The White Dragon: The Third Time Is Not Charming

Let’s get to the actual text of the book, now that my issues with the idea of keeping time using “Present Pass” are taken care of.

The White Dragon: Chapter One: Content Notes: Bullying, gaslighting

The chapter opens with Jaxom finishing a cleaning of Ruth under N’ton’s direction. Actually, Jaxom had had help with the cleaning part, which he is pleased about, because it means his group of bullies hadn’t been able to torture him:

From the corner of his eye, Jaxom noticed Dorse and his cronies creeping away, just in case N’ton had any further hard work for them. Jaxom had somehow managed to keep the smugness he felt under control during all of Ruth’s bath. Dorse and the others hadn’t dared disobey the dragonrider when N’ton had blithely pressed them into service. To see them sweating over the “runt”, the “oversized fire lizard”, unable to tease and taunt Jaxom as they’d planned to do this morning, raised Jaxom’s spirits considerably. He entertained no hopes that the situation would last long. But, if today the Benden Weyrleaders decided that Ruth was strong enough to bear his weight in flight, then Jaxom would be free to fly away from the taunts heed had to endure from his milkbrother and his cronies.

This, in publication chronology, is the second such story to indicate that bullying is rampant everywhere on Pern, with adults always conveniently elsewhere (or in Menolly’s case before and Piemur’s afterward, actively participating), and I might ask what kind of world is being built where being bullied by groups is just a fact of life for the main characters. I suppose it could be an attempt to point out how the people who are different here on Terra have to suffer such things on a daily basis, group bullying and adult involvement included. That said, dragons. At this point, it seems to be more like the author had only one story type to work with for their young characters, and all we’re doing at this point is riffing on the theme – specially talented bullied child leaves bullying environment, discovers great and awesome thing, has adventures.

It’s also interesting that the bullied kids are all in positions of relative power and privilege – a Sea-Holder’s daughter, a Lord Holder/dragonrider, and a Harper. Living in the upper crust doesn’t necessarily grant immunity from your peers…but it’s also interesting that we haven’t seen any of the kids perform classist bullying on people they consider lower status. Despite being a caste kind of society, all of the looking down on the commoners has been done by adults to this point.

N’ton points out to Jaxom that Ruth’s coloration is not due to albinism, which would be the most likely cause for whiteness (a lack of pigmentation), but instead is white because of a combination of all pigmentation colors for dragons.

“Y’know,” N’ton began, frowning slightly as he folded his arms across his damp-spattered tunic, “Ruth isn’t really white.”

Jaxom stared incredulously at his dragon. “He’s not?”

“No. See how his hide has shadows of brown and gold, and ripples of blue or green on the near flank.”
[…Jaxom had somehow not noticed this, but attributes it to cleanliness and a bright sun…]
“He’s…more…all dragon shades than the lack of any,” N’ton continued.

Which, to be this way, would be…iridescence, I guess? Since pigments, when combined, become black, not white, if Ruth has shadings of all the other colors, I would expect him to be the black dragon, but that produces color connotations that I’m sure the author wants to avoid in their city-states pastiche. It’s good for Ruth, though, because one of the noticeable bad effects of albinism is the sensitivity to ultraviolet rays that translates into ease of sunburn. In a world like Pern, where getting out of the sun means going into giant caves, it’s not a good thing to have to have your dragon stay inside during the day. That would have likely sunk any plans anyone had for Jaxom to become either a Holder or a dragonrider.

N’ton assures Jaxom that Ruth is a properly-proportioned and healthy dragon, even though Ruth is half the size of any other dragon, and that he should be able to hold Jaxom just fine. On their way back to the hold, Jaxom reflects on everything that’s happened since he impressed Ruth, and the massive guilt trip (although he doesn’t recognize it as such) that’s being inflicted on him by everyone around.

