Dealing with Dragons

I just finished re-reading (for the first time since at least high school) Patricia C. Wrede’s “Enchanted Forest Chronicles,” a four-book series of fantasy novels that began with Dealing with Dragons (1990). (Or, if you read the author’s forewords in front of each book in the boxed set I got, it turns out that Wrede wrote the final volume first and then filled in the backstory in pieces. You wouldn’t know it from the finished product, though; Wrede is a master of her craft.)

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles are full of cleverly subverted fantasy and fairy-tale tropes, starting with the premise of the first book: Princess Cimorene of Linderwall gets tired of embroidery lessons and runs off trying to be captured by a dragon. Thanks to her politeness to a talking frog (who isn’t an enchanted prince — but you know, it says, you pick a few things up here and there), Cimorene does meet a dragon named Kazul and becomes her princess.

The protagonists of Wrede’s series usually have a clear goal, achieved by the protagonists’ applying a few simple rules on their adventures: think laterally, speak clearly, be polite.

I think one reason I loved Dealing with Dragons as a kid is that the narrative voice has many of the same preoccupations as the voice of an adventure game such as “Colossal Cave.” Physical items — a magic sword, a small brass sign, five clean handkerchiefs — have outsize importance to this narrator, even as they’re described in a spare and Anglo-Saxon $ADJECTIVE$NOUN style. In fact, in this decade of author blogs, it becomes clear that the similarity was not accidental; Wrede clearly enjoys adventure games herself. (I’ve always thought that Dealing with Dragons would make a beautiful adventure game, by the way. The plot turns on chance encounters, arrivals in the nick of time, and arrivals just-after-the-nick-of-time; it makes me feel a sense of “What if…?” in a way that most books don’t. The book somehow conveys that Cimorene’s actions are unforeordained — that if at certain points she’d chosen to do something different, different consequences would have ensued.)

One of Cimorene’s first duties is to organize Kazul’s treasure, “three enormous treasure rooms at the far end of an intricate maze of twisty little passages”:

The treasure was just as disorganized as Kazul had told her, and putting it in order was a major task. It was sometimes hard to tell whether a ring was enchanted, and Cimorene knew better than to put it on and see. It might be the sort of useful magic ring that turned you invisible, but it might also be the sort of ring that turned you into a frog. Cimorene did the best she could and kept a pile in the corner for things she was not sure about.

There was a great deal of treasure to be sorted. Most of it was stacked in one of the innermost caves in a large, untidy heap of crowns, rings, jewels, swords, and coins, but Cimorene kept finding things in other places as well, some of them quite unlikely. There was a small helmet under her bed (along with a great deal of dust), a silver bracelet set with opals on the reading table in the library, and two daggers and a jeweled ink pot behind the kitchen stove. Cimorene collected them all, along with the other things that were simply lying around in the halls, and put them back in the storerooms where they belonged, thinking to herself that dragons were clearly not very tidy creatures.

Talk about a dream job!

The second book in the series, Searching for Dragons, introduces the magician Telemain as a competent but long-winded counterpart to the competent and down-to-earth witch Morwen. Telemain has a style of speaking that sounds naggingly familiar, in this the season of reviewing CppCon program submissions. From near the end of Searching for Dragons:

“The shielding spell was unidirectional,” Telemain put in. “The external absorptive effect would enhance its efficiency.”

Kazul gave Telemain a hard look and smiled, showing all of her teeth. “What was that again?”

Telemain frowned in concentration and finally said carefully, “The shield was a one-way spell. It soaked up everything that tried to get in from outside and used the energy to make itself stronger.”

“Very good,” Morwen said. “I was beginning to think you were hopeless.”

Posted 2019-06-09