When I was a kid we ordered a subscription to Nintendo Power. This would have been something like 1990. This was a big coups in my family as it was always seen as a little bit superfluous to play Nintendo as much as we did….or Sega Genesis…or etc etc. Although I do recall my mom being on the phone with Nintendo customer support to figure out why our console was dying and the various, inevitably futile ways in which we worked against the dying of our Nintendo’s light.
Anyway, this subscription came with a copy of Dragon Warrior, the US localized version of Dragon Quest 1. In addition, it came with a full world map, a compendium of the enemies, and a level-up guide with weapon and armor suggestions. The game itself only takes a couple of hours to play and it’s basically a grinding game based in fetch quests with almost no story. It’s so simplistic at times that watching a speed-run of the game is watching someone who knows the random number generator so well, they skate through with barely any leveling. But it taught me how to play and love RPGs in video games. A love that, while it has waned as I got older, still has a lot of power over me to this day, including the fact that I will replay Dragon Warrior still every once in a while.
This book series works in almost the same ways. It’s such a by-the-book, table-top derived, mass produced and cheap series of novels that sometimes it’s embarrassing how much I still love it. I can’t even rate it because I know it’s objectively bad, but I love it.
But it taught me how to read fantasy novels. I know how to look at the world-building, to follow the logic of the magic, the creatures, the powers, the map, and all kinds of other factor that go into a lot of fantasy books. I read and reread this book a half dozen times in my youth before I even knew that Lord of the Rings existed. Something that remains a curiosity to me because I read The Hobbit about 10 times as a kid and never knew there was more to that series until well into high school.
So this series works this way: Tropes!
There’s elves that are just LOTR elves (forest and mountain, ooh!), there’s dwarves same as LOTR. There’s two races that kind of split the difference between Hobbits. There’s dragons, and goblins, and a limited number of wizards (oh wait, mages), and there’s plainsfolk….hrrrm Rohirrm? And Northern knights whose order has mostly died out….cough cough Dunedain cough cough.
And there’s a weapon of ages that has dramatic consequences on the current plight. There’s a mythical figure who took down those old foes. All that.
The first book is about the reuniting of a band of friends at a tavern built into a tree. Pretty cool. The companions are as follows:
Tanis Half-Elven (guess his deal — oh right, half elf half human….not unlike one Aragorn [who I KNOW is not a half elf, but does live among them]); the dwarf Flint Fireforge (which, I get it dwarves’ are known for making things, but this is a little on the nose, right?); Tasslehoff Burrfoot, 1/2 Hobbit — a trickster type character; Sturm, a fancy knight; Caramon, a big ole fella, presumably played by Jason Momoa; Raistlin, a mage and his brother; Riverwind and Goldmoon, “plainsmen” and definitely NOT white Native Americans, right?; and the curiously missing Kitiara, a sellsword and sister to the twins.
So the result of all this is a basic grail quest mixed with a good versus evil world-rending battle. It’s oddly compelling, and almost entirely action, and so derivative of Lord of the Rings it’s almost shameful at times. There’s zero character building — oh Tanis is a reluctant hero? The Dwarf is grumpy? It’s oddly chaste and not funny.
But I keep returning to the fact that this is the series of books who helped me understand these kinds of fantasy tropes and because it was beloved when I was a kid, I can’t get away from it.
It does leave me in a funny place in terms of whether or not I would consider recommending it to someone (not to adults) but I do teach high school and it’s a pretty low risk, high reward set of texts. I’m left in a kind of void regarding these books.
But I have a plan. So there’s another trilogy that’s also the “core” of the Dragonlance series and I found a free copy of the first of those books. And they’re the same authors and the same time period (mid-80s). So I will get back to you!