Here’s one of the short stories of Pern, published initially in 1973. Several reading order recommendations put this as one to take on after several books, so here we are, a quick jaunt for a week or so. My electronic copy has it as a small 14 pages, as part of a bigger collection published later.
The Smallest Dragonboy: Content Notes: Bullying, toxic masculinity, Adults Are Useless
We start in a familiar narrative frame – Keevan, smallest of his squadron of candidates, is being subjected to plausibly-deniable bullying from Beterli, the biggest boy, in the form of a walking pace that is too fast for his body to keep up with. While Keevan hotfoots it to the destination, he fantasises about the possibility of having his very own dragon and the great life that will entail and provides the reader with a description of the blue watch dragon.
As with many things on Pern, though, the bullying based on his size extends well past his peer group:
How the bootmaker had protested having to see so small! Keevan was forced to wonder why being small was reprehensible. People were always calling him “babe” and shooing him away as being “too small” or “too young” for this or that. Keevan was constantly working, twice as hard as any other boy his age, to prove he was capable. What if his muscles weren’t as big as Beterli’s? They were just as hard. And if he couldn’t overpower anyone in a wrestling match, he could outdistance everyone in a footrace.
“Maybe if you run fast enough,” Beterli had jeered on the occasion when Keevan had been goaded to boast of his swiftness, “you could catch a dragon. That’s the only way you’ll make a dragonrider!”
“You just wait and see, Beterli, you just wait,” Keevan had replied. He would have liked to wipe the contemptuous smile from Beterli’s face, but the guy didn’t fight fair even when a wingsecond was watching. “No one knows what Impresses a dragon!”
“They’ve got to find you first, babe!”
Yes, being the smallest candidate was not an enviable position.
It’s because you live in a culture that tries to live toxic masculinity as a way of life, Keevan, and that particular culture ranks everything by size, including dragons, as outward signs of innate ability and importance. At this point in the narrative, though, you could probably remake Keevan as a girl and nothing would need to change in the narrative, but you would be making a much better statement. And you’d have a sympathetic dragonrider candidate, instead of Mirrim, Hated By The Narrative.
Or you could change Keevan’s name to Piemur, make him a Harper, and then spend almost half of a novel detailing the bullying based on size before a fortunate circumstance separates him from the bullies. But not before those same bullies try to kill him. And since this short story precedes Dragondrums by a few years, I suddenly have a very bad feeling about this.
Keevan, steeped in this environment, is certain that the only way to win at this game is to Impress a dragon, and this be able to increase his perceived penis size to acceptable levels. In flashback, his foster mother provides support and encouragement about qualities not valued in dragonrider or teen boy culture (goodness, honesty, flexibility of mind, patience, and courage) as things stand look for, before reminding us that the Benden Weyrleader is short, as well. Keevan secretly hopes for a bronze, is dubious that he’d get a brown, and expects a blue or green to be what he would get, if he did, because browns and bronzes are extremely high-status Impressions and he’s already internalized the outward message that he’s too small to amount to anything.
On the Grounds, the wingsecond points out how close the eggs are to hatching, using as an example one that Keevan reports is Beterli’s egg, because he says so and beats up anyone who gets close to it. It’s got the look of being a bronze egg, possibly, because bronze eggs have unique designs. To set up some conflict, Keevan then tells us that Beterli has stood as a candidate eight times and not Impressed yet, as the wingsecond is telling all of them that’s it’s no shame to be left on the ground without a dragon, even multiple times.
As the candidates circulate among the eggs, we see the one Keevan is concentrating on, which also has a unique design, but the consensus is that it has a green in it, so nobody pays a lot of attention to it. We also find out that Keevan has been touching Beterli’s egg, at the moments when everyone’s attention is focused elsewhere right at the end of these sessions. Beterli comes over and insults Keevan’s size and age, Keevan insults Beterli’s lack of success, to which Beterli looks to visit violence on him for, but the prohibition of fighting in the Hatching Ground holds thanks to the wingsecond conveniently calling everyone over to start the evening chores – replacing glowbaskets, filling firestone sacks, and hauling coal to the kitchens. And listening in on dragonrider conversations, which are mostly tall tales, tactics, and disagreements about how and when to do various things, like freezing off Thread or feeding firestone for best flame.
We’re getting close to actually finding out what happens if someone doesn’t Impress – for at least a few years, it appears that they stay in at the Weyr and try again with the next clutch. But what happens if someone washes out entirely? From the exchange, that appears to be some form of shameful thing, to have been a candidate that many times and not gotten a dragon. I would normally think that the dragons are looking for people with good qualities, but the people who are dragonriders don’t seem to be anywhere near paragons of anything.
The dragonrider conversation shifts to talking about how the youngest candidates should or shouldn’t be allowed to stand. Even the Benden Weyrleaders get involved in the discussion, but since this is early Lessa, she gets to ask a really important question:
“There’s nothing wrong with presenting a clutch with as wide a choice as possible,” said the Weyrleader, who had joined the table with Lessa, the Weyrwoman.
“Has there ever been a case,” she said, smiling in her odd way at the riders, “where a hatchling didn’t choose?”
Her suggestion was almost heretical and drew astonished gasps from everyone, including the boys.
F’lar laughed. “You say the most outrageous things, Lessa.”
“Well, has there been a case where a dragon didn’t choose?”
“Can’t say as I recall one.” K’last replied.
