Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly

Peering at the blurry bookshelves behind me in a photo taken after I came back from Conspiracy 87 (my one and only Worldcon), I was reminded of a book I bought at the time (largely because of its Michael Whelan cover), and never got round to finishing. So, I thought I’d seek it out secondhand and give it another go.

Dragonsbane (1986) was issued in the UK by Tolkien’s publishers Unwin, via their Unicorn fantasy imprint. Unicorn was around from 1982 to 1988, reprinting some of the genre’s classics (Lord Dunsany and James Branch Cabell), and publishing originals from established and new writers, including Louise Cooper, M John Harrison, Colin Greenland and Geoff Ryman. Unusually, it seems to have been strictly fantasy, with no SF or horror, which perhaps says something about fantasy’s popularity in the mid 80s, or at least Unwin’s faith in it.

cover art by Michael Whelan

The novel starts with Gareth of Magloshaldon journeying to the northern Winterlands, to summon Lord John Aversin to the King’s court in the south. John is the only living man to bear the title Dragonsbane, for having killed the Golden Dragon of Wyr, albeit many years ago. Now another dragon is wreaking havoc in the south, and every knight the King has sent to deal with it has been killed. But Gareth, an unworldly young man and a scholar of the heavily-romanticised ballads of dragon-slayings past, is appalled to find this Dragonsbane knee-deep in mud, discussing the care of pigs with a commoner. He’s even more appalled to learn that John didn’t walk boldly up to the dragon and lop off its head, but first stuck it with as many poisoned javelins as he could, to even the odds. But John agrees to come south, not because he relishes facing another dragon, but in the hope he can remind the King of his northern subjects, who need their liege’s help seeing off the increasingly damaging waves of seasonal sea-raiders.

Another thing that appals Gareth is the presence of Jenny Waynest, a witch and the mother of John’s children. These children are cared for by John’s aunt, because, in this world, being a witch, wizard, or sorcerer means living a life dedicated to working with, furthering, and understanding one’s magical power. “To be a mage you must be a mage,” Jenny was told by her old teacher, Caerdinn. “Magic is the only key to magic.” There’s no room for human relations and family. Jenny loves her children, and though she visits them, and John, when she can, she knows she can’t give herself to them fully whilst serving the thing that, like it or not, is most precious to her — her own magical abilities.

art by Walter Velez, from isfdb.org

Gareth’s reaction to her, though, is evidently based on more than social disapproval. And as Jenny accompanies the two men south (she played a key, though unsung, role in the slaying of the dragon, so John’s going to need her), she learns of Zyerne, the King’s beautiful young mistress — a mistress who, like Jenny, is also a witch. But, it turns out, she’s a witch of immense power. She can, it seems, shape-change casually, for her own and others’ amusement, even though shape-changing is something that ought to take a lot out of even the most powerful sorcerer or sorceress. As she heads to the court of the King in the south, Jenny prepares to meet with someone who is all that she isn’t, and seemingly never can be — young, beautiful, and immensely powerful.

And, it turns out, there’s more than just a dragon to deal with in the south. Not only is there Zyerne’s manipulation of the King and his courtiers, but the King’s cousin, after an apparent throne-grab, is now holed up in the besieged city of Halnath; meanwhile, the wealthy gnomes, ousted from their home in the Deep of Ylferdun (where the dragon has made its lair), are subject to racist attacks in a land where the gap between the common folk and their indifferent, wealthy rulers is widening daily. Insert your own modern-day parallels here.

With its early emphasis on the difference between Gareth’s romantic expectations and the messy, muddy reality, Dragonsbane is one of those books that seeks to bring a bit of realism to the genre. (And I’d say fantasy needs constant balancing on both sides, with doses of gritty realism, but also of wondrous magic, and this book has some of the latter, too.) This air of realism, and the fact the book starts with a retired hero from the wintery north being summoned to the decadent court of the king in the south, reminded me somewhat of Game of Thrones.

Also like Game of Thrones, Dragonsbane is about power. Though Jenny manages to stave off jealousy of Zyerne (largely because she realises what a dark-souled creature Zyerne is beneath all her beauty, youth, and magical ability), she finds herself facing a different sort of temptation, when her own magical powers receive an unexpected boost. Suddenly, Jenny must make the decision between becoming what her newly-grown power would make her into, or of deliberately turning her back on her teacher’s maxims, and not dedicating her life only to studying her own magical ability. “All power must be paid for,” is another rule in this world, and if you don’t pay with hard work and dedication, the price will, it seems, be extracted from your soul, and all that makes you human.

