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The Dragon Griaule by Lucius Shepard

Many moons ago, Lucius Shepard launched a dragon called Griaule into the unsuspecting literary world. Although it’s always tempting to apply the usual label of fantasy to such flights of fancy, the reality was that of a sophisticated allegory and, in the six stories published as The Dragon Griaule by Subterranean Press (2012) we get to relive the excitement of five reprints, and savour the latest contribution to this hopefully continuing saga.

So what exactly is Griale? At face value, this is an enormous beast that, in the best traditions of fantasy, rose to the top of the predator tree. When it became too dangerous to be allowed to roam freely around the countryside, eating whatever it fancied, a world-class magician was summoned to kill it. Unfortunately, this meeting ended in a draw. The physical body of the dragon was brought down to the ground by the spells and substantially frozen into immobility but, even though the magician gave up his own life as the price of the beast’s death, it did not die. It continues to think and, at set moments during the day, it opens and closes its eyes. Although this might not seem a bad outcome, the dragon possesses the ability to influence the thoughts of those who come into the zone of influence. Not unnaturally, it’s somewhat displeased with its present state and so tends to influence the humans and animals around it to act to their detriment. It likes a good war every now and again, finding amusement in bringing down the proud and foolish that would stand against it.

Now let’s translate this dragon into a major leader like Genghis Khan. Those who assert the right to govern a country are rarely altruists. They are more usually selfish and power-hungry. Without active constraints, they move across the land like predators, asserting control and killing the opposition. But no matter how bloodthirsty such individuals may wish to be, they lose momentum as states develop. Then a magician may cast a spell we can call the Constitution and give citizens power over the leaders through the ballot box. This brings the wannabe leaders down to Earth but does not kill them. They band together into parties and try to influence people into voting them into power. Once in government, the victorious predators move both overtly and covertly to implement their policies. On occasion, this means fighting a war here and there. But in a democracy, the leaders must sell the idea of the war to the citizens who must do the fighting. By a curious coincidence, wars often bring prosperity to the winning countries. Memories of these benefits influence some citizens into a benign view of the policies. Those who disagree are branded unpatriotic and cowards. This creates a deterministic universe in which the majority are manipulated into conforming to the wishes of the dragon. Free will in an individual cannot access power. Through the socialisation process, every aspect of our lives is directed by minds beyond our capacity to understand as individuals. Even the language we use is distorted as the meaning of words is “enriched” by more subtle undertones, enabling the leaders to convince us to do as they wish. For these purposes, it makes no difference whether we’re being convinced to accept a religious faith, or believe in science, or follow the wishes of a dragon.

Lucius Shepard diagnosed with an acute case of dragonitis

So how are the opposition to fight the manipulative power of this sleeping dragon? There can only be so many Kent State massacres and less fatal public demonstrations. Alternative ways of finally killing the dragon have to be found. “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule” (1984) suggests that, over a period of time, the artists of the world can slowly kill the beastly policies by overlaying them with the paint of more environmentally friendly policies. They can mine the earth for the poisons that create the most beautiful colours. When the world sees the old set of predator policies redefined by the veneer of modern sensibilities, they will be freed from the thrall of the dragon. Such are the dreams of the idealistic young and so probably doomed to fail because grasping the meaning in Griaule’s thoughts is beyond us. Who’s to say it was not the dragon’s idea that teams of painters labour for decades to make it look more beautiful? As “The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter” (1988) and “The Father of Stones” (1989) demonstrate, sometimes the best you can do is get on with your life. There’s no point in worrying about things you can’t control. So the young girl moves inside the dragon’s body to spend her life as a carer, while our worthy lawyer is engaged to run the ultimately paranoid version of diminished responsibility as a defence to murder, “The dragon made me do it!” However, even though the body of the dragon may be already dead or, perhaps, merely dying, it still wants to make little dragons so “Liar’s House” (2004) sees its efforts to produce an heir. “The Taborin Scale” (2010) is discussed in another review linked below, which leaves us with the new story.

“The Skull” is set in contemporary South America. When Griaule was finally pronounced dead, i.e. the buyers thought it was safe to dismantle the body, the parts went to all parts of the world and so spread Griaule’s lies and political misinformation everywhere. The skull was bought as a single lot and, after much effort, transported to a country not unlike Guatemala where its presence stimulated much bloodshed. Later, when the trappings of modernity littered the landscape in the form of cities, the skull remained in the jungle, slowly accumulating worshippers. At this focal point, an American man meets a woman. Perhaps they fall in love but, in a moment of panic, he runs back to the safety of US soil. Later, when he hears rumours, he returns to find the skull has literally gone missing. When he explores further, he finds a form of reincarnation has taken place and the spirit of the dragon has a different voice.

From a metafictional point of view, all these stories could be viewed in completely different ways. Some have suggested that the dragon is itself a metaphor for fantasy fiction. The exploration of the body allows Lucius Shepard to investigate and reflect upon many of the tropes that have been an integral part of the genre. So, as readers, we should look beyond the superficial events described and see the broader discussion of storytelling. He can look at the different ways in which stories can incorporate myths to act as a lens through which to view realism. By questioning and challenging the current conventions of narrative, he can discover whether it’s possible to discover new ways of expanding the craft of telling a story, of reshaping words into different artistic forms. Such are the dreams of those who pursue metafiction. Although, if we wanted to be less theoretical, we could take a more literal view. As in all stories, characters have no true will of their own but must perforce act out whatever the author dictates. If we view Lucius Shepard as Griaule then the world he creates must always work in the way he specifies. There should be no escape for the characters. Except there’s a sense that, when there’s real love, the characters may achieve some degree of independence. That they can to a greater extent live their own lives. Perhaps if a pair of lovers were to meet up with Lucius Shepard in the real world, they might find him vulnerable. Try as he might to fly up and away from them, love might conquer his imaginative creativity and allow the couple to live happily ever after — as in all the best fairy stories.

Interesting jacket artwork by J. K. Potter.

For other reviews of books by Lucius Shepard, see:
Beautiful Blood
Louisiana Breakdown
The Taborin Scale
Two Trains Running
Vacancy and Ariel

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

This collection has been shortlisted for the 2013 Locus Award.


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