Dragon Harper: Do You Understand Me?

Last time, Kindan fell in love with someone he could never have, which incidentally gave the lie to the equality campaign that Murenny has supposedly recruited Kindan to help with, got a fire lizard, and continued to be unperturbed by how completely Vaxoram has changed after the duel. Kelsa has some skepticism about the last. And possibly the girl that Kindan has fallen for.

Dragon Harper, Chapter 5: Content Notes: Sexism

(Harper Hall, 496.11, the first time marker we’ve had since Chapter 1)

This chapter’s poem is an admonition.

Harper, treat your words with care
For they may cause joy or despair
Sing your songs of health and love
Of dragons flaming from above.

There’s a certain amount of acknowledgement here that the Harpers have the power to shape social dynamics, but it’s couched in a warning to stick close to the party line. Which makes me wonder what kind of story we could tell about a Harper, or a group of Harpers, that broke off from the Hall and did their best to encourage the people to overthrow the Holds and Crafts and eventually, perhaps, put the Weyrs under the control of elected egalitarian councils. And all the trouble that comes from actual democracy being implemented in a previously feudal space. We won’t get it, because everyone in Pern loves their lot in life (except the Shunned), but if we wanted to show what kind of power the Harper Hall holds, why not have to deal with Harpers in their midst that are not on the company line?

In any case, this chapter starts with the fact that puberty has come to Kindan at last, and his awkwardness of body, combined with the fact that his clothes aren’t fitting because he’s expected to grow into them, eventually gets him moved out of the Archives after he spills indelible ink (that everyone admits shouldn’t have been there in the first place) on some freshly-created Records, ruining them.

So Kindan goes to the instrument maker, instead, to learn some finesse, but he doesn’t have the knack for pipe making immediately, even if he can do a passable drum and some amount of sanding and polishing. Which he gets assigned to do, and thinks of himself as learning something about handling the wood from doing all the sanding. He mixes up the glue and polish buckets and ruins both of them in their pots, though, just to be consistent to the narrative.

Vaxoram is still magic, though.

In the past ten months, the relationship between Vaxoram and Kindan had grown deeper, more complex, yet still no less perplexing to both of them. It was as though the older apprentice was sometimes Kindan’s older brother, other times his apprentice. Yet it worked, and Vaxoram was now an accepted member of the “outcasts”, as he had once named Kindan and his friends.

Kindan’s voice is breaking and not settling, either, so the Voice Master asks if he would rather conduct, which Kindan enjoys, but he is recalled to the task of cleaning out his mess before too long.

As one might guess, Kindan finds this puberty business all sorts of aggravating. And it’s not helping that the talented people around him seem sure of what they will do.

“You’ll find your height,” Verilan added staunchly. Kindan smiled at him but couldn’t help feeling a bit jealous–Verilan was assured a place in the Harper Hall; his skill at copying alone would guarantee it.
[…they remind Kelsa to eat…]
Kelsa was always writing. The dark-haired girl was another who Kindan was certain would find a place in the Harper Hall, even if the Hall was traditionally a man’s world; Kelsa’s songs were so original that none could forget them, and she herself had a perfect memory for not only words but notes as well.
Play her a song once and she’d know it forever; start a melody and she’d write a whole new piece from it. It was dangerous to whistle near Kelsa, for she’d often lurch to a sudden stop–to the consternation of all behind her–and start writing.
Kelsa and Pellar had an amazing affinity for each other whenever the mute Harper visited from Fire Hold; she seemed able to take his merest buttons and put them to music. Surprisingly to Kindan, Halla, Pellar’s mate, never seemed to mind the way Kelsa and Pellar acted around each other. In fact, she seemed to encourage it, when Kindan would have preferred that she be jealous and keep Pellar away from Kelsa. Despite his recent understanding that he didn’t feel that way about Kelsa, Kindan still wanted the hope that if he ever did, he’d stand some chance.

Kelsa sounds a lot like Menolly to me. Which, you know, recycling characters doesn’t look good on anyone, but Kelsa being super-talented also reinforces the idea that women have to be exceptional just to survive in the world of men. If Kelsa’s talent were any less, she wouldn’t be here, whereas perfectly mediocre boys can stay on and get accepted.

I’m also intrigued about Halla’s apparent lack of jealousy. Does she, gasp, trust and believe that Pellar is doing this for the music and not because Kelsa is a pretty girl? Is Halla interested in polygyny or polyamory?
Does Halla have a thing for Kelsa? We’ll never know.

