The Smallest Dragonboy: Small Story, Big Problems

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 Weyrwoman 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: 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 ended up far further down the heirarchy. 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.

16 thoughts on “The Smallest Dragonboy: Small Story, Big Problems

  1. aussiesmurf November 19, 2015 at 2:36 am

    Full disclosure time : this was the first Pern story I read. It was in a collection called ‘Beyond the Stars’ that I got when I was 8. As an isolated and lonely lad, I thought the wish-fulfilment was simple marvellous. The idea that a dragon could spot you ‘inner worth’ despite the mocking and bullying was extremely attractive. Next time I was about to go on a long drive, I got my parents to buy dragonflight, and the rest is history..

  2. Firedrake November 19, 2015 at 6:44 am

    Candidates will know a fair bit about the care and feeding of dragons, but I suspect not much else; if they don’t impress they probably don’t want to be around dragons any more, but they’re out of Hold life and probably too old to start a Craft apprenticeship, so…

    Which is an argument against having too many candidates, because the ones who wouldn’t be successful might be getting on with their non-dragony lives instead. Also, didn’t someone say that you had to give up any rank claims when you became a candidate? Which is a reason for the holders not to want their kids going off to do that, when they could be used in political marriages instead. (Neither of these argues against allowing the people who are already committed to candidacy to be present, though.)

    I think it was suggested at one point that a dragon which didn’t impress would die or go between fairly immediately: thus no unclaimed dragons. Can’t give a source though.

  3. boutet November 20, 2015 at 12:49 am

    Didn’t Ramoth kill some girls when she hatched? That would be a good argument for limiting the pool, as long as the dragons were still choosing from within the pool. Less casualties seems like a good plan. (if I remember correctly the more in dept training of candidates, and handling the eggs, was put in place to limit casualties somewhat?)

    Or you could have the “likely” candidates right on the sands by the eggs and then the young or previously failed candidates in a circle further back. Coach the candidates to stand away if the dragon heads for the outer circle. Less cluttering but still a good spread of candidates.

    I hope Beterli was made to leave the weyr in some way or another, even being posted at a different weyr. It seems like having a bully-turned-outcast sticking around with a high chance of vengeful behavior towards his favorite target who has now “stolen” Beterli’s dragon after “causing” his expulsion…. it’s not a great idea. Especially with the target being very injured and mostly immobilized.

  4. genesistrine November 20, 2015 at 6:09 am

    Well, at least we’re spared the, “hey, the bully got a green! Hur hur serves him right!” bit from DQ….

    I suspect Beterli has just shown us where (some) drudges come from. He knows “care and feeding of dragons” and “chores”, so he’s presumably looking forward to a fulfilling future of hauling stuff around. (Or a bright future with the Bullycrafters, that most powerful Craft of Pern; motto: “a bully for every child!”)

  5. Silver Adept November 20, 2015 at 10:31 pm

    @ aussiesmurf – I get the wish fulfilment part – as that kind of story, it works exceedingly well – comeuppance, recognition, the whole thing. It just happens that the values that make this story possible are all pretty awful.

    @ Firedrake – Lessa was required to give up any claim she had on Ruatha when she was kidnapped and then Impressed Ramoth, and most of the to-do about Jaxom was that he kept having dual responsibilities and that it was unnatural and wrong for him to exist with Ruth. And I think some of the Holders objected to Searches because it kept taking their daughters away when they were more valuable as political toys.

    Concentrating whatever factor it is that produces dragonrider candidates into the Weyrs may have the fringe benefit of preventing viable candidates from appearing in contexts that benefit people other than dragonriders. Ish, anyway, as it seems that particular gene expresses everywhere every so often.

    @ boutet – Ramoth did cause casualties when she hatched, which would suggest that some process refinement was in order. The training was to help avoid repetitions of that, but I don’t think reducing the amount of candidates is an actual fix. Moving then farther away might, just so that the newborn dragon doesn’t have any humans in weapons range to accidentally kill.

