Elizabeth Bear’s “Snow Dragon” is a story that’s not about a dragon, because the dragon isn’t real. The first line of the story tells us “this is not a real dragon”. It’s not about a fake dragon, because there is sort of a dragon. It’s not about fairy tales, though it seems to almost be one. It’s not about a lot of things, but it’s really beautiful.
She tells me she could fall upon them from a great height, like the eagle in the Tennyson poem. She could push snow down on them, thundering avalanches, or she could tear up the fragile tracks that guide the trains’ toilsome journeys. But that is not the way the legend unfolds, and there’s always the chance that if she lets the story happen, it will work out the way it’s supposed to–with a happily ever after.
I think, deep down, she hopes so.
The narrator refers to the dragon as “the princess”, but this is a princess who lives on top of the mountain, whom everyone else thinks is a dragon, and who garbs herself in the clothing of the men she has murdered. This is also a princess who lives alone on the top of a mountain, and is filled with a sad yearning that the men coming to kill her will instead give her a happily ever after.
The narrator didn’t come to slay the dragon, and through the narration the reader is given a much more mournful look at the princess’s situation. The princess is presented as a younger woman (she sometimes speaks shyly), as one who appreciates beauty, who understands the sorrow and inevitability of her own situation. Because this comes from the narrator, the reader can always wonder if the narrator’s perspective is correct, that there is something here to feel for, but I think there is and that the reader is supposed to – at least as far as readers are supposed to do anything.
Elizabeth Bear never tells us if the narrator is a man or a woman. There is a brief discussion of gender late in the story in regards to fairy tales and heroes, but we never learn who the narrator is. For so much of the story I’ve thought of the narrator as a woman because of the gentleness of the narration, but there is a line midway through the story: “Women who’ll amputate your rotten toes–gagging, puking into a bucket, doing it anyway–don’t just grow on trees.” It’s a line that suggests a man, but even then, does it need to? And does it matter? I don’t know, but it does matter just a little bit in the context of the story’s ending.
“Snow Dragon” is a beautifully written story. The passages are brief glimpses of the Princess / Dragon and each one reveals more and more so that by the end we think we know the dragon and the narrator, we think we’ve seen the mountaintop and the men coming to kill the dragon, we think we’ve seen everything there is to see because we have a clear image in our minds. But, of course we’ve seen very little. It’s just that Bear is so good in pulling our strings and creating an atmosphere that even though we haven’t seen much, we’ve seen it all because we, as readers, filled in the gaps.
It’s just beautiful and touching and moving. I wanted more because as a reader, I’m greedy. I want more of what I like, even when the story is absolutely complete in its own right. As this is.
Like I said, way to break my heart, Bear. Really. Thank you for that.