Kelsa insults Kindan’s clumsiness out of annoyance at the others at the table trying to remind her to eat, rather than write, and Kindan takes it (and the non-apology that follows) as it is intended and storms off. He feels bad about it almost immediately, because that table was his entire group of friends at the Hall, and Kindan realizes that his wants and ambitions have changed since he arrived. Vaxoram appears, and Kindan feels “oddly reassured” by this, but before they can have a talk about how much puberty sucks and they wish their bodies would stop doing this to them, M’tal arrives by dragonrider with a new apprentice, Conar, and the moment is ruined.

Which, I suppose, saves the swearing storm that would have filled such a quiet and intimate moment when Kindan is asked to show the new apprentice around.

The duty of welcoming a new apprentice to the Harper Hall should, by long tradition, have fallen to the newest apprentice, which would have been Kelsa. However, Kindan had noticed that Master Murenny had disregarded that tradition with the last two newcomers, assigning the duty to Kindan instead. Kindan had noticed the change but not commented on it because, after dealing with the first newcomer, he understood the Masterharper’s reasoning: that most apprentices would be affronted and embarrassed to be introduced to the Harper Hall by a girl.

There is an argument to be made about picking your battles for equality and that nobody should have to do all the heavy lifting by herself, which Kelsa would likely have had to do, and endure all the aggression and sexism that would come from the objections.

If Kelsa was game for it, though, it would make a hell of an entrance exam to see if this new Harper would be someone who would further the goals of respect for women. Especially if she were Journeywoman or Master Kelsa at that point.

As it is, it makes me think of Murenny as an incrementalist, who is doing what he can from within the system, rather than throwing it over and starting with something better. Or deliberately making his Craft different than all the other Crafts in the way they treat women. Given how well his planning worked with the Shunned, it might be better that he’s not trying too hard.

In any case, Conar brings news that his Hold Harper died during a bout of particularly bad flu, and that he thinks he was sent here just to get away from the sickness. His only talent that he believes in is drawing, and that’s not a traditional Harper skill, so he thinks he’s in the wrong place. Kindan encourages Conar to stick around, because there’s always a possibility that Harpers will need drawing talents.

Conar correctly guesses that Vaxoram is Kindan’s servant, and raises an eyebrow at the idea of a co-ed dormitory, but Kindan is not having any of that.

“You sleep with girls?” Conar asked in astonishment.
“Yes,” Kindan replied. “We treat each other with respect and don’t peek, if that’s what you’re wondering.”
Kindan was surprised to see how Vaxoram accepted this statement. It underlied how much the older apprentice had changed in the last ten months.

I mean, that’s a really low bar to clear there, compared to how things were, and if that’s what Kelsa and Nonala want, which I’m still not entirely convinced is the case. But also, whatever magic has basically held Vaxoram in place for all this time still applies. If Kindan says that’s what happens, Vaxoram is on board with it, by whatever geas it is that came aout from the end of their duel.

Conar also learns there is no help when it comes to cleaning, and Kindan pulls out his “second-best broom” as an illustrative point.

“Harpers have to know what other people do, and the best way to learn is to do,” Kindan told him. “So we make a broom, clean our own quarters, mend our own clothes.”

And Conar expresses at least some awareness of his own ignorance, which delights Kindan, because he mistakes it for interest in brooms, a thing that Kelsa, Nonala, and Verilan have all called rather boring.

Kindan hopes for both of them to get to the feeding hall for food, but Conar apparently has asthma (“short-breath”) and so it takes them a while before Conar can recover enough to make it to the dining hall, at which point they end up being the guests of Murenny and M’tal at the Masters’ table. After Kindan’s broom gets mentioned again.

As they walked, Murenny fell in beside Conar, asking the smaller boy, “Did Kindan tell you about his broom?”
Kindan tured bright red, to the accompanying chuckles of the Masterharper and Weyrleader. M’tal clapped him on the shoulder, saying, “You have a right to be proud of your accomplishments.”
“It’s only a broom,” Kindan groaned.
“Dragonriders at Benden make their own harnesses,” M’tal told him. Kindan gave him an interested look, so the Weyrleader continued, “Our lives depend on them, we have to trust them.”
“Well, my life doesn’t depend on a broom,” Kindan murmured.
“Best not let Selora hear you say that,” Mureny warned him. “Or she’ll prove you wrong.”
“Selora does the cooking,” Kindan explained to Conar.
“She does much more than that,” Murenny corrected.
“She keeps this whole Hall running,” Vaxoram said in agreement. Murenny smiled in agreement.

I am reminded again that every time we have seen a headwoman, whether of Hall, Hold, or Weyr, everyone admits out loud to each other that she’s the real power keeping everything running.