I was glad I gave Dragonsbane a second go. I can see, I think, what put the fifteen-year-old me off, back then. Hambly writes some wonderfully poetic descriptions — she’s particularly keen on the effects of light, be it moonlight glinting off a dragon’s scales, or a landscape bathed by a dawning sun — and these perhaps slowed down the action a bit too much for the reader I was at the time. Now, I can appreciate them more.

It was, when it came out, a standalone novel, and though Hambly has since written more books with the same characters, it can still be read on its own, and I’m glad I finally did.

Camelot 3000

Camelot 3000 issue 1, art by Brian Bolland

I remember this series feeling really special when it came out in the early 1980s. But it was meant to feel special. Camelot 3000 was DC Comics’ first “maxi-series”, a 12-issue story printed on higher-than-normal quality “Baxter” paper (which also resulted in stronger colours, I seem to recall), intended to be sold solely through specialist comic shops. This last point meant it wasn’t subject to the Comics Code Authority’s stamp of approval, so could contain, as writer Mike W Barr says in his introduction to the Deluxe Edition, “a transsexual knight, lesbianism, incest and various other Code-breaking plot points” — though nothing as graphic as that might make it sound to modern ears.

It’s set in a technologically advanced future which has recovered from nuclear war to, somehow, return to pretty much the 1980s’ version of world political power-balance, with a communist China and Russia in uneasy relations with a caricature cowboy President of the USA, and a psychopath dictator in charge of the African country of Rakmaburg. Aliens from the tenth planet are invading Earth, and have taken over England, while the rest of the world struggles to work out what to do. Tom Prentice, an archaeological student working at Glastonbury, accidentally reawakens the Once and Future King whilst fleeing aliens, and Arthur immediately grasps the situation: England, and the world, need him once more.

His first step is to free a grumpy Merlin (the series’ best character) from Stonehenge, then recover Excalibur (whose lake resting place is currently inside a nuclear power plant). Merlin then awakens six of Arthur’s knights from their current reincarnations: Sir Lancelot is Jules Futrelle, the world’s richest man (who has a handy castle-like home in orbit round Earth, all ready to become this future’s new Camelot); Guinevere is Commander Joan Acton, head of the Earth’s defence forces; Sir Kay is a minor criminal; Sir Galahad a dishonoured samurai; Sir Gawain a black South African family man; Sir Tristan, meanwhile, has been reincarnated as a woman, Amber March, and is awakened to her/his true identity just before she’s about to be married; finally, Sir Percival is reawakened the moment before he’s turned into a “Neo-Man”, a super-strong, near-invincible dumb giant, used by this future’s governments for law enforcement, created from criminals as a punishment for their crimes.

When it’s revealed, later in the series, that one of the crimes that can get you turned into a Neo-Man is “dissent”, it underlines how generic this book’s vision of the year 3000 is. It’s presented as a future version of the 1980s, but it’s also post-nuclear, technologically advanced, and overpopulated, and it’s also, evidently, from this need to punish “dissenters”, dystopian, though it’s never made clear how or why it is dystopian, aside from the selfishness of its leaders. The future, in Camelot 3000, has laser guns and flying cars, a hint of dystopia, a hint of post-nuclear holocaust, a hint of looming population crisis, a hint of satire, as well as a lack of the sort of technology that would actually help the characters (Tom Prentice’s laser burns can only be healed by the Holy Grail, Sir Tristan’s desire to be turned into a man can only be achieved through sorcery, not surgery). All in all, this future feels a little bit like the sort you’d find in 2000A.D., though more Mega-City Lite than the full Dredd.

