Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Dragonlance Chronicles: Twenty Years Later

And I went down my old neighborhood
The faces have all changed there's no one left to talk to
And the pool hall I loved as a kid
Is now a 7-11

- Social Distortion, “Story of My Life”
Over the weekend, I completed reading The Annotated Chronicles, the omnibus that compiles the original Dragonlance trilogy of Dragons of Autumn Twilight, Dragons of Winter Night, and Dragons of Spring Dawning, along with commentary by Tracy Hickman, Margret Weis, Jeff Grubb, Michael Williams, and others, into a single, massive tome. I haven’t been hobbled by such a bulky book since I read Stephen King’s It. It took several weeks to navigate my way from cover to cover, but that Herculean task is now complete, leaving me free to reflect upon a trilogy that I last read some twenty years ago.

It would be easy to dismiss the trilogy with a wave of the hand and say, “It doesn’t hold up well.” I certainly wouldn’t be the first to do so. But after finishing the book(s) and weighing my opinions, I came to the conclusion that the text itself was not the source of my disappointment. After all, the book itself hasn’t changed. I have.

As Peter Graham once observed, “The Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve.” One can surmise that the Golden Age of Fantasy is also located around that age. Although, like many of my age group, my initial exposure to modern fantasy (as opposed to fairy tales and Arthurian legends) was with Tolkien by way of The Hobbit and the Rankin/Bass TV movie, the Dragonlance trilogy was my first exposure to mass market fantasy.

My acquaintance with the series came in a round-about manner. I first played through the module DL2 – Dragons of Flame with a childhood friend’s older brother as DM. I later picked up that module on my own and became aware of the novels that went along with the adventures. A lucky find at my neighborhood bookstore (one of those lost kinds that existed in an actual storefront and had a cat lazily basking in the sun from atop the counter) put the third book of the trilogy in my hands. I’m not quite sure that I eventually worked my way through the series in reverse order, but it is entirely possible. This would have been in 1985, the year I was thirteen.

Given the tumultuous time that adolescence is, it’s no surprise that the original trilogy spoke to me on a primordial level. The books had that superb young adult fiction mix of violence, humor, nobility, sex, tragedy, and troubled heroes that tells every boy or girl on the cusp of adulthood that these books were written especially for them. The titles and heroes of these potent brews might change from generation to generation, but the language this type of fiction speaks in the ear of the adolescent is a powerful one.

Alas, I’m no longer thirteen.

Rereading those tales, I was still able to see the parts that stirred my imagination, my emotions, and some new, unfamiliar urges as a youth, but the magic of the books has faded greatly. Perhaps familiarity with the books is partially to blame, but I suspect that the real culprit is simply time, experience, and the grind of adulthood. One can never go home again, no matter how hard we wish we could. We might catch brief glimpses of our golden years of youth, but these are always seen as a laughing shade that soon darts around a dingy street corner. I expect that the books still contain the words of power in the eyes of an adolescent, but it is up to each generation to choose their fantasy heroes, and I am not certain that the Dragonlance series will ever assume a place amongst those timeless fantasy series that are constantly rediscovered by young adults.

So despite a bittersweet reunion with my youth, what else did The Annotated Chronicles have to offer? Unfortunately, not nearly as much as I had hoped for.

I suspect that the powers that produce annotated books and arrange commentary on movies have very different expectations about what the audience if looking for than I do. I have yet to find one that satiates me. When annotations and commentary are being assembled, I believe the common school of thought must be to allow the original material room to shine through and be enjoyed on its own merits. That’s a lousy school of thought in my opinion. I already know the original material. The reason I’m listening to the commentary or reading the annotated version is because I want to know everything that led to the original material. Give me every bit of trivia, anecdote, backstage drama, allusion, homage, etc. et al that you can think of. Drown out the original material and feed my hunger!

The Annotated Chronicles starts out well. The first book is heavily annotated with recollections from Hickman and Weis (Hickman gets primary credit here since he contributes the most to the annotated omnibus) about the design of the Dragonlance project, the writing of the novels, bits and pieces about D&D for the unacquainted, and other entertaining trivia. Some of it I’ve heard before (Terry Phillips’ rendition of Raistlin during playtesting basically created the character we now know); others are completely new (TSR’s lawyers, worried about diluting the strength of the trademark “Dragonlance”, originally insisted that the eponymous weapon be referred to as the “a dragonlance lance”). As the omnibus progresses, however, we get less annotation and the ones that appear are less entertaining and/or enlightening and more of the “Estwilde is the flat area south of Kalaman” variety. A shame, really, as I had high hopes that the series my finally meet my expectations for behind the scenes information.