Also, I’m waiting for Kindan to catch up with the fact that he and everyone around him is saying quite bluntly “your talents are important things that you can be proud of.” Because that’s the space he needs to find to get his way out of the mental state he’s in. Kindan is also believably obtuse about this, because sometimes it takes saying it enough or staring it enough in the face before you realize what you’re looking at.

The Masters and M’tal discuss the flu outbreak, that it has affected several of the outlying holds of Bended, and Conar is at the Harper Hall as a precaution against the flu sweeping Benden and wiping everyone out. (There’s also a little bit of back-and-forth about the intertwined nature of Harpers and Healers, and a complaint about Healers’ bad handwriting. Some things are universal, I guess.) The Masterhealer is short-staffed for apprentices, and so sifting Records for the presence of a super-virulent and deadly flu would overwork him, and the Master Archivist is similarly short for apprentices to do any work on his end. (Murenny is rather bitter that the Conclave basically said “you can find your apprentices from Somewhere Else” when he asked for more healers and harpers.) With everyone, including M’tal, proclaiming they have nobody to search the Records, Murenny volunteers Kindan for the job, since he already has experience at teasing out cryptic details from old Records to a successful end. (Sort of, since it was Cristov who did the actual legwork of finding the right kind of firestone.)

The Master Archivist is unhappy with this, given how much damage Kindan has already caused to his Records, and that’s the end of Chapter 5.

8 thoughts on “Dragon Harper: Do You Understand Me?

  1. genesistrine April 19, 2019 at 10:15 am

    The duty of welcoming a new apprentice to the Harper Hall should, by long tradition, have fallen to the newest apprentice, which would have been Kelsa.

    Nonala arrived after Kelsa. *heavy irony* Surely */heavy irony* Kelsa would have been the right person to show Nonala around?

    As it is, it makes me think of Murenny as an incrementalist, who is doing what he can from within the system

    I think you’re being too generous. He explicitly says that the Harper Hall needed more apprentices, so it looks like he’s let a couple of girls in to see if he can make up the numbers that way, but he’s got no intention of doing any heavy lifting that might be required, as we’ve seen – there’s been no accommodations made for girls, and the only “special treatment” has been of male fee-fees.

    Conar brings news that his Hold Harper died during a bout of particularly bad flu, and that he thinks he was sent here just to get away from the sickness.

    What, he didn’t have a distant aunt or godparent-equivalent or fostering-arrangement in another Hold he could be sent off to?

    Also we note that the Artists’ Hall from the 2nd Pass has disappeared without trace now.

    I am reminded again that every time we have seen a headwoman, whether of Hall, Hold, or Weyr, everyone admits out loud to each other that she’s the real power keeping everything running.

    It’s very odd, in that context, that Selora is never *called* the headwoman. She’s referred to as the “head cook”, and she seems to have none of the ability to assign rooms or hand out clothes etc that Silvina did. There doesn’t seem to be anyone with that range of powers in this era of the Harper Hall, possibly in a Doylistic attempt to make the whole Vaxoram/Kindan bullying/duel situation a bit more plausible.

  2. WanderingUndine April 19, 2019 at 7:28 pm

    Yes, narrative, Kindan and Vaxoram’s relationship *is* indeed “perpexing.” Yes, narrative, we noticed that women/girls are narratively and in-world expected to be jealous and antagonistic toward each other where men or boys are concerned; you’ve just made it explicit that this is “preferred” behavior. If these authors had ever showed any self-awareness, I might think they were getting meta here.

  3. Silver Adept April 21, 2019 at 4:19 pm

    @ genesistrine –

    Surely so. Kelsa would have been exactly the apprentice to show Nonala around and make her feel more comfortable and at home.

    I can’t help but try to give Murenny the benefit of the doubt. I think it’s because I’m desperately hoping that at some point, a character that’s actually worthwhile will show up, instead of the partially-to-fully-aflame trash fires that seem to be cropping up everywhere. But yes, he seems to have gone into this experiment without having fully gotten cognizant (or talked to Selora) about what it might actually entail to have women as apprentices (again? I’m pretty sure there were women during the Artist Hall days, which, as you note, has disappeared completely.)

    As for Conar, I would have expected that someone who could get shuttled out by dragonback would be able to go see relatives somewhere. But no, to the Hall he comes. Perhaps because all his relatives and other foster-arrangements are dead or sick.

    It’s intersting to see that as we get further along in publication, we seem to be moving backwards entirely in terms of women characters with actual power. In this era, apparently, the men were delegating a lot of things themselves or expecting their apprentices and journeymen to be a lot more autonomous and hands-on (thus, creating their own brooms and cleaning out their quarters). Except anything to do with a kitchen. That’s Selora’s job. (For a reason, we’ll find out, but that reason only serves to reinforce gender roles.)

    @ WanderingUndine –

    Got you covered.

