Book Review: The White Dragon by Anne McCaffrey

The White Dragon Book CoverBook Name: The White Dragon
Author: Anne McCaffery
First Published: 1978

Anne McCaffrey was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The only daughter of three siblings and the middle child, she grew up on the East Coast of the United States. Eventually, she graduated cum laude from college where she gained a degree in Slavonic Languages and Literature. In 1950 she married Horace Johnson and they had three children: Alec, Todd and Gigi. The family lived in Wilmington, Delaware for around a decade and then moved to Sea Cliff, Long Island in 1965 where they remained until 1970. During this time, Anne McCaffrey began to work full time as a writer and served a term as the secretary-treasurer of the Science Fiction Writers of America. Her duties not only included the publishing of two monthly newsletters for the guild, but she also handcrafted the Nebula Award trophies.

In 1970, McCaffrey divorced her husband and weeks later took her children to live in Ireland. During the 1970s, Ireland offered artists to live exempted from income taxes and Anne McCaffrey, being of Irish descent, emigrated to Ireland to take advantage of this opportunity. Anne’s mother soon joined the family where they stayed in Dublin. It was the following spring when she met British reproductive biologist Jack Cohen, at a science fiction convention where she was the guest of honor, and together they worked on the biological mechanics of what would later become her famous Pernese dragons.

The author finished writing the first two novels of the original Pern trilogy and had a contract for the third book, The White Dragon, when she experienced writer’s block for several years. She and her family moved around the Dublin area many times as she attempted to support herself on alimony and scant royalties from her writing. The breakthrough came when a call for stories to be published in an anthology prompted her to write a Pern-based story about Menolly, a young female musician who discovers miniature dragons, known as firelizards. This story eventually became the start of her young adult Harper Hall Trilogy. The White Dragon was completed seven years after the first two books of the original trilogy were published and the Harper Hall Trilogy followed a year later. All of the books were huge successes.

The royalties from these books enabled Anne McCaffery to buy her home in Ireland, which she named “Dragonhold” after the dragons that helped her purchase it. Twenty years later, her son Todd wrote that his mother “first set dragons free on Pern, and then was herself freed by her dragons.” Anne McCaffery lived in Dragonhold until she died of a stroke at the age of eighty-five.

Anne McCaffrey’s most famous novels are the Dragonriders of Pern series. The stories are set on a planet known as Pern that was settled by colonists from Earth in the far future. Due to a biological threat from a nearby planet that had gone unnoticed before the colonists had settled on Pern, the Terrans regress into a feudal style society as the alien “thread” destroys much of their world. Before the total loss of their space faring technology, the colonists create a biological wonder from the tiny native “firelizards” that live on the planet. These winged lizards have the ability to breath fire after eating a certain coal-like fuel and could communicate telepathically with the humans they had bonded with at their hatching time. The colonists genetically grew these firelizards into a size that a man could ride and thus create a renewable “air force” to protect their people while the “thread” from the sister world, called the “red star”, rained down from the skies. As the centuries pass, two culture emerge on Pern: the holders, who live in lowland feudal societies led by the Lord Holders, and the dragonriders, who live in volcanic “weyrs” nurturing and fighting with the now intelligent “dragons.” The dragonriders of Pern are duty-bound to fly and fight the “thread” when it falls every 250 years, incinerating it in the sky before it can touch the earth.

The third novel of the series is The White Dragon. It follows the coming of age story of Jaxom, the Lord Holder of Ruatha Hold, which lies under the protection of Benden Weyr. Complications arise when Jaxom accidentally impresses a mutant dragon. The dragon is white, instead of conforming to one of the five normal colors a Pernese dragon might be, and is a runt. Not having a color to define its place in the dragon fighting ranks and since it is thought that the white dragon might die early due to its mutation, Jaxom is sent back to Ruatha Hold with the dragon Ruth to wait its death, and to return to his duties as the future Lord Holder of Ruatha Hold. Jaxom is not pleased; as a rebellious teenager he wishes to fight thread as a dragonrider, a far more exciting prospect than managing a large Hold.

Ruth does not die, and flourishes under Jaxom’s care. The young Lord Holder finds that Ruth has abilities and intelligence not found in regular dragons. Jaxom fights for his right to fight thread and for his Ruth to be accepted as a regular dragon. The Benden Weyrleaders consent to allow Jaxom and Ruth to join the fighting ranks of the weyr’s dragons on a visiting basis.

After battling thread, Jaxom falls ill with a deadly illness brought on by teleporting on his dragon while wet and he and the white dragon are sent to the Southern Continent to recuperate. While there, Jaxom and Ruth find an old settlement that the ancient Pernese have left behind. Ruth’s special abilities in teleportation and time travel come into play as they learn more about Pern’s ancient past and how the Pernese might permanently remove the threat of thread from their skies for all time.

Of the first three novels in the series, The White Dragon is my favorite. I remember as a young teen, waiting for it to come out in my local bookstore and saving my pennies in order to purchase the book. I was not disappointed. Many of the themes that Anne McCaffery developed in her first two novels mature in this one. The dragons take on a new life of their own and become far more interesting as characters instead of being backdrops of the humans who ride them. While you should likely read the books in chronological order, you could start with The White Dragon as a stand-alone book and be very entertained. The book is still in print with its original Micheal Whelan cover, which is famous as being a launching point in this illustrator’s career.

The Dragonriders of Pern Series:
The White Dragon
Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern
Nerilka’s Story
Renegades of Pern
All the Weyrs of Pern
The Chronicles of Pern: First Fall
The Dolphins of Pern
The Masterharper of Pern
The Skies of Pern
A Gift of Dragons
Dragon’s Kin
Dragon’s Fire
Dragon Harper
Dragon’s Time