The setting, though, isn’t the point. This generic future is there to be a background against which we see a sword-wielding King Arthur and his reincarnated knights fight insectoid aliens and a vengeful Morgan Le Fay. One of the things I remember liking most about the series was the knights’ individual struggles between their current incarnations and their mythic “real” identities. (In this way it could be said to tie in, though very lightly, with Alan Garner’s The Owl Service.) Writer Mike W Barr updates some aspects of the original Arthurian myths with modern, or futuristic, equivalents. For instance, Tristan and Isolde’s love in the original is frustrated by the fact that Isolde is promised to another man and Tristan has been charged on his knightly honour to bring her to him; in Camelot 3000 that frustration comes from Tristan’s being a woman. (And many modern reviews pat the series condescendingly on the head in a “nice try” manner for addressing such outside-the-gender-norm issues without today’s nuances, but I remember this being a really surprising and original-feeling plotline at the time.) Meanwhile, Sir Percival was, in the original myths, the most perfect and innocent of Arthur’s knights; in Camelot 3000, he’s perfect and innocent because he’s been turned into a dumb, giant Neo-Man.

Some things, though, don’t change, and everyone has a doomed acceptance of the inevitable adultery between Lancelot and Guinevere, though it nearly tears New Camelot apart before it can face the alien threat. But ultimately, Camelot 3000 isn’t about the constrictive patterns of myth (as with The Owl Service), it’s about King Arthur and his knights being a symbol of hope in a future very much in need of it. So, the reliving of past mistakes provides interesting storylines, but ultimately the series is about our heroes’ triumphs despite their flaws, not the dark undertow of a bleak mythic destiny.

Camelot 3000 was intended to come out monthly, and did, for the first nine issues, after which it slowed down. In his introduction, Mike Barr says he warned DC they should stockpile issues before launching the series, knowing penciller Brian Bolland wouldn’t be able to stick to a monthly schedule, but they ignored him. As a result, although the first issue came out in December 1982, the last (with almost a year between it and issue 11) came out in April 1985.

It’s a fun series, feeling a little 2000AD-ish in places with its touches of anarchic satire, but no way near as dark as 1980s comics would become. Brian Bolland’s art remains one of the main selling points, though he’s not inking his own work, and it looks a little cruder than we tend to get from him now (particularly in the last issue, making me wonder if it was perhaps a little squeezed in between other projects). And I like the idea of how King Arthur’s return is handled. According to Barr, this was the first story to address the actual return of the Once and Future King — though Merlin pops up all the time in 1970s and 1980s UK kids’ TV; and one series at least, Raven (1977), is about a reincarnation of King Arthur, though not of the swords-versus-aliens type.

That Hideous Strength by C S Lewis

The third book in Lewis’s “Space Trilogy” is very different from the first two. Out of the Silent Planet was about a trip to Mars, Perelandra was about a trip to Venus, but That Hideous Strength (published in 1945) is set entirely on Earth. It’s subtitled “A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups”, which makes me think of another book for adults that came out in the same year, also subtitled “A Fairy Story”: George Orwell’s Animal Farm. One of the things that surprised me while reading That Hideous Strength was how closely it comes, in its presentation of the aims and methods of the evil organisation the N.I.C.E., to Big Brother in Orwell’s last novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four (which came out in 1949). (And Orwell actually reviewed That Hideous Strength, but I’ll come back to that.)

Another way to look at the three books of the Space Trilogy is that Out of the Silent Planet presents us with a world (Malacandra) where the key battle against evil was won long in the past; Perelandra presents us with a world at the moment that battle is fought; That Hideous Strength presents us with a world where the battle with evil was lost long ago. Earth, Tellus, Thulcandra — all names for the same place — is in the hands of the Bent One, Lewis’s version of Lucifer, and what we witness in this novel is the fight-back against his tightening grip.

Pan paperback. Art by Sax.

The novel starts by following two characters, Jane and Mark Studdock, a recently married, modern-minded couple whose marriage is already starting to show cracks. Mark is a sociologist, currently placed in Bracton College at the University of Edgestow, and has just managed to get himself accepted into the inner circle of the “Progressive Element” of the university. But along comes an invite (from Lord Feverstone, a.k.a. Devine from Out of the Silent Planet) to become part of an even more progressive element: the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments, whose sinisterly unspecific name hides (behind a camouflage of almost Kafkan levels of bureaucratic obfuscation) a plan to transform humankind into “the most efficient animal” — in fact, the only animal, because this plan includes ridding us of all “our rivals on this planet”: insects, bacteria, animals, and plants. At the same time, the N.I.C.E. want to realise the Kingdom of God, but through entirely scientific means, to create a world where:

“The Son of Man — that is, Man himself, full grown — has power to judge the world — to distribute life without end, and punishment without end.”