Not that he had wanted to, but Impressing Ruth had caused all kinds of problems for the Benden Weyrleaders, F’lar and Lessa, for the Lord Holders, and for himself, since he was not allowed to be a real dragonrider and live in a Weyr. He had to remain Lord Holder of Ruatha or every younger Holdless son of every major Lord would fight to the death to fill that vacancy. The worst problem he had caused was to the man he desperately wanted most to please, his guardian, Lord Lytol. Had Jaxom only paused a moment to think before he jumped onto the hot sands of Benden’s Hatching Ground to help break the tough shell for the little white dragon, he’d have realized what anguish he would bring to Lord Lytol by a constant reminder of what the man had lost with the death of his brown Larth. Never mind if Larth had died Turns before Jaxom’s birth at Ruatha Hold, the tragedy was vividly, cruelly fresh in Lytol’s mind, or so everyone told Jaxom repeatedly. If this was so, Jaxom often wondered, why then hadn’t Lytol protested when the Weyrleaders and Lord Holders agreed that Jaxom must try to raise the little dragon at Ruatha?

Jaxom, you haven’t learned about the power of the narrative in relation to F’lar getting what he wants, yet, so that’s forgivable. Consulting my notes from Dragonquest, it seems that the was a lot of drinking and Sith Lessa interference involved in setting up this particular situation, so there may not be a straight answer to give about why Lytol doesn’t object to seeing another dragon being cared for in his Hold. The most obvious answer is that time has, in fact, dulled the grief and pain Lytol feels for the lost Larth to the point where he can function normally, even around other dragons. If that’s the case, though, then other people can’t use it to browbeat Jaxom, taking advantage of his capacity for empathy, to some purpose, I would assume, other than “to make the kid feel bad about himself”. Because if that is the reason why, then I hope Jaxom conveniently forgets to let those people back into his Hold when Thread is falling outside, so they can understand what kind of psychological damage they did to him.

Also, what the hell, narrative? Although Dragondrums comes later, with its torture scene, it had already been established before then that there is such a thing as a Conclave of Holders that could settle matters of succession if Jaxom had gone off to the Weyr. And since Lytol is regent at this point, if Jaxom did want to go to the Weyr, surely Lytol could run the place until the Holders determined who would be best-suited to rule, assuming the Benden Weyrleaders didn’t have a firm opinion on the matter. There should be none of this “chaos and battle among younger sons” crap, unless it’s part of a concerted effort to gaslight Jaxom into staying right where he is, for whatever unknown reason. And if a younger son of a Holder shows up with an army to take Ruatha, Lessa only has to appear on Ramoth, say “MINE,” and the matter gets resolved in her favor, because DRAGONS. Plus, as we find out in a few pages, at least some of the residents of Ruatha consider Lessa the last remaining pure-blooded Ruathan. Which, combined with the dragon, should give her significant weight in determining who rules there. Ramoth might even enjoy the possibility of ripping apart a few of the mounts of the soldiers if she’s getting close to a mating cycle.

Back to the plot. N’ton asks Jaxom if Lytol has any fosterlings, under the idea that Jaxom should be socialized with other children of his own rank, to which Jaxom shrugs and points out Dorse and gang, and mentions he hasn’t seen F’lessan much, either, to N’ton’s inquiry about their ability to make mischief in the past. When N’ton’s fire lizard arrives and chitters excitedly, because Ruth is present and every fire lizard likes Ruth, Jaxom asks N’ton why Ruth is so popular. Tris doesn’t say, and N’ton can only speculate. As Jaxom heads back to change for the trial, we find out why Dorse had been given free reign to torment Jaxom – apparently, during his birth, for a part we didn’t see in Dragonflight, since the narrative was busy with Lessa getting F’lar and Fax into a knife fight to the death. Dorse’s mother, Deelan, had given birth to Dorse two days before Jaxom, and thus was still able to nurse and lactate for Jaxom, who would have otherwise died without the breast milk she provided. Because of that, both Lytol and the Hold Harper told Jaxom he owed his life to her and to Dorse, and he had to share everything he had with Dorse.

Cocowhat by depizan

I can understand “be respectful and generous to Deelan, because she nursed you to life when your mother died in childbirth”, but I don’t see how any of that favor automatically extends to her son, because I refuse to believe that she was the only woman capable of lactating at that point in time, based on the narrative’s own insistence that Fax liked to sleep around and get as many women pregnant as he could. Yes, his birth made it possible for her to do what was necessary, but he should derive no direct benefit from that, because she ultimately made the decision to nurse. Yet another way the sexism of Pern manifests, according benefit to men and boys because of the actions of women.

