I’ve mentioned Gordon R Dickson previously and have been meaning to write up something about him. I came to one of his most popular works, the Dragon and the George, through the Rankin and Bass animation as a kid. I’ve retained a soft spot for those old cartoons, watching them again every few years, and as an adult I’ve been more proactive about seeking out their source materials.
Though this is the only one of his stories I’ve read thus far, Dickson, like many of his contemporaries, didn’t confine his work to one genre. In this tale we’ve got somewhat genre-bending plot elements (some sort of pseudo-scientific astral projection casting characters into an alternate, fantasy version of earth), but Dickson’s other most well-known series, the Childe Cycle, has played a large and influential role in the military science fiction arena. That’s all I can really say about it for the moment, but it’s on my reading list.
I’ve lamented the fact that Dickson didn’t make it onto Appendix N or any of the other indices on the Grand List, which is why I include my own blue column. It’s difficult to generalize about an author without having read more than one entry from his body of work, but I feel good about my praise in this case. Dickson has been stylistically compared to Poul Anderson in some regards, and I can see why. Incidentally, Dickson and Anderson did some work together. I’d love to get my hands on some of that.
Dickson’s Dragon and the George, like some of Anderson’s work, especially Three Hearts and Three Lions, blends elements of Christianity and folklore, along with bits of the author’s own imaginings.
It always gladdens my heart to see references to Christianity and prayer in fantasy writing; probably primarily because I’m a Christian, but also because paganism becomes tiresome after a time. Sure, tales of Odin and Ares and Crom and a thousand nameless gods can be fun and mystifying. Pantheons have their place. But these days that’s all fantasy has become – small “g” gods, demons, and grab bags of assorted stock D&D creatures, like dwarves, elves, goblins, and trolls. There’s obvious a large market for it, but it’s not the only way or even necessarily the best way to craft. That’s one big tragedy of the infamous Generation Gap.
Another similarity between Dickson’s story and some of Anderson’s work is the theme of supernaturally-driven factions at play against one another. Whereas Anderson portrays this struggle as a war between Law and Chaos, Dickson’s Dragon Knight series pits the forces of History (order) and Chance (chaos) against once another. As the two writers were collaborators and friends, and Dickson’s basis for the series, “St. Dragon and the George,” was published before Three Hearts and Three Lions, I wonder if the pair didn’t share ideas and influence one another here.
Where Anderson made his mark on nerdom with his characterization of trolls and treatment of the Paladin (among other areas, I’m sure), Dickson also employed some interesting and perhaps unique creations and spins on traditional fantastic creatures. Dickson’s dragons were not cold, unintelligent, evil reptiles, nor were they invincible, cunning, Smog-like monsters. While they were indeed avaricious treasure-hoarders, they were not uniformly bad. While Gorbash and Smrgol were somewhat forward-thinking, they were basically conservative and self-interested. Still, Dickson took dragons in a somewhat superversive, idealistic direction through Smrgol. In a late conversation with our fighting man, Sir Brian Neville Smythe, Smrgol proposed the idea of dragons and “georges” becoming friends:
Also interestingly, while dragons were forces to be reckoned with, they were hard-pressed to contend with fully arrayed knights. Dragons had learned to respect, if not fear, a “george in his shell, with his horn.”
Dickson also had his own take on the monstrous ogre. Deadly foes, the grand elder Smrgol was the only dragon (before Jim in Gorbash’s body) ever to have defeated one. Thus he was able to advise the protagonist on the creature’s strengths and weaknesses.
Although they didn’t seem to gain widespread fame or popularity (if only they’d been picked up by a popular pen and paper game!), Dickson also created his own creatures. One of the high points of the related film (for me) and a constant threat throughout the book was the menace of the sandmirks – horrid, murine little monsters that would swarm and drive their victims insane before converging and devouring them.
Dickson also created a memorable and vicious foil to the sandmirks in the character of Aragh, the English Wolf. Intelligent animals can make for some interesting characters when done right.
One of the elements I appreciated most about the Dragon and the George was the balance of Dickson’s writing. Not every writer can pull off lighthearted jokes about a confused knight being envious of having a social security number and then transition to exciting battle scenes and tragic deaths that evoke the feelz.
As I read these older stories, I sit on the sidelines and scratch my head over the whole Appendix N War (perpetuated by trollish snobs, in my opinion). When I stumbled upon Jeffro’s survey of the body, and Cirsova’s scattered writings on the subject, I took it for what I think it’s meant to be – a study of one source list of the roots of modern SFF. For some people there’s a gaming aspect to it; after all, the list is literally pulled out of D&D. That’s great – take inspiration from wherever you can get it. Look at the Bible – one of the oldest and most classic collections of literature we’ve got. Countless stories, turns of phrase, and cultural references draw from the Good Book, and yet how often do we hear criticism of Bible study? “I’ve already read the New Testament, why revisit that?”
For my part, I’ve already mentioned the Generation Gap several times, and I’ve also reiterated that “old is new again.” For many readers, this is untread ground. I mean, there are a lot of us born in the 80’s and later who grew up with bookshelves full of the much-maligned “80’s and later” stuff. So what’s wrong with taking a look at, as Jeffro calls it, a time capsule of SFF from a few decades ago?
As Jon M and others have pointed out, Appendix N is a great resource for new writers interested in bringing back pulp.
For my part, Appendix N was a starting point, as I think it has been for many of these guys. It’s not a sacred, unalterable syllabus. Rather it’s a map, an atlas. Not everything contained will be to everyone’s liking, and there’s plenty of great stuff that didn’t make the list (coming back to Dickson). Appendix N is enough to last an avid reader for a while. And when you’re done, there are other paths. App N is an excellent doorway to a lot of this other stuff.
Just my two cents, and I have trouble seeing why respect for or interest in antiquity pisses some people off so much. Read what you like and let others do the same, for crying out loud.