Even death will be conquered. And, to literalise their idea of making this world (to them, the only world) the Kingdom of God, they are also creating their own God, or “the Head” as they call it, and which turns out to be just that: a human head, separated from its body, kept alive by a whole roomful of machinery. It is immortal, but, really, it is dead. And we know from Perelandra’s Un-Man that an undead body becomes, in Lewis’s universe, a mouthpiece for evil spirits, and most probably the evil spirit, the Bent One.

The N.I.C.E. believe their intention is entirely scientific, but they are simply serving the Bent One using different terms. (And the misuse of language to political ends — something that’s so important in Nineteen Eighty-Four — is clearly on display here, with the N.I.C.E.’s police being called its “Sanitary Executive”, and torture — which, of course, the Sanitary Executive employ — “Scientific examination”.)

Another Pan paperback, cover by S R Boldero

Meanwhile Jane, an academic herself but frustrated by her new role as a housewife, has been having a number of vivid but horrific dreams. She gets advice from a couple who lead her to a nearby house that becomes, as the N.I.C.E. takes over the city of Edgestow, a refuge for those prepared to resist this evil organisation. And it’s here, nine chapters into a 17-chapter novel, that we finally get our first hint of this book’s link to the previous two in the Space Trilogy, as we meet Ransom again. Only, this is a Ransom transformed. Known at first as Mr Fisher-King because of the unhealing foot-wound he received in the previous novel, he seems to have stopped ageing, grown a transplendent golden beard (it instantly reminds Jane of King Arthur), and has retained his links to the eldil. Jane’s prophetic dreams allow the mixed group that surrounds Ransom (including a friendly bear, Mr Bulstrode) to discover the N.I.C.E.’s plan, which involves using the power of Merlin — who’s not dead, but has been held suspended in a “parachronic state” since the 5th century — to achieve its evil ends.

I found That Hideous Strength a bit of a mixed novel. (It’s also about as long as Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra combined.) It’s certainly not what you expect as the third in a trilogy that began with two interplanetary adventures (though its setting on Earth makes perfect sense). Its tone is very different, veering into absurdist satire in its depiction of the N.I.C.E.’s internal workings, and feeling at times like Kafka, like Orwell, and (with its inclusion of Arthurian myth in a modern setting) like Charles Williams’s occult thrillers, but at the same time, it’s never anything but C S Lewis.

The philosophy of the N.I.C.E. had already been addressed by Lewis in a non-fiction book, The Abolition of Man (three lectures on education, published in 1944), in which he projected what he saw as the modern trend of regarding our core human values as merely subjective judgements, into a future where morality has been replaced entirely by the whim of a manipulative elite. For Lewis, this “modern” tendency formed a sort of dark circle: first, the abandonment of God leading to the “Despair of objective truth”; then, “a concentration upon mere power” until power itself is deified; finally, “the old dream of Man as God”, and human whim replacing divine order.

As in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the N.I.C.E. aim to achieve this through, among other things, manipulating the press, the use of euphemistic terms for terrible deeds, and keeping even its own employees in a constant state of terror, as when the Deputy Director gives one of his subordinates advice on how to behave:

“On the one hand, anything like a lack of initiative or enterprise would be disastrous. On the other, the slightest approach to unauthorised action — anything which suggested that you were assuming a liberty of decision which, in all the circumstances, is not really yours — might have consequences from which even I could not protect you.”

The key difference between Nineteen Eighty-Four and That Hideous Strength is that Orwell only presents the horrible extreme of how things might be, while Lewis presents both what might go wrong and the thing that must, in his opinion, replace it. This means that Orwell was arguing for freedom, but Lewis, as in the other books of the Space Trilogy, is arguing for obedience.