    As for Beterli, he’s probably going to end up as support staff to other dragonriders, akin to the flight deck crew. In a perfect world, at another Weyr.

  6. genesistrine November 21, 2015 at 3:50 am

    I think the Holders’ main objection was to pretty daughters being taken to the Weyr and never brought back, whether they Impressed or not.

    Beterli I always read as having been expelled from the Weyr, though the “unacceptable to the Weyr” comment is ambiguous….

    Alt version of the story; bronze hatchling crawls down to the kitchens where disgraced Beterli is peeling mashingchippingorroastingroots because HE WANTS THAT HUMAN.

  7. genesistrine November 21, 2015 at 7:30 am

    @aussiesmurf: oh yes, glorious wish fulfilment! It’s Cinderella for all of us who wanted to be dragon riders instead of princesses. Or maybe as well as princesses, some days… 🙂

  8. emmy November 22, 2015 at 2:32 pm

    As I recall, at Ramoth’s hatching many candidates were injured, including some who were impressed by dragons other than the ones that hurt them, and two girls were possibly killed, and the later refinements to hatchings (having the candidates mill around and pet the eggs before they hatch) were intended to prevent that, and did seem to cut down on accidents.

    It’s not really clear how, though. Canon plays with the idea that petting eggs beforehand helps you pre-impress them, but also swears that Mirrim didn’t (even though people don’t believe her). And with F’nor’s time-travel jaunt, F’lar sent exactly as many candidates as there were eggs, and they ALL Impressed, iirc. (Of course, time travel paradox may help there.)

    Ramoth’s hatching was also very ambiguous about whether newborn dragons are heartless, dangerous monsters until they impress and gain empathy, or whether they’re just scared babies who can be easily managed if you keep an eye on them. (Basically, did baby-Ramoth intentionally attack strange human girls, or was she just flailing around because the candidates were SHRIEKING HYSTERICALLY and she thought she was under threat?)

    There seem to be two contradictory ideas about dragon-impression and both are backed by the text. On the one hand, we have One True Soulmate, where the dragon will refuse anyone but its destined partner, which has some support in the form of Mirrim when the dragon goes looking for her. On this line of thinking, you want to present the young dragons with as much choice as possible to ensure that they find the person they’re looking for. On the other hand, we have Arranged Marriage, in which you can manipulate events to ensure that dragons pair up in the way that suits you. We see evidence for this in the books too – intentionally skewing the number of older (or gay) candidates to change the sort of weyrling pairs you get, intentionally providing exactly enough candidates to ensure that they all impress.

    If you believe that hatching is an entirely manageable process and that the dragons WILL pick from whatever you give them, having too many candidates is wasteful. It makes the results less predictable, means you have to look after far too many youngsters that aren’t doing anything useful, and increases the number of disappointed failures in the long run.

    If you believe that dragons are looking for their soulmates and won’t accept anything less, then you want as many candidates as you can possibly manage. But this runs into the small problem that it’s just not believable that every dragon’s soulmate was always so close at hand… surely they would occasionally have to go looking outside the weyr, if they were really so picky?

  9. Firedrake November 22, 2015 at 3:25 pm

    On soulmates, ObTimMinchin:

  10. genesistrine November 23, 2015 at 6:31 am

    Canon seems pretty explicit to me – Lessa was exasperated with the other girls at her Impression because they were screaming, panicking and freezing rather than ducking, so she instituted the egg-visits so candidates knew the grounds and the eggs and they’d be less prone to freaking out and freezing and more able to avoid any clumsy hatchlings. It’s not a matter of pre-Impression on the part of the hatchlings, it’s just familiarisation on the part of the candidates.

    It is ambiguous as to whether Ramoth’s aggressive or just frightened at her Hatching, but calmer candidates seem likely to lead to calmer hatchings anyway. Also bear in mind that, though it’s never mentioned AFAIK, Ramoth’s Hatching was unique among the Hatchings we see because Nemorth was already dead – all the others have the mother-queen in attendance, and she may be able to calm and control the hatchlings to some extent.

