Thursday, January 20, 2011

Influences: Dragons (1979)

Figure 1. Cover of Dragons
by Stephen Cartwright
(from Rawson, 1979).


One of the themes at the start of this blog was that of critical reflection (Wright, 2011), of stirring up nostalgia for the past to search for patterns that explain the present and allow for better planning in the future. Essentially, it is using reflection as a tool in a quest for influences. In his blog Grognardia for example, James Maliszewski (n.d.) does regular retrospectives on both classic pulp literature and early gaming products to examine the history and traditions of the roleplaying hobby.

In my case, the sorting of historical debris goes back even earlier, though from a personal perspective rather than a chronological one. Basically, one of my interests is children’s literature, and in particular, those strange, fantastic and plain weird books that rendered my brain pliant for an easy takeover when things like roleplaying games, adventure gamebooks, and computer RPGs came a-calling. Not that these musings will be restricted to old children’s books by any means – there are plenty of interesting stories and tales out there for kids these days, and my daughter certainly has more cool books than she knows what to do with. I’m not going to go into it in too much depth (unlike Hunt (2005), which I thoroughly recommend as a good read), at this stage, but rather present it as a window of temporary escapism, a nod to something in my life that may have had some bearing on where I now find myself. For, in considering fantasy, which after all is part of the title of this blog, Hunt (2005), paraphrasing from G. K. Chesterton’s essay ‘The Dragon’s Grandmother’ says:

Fantasy reminds us that the soul is sane but the universe is wild and full of marvels. (p. 172)

Dragons (1979), by Christopher Rawson and illustrated by Stephen Cartwright, was published by Usborne as one of the first in their Traditional Tales series of children’s story books. I’m pretty sure I got this for Christmas in either 1979 or 1980, meaning I was around 6 or 7 years old at the time, and it forms one of my earliest memories of an influential book from my childhood. The wonderfully colourful cover by Stephen Cartwright (1947-2004) depicts a host of classic fantasy images for kids’ consumption (see Figure 1): a dragon, breathing out billowing clouds of poisonous purple smoke, fighting a bunch of armoured warriors in a clearing in a dark forest. In the background we see a mysterious castle, and the airborne arrival of another dragon as a reinforcement, while in the foreground one warrior is struggling to carry off a chest full of golden treasure, while one of Cartwright’s trademark cuddly animals (in this case a rabbit (Roxbee Cox, 2004)), bounds away from the carnage in the lower left corner.

Inside, there are four stories (The Cock and the Dragon, Victor of Lucerne, The Lampton Worm, and Stan Bolovan and the Dragon), three panel compilations (Long Ago, Beware of Dragons, and Famous Dragon Slayers), and a maze game (Who kills the Dragon?). Rather than present everything as an exhaustive survey on the book however, I’ve decided to draw out six key elements that I consider as telltale markers of potential future RPG proclivities. In no particular order:

 
Figure 2. Anatomy of a Dragon by Stephen Cartwright (from Rawson, 1979).

 1. Monsters. Well, in a book about dragons, it’s got be dragons, right? Figure 2 shows a classic encounter between the soldiers of a local lord defending their keep and hamlet from a rapacious green dragon breathing puffs of poisonous gas. Interestingly, for a book on dragons, there are no fire-breathers here. We do get one lightning shooter, and three gas or smoke snorters, but no flame blowers. This might be because depicting the burned and charred remains of dragonbreath victims may be a little strong for children’s sensibilities. Strange, therefore, that our next element should be…




Figure 3. Young Lampton slays the Lampton Worm
 by Stephen Cartwright (from Rawson, 1979).
 2. Extreme Violence. Figure 3 shows the son of Lord Lampton hacking off the head of the Lampton Worm while standing on a rock in the middle of the River Wear. All I can say is, what an awesome image for a kid’s book! Bonus points for the armour, the purple blood-stained sword, and the emotion apparent in the eyes of both Lampton and the unfortunate worm. When I first started playing D&D back in either 1984 or 1985, one of the first things I did was try and develop rules for young Lampton’s set of armour. From my Australian perspective it was like Ned Kelly, in the form of the helmet, meets the Volkswagen Beetle from The Cars That Ate Paris, in the form of the spikes.


Figure 4. Long ago in a far-away land...
By Stephen Cartwright (from Rawson, 1979).


3. Distant Lands. Speaking of remote places such as Australia, the opening panel of the book (see Figure 4), gives us a nice introduction on dragons as denizens of far-away lands. I particular like the Western-style dragon and travellers contrasted with the very Oriental hall and pagoda in the upper right corner.

Figure 5. Treasure guardian.
By Stephen Cartwright
 (from Rawson, 1979).

4. Treasure. The treasure hoards of dragons are a recurring image in the book. Figure 5 sets the premise up nicely I feel, even if the potential thief in the red shirt looks woefully under-prepared for filching any trinkets from the rather angry guardian dragon in the cave.

Figure 6. Enter the wizard.
By Stephen Cartwright
(from Rawson, 1979).


5. Wizards. Sorcerous spellcasters would actually turn up in far more influential form in future volumes in the Traditional Tales series, such as Witches and Wizards (which I will cover in later posts). For now, we just have this chance meeting depicted in Figure 6, between Stan Bolovan the woodcutter, and a mysterious wizard who appears to be practicing as a wandering dispenser of instantaneous fertility treatments.


Figure 7. The first dungeon-crawl. By Stephen Cartwright (from Rawson, 1979).

6. Dungeons. Well, it’s more like a privet hedge-maze with a cave in its centre, but there’s no denying the fact that Figure 7 is essentially my first ever dungeon-crawl, as evidenced by the black pen scrawl I’ve left upon the pages. At least I didn’t tell you outright which one of our hirsute heroes will succeed in slaying Ug the Dragon and winning the hand in marriage of King Zoz’s comely daughter. Try it out for yourself!

While older versions of Dragons such as mine, can be purchased from eBay, a newer version entitled Stories of Dragons (2007) is currently available from Amazon. I’m unsure however as to whether the beheading of the Lampton Worm made the final cut. :-)

References

Hunt, P. (2005). Alternative worlds in fantasy fiction – revisited. New Review of Children’s Literature and Librarianship, 11(2), 163-174.

Maliszewski, J. (n.d.). About Me. Accessed from http://grognardia.blogspot.com/p/about-me.html

Rawson, C. (1979). Dragons. London: Usborne Publishing.

Roxbee Cox, P. (2004, February 21). Obituary: Steven Cartwright. Accessed from http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2004/feb/21/guardianobituaries.booksobituaries

Wright, A. (2011, January 1). Why Blog? Message posted to http://fantasygamebook.blogspot.com/2011/01/why-blog.html

4 comments:

  1. That looks like a tremendous book. I wish I'd had one when I was young.

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  2. It's way cool! As and when I get time, I'll post up about the other 5 in the series as well.

    cheers

    Andy

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  3. This book was a real favourite of mine when I was a child. I loved everything about it.

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  4. It was a fantastic book, as you've said, a very iconic introduction to dragons and I devoured the others in the series. One of my childhood (and still) favourites. Stephen Cartwright was a genius.

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