Thursday, March 10, 2011

Dragontales: “Dragon’s Fosterling”

The second story in the Dragontales anthology is “Dragon’s Fosterling” by Ruby S.W. Jung and illustrated by a “M. Kay” according to the signature on the accompanying pieces. Moving away from the genre of game fiction, “Dragon’s Fosterling” is more in the vein of the faerie tale or chivalric romances, but it takes its own path once the story gets going. Starting with the commonplace scenario of a young maiden being abducted by a dragon, the tale treads less stereotypical ground before too long.

Ms. Jung, like John L. Jenkins before her, seems to have been an amateur writer as a web search for additional work under that name was inconclusive. And unlike Jenkins, it is impossible to speculate whether she was (or is) a gamer based on her single credited story. Whereas the game influences are prevalent throughout “The Wizards Are Dying,” “Dragon’s Fosterling” owes a greater debt to the women empowerment movements of the late sixties and early seventies.

“Dragon’s Fosterling” is the story of Asgara, the daughter of a duke who finds herself abducted by a dragon and carried back to his valley lair. The dragon grows tired of rolling about in his treasure horde and occasionally kidnaps maidens so that young knights will come to rescue them and provide him with a bit of diversion. The 184 swords & shields that adorn his cave and vale attest that these brave souls are never successful in their quests.

Asgara finds herself a coddled prisoner, unable to leave the dragon’s vale but given full access to the wonders of the wyrm’s cave—including its library of esoteric lore. In time, Asgara grows to womanhood, still imprisoned by her scaly captor as knight after knight falls beneath the dragon’s claws. Eventually, she decides to do something about her situation…

In my youth, “Dragon’s Fosterling” was not one of my favorite tales in the anthology. Too young to see what Jung was doing with the format and too male to identify with the girlish antagonist, the story rated low amongst the book’s ten tales. But, as I mentioned at the start of this series, one of the joys about returning to Dragontales as an adult was to find that certain stories were far better than I remembered them. “Dragon’s Fosterling” is one of those.

Having spent my undergraduate years in pursuit of an English degree and taking far too many interpretation and criticism courses, I now enjoy this story for its depth and complexity—something that “The Wizards Are Dying” lacked. Jung’s tales drips with so much subtext that it’s difficult to see what she intended the story to be interpreted as.

On one hand, it can be read as a “Fractured Fairy Tale,” a story that takes the expected scenario of “dragon abducts maiden and knight comes to the rescue” and turns it on its ear, which is in itself an enjoyable read. Scratch the surface and look a little deeper and you’ll see other possible interpretations lurking below the veneer.

In light of it publication year (1980), one would be hard-pressed to completely dismiss the influence that the women’s rights movements of the previous decades had upon the story. In this tale, Asgara is no pale maiden desperately pining away for her knight in shining armor. She quickly becomes disillusioned with traditional gender roles and sets about freeing herself from captivity. By tale's end she has not only become a hero in her own right, but also come to terms with and embraced her sexuality. This is pretty heady stuff for a story appearing in a TSR publication, even one under the Dragon Publishing imprint.

But this is just one of a few possible interpretations; others remain to be explored. The dragon—he is given no name, demonstrating that when there is only one dragon in the neighborhood, names are unnecessary—is older and wiser than Asgara, and although kind to her, he demonstrates a streak of cruelty in dealing with her would-be rescuers/suitors. It’s not hard to see the dragon as a father figure, making this tale one of a young girl and her Electra complex. It could also be interpreted as a cautionary tale to young women about the dangers of becoming involved with an older man—although they have great wealth and treat you with kindness, this comes at the cost of one’s own freedom. All this complexity, even if it can be argued that this says more about me than the author, makes “Dragon’s Fosterling” one of the best tales in the book.

Jung has an admirable command of language in addition to her skill with story structure. There are several choice lines throughout the piece, including my favorite, “Her hair was black as treachery,” which given my fondness for dark-haired women, resonates on a much deeper level with me. Her early depictions of the relationship between Asgara and the dragon are also well written and they draw the reader into this strange relationship, which is necessary for the success of the story. I only wish that the illustrations was equal to the prose it accompanies. I'm not certain who “M. Kay” is, but his or her style, although competent, is not one I prefer.

Looking back on “Dragon’s Fosterling” from a role-playing design perspective, I see that this was likely the tale that introduced me to the concept that a dragon’s lair need not just be a cave in the earth containing a dragon and his wealth. The dragon in this tale has several amenities in his lair, both for the comfort of his occasional abducted guest and as testaments to his own prowess in battle. I’ve used these and other touches to personalize dragons’ dens over the years.

“Dragon’s Fosterling” is a good story, but not one that I would recommend to a young child. This is not solely for content reasons, although it does feature implied sex, adultery, and other mature themes. Rather, I would wait until he or, especially, she was old enough to enjoy the tale on its many different levels and revel in the subtle flavors it has to offer.

Magical Properties of Dragon Hearts
Some hoary tomes profess that he or she who eats of a dragon’s heart gains preternatural abilities. This statement is difficult to prove due to the difficulties of conducting field tests. Should the referee decide that the heart of a dragon grants magical powers to the eater, he or she may roll or choose on the table below to determine its effects. Only one person can benefit from the consumption of a dragon heart and that individual must either be the one whose blow killed the wyrm or who dealt the greatest amount of damage to the creature prior to death (referee’s choice). All granted abilities are permanent.

1) Eater gains the ability to understand the speech of one class of animal (mammal, reptile, avian, fish, etc.)
2) Eater gains 10% magic resistance.
3) Eater gains a +4 to all saves vs. breath attacks.
4) Eater can cast one magic-user spell of level 1-3 each day regardless of if they are a spell caster or not. If a magic-user, this spell does not count against their total daily allotment of spells.
5) Eater regenerates damage at the rate of 1 point per hour.
6) Eater can see invisible creatures and objects.
7) Eater can breathe fire for 2d6 damage up to 20’ away once per day.
8) Eater can fly for 1 hour each day.
9) Eater can breathe underwater for 1 hour each day.
10) Eater gains a natural -1 bonus to his or her AC.
11) Eater gains 1 point in each ability.
12) Eater transforms into a dragon and becomes an NPC.

1 comment:

KenHR said...

I love stuff like this. I'm going to incorporate this into my next AD&D game. Thanks!