This is another one of our charity shop finds. And I know I say this about almost all of the books I discuss here, but this one really is one of my favourites.
Perhaps best known for The Eagle of the Ninth, Rosemary Sutcliff has also written a number of books about the Arthurian legends, and I feel as though The Minstrel and The Dragon Pup very much draws inspiration from these. That’s not to say that this is a stereotypical medieval fantasy story – there are no swords, or sorcery. At its core, the tale is about a singing musician who finds a dragon’s egg, hatches it, raises it, and loves the resulting dragon.
And it’s that love which makes this such a rare tale.
I’ve read a lot of fantasy over the course of my life, and I’ve found that if the gender roles of knights and damsels are challenged – and this is rarer than you’d think – that it’s done by placing women in a traditionally masculine role i.e. the Knight Alanna in Tamora Pierce’s The Song Of The Lioness Quartet.
Don’t misunderstand me – that’s brilliant too. But this is honestly the only instance I can think of – off the top of my head, in any case – in which there’s a boy in a caring role, who undertakes a quest for non-romantic love.
The plot follows The Minstrel – a young man who sings for his supper as he tours the kingdom. One day, he finds a dragon egg, just as it’s about to hatch. He cares for the dragon pup – who he names Lucky – and the two form a loving, gentle friendship. One night, though, Lucky is stolen. The Minstrel goes searching for him but to no avail. His songs become sadder and he grows hungrier. Time passes, until a chance encounter leads him to Lucky – a prisoner now in the king’s menagerie. The Minstrel then uses his skills as a song-writer, and the love he feels for his friend, to solve the king’s dilemma and win the freedom of the dragon pup.
Aside from the obvious ‘quest for the love of a friend’, this book is also unique in that the happy ending doesn’t involve vanquishing a foe – neither with violence nor with trickery. It involves healing with music. There are no villains in the work – the thief who steals Lucky is only trying to survive in a harsh world and the Minstrel doesn’t seek vengeance.
Yes, the questing hero is still male, but it feels different to the usual ‘hero saves damsel’ tale on account of the love which drives the search being parental, fraternal, and philial. It’s more Finding Nemo/Finding Dory than any usual fantasy. It deals with the family-we-choose, and I feel like in the context of a blended family, or an adopted family, that this would be a great book to use in a discussion about how kin doesn’t necessarily mean blood-relative.
The story is a gentle subversion of a whole host of fantasy tropes, and as a result, it becomes its own thing entirely.
Have you read The Minstrel and The Dragon Pup? Or any of Sutcliff’s other works? Can you think of any other fantasy stories which avoid the usual stereotypes?
As ever, I’d love to hear your recommendations.