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Mythopoeic Society

a non-profit organization devoted to the study of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, the Inklings, and the genres of myth and fantasy


Discussion Groups

Khazad-dûm Report: 1984

Khazad-dûm Discussion Group Report
Topic: Tea With the Black Dragon by R.A. MacAvoy
Reported by David Bratman


First published in the March 1985 issue of Mythprint.

Khazad-dûm gathered itself together in Santa Cruz one pleasant Sunday afternoon to discuss the fantasy publishing phenomenon of 1983, Tea With the Black Dragon, and to consider the general topic of dragons in fantasy literature.

Tea, we decided, is a deucedly odd book. In genre it’s hardly fantasy at all, being mostly a genteel non-murder mystery with just a touch of the fantastic in the form of the old man who claims he’s a dragon. The writing has all the gawkiness customarily associated with first novels. And the characterization, to be polite, is simply awful.

But most of us liked it anyway. We were hard put to explain why.

It was a lot easier to dissect what was wrong with the book. To start with the lack of a fantasy element, this is really a marketing problem. It’s misleading to sell a book of this sort as a fantasy. But more importantly, what little fantasy there is lacks the mystique of fantasy, that distinctive touch that separates the truly magical books from the pedestrian ones that have all the words but nothing else. Pat put it most succintly: “There’s a dragon statue, but nothing to convince me that Mayland really is a dragon.” Frankie took this a step further, and wondered whether Mayland actually is a dragon, and, if not, whether he’s better classified as paranoid or schizoid. The only place where magic really seems to be hovering in the air is in Mayland’s tale of “the story behind” Thomas the Rhymer. We considered why the true faerie touch is missing, and concluded that, as Ursula Le Guin said on another occasion, the fault is in the style. MacAvoy is an awkward, unpolished writer with a long way to go. (Perhaps her Damiano trilogy will be better, but none of us had gotten far enough into it to notice anything.)

The awkwardness was most painfully obvious in the characterization. Martha, the heroine, is set up as this fascinating person who plays both Irish fiddle and classical violin, but nowhere in the book does she have the chance to utilize any of her talents, or to show herself to be an interesting person even without a fiddle in hand. The farther the book goes along, the more Martha is merely a pawn in the struggle between the opposing forces (which are hardly mythic enough to be called “good” and “evil”). I felt as if I’d been introduced to someone who was grandly called “the most fascinating person in the world”, who grinned sheepishly at this description and didn’t say anything. Martha’s daughter is even odder and less explicable. The only character who we felt really works is Fred, the computer jockey, and that’s only because he isn’t called upon to do much. The villains are as cardboard as they come.

The local color was mostly approved of, and I cited a friend of mine who said he liked the book because it was the only novel he’d ever read that mentioned Rengsdorff Avenue. The computeroid touches were also generally liked (someone said MacAvoy had a tame expert in the field to help her with that), expect for Martha’s first meeting with Fred, which we thought rang a bit false.

We then left Mayland behind, and turned to the more general question of dragons in fantasy. We decided that there are a few authors who really understand dragons, like Tolkien (Smaug, in The Hobbit) and Le Guin (Yevaud, in A Wizard of Earthsea, and Orm Embar in The Farthest Shore). But even they never tried to write a whole book from a dragon’s viewpoint, and most authors who have written books that are primarily about dragons have cheated somehow. Gordon Dickson, in The Dragon and the George, had a dragon who was actually a man trapped in a dragon’s body. Then there are Anne McCaffrey, in her Pern books, and Jane Yolen, in Dragon’s Blood, who are writing about animals that aren’t dragons at all, but alien critters who remind the settlers from Earth of the mythical dragons.

We concluded that dragons are one of those fantasy creations that are best viewed from a distance (especially if they might be paranoid or schizoid).