Dragonsong: The Same, Yet Different

When we last left Menolly, she had discovered a clutch of fire-lizard eggs and used the power of SCIENCE! to assist the gold queen of the lizards in saving the eggs from an onrushing tide. In doing so, Menolly also discovered that her injured hand might yet be able to return to full strength.

Dragonsong: Chapter 5: Content Notes: Family toxicity

Chapter Five opens with our budding scientist thinking over more questions with regard to her encounter – can fire-lizards understand humans? If so, how, because dragons are, to the best of her knowledge, a one-to-one correspondence decided on at Hatching. What would a fire-lizard Hatching look like? And so forth. We have the benefit of previous knowledge through previous books, but someone coming to this series for the first time through these volumes is receiving an excellent set of questions to keep an eye out for. When not actively trying to hurt characters, the narrative and writing show skill at weaving a plot.

Alas, Menolly cannot immediately go to gather more data – storms keep everyone inside, and so there is cleaning to be done, glow baskets to be checked, and more. That evening, Menolly has to face Elgion playing music.

She had to hear music sometime. She couldn’t avoid it forever. And at least she could sing along with the others. But she soon found she couldn’t even have that pleasure. Mavi beckoned to her when the Harper began to tune his gitar. And when the Harper beckoned for everyone to join in the choruses, Mavi pinched Menolly so hard she gasped.
“Don’t roar. You may sing softly as befits a girl your age,” Mavi said. “Or don’t sing at all.”
Across the Hall, Sella was singing, not at all accurately and loud enough to be heard in Benden Hold; but when Menolly opened her mouth to protest, she got another pinch.
So she didn’t sing at all but sat there by her mother’s side, numb and hurt, not even able to enjoy the music and very conscious that her mother was being monstrously unfair.
Then Menolly saw her father watching her, his face stem, one hand tapping not so much to the time of the music but to some inner agitation. It was her father who didn’t want her to sing! It wasn’t fair! It just wasn’t fair! Obviously they knew and were glad she can’t come before. They didn’t want her here.

I think this is supposed to read as a teenage temper tantrum, the kind that are ridiculously out of proportion and the fodder for teen dramas and comedies alike. If Menolly were anything other than one-hundred percent accurate in her assessment, then it might be possible to read it as teenage exaggeration. Yanus, and thus, Mavi, are still very invested in making sure the Harper gets zero clue that Menolly had musical talent, lest the Harper encourage it more and Menolly continue to have ideas that women can do things traditionally reserved to men. It’s not fair at all.

Having been told she cannot enjoy herself, Menolly leaves the Hall over her mother’s hissed protests, and arises the next morning before everyone else to go visit the fire-lizards, who are at least an attentive audience. The Hold’s main doors nearly scuttle her plans before they can get underway, but Menolly is a strong girl and is able to open them enough to leave the Hold. Which leaves the doors closed but unlocked, but Menolly doesn’t care about such things. Or understand why they have to be locked and the room glows extinguished, for that matter. Menolly forages for some food, and ruminates on how nobody will miss her until they have some menial task for her, or until the evening, when they expect her to return.

Which leads to the realization that Menolly doesn’t intend to return to the Hold and the misery it contains. The free life is much more appealing. Practicality kicks in soon afterward – food is probably covered by foraging, but she needs somewhere to sleep at night, and somewhere she can take shelter from both the elements and Threadfall. As she approaches the fire-lizard caverns, her danger sense kicks into overdrive. It’s too quiet. Looking over her shoulder, she sees why – Threadfall is inbound. Add Menolly casts about in panic, trying to find a suitable shelter against the deadly rain, she hears a thrummimg sound coming from the ground underneath. Menolly correctly deduces the cavern is hollow, and makes for the ledge where she had widened an entry to see if she can get herself protected. The original hole only covers her head and shoulders – so she tries to widen it more, but strikes rock far too soon for that plan to work.

And then, inspiration strikes.