Jaxom has enough time to scrub himself up a bit and change into his new clothes before the Benden Weyrleaders arrive. He’s nervous about hurting Ruth (empathy!), which Ruth assures him isn’t possible. Lessa doesn’t help Jaxom’s nerves by teasing him about being thin, and Jaxom realizes he’s taller than Lessa, which is also embarrassing. The Benden Weyrleader steps in and redirects the conversation to Ruth, delivering a compliment that Ruth is bigger than he expected, because of Jaxom’s care. After an inspection, everyone is in agreement that Jaxom gets to try and fly with Ruth. Jaxom expresses Ruth’s eagerness:

“Yes, sir, because, he is a dragon, and dragons all fly!”

Which, the narrative subtly reminds us, is a call back to Lessa in Dragonflight, about her wanting to take Ramoth out flying instead of being cooped up in a Weyr.

The flight test is a success, although Ruth and Jaxom both have some things to learn about good takeoff and landing technique so that Jaxom isn’t bounced around during either. The dragonriders seem pleased, the Lord Holders seem sour, and the Harpers (Robinton and Menolly) seem thoughtful. And Lytol is a blank. N’ton and the Benden Weyrleader discuss the next phases of training for Jaxom and Ruth, where N’ton says he’ll handle the training part, even though the Benden Weyrleader clearly wants to, since Ruth hatched at Benden. There’s another call back where the Benden Weyrleader assents to teaching Ruth how to fly between:

“Oh, very well. He’s to be trained to fly between. Otherwise, I suppose you’d try it on your own anyhow, wouldn’t you, young Jaxom, being of Ruathan Blood?”

“Sir?” Jaxom really didn’t quite believe his good fortune.

“No, F’lar, Jaxom wouldn’t try such a thing on his own,” N’ton replied in a curious tone. “That’s the trouble. I think Lytol has done his job too well.”

“Explain,” F’lar replied curly.

F’nor held up his hand. “Here’s Lytol himself,” he said in quick warning.

Intriguing.

Jaxom is quite happy that the test went well, because it means he’ll soon be able to escape Dorse and everyone else giving him trouble. On his way to the feast that will be in his honor, he notices Robinton avoid a frenetic fair of fire lizards flying into and out of the doorway by flattening himself against the door itself and shielding his face. Or rather, Robinton flattens himself, and then observes Jaxom taking care of Ruth, as the viewpoint has shifted without warning. Robinton is unhappy at how things have turned out, mostly because of the geopolitical headaches that Ruth flying will now generate. Jaxom slipped through his fingers, because he was too distracted with other things to pay enough attention, even with all his journeymen and aides running missions for him. A call to his reputation at being able to identify wine by taste distracts him from his current line of thinking, and after demonstrating his talent, and toasting Jaxom in such a way that makes it an inevitable point of discussion, the assembled fall to the discussion of what to do with Jaxom, since he bridges both worlds of dragonrider and Lord Holder.

“There will be no problem, Sangel,” said F’lar diplomatically. “We’ve no shortage of large dragons in the Weyr. So he isn’t needed to fight.”

“We’ve no shortage of trained, Blooded men to take Hold here, either,” Sangel said, shooting his jaw out belligerently. Trust old Sangel to come to the point, thought Robinton gratefully.

“Not with Ruathan Blood,” Lessa said, her grey eyes flashing. “The whole point of my relinquishing my blood right to this Hold when I became Weyrwoman was to cede it to the one remaining male with any Ruathan Blood in his veins – Jaxom! As long as I live, I will not permit Ruatha, of all the Holds of Pern, to be the prize for continent-wide blood duels among younger sons. Jaxom remains as Lord Holder-elect of Ruatha; he will never be a fighting dragonrider.”

