Sunday, April 27, 2008

Kenders and Hobbits: Luck and Ignorance

109 pages into Dragons of the Autumn Twilight, the first volume of the Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, I muttered "Oh Pul-eeeze" with full valley girl intonation. The traveling party of heroes, a mixed batch of a half-elf, a dwarf, a half-sized "kender" and humans, including brothers with very different values, traveled on a perilous quest to who-knows-where carrying magical items they didn't understand, avoiding water because comic-relief dwarfs are afraid of boats, avoiding the roads because evil creatures never before seen on the planet were blocking them and at page 109 found themselves in the deadwoods surrounded by spectral minions. "These are the spirits of men who gave their pledge to perform some task. They failed in that pledge, and it is their doom to keep performing the same task over and over until they win their release and find true rest in death."

At page 143 I came very close to casting the book aside in complete disgust as the heroes crossed a marsh of "deathmirk" where "strange eyes watched them hungrily".

The line between homage and rip-off is a fine one. The dead in the waters of the cave of Voldemort's locket (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) struck me as a tribute to Tolkein while the deathmirk in Dragonlance just felt like a lack of imagination. Still, by page 143 I was immersed enough in the lives of the characters (and on a plane where I had no place to cast the book in disgust) that I continued to read and read through the whole of the 1,200 page trilogy a few days later. After about page 150, Weis and Hickman seem to be convinced that readers are satisfied that the masterful Lord of the Rings has been acknowledged and then lead their characters through their own well-constructed plot. By the end I really enjoyed the series. I'd recommend it after the greats (including The Blue Sword, Inkheart and Narnia), but would definitely recommend it.
Dragonlance books includes a race called "kender" who are somewhat hobbit-like, being small, frequently overlooked and enjoying a good time. Unlike hobbits, kender are thin, love to travel and are curious about everything. Tasslehof, kender of these three dragonlance chronicles, is the "luckiest" character of the series, as are Merry and Pippin in Lord of the Rings. This makes me wonder if this is a matter of perception: all characters squeeze out of tight scrapes, are the others really any less lucky because they have specialized fighting or magic skills? or if the authors are pointing out some greater truism: "good things come to those that don't know better ."

When I was halfway through the series, The Mister revealed the identity of one of the characters. This revelation was a surprise to me, and did alter, ever-so-slightly, how I looked at that character for the rest of the book. Coincidentally, a sibling-in-law has been discussing the virtues and drawbacks of plot information over on Wuthering Expectations. Scroll down to the series starting with "A Watched Plot Never Spoils" and contemplate how much knowledge changes the reading experience.

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