In an idle moment today – perhaps out of some misguided attempt to put off reading the next John Ringo “book” – I picked up an anthology that I read many years ago but recently picked up again thanks to a Humble Bundle sale. The Ultimate Dragon published by Bryon Preiss. Like many fantasy fans I love dragons. My first dragon – also like many fantasy fans – was Smaug. He was followed shortly by Glaurung and Ancalagon the Black. They in turn were followed by many others. Fafnir, Mnementh, Ramoth, Falkor, Strabo, Icingdeath, Igarjuk, Bazil Broketail, Robert the Wretched, Temeraire, and many, many more. I love me some dragons and I have seen no sign of that waning any time soon.
So I wanted to talk about the first story in the anthology Age by Tanith Lee. Now I have to admit something here. I have never read a Tanith Lee novel and I have no earthly idea why. Everything I have heard of her works sound wonderful. Very much up my alley. Yet I have never pursued her works. After re-reading this story with an adult’s eyes (I was about 14 the last time I read this) I really must remedy this situation.
The story is simple and short at little over 5 pages in length. Not even a chapter for a full sized book. Shorter even than most short stories but packed with atmosphere and imagery from the start. It’s a rare piece of work for a number of reasons. The first being that it is a story with no dialogue that still generates and shows emotion. (Did you hear that, Peter Newman? A mute character that I actually cared about in 5 pages!) The second being that it is a melancholy story without being a depressing one. It weaves this softly poetic narrative detailing the failing last days of dragon’s life as it reminisces about it’s life – and, yes, it is a flesh eating monster that ate maidens and burned villages but there is a sadness to its state brought deftly into being by the word play. A feeling that however monstrous the world would be poorer without this fantastic creature in it.
What really got to me with this story is the very human element of the dragon’s fear and sadness. How it looks back upon it’s life and sees the awesome thing it once was compared to what it has become like a once great fighter who’s body and glory has faded with age and illness. A feeling that I know personally as I have watched illness and injury and tragedy break me down over the last several years of my life. There is one passage in particular that stood out to me – one that resonates – and it is “He lay quietly. He closed his eyes. They burned as if fire was still in him, but it was not. Soon the rain would give way to snow. And he would lie here in the raw and tortured coffin of his body. He thought this winter might finish his life, for now his life was only like a thread.”
That bittersweet melancholy is a set up for the passage that follows that turns sadness to beauty but I will not share that here. Read the story yourself for that. Beauty in sadness describes this story but it is oddly inspirational as well. If only to me. Much like the dragon I have looked back on my life and seen when I had the fire and the power but unlike the dragon I still have fire in me. I just need to learn how to breathe it again.
That is a lot of emotion for five meager pages to evoke and that is what makes this story great. Short, oh so bittersweet. and brilliant from word one. Find it, read it, and let me know what you think of it.
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