“Then we continue in this tradition,” Lessa said firmly, as if that ended the matter.
But it didn’t. The argument ranged from one table to the other all through dinner, with some favoring a weeding out of the candidates to the most likely, looping off those who were young or who had multiple opportunities to Impress.
Far be it from anyone to have to listen to a woman make an important point. This is Pern, after all. The question is a solid one, and a good one for new Weyrwoman Lessa to be asking – if there has been an incident, then bigger pools are needed. If not, what’s the harm in increasing the candidate pool size? Dragonriders don’t care about Hold succession or other such issues. Better to have all the possible candidates. We have the solution to one form of the question – what happens when a dragon doesn’t choose anyone on the sands? Path and Mirrim. What happens if the dragon doesn’t choose anyone at all? We don’t know, but it doesn’t concern the dragonriders because to them, it never happens and it would be ludicrous to consider the possibility.
The next morning, while Keevan and others are fetching more coal, Beterli takes it upon himself to make Keevan “guess” the idea that he will be excluded from the Hatching, despite no actual decision coming from the Weyrleaders. Keevan has no intention of playing the game, so Beterli takes his shovel. Keevan tries to takes it back, and for his trouble:
With a sudden, unexpected movement, Beterli rammed the handle into Keevan’s chest, knocking him over the barrow handles. Keevan felt a sharp, painful jab behind his left ear, an unbearable pain in his left shin, and then a painless nothingness.
Mende’s angry voice roused him and, startled, he tried to throw back the covers, thinking he’d overslept. But he couldn’t move, so firmly was he tucked into his bed. And then the constriction of a bandage in his head and the dull sickishness in his leg brought back recent occurrences.
And that sinking feels proves to be true. Being right in this circumstance is no fun at all.
So Keevan should be out for a good long while, with a broken leg and cracked skull. Lessa asks him what happened, and he tells her. She gets annoyed at him by assuming that he played along with the bullying, but Keevan also gets the comfort of knowing Beterli has been expelled from the candidate program. Since he is apparently weyrbred, one can assume that he will find productive work…somewhere. I guess. Since we still don’t really know what sort of logistics really go into running the place.
Keevan’s injuries, however, will also keep him away from the Hatching, which starts soon afterward. In a narrative less about toxic masculinity and bullying, Keevan would be able to take comfort in the knowledge that there will be more Impressions. Instead, after this line: “Dragonmen don’t cry! Dragonmen learn to live with pain.”, Keevan convinces himself that the pain isn’t bad enough and drags himself from his bed, finds a makeshift crutch, and hobbles his way as fast as he can to the Hatching Ground, trying to ignore the great amount of pain he’s putting his body through, pain that’s coming through a fairly hefty dose of numbweed. By the time he actually gets there, he doesn’t see any eggs left to hatch, his resolve fails, and he tries to find a shadowed corner to disappear into. Instead, he trips and falls to the sand, crying at his failure. This thought is sufficiently all-consuming, though, for him not to notice that all is not right on the ground:
“Never seen anything like it,” the Weyrleader was saying. “Only thirty-nine riders chosen. And the bronze trying to leave the Hatching Ground without making Impression.”
“A case in point of what I said last night,” the Weyrwoman replied, “where a hatchling makes no choice because the right boy isn’t there.”
“There’s only Beterli and K’last’s young one missing. And there’s a full wing of likely boys to choose from…”
“None acceptable, apparently. Where is the creature going? He’s not heading for the entrance after all. Oh, what have we there, in the shadows?”
And thus, Keevan is discovered by both Weyrleaders and the bronze dragon that has been looking for him since he hatched. Lessa knows what’s going on, since she’s got the special “talks to all dragons” ability, and so she’s the first to refer to him as K’Van, with the shortened name that makes him a dragonrider.
As with all stories that end with a Hatching, we learn the dragon’s name (Heth), and the Benden Weyrleader praises K’van’s bravery despite his size. And the two go on, together forever, the smallest dragonboy and the hatchling who wouldn’t choose anybody else.
It was a great message to send, to ignore your pain and the damage of your body, and you, too, will be rewarded with the thing you must desire. Perfectly normal for Pern, though.
At least with Mirrim, she was already on the Grounds when Path made her choice. Unlike K’Van, though, Mirrim got a green, a dragon of the same gender as her, and far further down the totem pole. And Piemur nearly got killed by less direct violence.
Which brings me to the part that I hate the most about this story – the adults in this society are useless well beyond what’s needed to generate a boys’ adventure story. There’s a certain amount of inability that has to be expressed, as competent adults will take care of problems long before plucky children with undiscovered talents show up to solve what seems impossible. But Beterli is being transparently mean to Keevan at this point, even going so far as to get ready to hit Keevan in the presence of others. The wingsecond stops it, but apparently there’s nobody observing the candidates while they fetch coal, or not close enough to intervene when Beterli is threatening Keevan. Nobody seems to have a thought about what might happen to a dragon still in the egg if their chosen candidate is killed before they can Impress on them. Whether by accident or malice. But then again, with the idea that dragonriders are supposed to ignore pain, maybe getting beat on is considered virtuous. In Piemur’s case, at least, the refinement is the story provides a convenient reason why the adults are useless – the stray comment about maintaining discretion provides Piemur a way of not saying anything.
I think we’re going to need a good scrub with the soapsand here before moving on.