  11. genesistrine November 23, 2015 at 7:27 am

    Re candidate numbers; I think the only time we see an exact match in candidate/egg numbers is Prideth’s first clutch in Southern, and as you say F’lar has advanced timey-wimey info that that’s all he needs to send.

    Otherwise, well, Doylistically you want a bit of ambiguity about whether a male candidate will Impress or not, otherwise it’s just “will he get a MANLY BRONZE or just an icky, boring green?” (Ah, why is that blue hatchling heading for the girls? What do you mean one of the boys Impressed the queen?)

    I don’t think it’s a One True Soulmate situation though; I think it’s just meant to be a “best pick from who’s available” – hatchlings do occasionally pick from the audience rather than the candidate pool, but they don’t ever seem to leave the grounds to get their “ideal” match.

  12. shuu_iam November 23, 2015 at 8:36 am

    I tent to think that the hatchlings will choose the best person available, whether they’re on the sands or in the audience. By increasing the pool of candidates on the sand, you decrease the chance that they’ll choose from the audience, since anyone in the audience might have previous responsibilities that they can’t give up to work in a weyr or might be harder to control by the weyrleaders than candidates who are children isolated from their families. Southern presumably didn’t have an audience of non-dragonriders, so it wasn’t necessary. Why not just ditch the audience? TRADITION. (Plus some amount of using the hatchings and who’s invited to get positive PR.)

  13. genesistrine November 23, 2015 at 1:01 pm

    The audience is an innovation, AFAIR – F’lar and Lessa invited important outsiders and parents of Searched candidates to Ramoth’s first Hatching for PR over protests from the TRAAADITIONalists, though there presumably would have been an audience of “everyone in the Weyr who could make it” at earlier ones.

  14. Silver Adept November 23, 2015 at 4:27 pm

    The audience of non-dragonriders is newish. But not so much that Robinton doesn’t have wagers going about who will hatch and Impress.

    Keevan and Mirrim do need to resolve with each other. Mirrim would have been around eggs and dragons, as Brekke’s fosterling, but she wouldn’t have explicitly touched or held them, because girls can’t be candidates. Yet Path picks her all the same. Either Mirrim was handling eggs secretly (unlikely), or her force of personality was strong enough to make an impression, pun only semi-intended, over one of the other candidates such that Path picks her instead of the original choice.

    Keevan, on the other hand, has been handling eggs and his bronze is desperately trying to find him, including attempting to leave the Hatching Ground to do so and wandering until Keevan arrives. That suggests that the hatchling does have an idea of who they are looking for, and aren’t always willing to accept any substitutes in that regard. If Keevan had stayed in bed, would his dragon wait, bond with someone else, or strike out on their own with the intent of finding the partner they can feel mentally? Maybe there’s a maximum range that a dragon can feel for their particular choice, and picks from that. Maybe Heth asked Ramoth where a particular signature was, and then kept trying to get there.

    As for Beterli’s fate, I doubt that he would be banned everywhere for his behavior – punishment enough to keep him from coming back as a candidate, sure, but I can’t see dragonriders casting someone from a Weyr out into the world to be a Crafter or a peasant Holder for the rest of their lives. Beterli was probably on a flight down to Southern as soon as it was available.

  15. genesistrine November 23, 2015 at 5:38 pm

    Either Mirrim was handling eggs secretly (unlikely), or her force of personality was strong enough to make an impression

    Third option: Brekke can talk to all dragons, and thinks Mirrim would make a good fighting dragonrider. I can’t see her as manipulating the choice, though she might have done, but it’s a remarkable coincidence. Can hatchling Impressions be influenced by a telepath’s subconscious?

  16. Laurie Hicks November 23, 2015 at 7:16 pm

    Impression is one of those subjects that everyone and their cousin has a theory for. For example, there’s a remarkably concise theory posted here:

    I feel that this is quite well thought out.

    Now, why, earlier in the story, the adults didn’t put a stop to the bullying is beyond my understanding.

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