Of Dogs and Dragons

In May of this year, I followed a friend’s recommendation and began reading His Majesty’s Dragon, a novel by Naomi Novik. The book is the first in Novik’s Temeraire series, a historical fantasy narrative that chronicles the adventures of Capt. Will Laurence and his combat dragon, Temeraire. Reviews often describe this series as “the Napoleonic War…with dragons.” Laurence and Temeraire fight for England, and each book places them in a different cultural setting, complicating their sense of patriotic duty. There are eight books so far, and the final Temeraire novel is expected at the end of this year.

After discovering the Audible version of His Majesty’s Dragon, I wanted to experience the whole series in audio rather than print. Fortunately, the series maintains the same narrator throughout: the incredible Simon Vance. Vance is already a staple in my audiobook library—having narrated my favorite versions of Great Expectations and The Picture of Dorian Gray. His low, supple voice never cracks or stumbles. His native British accent complements the mostly British cast and setting of the Temeraire series. His narration is smooth and expressive, and his gift for dialects produces believable character voices.

In these novels, dragons are highly intelligent creatures, able to speak the native language of their captains. Temeraire, a rare kind of dragon, masters several languages throughout the series—most notably French and Chinese—and often tutors Laurence and the other members of his crew. Despite their intelligence and the love of their captains, dragons are underestimated or disrespected beyond the ranks of the aerial corps, and Laurence and his fellow aviators must constantly challenge the public’s opinion.

The most remarkable feature of the Temeraire series—what keeps me awake late into the night, laughing and crying—is the relationship between Temeraire and his captain, Laurence. At first, Laurence is unwilling to leave his Navy career for a position among England’s questionable aviators, but love for his newly hatched dragon begins to change the shape of his whole life. As they embark on a more-than-working relationship, Laurence uses Temeraire’s happiness to measure his own.

Like most readers, I am drawn to this relationship because of its intensity. Laurence learns to love his dragon above anyone else in his life, and Temeraire protects and adores Laurence as a true friend. To the “civilized” civilian world, Laurence’s affection for Temeraire seems indulgent or delusional—like a lady’s fondness for a favorite lapdog. But Laurence has recognized Temeraire as one of the few people in his life who truly understands him. This relationship is beautiful, dynamic, and sincere.

I experience a daily parallel to the Laurence-Temeraire bond in my relationship with my guide dog, York. York is not a talking dragon—he’s a quiet Labrador—but some similarities are obvious from the start. Like Temeraire, York is a shiny black, and his appearance receives frequent notice. Like Temeraire, he works in harness, a leather contraption that connects us and enables him to perform his job. And like Temeraire and Laurence, our relationship has far exceeded its original motivation.

In the series, British dragons are only assigned to aviators so that they can be trained in combat. To a poorly informed public, a captain’s relationship with his dragon is a working relationship only: the dragon is a beast of burden, not a conscientious, unique creature with a mind of its own. People beyond Laurence’s circle of friends often assume that he can leave Temeraire behind without hesitation; they doubt that Laurence could prefer the company of a nonhuman companion to their own.

With the same ignorant benevolence, strangers often assume that I will be content to leave York behind—especially in situations where they see him as an added obstacle. I’ve often struggled for tactful answers to the questions, “Wouldn’t it be easier to leave your dog and take someone’s arm?” or “Don’t you think it would be better to leave York at home?” The reply that rises to my lips is always a call for empathy: I want people to recognize that what they see as drawbacks—keeping York calm, helping him stay focused, taking care of him—comprise my half of the bargain. As Laurence cherishes the company of Temeraire, I enjoy York’s presence for more-than-practical reasons. Yes, he keeps me safe and helps me travel independently, but he is also a source of daily joy.

As Laurence and Temeraire discover one another’s passions, strengths, and weaknesses, their affection deepens. Laurence often sees Temeraire’s friendship as a remarkable privilege that he doesn’t quite deserve: Temeraire is a superior scholar and he seems to possess an endless supply of fantastical abilities. Only Temeraire’s unwavering affection can help Laurence recognize his own value. But Laurence’s never ceases to regard Temeraire as extraordinary—and their relationship as an extraordinary gift.

Laurence’s feelings of thankfulness and wonder most closely resemble my own. My companion is not magical in the way of fantasy novels; he does not command natural forces or speak my human language. But his skills are far from ordinary—and any glimpse of the extraordinary in our lives is a glimpse of magic, of miracles, of power beyond ourselves.

York can stop for a flight of steps or an unexpected car, the sudden motion of his harness sending a message for my hand alone. He can guide me through a crowd of people, shopping carts, wet-floor placards, line ropes. He solves complicated problems, altering our route to accommodate new obstacles. And he shows me, through his attention to his job, that I am worth keeping safe.

Stories rarely revel in the literal. We love metaphor because it takes us beyond our bread-and-butter world. If York and I cannot fly, I’m glad that Laurence and Temeraire can, because their relationship reflects the delights of living in a more-than-human world.

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1 Comment

  1. heatherawen

     /  July 30, 2015

    Your relationship with York sounds so normal. I’m often surprised at the coarseness of other humans who cannot sense the obvious deep relationships with other-than-humans. York is not an object or a tool. York is one of your most intimate living relationships. I am glad I am still surprised that some humans are so crude and grateful that people like you can articulate the powerful goodness that those less sensitive might miss.

    Reply

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