She could only get herself into the shelter up to her shoulders. No matter how she turned and twisted, the was an outcropping that she could not pass. Once again she wished she were as small as a girl ought to be. Sella would have had no trouble crawling through that hole.

How long did she have before Thread would be raining down on her unprotected body?
Body? She might not get past the bobble in the wall with her shoulders…but…She reversed her position, and feet, legs, hips, all right up to the shoulders passed into the safety of solid rock. Her head was covered, but only just, by the cliff overhang.

Perfect pitch, size, strength, and brains! Menolly has all the potential to be completely awesome at whatever she does, assuming she can escape that toxic environment. And assuming the institutional sexism of her chosen profession doesn’t prevent her from getting a foothold. Because, it appears, only Fandarel is openly pursuing equality – in the name of efficiency, of course.

Menolly notices she didn’t bring her sack of food in with her, so after a little fighting with it, she retrieves the sack – and the force of the retrieval sends her deeper into the cave system as the ledge she was hiding out on gives way. (It also apparently removes whatever obstacle was obstructing her head and shoulders earlier.) Menolly realizes that she’s in the middle of the Hatching Ground right as the eggs hatch. The first few fire-lizards head out, only to have Threadfall meet them at the entrance to the cave. Menolly tries to stop the fire-lizards from exiting, but they attack her and get around her when she had to defend herself. Menolly pleads with the older fire-lizards to stop the younger ones.

The thrill of being the witness to a Hatching of fire lizards gave way to horror. Dragons had to be protected because they protected Pern. In Menolly’s fear and confusion, the little fire lizards were linked to their giant counterparts.
She was overwhelmed with pangs of hunger, belly-knotting, gut-twisting hunger. It took her only a moment to realize that the driving force in these fire lizards was that sort of hunger: that was what was sending them senselessly forth. They had to eat. She remembered that dragons had to eat, too, when they first Hatched, fed by the boys they Impressed.

This is nicely done – those with previous knowledge of the relationship between fire lizards and dragons know this is correct – but for someone coming new to this series, this is a great subtle hint of that relationship, if we are to believe that Menolly is not confused, but correct. Based on the characterization shown thus far, we should be willing to believe Menolly’s hypothesis about this relationship.

Also, Menolly demonstrates the power of SCIENCE! again. Even if the initial thought of hunger being the motivating force is an intuitive leap based on dragon information, the experimentation that follows is good science. Menolly snags a fire-lizard in one hand and a shellfish in the other. The fire-lizard kills the shellfish and heads to a corner to feast. Repeat experiment, same result. Realizing she can’t catch them all for hand-feeding, Menolly dumps out her shellfish catch on the ground of the cavern, and the fire lizards go to town on the food. It’s not enough to satisfy them, but it does delay them long enough so that the Thread has passed by the time they are finished. With the danger gone, the new clutch and the old grouping go off to find more food, and, after eating the one bit of food not sacrificed to the fire-lizards, Menolly goes to sleep in the cavern, exhausted. That closes out Chapter 5, and I’d like to think Menolly dreams of a serpent eating its tail.

Menolly demonstrates the same perception and empathy that Jaxom did in Dragonquest. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the most empathetic and well fleshed-out characters in the stories are children. They don’t have dragons or political power or other things interfering with their ability to understand the fairness of the situation, and they are unconstrained and able to act on those feelings, which gives them the advantage of getting to see how things turn out without too much influence from politics or other adults skewing the results.


19 thoughts on “Dragonsong: The Same, Yet Different

  1. Firedrake November 27, 2014 at 10:55 am

    My reading of this first time round was “just like you, dear reader” – Menolly has something that looks like a teenage tantrum, but it’s justified, which means that maybe the reader’s tantrums could be justified too. (In 1976 there wasn’t really much of a “YA” marketing category, but I think this would have been aimed at it if it had existed.)

