Dragonlance – Thirty Years Old
“Evil turns in upon itself.”
Very rarely has a truer phrase been written so simply and we’ll come back to that later.
The Dragonlance Chronicles first appeared in bookshops thirty years ago. The first book, Dragons of Autumn Twilight, was published in 1984. The second in the trilogy was released the same year and the final book appeared in 1985. Just savour that for moment. Not only was it thirty years ago but all three books were released within a single year. These days we wait, with great patience and understanding, a year for a new book in our favourite trilogy or series. Longer for some. We know that it takes that amount time to ensure quality, but back in the age of Airwolf, Knight Rider and The A-Team, things could be a little different.
Dragonlance, created and written by Margaret Weis and Tracey Hickman, was not only series of novels but also a setting for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons by TSR. The twelve adventure modules were accompanied by the novels. But, really, it is not the mechanics and the history that is important. Nor is it vital to know that some people think that the original trilogy is some of the best fantasy ever written and others consider it to be puerile, screwdriver fantasy that anyone could create if only they had thought of it. (I firmly pitch my tent in the first camp). The important thing, for me, are the characters.
Raistlin and Sturm, Flint, Tasslehoff, Tanis, Goldmoon, Riverwind, Tika, Laurana, Caramon. Oh, and Fizban. You’re smiling aren’t you? At least, if you’ve read these books you are. This is the archetypal ensemble story. It reads like a collection of AD&D sessions and, according to Wiki, this is almost exactly how it began and that makes sense when you consider the nature of the adventure modules released by TSR to introduce the world of Dragonlance, Krynn, to the players of AD&D. It could have been an awful tie-in. If anyone remembers the 80s and the dreadful computer game/movie tie-ins they will have some idea what I mean. However, it wasn’t and isn’t. The characters carry the story and everyone can find something in them that resonates.
If you haven’t read the original trilogy here is a quick run-down. The cataclysm, a ‘mountain of fire’ that destroys the great cities, turns forest to desert and desert into sea, has left the people of Krynn without their gods and purpose. True healing is impossible and a new religion has arisen, the Seekers. When a group of adventurers return to their home town, Solace, after five years of looking for evidence of the true gods, things begin to change. There is a darkness abroad in the world, a cloud of smoke in the north, armies on the march and evil creatures of legend are reborn.
In the weeks and months that follow the adventurers must come to terms with a world that has been turned upside down and come to understand themselves and their comrades. Like all good books and stories there is love, betrayal, battles, and bitter-sweet victories. Not all the heroes will make it to the end and those that do are irrevocably changed. And that is what we want in a book. It is what we wanted back in ‘84 and what we need ‘14.
Grimdark fantasy does the same thing – it gives us flawed heroes that are changed (not always for the better) and along the way some are killed. I am not saying the Chronicles are Grimdark. In the world of Dragonlance the deaths are heroic sacrifices, not the needless waste of true battles. I am admitting here and now that there were times I shed a tear – and this was before I had children and changed from a cold-hearted, ruthless, trained ninja* for hire into a soppy old-git.
The foreword to the collector’s edition, which I proudly own, takes the reader through the characters personalities and the reasoning behind them. However, there are two, in my own humble opinion (and remember I am trained ninja* so disagree at your own risk) that make the stories what they are.
The first is Tasslehoff, a Kender. An irrepressible race whose raison d’etre is to seek out new experiences and travel the world. Immune to fear and a rabid kleptomaniac who cannot stop ‘acquiring’ little trinkets, Tasslehoff is the innocence of the group. The child who must grow up, realise the world is not fair and that understand that actions have consequences. We see events through his eyes and can revel in his attitude, his seeming fearlessness, and we can cry with him too.
The second is Raistlin, a mage. This frail, golden-skinned and hour-glass eyed human is not a nice man. It is easy to view him as a villain and evil but there is something about him. Something that speaks to all of us ‘geeks’ and ‘nerds’ (I proudly stake my claim to both of those titles), of a boy who is bullied for his frailty and ridiculed for his mind. His twin, Caramon, is the opposite – fit, strong, handsome. Raistlin is cynical, vicious in phrase, uncaring in attitude, distrusting and untrustworthy. You should hate him but you don’t. So well-conceived is he that many readers are touched by his attitude towards Bupu, the gully dwarf, by the relationship he has with his brother even though he feels smothered by it, by the sacrifices he has made to pursue his dreams.
One of my fellow contributors to this fine website (Liz Ambrose), prefers Tika and Laurana for the changes they undergo throughout the trilogy. And who am I to argue with her opinion? (She too is a fully trained ninja** and the battle would be the end of us both – well, certainly me).
“Good redeems its own” and “evil turns in upon itself”. Few worlds, outside of a western, so clearly delineate the good and evil as Krynn. The good wear white and the evil black. You know who is who and where they stand in the conflict. For everyone that is except our heroes. We know that they all, most of them, strive to be good but accepting the darkness within them is key to their victory. But, those two phrases mentioned at the beginning of the paragraph are the guiding principles of the world and its people. You could view these as immature or lacking the complexity of the morals we see in more recent fantasy novels but we should enjoy them for their purity and acknowledge the underlying truth they reveal.
Thirty years ago these books were released and they are still in print today. Weis and Hickman followed them up with a second trilogy featuring Raistlin and Caramon which develops their relationship, and allows Caramon to grow as much as Raistlin. I have tried to write this without spoilers as I believe, sincerely, that these are books you need to have read or are going to read (as soon as you finish this article). There is a sense, as I re-read, that the books are off their time. That may be age speaking but then again the first poem you come across is a lot more suggestive than I remember from my youth.
Everyone has to read these books at least once and now, upon their thirtieth birthday, I cannot think of a better time to recommend them to you. Enjoy.
*I am not a fully trained ninja*** – just to be clear.
**As far as I am aware neither is my fellow contributor but I am locking the door just in case.
***In all honesty, I have had no ninja training+ whatsoever.
+But maybe I am trained to say that. ::vanishes in a puff of smoke::