Favourite Scenes: Dragonsinger

The moment in Dragonsinger when the Hall gathers together during Threadfall and Menolly leads the massed chorus, accompanied by her fire lizards.

Dragonsinger: during Threadfall

In spite of being a computer programmer, I'm not actually a great fan of the fantasy or sci fi genres. The ability to create your own world, or your own rules within this world, seem to make for sloppy writing or, I'm afraid, become an excuse for soft porn. A story of this kind appears to work best when it sticks quite close to normal current humanity, introducing just one or two key concepts to differentiate. Arguably, that's what J.K.Rowling has done with Harry Potter: taken a fairly conventional (if slightly old-fashioned) school-based adventure story, and applied a veneer of magic.

And it's also the basis of Anne McCaffrey's Pern which follows the lives of human settlers in some distant future who are living a simple and fairly harmonious existence on the Earth-like planet Pern. There are farmers, fishermen, traders, settlers, landowners and harpers. The latter are both musicmakers and arbitrators whose job is to entertain and to inform and to use their influence to smooth over political or social ripples. On its own, this is a sort of mock-mediaeval setting without any fantastical elements. What McCaffrey adds to the mix is the Dragons, bioengineered from the indigenous fire lizards to help the humans cope with Thread: a simple but voracious lifeform which falls from the skies at predictable intervals and devours anything organic unless incinerated by dragons.

While the dragons and their riders are at the centre of most of the stories in the series, a few books leave them aside and focus on other aspects of Pernese life. Three of the books, collectively known as the "Harper Hall Trilogy" focus on a young harper, Menolly, and her immediate circle. Her hidebound parents in a remote fishing hold don't consider her talents appropriate for a girl and she runs away and lives for a while in a cave during which time she inadvertently acquires responsibility for nine of the small fire lizards whom she teaches to sing. She is eventually found and brought to the Harper Hall to further her prodigious musical talent but finds that, even there, not everything is in her favour.

These three books resonate with me in particular because the first of them, which describes the loneliness and incomprehension experienced by the musically-gifted Menolly, entered my life at a time when I was starting in a new environment and experiencing a similar kind of rejection. Like Menolly, even when I moved to what should have been (and was) a more welcoming place, not everything was as easy as I'd hoped.

This episode is from the second book, Dragonsinger. Menolly has been a few days at the Harper Hall and has already ruffled a few feathers. When the siren sounds for threadfall, the windows are sealed and the Hall gathers in the refectory. To pass the time they start to sing well-known teaching ballads:

Feet began to stamp, one, two, three, four, and suddenly the fire lizards' keen was covered by the mass chorus. Beauty fanned her wings in surprise and Mimic backwinged himself off the mantel, only missing a drop to the floor by claws biting into the wood.

"Drummer, beat, and piper, blow,

Harper, strike, and soldier, go..."

sang the massed voices. Menolly joined in, singing directly to the fire lizards. She was aware of Brudegan, then Sebell and Talmor coming to stand beside her, but facing the boys. Brudegan directed, cueing in the parts, the descant on the refrain. Above the male voices, pure and piercingly thrilling, rang the fire lizards' tone, weaving their own harmonies about the melody.

The last triumphant note schoed through the corridors of the the Harper Hall. And from the doorway to the outer hall, there came a sigh of pleasure. Menolly saw the kitchen drudges, an utterly entranced Camo among them, standing there, every face wreathed with smiles.

"I'd say that a rendition of Moreta's Ride might be in order, if you think your friends would oblige us," Brudegan said, with a slight bow to Menolly and a gesture to take his place.

Beauty, as if she understood what had been said, gave a complacent chirp, blinking the first lids across her eyes to that those nearest laughed. That startled her, and she fanned her wings as if scolding them for impudence. That prompted more laughter, but Beauty was now watching Menolly.

"Give the beat, Menolly," said Brudegan, and because his manner indicated that he expected her obedience, she raised her hands and sketched the time.

The chorus responded at the upstroke, and she experienced a curious sense of power as she realised that these voices were hers to direct. Beauty led the fire lizards in another dizzy climb of sound, but they sang the melody, octaves above the baritones who introduced the first stanza of the Ballad, to the muted humming of the other parts. The baritones, Menolly felt, were not really watching her: she signalled for more intensity because, after all, the Ballad told of a tragedy. The singers gave more depth to their part. Menolly had often led the evening sings at Half-Circle Sea Hold, so conducting was not new to her. It was the quality of the singers, their responsiveness to her signals, that made as much difference as chalk from cheese.


The final verse, a dirge with keening descant, this time so appropriately rendered by the fire lzards that Menolly waved the humans silent, ended in the sorrowful farewell of a world to its heroines as Orlith, the dying Moreta on her back, seeks the oblivion of between.

Such a deep silence followed the soft final chord that Menolly shook off the spell of the song with difficulty.

"I wonder if we could ever repeat that again," Brudegan said slowly, thoughtfully, after a further moment of almost unendurable silence. A sigh of release from the thrall of the music spread through the hall.

I love music, and choral music in particular, and the thought of the massed voices starting together at the beginning gives me a thrill every time. But so, too, does that silence which follows the last note. The same idea comes up as Will Stanton sings in the hall of Huntercombe Manor in The Dark is Rising: "a small silence, the only part of performing that really meant anything to him, and afterwards quite a lot of clapping."

Sunday 17th June 2012