“Just like to set matters straight,” Sangel said, stepping aside to avoid the icy stare Lessa gave him. “But you’ve got to admit, Weyrwoman, that riding dragons, no matter in how limited a fashion, can be dangerous. Heard about that Weyrling at High Reaches…”

Ahem. As I was saying before…

Jaxom having no peers allows Groghe to pawn off one of his sons on Lytol with no expectation of reciprocation, which leads to a broader discussion of the problem of too many sons and not enough land for all of them to have their own fiefdoms. Which was a real problem in the world Pern is playing off, and led to the kind of warfare that the Lords Holder are trying to avoid. And since there is no church to send those sons off to, nor any foreign war campaigns, and dragonriders can only take as many sons as there are eggs…it’s a powder keg. What I don’t know is how widespread and well-known the dragonrider abortion is, which would be a pretty simple solution to the problem of too many children, assuming that the ladies of the hold would be able to sneak out.

Groghe pressures the Benden Weyrleader to open up the Southern Continent to send those younger sons to, for exploration and conversion to their own Holds. Robinton tries to deflect the idea by pointing out that other younger sons have found service in the Crafthalls working with Fandarel, and that some of those idle sons might find similar work as a Craft task force exchanging ideas and technique. Groghe is dismissive of the idea, and the eventual solution of Jaxom is hit upon – fosterling from Groghe, instruction on riding, and then apprenticeship to Robinton’s archivist, Master Arnor (who we know from Dragonsinger is very finicky and fiddly about everything relating to his craft) in addition to all his requirements on learning how to be a Holder. Jaxom’s arrival at his own feast closes the chapter, but Jaxom is really excited at his possible future when told about the plan.

I’m still side-eyeing the presence of another bullying group in this novel, though, because past evidence and future evidence suggest that their presence means that Jaxom is going to get hurt by them, and likely hurt horribly. It would be nice if we avoided making it a trilogy with regard to the bullies. And that people would stop trying to make him the source of their problems, whether “on behalf of” Lytol, his dual status, or because his mother brought him into existence. Maybe we can have a full novel of an adventure story, instead of just pieces?

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16 thoughts on “The White Dragon: The Third Time Is Not Charming

  1. genesistrine June 18, 2015 at 4:47 pm

    The whole “last Ruathan Blood!” thing is weird in itself – mediaeval nobility intermarried all the time; cementing political alliances and whatnot, and Pern hasn’t had the problem of Thread making travel dangerous for 400 years. You’d expect there to be Ruathan cousins and second cousins and cousins-once-twice-and-thrice removed all over the continent after a few centuries of marrying-for-advantage and marrying-for-love and fostering-out.

    Why have so few Ruathan nobles married out in the past few generations? Were they seen as some scary inbred gang of sorcerors? Might explain why no-one did anything about Fax when he murdered them all….

    Though of course it’s also possible that no-one wants to argue with the determined and obstinate woman with a load of dragons backing her up.

  2. boutet June 19, 2015 at 12:20 am

    That milk brother thing feels soooo shoehorned in. Can’t have a higher rank being abusive since he’s lord holder. Can’t have family being abusive because there isn’t any. Can’t have Lytol being (acknowledged as) abusive because he’s a dragon(less)rider. So… weird obligation being abusive? I guess?

    Because we certainly can’t ever sympathize with a lead character unless they’re being abused?

    You’d think bastard child of a hated mass murderer inherits land beloved by extremely powerful and influential leader, imprints on a dragon type never seen before, bridges the gap between holder and rider <<– would be interesting enough as plot without tossing some seriously confusing abuse into the mix.

  3. Firedrake June 19, 2015 at 2:24 am

    genesistrine: Hmm. We’re told that Lessa had some trouble bearing her son. Perhaps there’s something not-so-healthy in all that Ruathan Blood.

    boutet: yeah, reading in quick succession like this really makes the similarities obvious. Of course for some readers “another book just like the last book” may be what they want. Have I mentioned A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Valdemar? Inspired by a set of books that came around ten years later than these, but…

  4. Brenda Appleby June 19, 2015 at 11:24 am

    There’s a bit in this chapter that has always intrigued me, when Jaxom is going through the list of people who are there, and mentions Menolly, “the Harper girl who had always been his champion.” This is three years since we’ve seen Menolly (Dragondrums was published after The White Dragon.) We knew she was sympathetic to Jaxom from the start – knowing nothing of the backstory, she just saw him saving a dragon and utterly joyful at that Impression. She was very much on his side when telling the story to Piemur and his pals. I’ve always wondered, as Robinton’s journeywoman, what she might have been able to do for him that he would regard her in that light. Maybe just getting to go along when Robinton visited, and being a friendly voice and ear? Or was she doing something to champion him more actively?