…Whilst also arguing against obedience. The N.I.C.E., after all, demands obedience (“Your line is to do whatever you’re told and above all not to bother the old man,” as Mark is instructed). But when Jane sees Ransom, she’s told that lack of obedience is why her marriage to Mark is failing. It would be easy to deliberately misunderstand Lewis, particularly when he has Ransom say, “No one has ever told you that obedience — humility — is an erotic necessity,” which sounds like it’s heading into John Norman/Gor territory, but Ransom says he’s not talking about obedience to Mark. The trouble is, he doesn’t really say what the obedience is to. (I assume it’s to the marriage, with both Mark and Jane subordinating themselves to that, but Lewis doesn’t actually say so.) “Obedience” seems to have become, throughout this series, a magic word for Lewis, not so much a thing you do, as a state you’re in. He means, of course, obedience to Maleldil — God — and makes it clear this isn’t a strict obedience to an exact course of action, but something more pliable, and fitted to each individual, or at least every culture:

“Of course, there are universal rules to which all goodness must conform. But that’s only the grammar of virtue… The whole work of healing Tellus depends on nursing that little spark, on incarnating that ghost, which is still alive in every real people, and different in each.”

But Lewis never gets into the nitty-gritty of how, as an individual, you tell the difference between obedience to Maleldil and obedience to the Bent One. (As readers, it’s easy, because we can see behind the scenes to what they’re trying to do. One is clearly evil, one is clearly good. But it’s less easy for the characters.) Because, obedience surely means putting what you’re told to do above your own idea of what you should do. If what you’re told to do aligns with your conscience, then no obedience is necessary. It only becomes obedience when you have to overcome yourself in order to obey. And we don’t ever get a representation of that inner struggle. Jane has to be convinced to join Ransom and co., but only because she doesn’t want to accept that her dreams are prophetic (because that, to her modern mind, makes her worry she might be mentally unbalanced). It’s the reality of the supernatural she has difficulty accepting, not what’s good and what’s bad. In Mark we get a far more convincing portrait of a man being led astray (“For he now thought that with all his life-long eagerness to reach an inner circle he had chosen the wrong circle”). Mark’s involvement with the N.I.C.E. comes in small, deliberately deceptive steps — too small and unexplained for him to realise what he’s doing till it’s too late. As readers we can see he’s doing wrong from the start, because the author lets us know. But for Mark, somewhat weak-willed, un-idealistic, and wanting to get on in the world, it’s harder. And this, surely, is the point: many people fell into line with pre-War fascism in a similar way. So, what we need is a way to know what to do, from Mark’s point of view, as a weak, muddled, peer-pressured human. But we don’t get that. So, it seems to me, neither Mark’s corruption nor Jane’s correction really gets to the core of how to tell right from wrong.

As I say, it’s easy for readers to tell right from wrong in That Hideous Strength, because the right is supernaturally good, and the wrong is supernaturally evil. And this was Orwell’s point in his review of the book, where he says that “it would probably have been a better book if the magical element had been left out”, as, in actuality, the “whole drama of the struggle against evil lies in the fact that one does not have supernatural aid”.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, cover by Pauline Baynes

Lewis was, of course, writing a fantasy, but fantasy works better from a clear vision than a rational argument. And I can’t help feeling what he was doing in That Hideous Strength he went on to do better in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. There, we have the White Witch’s rule of Narnia (like the N.I.C.E.’s take-over of Britain) opposed by Aslan (whose golden mane recalls Ransom’s “gold hair” and “gold beard”), as well as the corruption of Edmund (paralleling Mark’s corruption in That Hideous Strength), the recourse to “Old Magic” (Merlin in That Hideous Strength, “Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time” in Lion) and both novels even end with a lot of recently-freed animals running about. By throwing out the more explicitly philosophical parts of That Hideous Strength, that first Narnia book gains a lot in power and clarity. Story is more convincing than even the most rational argument, and symbols (the Lion, the Witch, the sacrifice and so on) have much more power to convince than abstract ideas. I don’t feel Lewis ever lets go of things enough, he’s always subtly telling me what to think. But by doing so less explicitly in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, he at least makes it more accessible, and a better read.

I get the feeling that, in That Hideous Strength, Lewis was ready to move on from his Space Trilogy setting but perhaps hadn’t worked out where to go. Narnia, though, was beginning to show itself. This is from the final chapter of That Hideous Strength:

“That same afternoon Mother Dimble and the three girls were upstairs in the big room which occupied nearly the whole top floor of one wing at the Manor, and which the Director called the Wardrobe. If you had glanced in, you would have thought for one moment that they were not in a room at all but in some kind of forest…”