  2. depizan November 27, 2014 at 1:09 pm

    I actually like this middle bit of the book with Menolly being smart and resourceful and figuring things out on her own. It makes me feel like there could have been a much better story here.

    But there are still some really weird things that don’t quite make sense with the rest of the book. What’s true on Pern? Hell if I know, but don’t rely on the books to tell you.

    “Across the Hall, Sella was singing, not at all accurately and loud enough to be heard in Benden Hold”

    Even if we assume that the narration is being colored by an exaggerating Menolly, unless we’re flat out being lied to here, Sella’s signing voice can – at a minimum – be picked out. Why is this okay? Again, music is one of their main forms of entertainment. I cannot believe that a wife who sings badly would be preferred to one who sings well. Why is Menolly abused for traits that should make her more marriageable than Sella?

    and Menolly continue to have ideas that women can do things traditionally reserved to men.

    But she doesn’t, not really. All she wanted was to be able to play and sing and make up her own music. It is not at all clear to me that any of those things are reserved to men, except in Yanus’s twisted mind. When there is a Harper, everyone sings, as we’re seeing here. I have no reason to believe that in some Holds, the Harper gets musical accompaniment from members of the Hold – and every reason to believe that that’s perfectly normal. Hell, even here, there are multiple instruments and we’ve been told that Harpers can teach people instruments – as Menolly was taught by Petiron. Why would they do that if only Harpers were allowed to make music?

    Which leaves the doors closed but unlocked, but Menolly doesn’t care about such things. Or understand why they have to be locked and the room glows extinguished, for that matter.

    This doesn’t make any sense either. These are, I think, anti-Thread measures. Since all of the teaching comes from the Harpers, she should know this. (If they aren’t anti-Thread measures, what are they? Anti-bandit measures? We’re given nothing to suggest that any such danger exists on Pern.)

    Though what difference do locks make to Thread?

    Now I just plain have a confused.

  3. Only Some Stardust November 27, 2014 at 2:37 pm

    Well, as someone who lives in a windy old house, sometimes locking the door is the best way to keep the door from blowing open.

  4. Pebblerocker November 28, 2014 at 2:57 am

    I do enjoy the parts with the firelizards! They are really lovely descriptions of fabulous alien wildlife. If only the dragons were as interesting!

  5. Michael I November 28, 2014 at 7:32 am

    It occurs to me that it would explain a lot if Petiron had a completely unmentioned ability to forsee the future. 🙂

    In the long run it probably works out better for Menolly (and even Pern) that Petiron didn’t do something obvious like tell the Masterharper the NAME of the talented musician but there’s a lot of pain and suffering before we get to that point. And there’s a good amount of sheer luck involved in things ending up reasonably well.

  6. Silver Adept November 28, 2014 at 10:56 am

    @ Firedrake – I think that’s right – it’s supposed to appeal to teens, and especially younger siblings, that their viewpoint character is completely right about how nor fair everything is.

    @ Michael I – there’s no reason why Petiron shouldn’t have, unless Yanus is right and the Harper Hall would have rejected Menolly out of hand for having a girl’s name. Except, I think there’s a bit that I skipped over (or didn’t dwell on much) about Yanus being very controlling, to the point where I thought it wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary for him to open and read/require dictation of any outgoing messages to make sure no unapproved content got out.

    @ Pebblerocker – they really are the best part of the planet and the stories so far.

    @ depizan –

    There totally is a better book here, but it’s not the one we get.

    I think there’s a hierarchy of unacceptable female behaviors, and, at least to Yanus, “aspirations to a station beyond you” is a worse offense than “cannot carry a tune in a bucket.” (since we’ve heard about the rough singing and lack of instrumental ability that the fisherfolk have) Which makes Sella annoying, but not needing discipline, because Sella’s singing is unlikely to bring “shame” to Yanus, while Menolly’s heterodoxy will. So Menolly gets abused for having ideas, not because she can sing and play well. (In the next book, the Mean Girl Squad are all women sent to the Harpers to learn to play and sing so as to improve their marriage prospects, so it’s not the singing and playing that’s the problem.)

