Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Dragons' Rights Issues



Figuring I should milk His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik for all it's worth, and because Snuffles here insists it's one of the most pressing social issues of our day, I thought I would give some space to the subject of dragons' rights.

Many may think that in our enlightened age, anti-dragon bigotry is a thing of the past. Not so. Unfortunately, it is still the problem we all live with.

Naturally, because dragons' rights is such a volatile political issue, Novik must address it in His Majesty's Dragon, a novel that has the gall--the gall, I say--to glorify our past when we forced dragons into military conscription and rode them like beasts of burden.

Now, having said that, I must admit that Novik shows more enlightenment than the actual historic personages she mentions. The main character in her novel, Captain Will Laurence, apparently isolated from his country's prevailing bigotry and perhaps exposed to the more enlightened primitive societies by his seagoing lifestyle, rather quickly comes to recognize his dragon (and yes, I use the word his intentionally and purposely because, alas, such is the state of things in this book) as a person. Nonetheless, even Laurence expresses shock when he joins the Aviators and finds a dragon who outranks many of the humans and gives them orders; yet to his credit, he adjusts to this rapidly as well.

Perhaps Laurence is an anachronism, but even if he is, Novik disguises it well. As entertaining and refreshing as it would be, she doesn't insert anything into her nineteenth-century story so obviously out-of-place as harness-burning dragyns yelling, "I'm mad as hell." Nonetheless, she does show Laurence, in spite of his fastidiousness, as an impressively enlightened character. When he joins the Aviators, he finds most of them are slovenly and lazy, never removing their dragons' harnesses, adjusting them for their dragons' comfort, or keeping them clean. Laurence shakes things up a bit by having Temeraire's harness removed each night, giving Temeraire regular baths, and generally making sure the dragon is comfortable. Some of his fellow aviators swiftly adopt his more enlightened practice. It's unfortunate that Laurence does not go so far as to question the backwards and bigoted law that makes all dragons "property" of the crown or to view the dragon's harness, as we have come to view it, as a symbol of enslavement and debasement. But this is, after all, a period novel, and much as we wish the past were utterly different from what it was, we can't change things.

One of the book's major subplots involves one of Laurence's fellow captains, a certain Captain Rankin (this is a real historical figure, who students will remember for infamously putting down the celebrated Dragon Rebellion of 1838). Rankin views his dragon as a mere animal and shows him less attention than even a marginally dedicated equestrian would show a horse. At first, Laurence becomes a friend of Rankin's because his social status and personal habits are comparable to Laurence's own, but they have a falling-out when Laurence discovers how Rankin treats his dragon Levitas. Levitas, for his part, mostly fawns over Rankin, begging for any scraps of affection he can get. Though effective at moving the reader's emotions and showing the level to which bigots in the past could sometimes stoop, this subplot ultimately has little to do with the novel as a whole, but it does redeem somewhat the questionable subject matter about which Novik has chosen to write, namely, the use of dragons in the Napoleonic Wars. On the whole, the book does establish well the idea, which enlightened people today take for granted, that dragons are a sentient species with their own culture and with intelligence comparable to that of humans'.

There, Snuffles, I wrote everything you wanted. Will you let go of my arm now?
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