    I would have loved to see more details on the interval between the Hatching and this First Flight.

  5. boutet June 19, 2015 at 7:57 pm

    @firedrake Ha, yeah. I’ve seen that before. And it’s true that I preferred new-person-arrives stories more at that time (early teens) so maybe she was just accurately targeting a particular audience.

  6. Only Some Stardust June 19, 2015 at 9:57 pm

    The ‘outsider comes to a place and explores it’ is def. a classic teen novel trope, and not a bad way to introduce a setting in general.

    maybe the reason they don’t use dragons for courier and travel services like would make frikkin sense is holders have some weird anti-abortion taboo.

  7. genesistrine June 20, 2015 at 7:48 am

    The other weird thing about Dorse is doesn’t he have anything else to do? He’s Jaxom’s age, so in a mediaeval-type world he ought to be training for something or apprenticed to somebody. Did he win the Pern life lottery with this milk-brother thing? Is Jaxom obliged to support him while he sits on his behind for the rest of his life? Give him a cushy job? And what about his cronies, ditto?

    Mind you, Jaxom ought to be having a lot more lessons than he seems to be having at this point – he’s supposed to become the absolute ruler of a feudal territory in a few years. He’ll need to learn administration, law (the Lord of a territory is presumably its chief justice too, or at least we haven’t heard otherwise), inter- and intra-Hold politics, at least enough agriculture/animal husbandry/craft to administer and tax people who make a living out of same etc etc. Why is everyone doing the “we must enrol him in our new special high-achievers STEM academy”, “he must learn document recovery techniques” thing? Thanks to Lessa’s insistence he’s already got a lifelong job; he needs to be training for that if he’s going to be any good at it.

  8. Brenda Appleby June 20, 2015 at 10:23 am

    It looks like Jaxom’s milk-mother (what’s her name? I don’t have my copy with me.) Dorse, the milk-brother, do enjoy a higher rank as a result. There’s a scene later where they’re at a family breakfast with Jaxom and Lytol.

    She evidently did most of the work raising him as well as nursing him, so it makes sense. Dorse just got to come along for the ride.

  9. boutet June 20, 2015 at 10:33 am

    The more I think about Dorse the less sense he makes.

    It’s hard to see how he would have inflated self-importance since he grew up knowing that he’s only in the higher ranks because his mom happened to be lactating and willing to take on Jaxom. He’s never going to inherit anything. His rank doesn’t really grant him any power, just a seat at the table.

    The only way it can make any sense to me is if Pern really does have a built-in system of bullies, and Dorse fits into that scheme by making sure that he is in a position to bully Jaxom once Jaxom has power. And everyone allows it because that’s how society works.

    But even that still doesn’t make sense because it would require Lytol/Lessa/F’lar and all to be participating in a situation that allows a random nobody to have as much or more power over Jaxom than they do. Really, in a bully system, any of those people (or Robinton or the harper at Ruatha) should be bullying Dorse a bit too to establish dominance over him. So that they are the highest ranking bully once Jaxom reaches majority.

    Instead we have Lytol actively supporting Dorse’s bullying. And everyone else who is so invested just standing by.

  10. genesistrine June 20, 2015 at 12:07 pm

    “And this is Masterbully Nelson, representing the Bullycrafte–ow!”

    Doylistically it seems to be AMC being incapable of writing a youthful protagonist without her standard set of tropes that just don’t work for Jaxom’s situation. She loves her bullied misfits, so she has to have Jaxom bullied, however implausible it is*, and while the misfitting could theoretically be between “ruling Ruatha” and “riding Ruth” he gets such a ridiculous amount of in-story support for both it’s never an issue. The only way to have him realistically be a misfit would to be for him to want to give up Sacred Ruatha, which isn’t an option since Lessa’s Sith powers apparently even work on her author.