    It would be nice if they were going meta, but they haven’t been since the beginning, and I wouldn’t expect them to develop the sense and the talent for it now. I’m reminded of a concept I saw floating about the Internet that has served me well. If you know the person who coined it first, I’ll happily cite, but it’s essentially the idea that science fiction works say a lot more about the societies that they are written in than they do the societies they are written about. It’s why we always seem to come back to “My, doesn’t that have an interesting analogue in late 20th c. / early 21st c. Terra.” But rather than take advantage of “this seems set up like our world” and then smash it to pieces by saying “except on Pern, because dragons, jealousy is a really rare condition because sex rays. People might not enjoy coming out of a blackout to find they’ve fucked the neighrbor’s wife, but they accept it as part of life,” they seem to be blithely assuming that whatever way it is on Terra, it is on Pern, and that shows a lack of thinking about your own world. So, because of low expectations, I’m probably going to need extra convincing if someone wants to make a serious argument that they’re going meta anywhere in any book.

  4. WanderingUndine April 21, 2019 at 5:54 pm

    Right. I might think they wer possibly being meta if they ever demonstrated self-awareness. But they haven’t, so I don’t.

  5. Firedrake April 22, 2019 at 9:06 am

    I think that at a very meta level there’s an intrinsic problem with prequels in series that deal with Big Problems, especially if the prequels got started because all the Big Problems seemed to have been solved in the chronologically-later books: you can’t fix anything that canonically isn’t going to be fixed until later, or if you do you know it’s going to be forgotten.

    I can see the appeal of getting away from the worn-smooth Final Pass world, but when so much of the series has been not about “I have a heroic arc” but about “this aspect of society is broken” it gets very difficult to fit in legitimately interesting new stories.

    (Nothing in this analysis is causing me to think I want to read any of the later books.)

  6. genesistrine April 22, 2019 at 1:45 pm

    @SilverAdept: Yeah, there’s thin pickings here as far as non-trashbag characters with a narrative focus go. Kelsa and the rest of the scoobies seem OK, but don’t exist as much more than a demonstration of how cool and woke and heroic Kindan is. At least in the last book we had Halla, and Kindan was decent in the book before.

    As for Conar … Perhaps because all his relatives and other foster-arrangements are dead or sick.

    All the noble families on Pern must be pretty closely related by intermarriage/treaty/cross-fostering by now. Pretty much any Hold we could name probably has a cousin of Conar’s in some degree there.

    Cynical interpretation: if he’s infectious better he infect the Harpers than his extended family!

    @Firedrake: you can’t fix anything that canonically isn’t going to be fixed until later, or if you do you know it’s going to be forgotten

    Well, it’s not like – backwards continuity? Retrocontinuity? – has ever been bothered about in this series anyway. Moreta was the first prequel and explicitly included the time-travel “discovered” at the beginning of the Ninth Pass, even though that wasn’t needed for the plot, and there never seems to have been any attempt to give Pern a consistent history since. Everything the Ninth Pass discovers (time-travel, fire lizards, dolphins…) shows up in the earlier eras too, with no reason to be forgotten.

    But I don’t see that that’s an intrinsic problem in itself; prequels could, theoretically, deal with how the knowledge was lost, how people survived, how things got messed up, how people survived, or just slice-of-life in an alien society with a different set of problems.

    Not that *these* do, of course. But I’d like to see it done….

  7. Firedrake April 23, 2019 at 2:25 am

    @genesistine – indeed. But when one of the narrative thrusts is “this is a problem for lots of people, but these heroic characters are going to fix the whole problem”, i.e. the writer is trying overall for a sense of progress, it makes prequels more difficult.

    (McCaffrey’s series starting with The Rowan has a related problem – it’s generational, so you get a romantic heroine with Parents Who Don’t Understand, but she grows up to become the next generation’s Parent Who Doesn’t Understand. Twice, as far as I remember.)

  8. Silver Adept April 23, 2019 at 8:46 am

    Admittedly, “my parents grew up to be the person they swore they would never become” is both trope and Truth In Television.

    I have been surprised that so far, we haven’t had any stories, essentially, of “this is how the knowledge was lost.” We have ones where great and terrible things happen, and people die, and we can infer that a large chunk of knowledge was lost with the dying and such, or stories where some previous disaster’s lost knowledge makes it harder to find anything useful in the current time when something similar threatens again, but we haven’t had a story about losing knowledge as its A- or B-plot. Despite all these stories set in the Harper Hall, which supposedly collects these things. We haven’t seen a story focused on the Archives to any degree of “the Archivists run dawn to dusk trying to prevent more knowledge from being lost and they’re fighting a losing battle and know it.”

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