Most telling about my return to the land of Krynn was how much my own definition of fantasy has changed over the years. The world of Dragonlance is so far removed from what I consider to be my default concept of a fantasy world, especially one for D&D, that it’s almost as if we are speaking different languages. Even in my youth, Krynn seemed to be composed of small detailed areas separated by vast gulfs of nebulous land. If there wasn’t a story or module that took place there, it was difficult to gauge what Krynn was like. I suspect that its “design by committee” origin has something to do with Krynn’s vagueness.

I know what was being attempted with kender, gully dwarves, tinker gnomes, draconians, etc. And while I applaud the efforts to turn what had become staid aspects of the game into something fresh and exciting, the designs chosen in no way reflect what I might have done with similar material and intent. My tastes run in contrary directions. The same goes for dragonback aerial combat: neat, but not for me.

Lest you think I came here today to completely tear my childhood to shreds, I can still look upon parts of the trilogy with fondness. Raistlin Majere, the original TSR anti-hero, retains much of his power to affect the disaffected youth, and although I find the relationship between he and his twin to be a little more ham-handedly written than I did twenty years ago, black-robed Raistlin and his Tower of High Sorcery will remain one of the better “oohhhh, eeevviiillll…” characters to come out of TSR’s book lines.

In a related vein, can you believe I also forgot about death knights somewhere down the line? Not just Lord Soth, but all death knights? They completely dropped off my creative radar at one point and I wasn’t reminded of their existence in the D&D multiverse until I reread the Chronicles. I think my players are about to rue the day I decided to revisit my youth.

On the side of good, I found myself warming much more to the character of Sturm than I did during my youth. Having reached adulthood and gained a greater sense of how rare nobility and self-sacrifice is in our day and age, Sturm comes across as being a much more faceted character than I remembered.

The doomed relationships in the trilogy, those of Sturm and Alhana Starbreeze and Gilthanas and Silvara, had more resonance this time around as well. Again, this is perhaps due to a more experienced worldview on my part. Whatever the reason, the two relationships mentioned above, although they are minor ones compared to much more prominent love triangle of Laurana-Tanis-Kitiara, possessed a greater gravitas for me. Maybe I’m just a sucker for a tragic ending…

Looking back, I’m torn on whether I should have revisited the original trilogy. There’s a reason we have a past: it’s the place we keep all the things we either no longer want in our lives or store the glories we don’t want tarnished by age. But an unexamined life is not worth living, so mayhap brushing the dust off of the treasures of our youth is necessary to move forward with our lives. We each aspire to be the Master of Past and Present, after all.

I possess, but have yet to read, a copy of The Annotated Legends. I feel as if I should revisit that series as well, for I remember it being superior to the original Chronicles, largely because of the reduced cast size and an emphasis on the more complex characters. I remain hopeful that its annotations may finally meet my criteria as well. More time must pass, however, before I return to the wondrous lands of adolescence and again tread those sunlit paths. Too much nostalgia is no good for us aging dreamers.


scottsz said...

'Too much nostalgia is bad for us aging dreamers.'

I only bought one Dragonlance module back in the day and never really got into the books, but that closing statement should be a bronze plaque that I should hang over my desk...

I know it's bad to look back... but there are still answers there...

NakiaPope said...

Thanks for this post, as it accurately captures the same things I felt when I reread Chronicles a fe years ago. My rereading of Legends didn't fare much better, though I would agree it's the better of the two series.

You post also made me realize something -- that I'm grateful that Weis, Hickman, and other powers that be didn't do to Raistlin what was done to Drizzit -- make him the star of 18 books and, thus, doom him to ridicule.

Baron Greystone said...

I just re-read both Chronicles and Legends. As for Chronicles, it may have been as much as twenty years since my last read-through.

Of course, they don't quite live up to my recollections. But IMO they are surprisingly good, for TSR publications. There was plenty that I had forgotten, and it was fun to actually NOT know exactly what was to come.

I found that I could appreciate ALL of the characters more than I had. And I'd forgotten how long




some of the characters stayed around for.

I have the Annotated Chronicles, but haven't read through that edition. Give me another twenty years, and I'll get to it...

Cushionsnbeans said...

Beautiful - for so many reasons
Thank you

Kilsern said...

Excellent post. Really well done. I haven't re-read the Dragonlance books, but now I almost want to.

I am reading through Appendix N from the 1st ed. AD&D DMG. I have always been mostly a science fiction geeks, so many of those titles, I'm reading for the first time. I'm looking forward to re-reading some of the books on that list that I have not read in 20 some odd years.

Mondbuchstaben said...

I don't want to reread the novels. I didn't like them the first time around, and I only finished them because I was DMing the campaign and had hoped for more insights into the setting.

I am still grateful that neither the modules nor the novels made me railroad the players along the same plot.

Legends, I liked better, but even that I don't want to reread.