    “Traditionally reserved tomen” was supposed to mean being a Harper, instead of making music. I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear enough. The thought process would be: Menolly encouraged to make music -> discovery of her immense talent and Elgion getting clued in to who Petiron’s mystery apprentice is -> Menolly whisked off to Harper Hall, to Yanus’s incredible shame that his daughter should want to do that and be independent instead of staying at home and being raised “properly” by her father.

    The doors being locked or barred is an anti-Thread measure, so that nothing outside gets inside and burrows. Which suggests that Threadfall is accompanied by some amount of wind, possibly strong wind. We’ll see someone panic about the open doors next chapter. I don’t know about the glows – maybe a similar admonishment to turning the light switch off when leaving a room? (Although there’s no public utility or electric bill to worry about…)

  7. depizan November 28, 2014 at 1:34 pm

    @Silver Adept,

    The problem for me is that the world building is wildly inconsistent or just plain not there, and there are times when characters actions (especially Yanus’s) are skating on the edge of “[character] has read the back of the book.”

    it’s not the singing and playing that’s the problem

    But in this book, it’s treated as the problem. Or it sure seems like it. Unless Petiron actually (off page somewhere) told Yanus that he was trying to get Menolly into Harper Hall. Or Yanus knows his ideas are hopelessly outdated. Which doesn’t really fit either.

    Menolly encouraged to make music -> discovery of her immense talent and Elgion getting clued in to who Petiron’s mystery apprentice is -> Menolly whisked off to Harper Hall, to Yanus’s incredible shame that his daughter should want to do that and be independent instead of staying at home and being raised “properly” by her father.

    Which only makes sense if, in fact, women CAN be Harpers. And Yanus knows this. So where did Yanus get the idea that women Harpers are shameful? Unless women Harpers are a new thing. But the book never tells us this and it would still leave the question of how Yanus found out. (It seems more logical given how things are presented that he would think there ARE no women Harpers. Which leaves us flailing around trying to make sense of everything.)

    Because Yanus seems to be waaaaaay over here in his ideas, yet at the same time is treated by the narrative as if he’s normal. Except he – and the people he abuses into agreeing with him – seem to be the only people in the whole book with his opinions. Like, no one else has a problem with Menolly. At all. The other fishermen respect her for singing Petiron’s funeral song and all tell Yanus it makes sense for her to take over until the new Harper arrives. New Harper dude doesn’t act as if it’s a disaster that Menolly is a woman when he finds out she’s the one who wrote the songs. She’s accepted into Harper Hall no problem.

    If Yanus’s ideas are typical, a whole bunch of other stuff doesn’t make sense, but if they’re not then the narrative needs to shut the fuck up about how he’s just a typical hardworking fisherman and of course he thinks this way and gosh we don’t need anything bad to happen to him or anything. Menolly gets away, isn’t that good enough? No, narrative, it’s not.

    The doors being locked or barred is an anti-Thread measure, so that nothing outside gets inside and burrows.

    Then she should know this. *shakes book vigorously* Make sense, damn it!

  8. Pebblerocker November 28, 2014 at 9:33 pm

    Thread can’t open doors – so either the doors need to be barred to stop them swinging open in a breeze, or the bars are there to remind people not to wander outside to shake out a carpet when Thread is due. Not that the rank and file Hold folk are completely dopey, it’s just standard safety regulations.

    Not remembering this story very well, I assumed there was an absolute law against women becoming Harpers which Menolly would have to overcome, and they wouldn’t have bothered making a law if women never tried being Harpers in the first place. But instead, it’s just Yanus who objects and everyone else is fine with it – not only people who have supported her talent all her life, but people she’s never met? Huh.

