Menolly in DRAGONSONG (Portrayals of Writers)

I still have the paperback of Anne McCaffrey’s DRAGONSONG that I picked up from an elementary school book fair back in 1980.   The cover has  a wonderful drawing of a girl playing the pipes while surrounded by tiny dragons; it caught my eye while looking at the display tables at the fair.   This would be the first, but not the last, book I’d read by Anne McCaffrey.

Recently I pulled out DRAGONSONG to reread after many years, because I vividly recalled Menolly’s struggle to become a musician and songwriter on the planet of Pern, and I was curious to see how I would react to the story now.

For those who don’t already know, Pern is an imaginary world created by Anne McCaffrey where dragons were bred in order to destroy threads (an organism which falls from the sky from Pern’s moon that threatens all life on Pern).

Menolly is a teenager who lives in a traditional culture where female roles are strictly defined.  For her to become a Harper (musician & songwriter) is unthinkable to her parents.  Her gifts as an artist, which would be a source of pride if she were a boy, are instead a source of shame that drives her family to thwart her at every opportunity.   In the end her parents’ punishments become physical; her mother actually attempts to cripple her so she can’t play an instrument, driving Menolly to run away.

More adventures for Menolly then ensue, but I don’t want to ruin the book for anyone who may not have read it yet.

I found the treatment of Menolly by her family even harder to read about than before.   Knowing that there have been times in the past when being a professional writer or other artist was forbidden to women, I found it all to easy to imagine how our foremothers must have felt at being thwarted at every turn.

As the winter spun itself out, Menolly found that her sense of loss when she thought of Petiron deepened.  He had been the only person in the Sea Hold who had ever encouraged her in anything: and most especially in that one thing that she was now forbidden to do.   Melodies don’t stop growing in the mind, tapping at fingers, just because they’re forbidden.  And Menolly didn’t stop composing them–which, she felt, was not precisely disobeying.

There’s a sad, but deep truth, hidden in McCaffrey’s book.  If one’s family and friends (perhaps even culture) are determined to destroy one’s gifts as an artist, one has to leave if the opportunity presents itself.

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