The feelings Sean shares with us in this article brought me back to my own middle school experiences with teasing, bullies, and loneliness and how deeply I bonded with the science fiction and fantasy books I was reading at the time. If I could, I would save every child from experiencing the pain of alienation, but since I can’t, I will write and write and write my stories for them. –Karen Bovenmyer, Nonfiction Assistant Editor
The Absence of Being Alone: Companions in McCaffrey’s Pern, Lackey’s Valdemar, Hobb’s Farseer
by Sean R. Robinson
During the 99-00 school year, I was assigned to Ms. Lamontagne’s seventh grade English class. In my middle-of-nowhere school, it meant that I shared yet another class with the same fourteen people I’d been sharing classes with since kindergarten (our graduating class was 33 people total, but that’s another story).
One of the units in class was a series called “Who Am I”—as we hormone-riddled thirteen-year-olds explored who we were, through literature and writing, and whatever else, I (hormone-riddled, weird-smelling, probably-gay) had never felt more alone in my life. I was convinced, with all the conviction of said age, that I was the Most Misunderstood Human in the World.
I was, as many (all?) of us were—more than a little bit lonely.
In those days, literature units had collections of stories—fiction and nonfiction. Ms. Lamontagne had us read each of the stories, usually aloud, and talk about them. You probably remember doing something similar and probably did it with as much enthusiasm as we did.
On one page was the picture of a dragon, behind it a mountainous background. The class (rolling their eyes, because Fantasy is “For Girls”) began to read The Littlest Dragonboy by Anne McCaffrey.
Have you ever had a story that you know was written just for you? The Littlest Dragonboy follows Keevan, the (you guessed it) smallest child to be offered a chance to Impress upon a dragon. His peers hate him and bully him and hurt him. For me, it was the first time that I’d ever read something where there were people like me—a little different, a lot teased, and mostly desperate to grow into a person that we can only just barely imagine we might become.
I won’t ruin the ending of The Littlest Dragonboy, but there is a moment where…
Nope that would ruin it.
Instead, I’ll share a similar passage in the opening-half of McCaffrey’s Dragonflight. Lessa (the protagonist, who has watched her family be murdered and is about to become the salvation of the planet) stands on the Hatching Grounds at Benden Weyr. She’s nervous, out of place, and before her is the Queen Egg. The last Queen Egg but as the egg hatches and the dragon mauls a number of the other girls, Lessa leaps to save the day. And looking into Ramoth’s (the gold dragon) eyes, Lessa hears Ramoth’s voice in her head. How beautiful Lessa. How brave.
Part I of Dragonflight ends like this:
“Lessa stood caressing the head of the most wonderful creature of all Pern, fully prescient of troubles and glories, but most immediately aware that Lessa of Pern was Werywoman to Ramoth the Golden now and forever.”
Now, who wouldn’t want that? What smelly teenager, or quiet artist, or jovial athlete? What reader, writer—human being? Because sometimes people get lonely. In the many worlds of science fiction and fantasy this moment occurs again and again. And we love it. Because when it happens to the characters we’ve invested ourselves into, the ones what we would like to be, or like to follow, at least, it means that perhaps we will also not be alone.
It might be easy to say this moment in the writing—when the protagonist is suddenly not alone. Ever again. Never, ever, never again is the trope of a particular type of fiction at a particular place in time. You might be right. It’s scattered through the classics.
In Mercedes Lackey’s Arrows of the Queen it happens to Talia when she meets Rolan, her Companion.
“Yes—at last—you! I Choose you! Out of all the world, out of all the seeking, I have found you, young sister of my heart! You are mine and I am yours—and never again will there be loneliness—”
As a young reader, this a moment that sticks with you. Because in life, like most things, people crave companionship (no pun intended). But beyond that, in both of these instances, the relationships that are formed—Lessa to Ramoth, Talia to Rolan—come without expectation.
It seems that many of these moments are shared solely with animal partners. While animal partnership has perhaps gone out of style for the time being, it is certainly rooted in both the classic literatures of genre, as well as our collective consciousness.
Robin Hobb’s Royal Assassin pairs her hero FitzChivalry Farseer with a wolf—Nighteyes. At first, it is a reluctant pairing, going on for several dozen pages about how much Fitz does not want to be Witted to the wolf cub. What follows in the series is harrowing and painful, beautiful and terrible. But Fitz is never alone, because Nighteyes is always with him.
In the scene where their bond is formed, Nighteyes (who is very much a realist) says:
“This is it, brother. We are as we are. How can you claim to know what life I was meant to lead, let alone threaten to force me into it? You cannot even accept what you are meant to be. You deny it even as you are it. All your quibbling is nonsense. As well forbid your nose to snuff, or your ears to hear. We are as we do. Brother.”
Regardless of whether or not the hero is bound to a scientific creation on a far-off planet, a spiritual manifestation of a divine power, or a pragmatic canine, each of these companions embody the human need to not be alone. They offer the reader (and the character, the mirror the reader uses to see themselves) a chance to meet a need inherent in all of us. And in doing so, we are drawn deeper into the story and the story is, in turn, drawn deeper into us.
Ms. Lamontagne’s class didn’t end very well for me. I was suspended for fighting when an older kid decided to punch me in the head. The only egg I got out of the deal was the one that grew on my head from where the other boy hit me. But I did learn—as I hope many have learned—that being alone is not forever. There are people (and dragons, and horses, and wolves) out there that ease the ache of loneliness until your Tribe comes to save you.
And in the meantime, there’s always a book and a friend who will never judge you or leave you to the bullies. Bullies never win.
Sean Robinson first found specfic when reading McCaffrey’s “The Smallest Dragonboy”. Since then, he has earned a MFA in Popular Fiction from Stonecoast, works with at-risk teenagers, and writes about all sorts of things. You can find him online (infrequently) at SeanRyanRobinson.com