Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor
A confession: my first crush wasn’t on Zach from Saved by the Bell or anyone from 90210. I couldn’t talk about the man in my daydreams with the rest of the kids in my class—mostly, they wouldn’t know who I meant. I fell into the “bad boy” phase early, I suppose. He isn’t a very nice guy, although eventually he rated an epic and heroic redemption by death—only sort-of, actually. Not much to look at, either: wasting away from an illness of a body ignored in total dedication to mind. Although the golden skin and gold eyes with hourglass pupils might make him stand out in a crowd, he definitely isn’t pinup poster material. His name is Raistlin Magere, and I met him in the Dragonlance Chronicles. He stayed with me for years, through novel after novel, as he made his journey from a young and bitter youth picked on by the strong, to his adulthood as a powerful mage still consumed with rage. There are teachers in my middle school who will always remember me as the girl who kept a book hidden under the desk—sometimes Dragonlance, sometimes Tamora Pierce, often a tale of fantasy and magic. I outgrew that particular pastime as far as reading during class, but I never outgrew the stories that promised escape to realms with fewer rules and more opportunities. As for a certain golden eyed mage…Raistlin Magere’s quietly biting remarks still echo in my mind at times, particularly when I find myself surrounded by fools, a condition he too often found himself afflicted with.
Raistlin Magere may not be one of the fantasy men you see pictures of in magazines, but he is one of the great characters in fantasy from the “old school” days [AKA: before Harry Potter made the genre hip] to display the moral ambiguity and depth that now make Severus Snape step off the page for today’s readers. Raistlin emerges from the geek tradition: he’s an intellectual, and intellectuals tend to suffer in childhood, especially when they’re sickly and scrawny. But Raistlin gave me—as a young geek reading inside the library to avoid going out at recess and being picked on—the hope that eventually an obsession with books and words might lead to a different kind of power. And if Raistlin occasionally felt like using that power to reshape the hierarchy of the world and crush the people who made his youthful life hell, well, who could blame him? Certainly not me as I devoured the stories of him quietly resenting his twin brother’s health and strength, not to mention his ability to arrange a roll in the hay with any tavern wench in town. Raistlin is the darker force in a revenge of the nerds, and he certainly gets even.
Recently, a travesty has made its way to the small screen – in the form of a direct-to-DVD adaptation of the classic work, Dragonlance Chronicles: Dragons of Autumn Twilight. I feel deep regret that anyone’s first encounter with Raistlin won’t be as a construct of words and sarcasm – with hourglass pupils and golden skin – described lovingly by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, but rather as a strange animated man voiced by Kiefer Sutherland, a man better known for terrorist thwarting than magical menace. This fiasco is akin to the early animation of the Lord of the Rings, and similarly subject to painfully bad renderings, unexpressive voice acting, and for a new twist, the horrific combination of eighties style cartoons with nineties style CG dragons. Nothing takes the majesty out of powerful deities and epic quests like this kind of cheap and careless treatment. One can only hope the tragedy ends with the first volume, as the two remaining works of the chronicles only grow in darkness and depth, and hardly deserve this kind of stain on their history.
The story of Dragonlance is deceptively simple: a group of companions make their way across a war-torn world trying to find a power strong enough to combat the forces of the goddess of darkness and her newly risen dragons. The entire story sounds like a session of Dungeons and Dragons, and well it should: Dragonlance, like the Forgotten Realms and other TSR series you might have seen in the bookstore, relied upon Dungeons and Dragons for its initial origins in brainstorming sessions and mechanics. Fellow geeks who grew up sitting in basements around maps and charts pretending to be anywhere but here will recognize the little nuances—Raistlin’s need to study his spellbook every morning to cast spells, clerics reliance on their deities’ attentions to get their power on, and so on. The story even begins with a meeting at an inn, where the companions come together and are sent on their epic quest by a bit of divine intervention.
Dungeons and Dragons-related stories have often made the transition to screen, often with disastrous results. Anyone who went to see the unfortunate live action Dungeons and Dragons movie a few years ago—as I myself must confess to having done—might remember the excruciatingly developed “storyline” and the antics of fantasy stereotypes on contrived quests. The movie might seem to have a great deal in common with the Dragonlance universe’s own quests and archaisms: at one point the companions of the lance even find themselves plotting a way to get a pile of discs away from a dragon’s lair. But what’s missing from the live action movie, and this most recent animated disaster, is the heart behind the quests: the personality of these characters, from Raistlin all the way through the rest of the party, with its misfit half-elf and not-quite-knight clinging to a dead code of honor. These are the characters of fantastic archetypes, but they are also the people we grew up with, and the people we are ourselves. It seems it’s easy for the creators of these films to think the appeal is in the dragons and battles and funny looking little men, when the power of fantasy actually lies in how it reshapes the way we see reality.
The Dragonlance Chronicles will likely never receive a grand treatment such as Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings enjoyed as at the hands of Peter Jackson. You’ll find these novels in the back of a bookstore’s fantasy section, scornfully consigned to the dump heap that is series fantasy, with hundreds of titles all claiming to be part of Dragonlance. Most of these were written on the fly by authors in the Wizards of the Coast workhouse, without much passion for the world. For those uninitiated to the Dragonlance universe, six novels are worth picking up to experience the path of Raistlin and his companions: Dragons of Autumn Twilight; Dragons of Winter Night; Dragons of Spring Dawning; Test of the Twins; Time of the Twins; and finally War of the Twins. You’ll find a good helping of dragons and epic battles, certainly—but also quite a bit of the relationships that gave hope to quietly reading children everywhere.
As for Kiefer Sutherland’s overly strong voice in the badly drawn body of a pupil-less Raistlin Magere—that’s one fantasy better left on the shelf.