2/23/13: Dealing With Dragons

[REREAD] DEALING WITH DRAGONS by Patricia C. Wrede: 212/212

I got all of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles for my thirteenth birthday. I was pretty into them then and I am pretty into them now. Basically, Dealing With Dragons is about a Princess Cimorene who (like many fictional princesses of the 80s and 90s) hates following all the princess rules and doing boring needlework. When her parents get her engaged to a completely insipid prince, she runs off and becomes, deliberately, the “kidnapped” princess of a dragon called Kazul (who is excellent). She makes a lot of Cherries Jubilee, makes friends with a hapless princess belonging to a dragon nearby, and other friends with a cat-loving witch named Morwen. Then they defeat some evil wizards and crown the best dragon king ever.

Gender: a good thing in this book. First of all, the five protagonists are: two princesses, a female dragon, a witch, and a prince. All of them are sensible, interesting, intelligent, and they like each other. They pass the book-Bechdel test with flying colors.

Second, a little more tricky, Wrede pushes against stereotype without condemning femininity. Cimorene does want to escape mundane “feminine” restrictions, but she doesn’t do so by becoming a WARRIOR WOMAN, which is frequently what happens. She keeps house for a dragon, cooks, cleans, organizes the treasury and the library. She also receives respect from her employer, displays gumption and wit in completing a tricky fireproofing spell for herself and Alianora, and in uncovering the wizards’ evil plot and saving the dragon throne from a total creep. The balance of enforced femininity bad/chosen femininity okay isn’t perfect—the cooking and the Latin-reading could be read as feminine enough, except that Wrede explicitly categorizes them as men’s learning. The conceit of the book is that Cimorene lives in a stereotypical fairy-tale world, so some of that is warranted by the narrative—also, while most of the princesses who appear are the stereotypical sort, the objection seems to be not that they’re behaving like women, but that they and their culture blindly follow rules about what that is.

Another gender note: dragon kings are of any gender. Dragon queen is a separate role. Also: young dragons are genderless, until they are “old enough to choose” what gender they’d like to be. OPTIONAL DRAGON GENDER, OKAY? AWESOME. I wonder if they can stay neuter? I would fanfiction yes.

RACE: The only issue I take with this book is that it’s extremely white. Like, really really white. Like in order to fill out the stereotypes, all the princesses but Cimorene are pale and blonde, and the only non-white humanoid in the book is a Djinn. Who tries to kill them, before Cimorene’s excellent reasoning tames him. It’s a perfectly clever move in the book but it’s not great representation. And this wouldn’t necessarily bother me to the point of bringing it up, except that it’s not Wrede’s only choice-for-the-narrative, regarding race, that I disagree with. In her wild west AU series, Frontier Magic, Wrede chose to avoid misrepresenting indigenous people by NOT HAVING ANY. There was a major Black character, but that doesn’t quite deal with the fact that a massive fertile landscape was left completely (unrealistically) empty of human existence until mostly white settlers arrived. It’s not hard to understand why she has gotten criticism for erasure in that series, when the books literally erase all indigenous culture buuuuut leave the settlers intact.

Writing non-white characters is frightening for white writers because we are afraid of getting it wrong and being offensive instead of being good allies. But honestly, I think there are two choices when you come up against that concern: you need to abandon your project for something you feel you can tackle without erasing or otherwise harming a minority, or you need to do more research. Probably research is the only right choice, if you’re determined to write books anyone else will see. Will that be hard? Will your book take longer to write? Will you still offend someone? YES to all of the above. Try anyway.

ETA: For some reason my copy has bite marks in it? My bite marks.

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