  9. boutet November 28, 2014 at 10:44 pm

    The “women can’t be Harpers” thing makes even less sense later when McCafferey writes books earlier in the timeline. I think it’s a case of her not thinking it through completely, just running with the idea of “women can’t be -thing-” and it fell to Harper because she likes writing musical characters, and then quietly retconning it and hoping no one causes a fuss.
    From a more charitable headcanon kind of perspective to explain Yanus objecting so much maybe it’s something to do with the difference between holds, weyrs and crafthalls. Harping is a craft, and crafthalls can have more relaxed views about gender roles, so it can be seen from a hold perspective as an automatic step down for any woman to go into a craft. The same way that going in to weyr is seen as a sort of decent into promiscuity from hold perspective. Of course this would make a lot more sense if Yanus made a stink about a daughter of his becoming a Harper rather than just about women generally.

  10. Lodrelhai (@Lodrelhai) November 29, 2014 at 1:03 am

    I suspect the locked doors are actually about keeping people out as much as keeping them in during Threadfall. Thread has been a relatively new thing for these folks, coming after an extended Interval. We know from later-written-but-earlier-setting books that there are travelling caravans and the like; I find it hard to imagine there aren’t issues like thieves as well. Even if they aren’t such a concern during a Pass, it’s repeatedly noted that things are done around here because that’s how they’ve always been done.

    On the shame of Menolly becoming a Harper, I think more that Yanus fears Elgion will realize Menolly was Petiron’s apprentice and be horrified that Yanus’s daughter is so ill-trained as to aspire to a man’s position. Elgion might think that Yanus didn’t properly respect Harpercraft to give the previous Harper only an upstart girl as caretaker and assistant while he was ill. Heck, Yanus probably thinks in hindsight that Petiron’s illness was infecting his mind before his body, for the old Harper to have indulged Menolly so much. I sincerely doubt it would occur to him for a moment that any reasonable person would believe for a moment that a girl could actually become a Harper.

  11. Michael I November 29, 2014 at 8:02 am

    I will note that, while there isn’t any actual rule against women becoming Harpers, Menolly is the only female Harper in quite some time. The companion guide “The Dragonlovers Guide to Pern” by McCaffrey and Jodi Lynn Nye (2nd edition) says that there was a “gradual decline” in the number of women in the Crafts following the Great Plague and a gradual increase in the current time.

  12. Only Some Stardust November 29, 2014 at 1:01 pm

    Yuup, there’s nothing like having a lot of men dying and leaving jobs open to make women stick to home duties.


  13. emmy November 29, 2014 at 5:47 pm

    I think it’s a bit of an overstatement to say that everyone else is completely fine with it, but they’re mostly confused by it rather than offended. There is at least one older male character in the next book who will be quite upset by Menolly’s shameful femaleness iirc, but on the whole Harper Hall is happy to bend tradition for an awesome talent.

    This may be because she wanted harpers to be The Good Guys and therefore more accepting and reasonable, or else she felt she needed to balance out all the random horribleness with some random not-horribleness, regardless of the effect this has on world consistency.

  14. Michael I November 30, 2014 at 10:18 am

    @Only Some Stardust

    The explanation given in “Dragonlover’s Guide to Pern” is that the population losses from the Great Plague led to an effort to encourage population regrowth by encouraging women to have lots of children. And one of the effects of this was a decline in the number of women entering the Crafts.


    It probably also doesn’t hurt that Menolly was personally invited to become a Harper by the Masterharper himself, or that Petiron was Robinton’s father.

    Incidentally, McCaffrey may have changed her mind later about the length of time that the Harpers were all male. Based on the description in the Pern wiki, the book “The Masterharper of Pern” (about Robinton’s backstory) suggests that Petiron’s wife was a Harper. Note that “Masterharper of Pern” was published after “Dragonlover’s Guide to Pern”.

