were equally grim. To please such terrifying gods, Mayas, Aztecs and Incas sacrificed generously and often. They gave the best that they had: gold, jade, and blood. We’ve all heard lurid tales of human sacrifices, the hearts cut from living bodies or virgins drowned in bottomless wells, but it wasn’t only prisoners who were sacrificed. Every priest and politician took part in bloodletting rituals where they cut themselves to buy favor for their people.

As one friend commented on my previous post, these religions were raw and visceral, not at all the sweetly sanitized mythology we study in school!

Although Quetzalcoatl may not seem all that dragon-like — a feathered serpent who didn’t fly, had no fiery breath — the rituals of his religion still hold that element of virgin sacrifice. Perhaps, even with sea on both sides, the folklore of Central America shared a connection to the west, after all.

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