Some 25 years ago, Kay E Vandergrift took a critical approach to Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders series that was based on reader-response theory. I haven’t read a piece of literary criticism quite like this before – and there should be more like it!
She gathered a small group of readers who had shown a strong interest in this series and started helping them tease apart (and share) their responses to the books in discussion. Then she published their findings.
Some of what I found interesting in this article includes:
“What then attracts readers to Pern and draws them so intensely into the lore of the dragons who inhabit the land? The respondents indicated that what attracted them was exactly what some critics perceive to be the greatest flaw in these works, that is, the rather loosely connected episodic plots with references to characters and events in other Pern novels. One student said she “liked how you meet a character from one book in another one.” McCaffrey has also devised an elaborate hierarchy among dragons that seems to heighten reader involvement.” (p.28)
“McCaffrey has established elaborate names for dragons and riders in Pern, and the Impression ceremony is one of naming as well as bonding. At the time of Impression a rider’s name is shortened and it is the rider who announces the name of the dragon. Although some readers thought “this business with the names is somewhat silly,” most thought it strengthened the bond. The girls especially appreciated that “both riders and dragons got new names —not like a human marriage when the woman is expected to change hers.” At the Impression of young Keevan, students were delighted by the exquisite courtesy of Lessa to young Keevan in asking him the name of his dragon when she could speak directly to any dragon.” (p.30)
“…food is very important in dragon lore and references to dragon appetites are often humorous. Once Impression has occurred, the dragon seeks food; and it is the responsibility of the rider to provide moderation, control and direction to the young dragon’s appetite. …The control of food is a critical factor in managing a queen dragon just prior to mating. At this time she may kill animals and drink the blood, but she cannot consume the meat which might inhibit her mating flight. Firestone (phosphine mineral) is a particularly important food in that it is fed to dragons to make the fire which destroys Thread. Students recognized that food and feeding are integral to dragon lore and they make the connection between food and control by the rider….” (p.30)
“Members of the group attempted to describe what happens to them as readers as they perceive the dragons and watch them defeat evil in this imaginative land of Pern. There was general agreement when one reader said, “I put myself in Pern to try to help solve the problem, but then I use Pern to think about my own problems.” There was also evidence that they “like to imagine the details of some of the things McCaffrey only mentions in the stories,”….” (p.30)
“The power of “between” is critical to the stories, but it is also “more frightening than death itself,” perhaps because McCaffrey leaves no gaps for imaginative recreation. She tells readers that it is a cold void of nothingness, thus prohibiting that natural reader tendency to specify the unspecified in order to gain imaginative control over it.” (p.30)
“A weak dragon may even lead to the very problem that the new weyrleaders will face, as in the case of Jora and her dragon queen Nemorth. A laziness of both dragon and rider eventually led to poor reproductive cycles and consequently fewer dragons to combat Threadfall. It became clear as the discussions progressed that just being a dragon is not enough; it is the development of character through testing that makes the greatest dragons.” (p.30)
“In answer to “What were these novels about?” or “What did they mean to you?” the strongest and most agreed upon response was “the relationship between two beings.” This corresponded with the most frequently mentioned key words: impression and bonding. All agreed with the statement that “a mission can be a driving force in life” and that “humor is essential in even the most serious situations.” In an attempt to determine which elements or aspects of the texts caused these particular recreations of meaning, we went back and looked again at the incidents discussed in this article. This return to the texts confirmed that the dragons and fire lizards of Pern share a world of telepathic communication in which a loving exchange is the basis for all that happens. The emotional bonding and the constancy and the power of that relationship is so strong that all else in the stories was secondary for these readers.” (p.31)
Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Vandergrift, Kay E. “Meaning-Making and the Dragons of Pern.” Children’s Literature Quarterly 15 (1990): 27–32.