  15. depizan November 30, 2014 at 1:25 pm

    What I’m getting from a lot of the comments is “Sorry, your world building is in another book!” Which is really not the best way to go about writing books. I mean, yes, you want your audience to still be curious about your world so that they will keep buying your books. But you probably don’t want to have your narrative say two incompatible things.

    Rhere is nothing in this book that makes Yanus’s opinions look typical…except the narration. Meanwhile, all kinds of other things call that into question (apparently without the authors intent). Mavi tells Yanus that Menolly will have to sing the funeral song for Petiron, and she says everyone told him that. (Nothing suggests this isn’t true.) When the boat gets back from the funeral, the sailors treat her with respect, helping her down from the boat, and the narrative says And his hand, closing on hers, gave silent approval for her singing of the Harper’s elegy. The other men stood, too, waiting for her to disembark first. No hint that they’re of mixed feelings about a woman singing the elegy.

    We get a bit with some other holder women pressuring Mavi that Menolly should take over until the new Harper arrives. After the first threadfall bit, everyone’s celebrating and the sea holders call on Menolly to play and sing until her throat hurts. Later, when Elgion finds out that Menolly was the mystery apprentice, his reaction is “Disgraced?” Once again Elgion was appalled at the obtuseness of the Sea Holder. “When she taught so well? When she can turn a tune like the ones I’ve seen?” Not a peep about her being a woman. In fact, Elgion is upset that Petrion didn’t make the whole problem with Yanus clear enough for them to get Menolly out of there before she was hurt.

    I can’t find any point in the book where anyone (save Yanus and his family) takes issue with Menolly’s music or with her becoming a Harper.

  16. Only Some Stardust November 30, 2014 at 2:34 pm

    so women can’t sing, watch kiddies and be pregnant at the same time? 😛

    meh, I suppose it works as an excuse. It isn’t uncommon for ‘encouraging to have children’ to actually mean ‘discouraging from doing anything else’.

  17. Only Some Stardust November 30, 2014 at 2:45 pm

    altho’, humans reproduce just fine without encouragement; a few tiny bands of human hunter-gatherers spread across the Americas in perhaps as little as a thousand years. Unless we’re talking ‘we are at inbreeding levels of human population lows and we need to carefully keep track of who is crossed with who’, of course, but then the problem isn’t really encouragement per-say.

    In fact any species, even dem elephants, reproduce exponentially. After plague times, more open resources would mean easier times for those who choose to have more kiddies.

    Although I can’t entirely blame the people if they don’t know this, as it isn’t entirely intuitive; it took Darwin after all. You’d think a space-age people wouldn’t forget basic evolutionary fact though, it isn’t exactly rocket science.

    So cultural shame-pasta it is. And Yanus is a grumpy old left over of the old days?

  18. emmy November 30, 2014 at 2:49 pm

    @Michael I haven’t read that book so I’m not sure. The world does generally say it’s fine and even a good thing for women to _sing_ (women who aren’t Menolly) so I think someone was arguing elsewhere that Petiron’s wife was a great singer but not a _Harper_ which involves a lot more than just singing. But I don’t know.

  19. Silver Adept December 1, 2014 at 7:39 pm

    @ emmy –

    The Harpers don’t make it to good status through the next couple books, even if they are the designated Good Guys, after the Benden-led dragonriders. The explicit sexist has plenty of less-explicit colleagues.

    Plus, the next book takes great pains to set Menolly up as the Exceptional Woman in the Hall, with its own attendant Unfortunate Implications. Marginal improvement in one place is met with plenty of narrative and character pushback.

    @ Only Some Stardust –

    A cursory bit of research into the industrial situation in the United States while their conscripted men were fighting a prolonged foreign campaign would have poked a pin in the idea that the women of Pern would stop going into the Crafts willingly. It sounds a lot more like the remaining men decided they were going to try and keep women out while they had the chance.

    @ depizan –

    For this book, Yanus is all the “girls can’t be Harpers” needed. The next book spreads it out more, so it comes from multiple places, but it’s still there.

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