    She picked the wrong protagonist for her writing habits. There’s a good story to be told about someone straddling the hereditary Lord Holder/chosen Dragonrider line in a time of immense social change and technological renaissance, but it doesn’t look like it’ll be this one.

    [*it would work if it was Lytol doing the bullying/abusing, but Dragonriders Are Officially Good People (except when they’re Nasty Oldtimers or Slutty Blondes) so yeah, that’s not going to happen either. Which I’m glad of, to be honest; I like Lytol.]

  11. genesistrine June 20, 2015 at 12:17 pm

    @Firedrake: I always sort of assumed that Lessa’s fertility problem was due to betweening and/or poor nutrition in her drudge years. But yeah, come to think of it Pern should be overrun with telepaths if it’s as inheritable as the “Ruathan Blood!” thing implies; dragonriders would select for it like nobody’s business. So maybe it does bring other genetic problems with it.

  12. Laurie June 23, 2015 at 6:40 pm

    Come to think of it, one of the ebul Oldtimers is also a daughter of a Ruathan Lord Holder. Mardra. And, considering that in the Eighth Pass dragonriders were looked upon favorably, there have to be some riders who also carry Ruathan blood. And, who’s to say Mardra didn’t bring any of her own kids forward? Except – whoops, the good guys of the first book are now the bad guys, so we can’t give them any credit.

  13. Silver Adept June 23, 2015 at 8:48 pm

    This could be a story about Jaxom getting bullied, if it had to be, if Jaxom were being fostered out. There are more than enough of Groghe’s sons that they could all turn out to be shitheads about Jaxom and his dragon. And while Lytol has been regent for a good long time, that doesn’t mean that he’s the person the Lord Holders want educating Jaxom about his responsibilities. Jaxom is already fostering out to Fort Weyr for dragonrider training, after all. Dorse is really unnecessary in any capacity that he plays in the novel – as boutet says, Jaxom learning to navigate all of this crap that came with his decision to Impress Ruth would be more than enough to make a plot, or a hero run ragged, all by itself.

    As for Ruathan blood, maybe that strong empathy meant that lots from Ruatha Impress, so many that the bloodline is dying off by Holder standards (because dragonriders ascend to a new caste and forsake their old one), even if there are plenty of people in the Weyrs that have that bloodline.

    It’s still a mess of a setup.

  14. genesistrine June 24, 2015 at 2:56 pm

    Ruathan blood: I dunno. Talking to all dragons isn’t a common thing among dragonriders, and you’d expect it to be if Ruathan genes were common in the Weyr(s). Maybe betweening has a effect on fertility as well as its abortive effect?

  15. Silver Adept June 24, 2015 at 8:22 pm

    Maybe it’s a mutation, with a knock-on effect that the increased telepathy causes birth defects or an increased possibility of miscarriage. There are a lot of ways we can handwave the genes part of it that sound plausible.

  16. Lodrelhai (@Lodrelhai) June 30, 2015 at 2:17 am

    Didn’t Lessa almost die birthing Felessan? I seem to remember a line somewhere about her terminating any other pregnancies because that birth was so dangerous. (I think there’s a line around the same place about Hold-born women thinking that purposefully terminating a pregnancy was wrong, but that’s beside the point.) And Lady Gemma, born of Crom but having Ruathan blood, died bearing Jaxom, who the Pern Wiki says was her only child (though I could’ve sworn Fax meant to keep making her produce heirs until it killed her, which would imply that she’d had a couple of them already, but maybe not). So of three women known to be of Ruathan blood, one died in labor, one nearly died in labor, and one we do not know how many children she may have had or the circumstances of the pregnancies, if any.

    It seems to me the Ruathan blood may be limited by some factor that makes pregnancy much more dangerous for the women. Whether that’s an issue with the babies (dangerously large or tendency to be breach), or with the mothers (small hips or nonstandard uterine shape or prone to pregnancy-related/exacerbated illness), the line is going to remain pretty small if there are high odds for the birth to kill the mother, the child, or both.

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