SCHOLARS OFTEN ORGANIZE the medieval literature of Western Europe into three major cycles: the Matter of Britain, about King Arthur and his associates; the Matter of France, about Charlemagne and his confrères; and the Matter of Rome, about Roman (and occasionally Greek) history and mythology. It is no surprise — given the often fantastical nature of these three cycles and the influence of the medieval (real or imagined) on fantasy — that a great deal of fantasy fiction converges on these Matters as well, utilizing Roman, Arthurian, and less commonly Frankish tales as the inspiration for new mass-market epics. Tolkien’s own hope in writing The Lord of the Rings and its legendarium was to create a mythic prehistory of Britain, and since he was a medievalist, his work too is studded with the jewels of the Matters. Given Tolkien’s inescapable shadow in fantasy fiction — so much of which is nothing but poor imitations thereof — what’s an American to do when the urge strikes them to write fantasy: write in European drag about the Matters, crafting worlds that resound with the Arthurian, French, Nordic, and other ancient European traditions, or create something “new”?
This is the conundrum Michael Swanwick faced when he wrote the first of his major fantasy novels, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (1993). Or at least this is the conundrum as he explained it to me this past November over pizza while he was visiting the University of Michigan to speak about his work. As he put it, it was his early introduction to Tolkien that inspired him to write fantasy. This will come as a surprise to anyone who’s read his work, given the stark ideological differences between Tolkien and Swanwick, as well as Swanwick’s success outside of epic fantasy, notably as an early author of cyberpunk. Swanwick noted in his review of Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008) that he and many others tried to “figure out” how to write in the genre Tolkien invented, but few had ever succeeded in such imitations; and when they did, as Terry Brooks did with The Sword of Shannara (1977), the effects were qualitatively disastrous. After a visit to Britain in the 1980s, Swanwick felt sure that Tolkien and other Europeans, who had grown up in lands where a thousand-year-old abbey or an 800-year-old castle lay just around the corner, where the cultural imagination seemed to stretch into times when Faerie itself may have existed, had an experience of the world wildly different from his own in Philadelphia.
The romanticization of Europe aside, Swanwick’s suggestion that the deep fantastic of Tolkien’s secondary world could only have come from one who grew up surrounded by the ruins of (white European) history has informed his fantasy fiction over the past quarter century, beginning with The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, written at the height of the “doorstop” epic fantasy craze of the 1980s–1990s; continuing with The Dragons of Babel (2008); and concluding with The Iron Dragon’s Mother (2019). In this loose trilogy, Swanwick unfolds three separate stories of half-mortal/half-fey beings, each connected to a devious, warplane-like, magical-mechanical “dragon,” and their travails caught in the violent struggle between the political and state powers of Faerie. Youngsters who come across broken down or discarded dragons serve as the protagonists of the first two novels. Vile creatures, the dragons attempt to manipulate the preteens into doing whatever it takes to escape their fey handlers and become independently powerful. Through psychosomatic connections with the dragons that scar and empower them, the youngsters undergo moral transformations. They travel the worlds of Faerie and seek to discover the fundamental truths about Swanwick’s fantasy world: who has power over them, where they came from, why everything seems to end in disaster and death. The youngsters, Jane and Will, come from subservience and poverty, rise to the heights of fey power, and confront the primordial forces of the universe.
The Iron Dragon’s Mother contains similar elements, following the trajectory of morally suspect adventures toward some supposed fundamental truth about the horror of existence, revealing along the way that little in life matters except how you treat those around you. But where The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and The Dragons of Babel do less to answer Swanwick’s question about how an American should/could write in the epic fantasy vein, The Iron Dragon’s Mother seems to be a clear and successful experiment in offering an answer. As one maybe-protagonist, Helen, puts it in a postmortem letter to the novel’s other maybe-protagonist, Caitlin: “The world is choking on old stories […]. Tell new and better ones.” And this is what Swanwick does. Despite so much of the worldbuilding blocks emanating from the European fairy tales, folklore, myths, Matters, and fantasies elaborated on by so many others, these references (layered upon references) to just about every Western text in the fantastic tradition come together in novel, enticing ways. Those traditions intertwine with the seemingly unexpected excesses and devastations of American consumerism: an ancient Atlantis-like city filled with high-end retail brands we all know, an SUV named Jill who transports Caitlin and the trickster god Raven, a hobo camp filled with all manner of fey, trolls, dwarves, and haints among them. The novel fails to commit to any subgeneric trend, but dabbles with them all, from the grittiness of grimdark to the eroticism of urban fantasy or the imperial trompe-l’œil of steampunk.
As with most Swanwick novels, the plot is convoluted, focusing on Caitlin, the youngest scion of a noble Faerie family and a successful member of the Dragon Corps. As a dragon rider, Caitlin is half-human, half-fey, born of a farmed human woman kept in a glass coffin as a reproductive slave, mated to (raped by) an elven lord to create a child capable of fulfilling the family’s military duties. The novel begins with Caitlin on a routine mission to steal human souls for bodies just like hers; when she returns to Faerie, her dragon acts up as her mind is invaded by a newcomer: the spirit of the recently deceased Helen V., a rambunctious old human theater director. Her father’s death, subsequent disappearance (of his own accord) by her brother, and her dragon’s new attitude cause her suspension from the Corps, after which she is put on trial for her brother’s murder.
Knowing that the deck is stacked against her, Caitlin destroys her dragon (a capital offense), runs from the Corps, and embarks on wild adventures across Faerie to discover why she was framed for her brother’s death. She winds up working odd, mostly bullshit jobs (waitress, secretary, railroad maven, et cetera), inserting herself into the aptly named Conspiracy, and discovering that the sabotage of her career was merely collateral in a grand scheme to undo an ancient treaty preventing Faerie from importing more fire spirits to animate their dragon warmachines. The story was never about her, she learns. She was not the target of the Conspiracy, nor was she the main character of the story we were reading; as the ancient underwater king Gradlon reveals, the story and its moral were Helen’s to learn, even though she appeared to be a minor, comic aspect of the novel as we read it. The Iron Dragon’s Mother ends with Helen having passed on; with Caitlin made into the head of her family, now one of the most powerful beings in Faerie; and, years later, with Caitlin telling her children the story of her life. The novel closes with a sly wink — Caitlin’s maid asking her why she tells such lies. Did any of it happen?
Regular Swanwick readers will be familiar with this sort of ending. His 2002 paleontological time-travel novel Bones of the Earth (2002), for example, provides perhaps the most nihilistic conclusion of any recent SF novel, but The Iron Dragon’s Mother is gleefully unreliable, offering the happiest ending to his Faerie trilogy possible — one with little death, an empowered protagonist, and a playful revelation. But only if you don’t think too hard about it. Whatever the reliability of Caitlin’s narrative, unsettling moments of tragedy and violence cannot but be remembered. There are the haints, ghostlike beings whom Swanwick has taken from African-American folklore, who serve elite fey families and whose stories of abuse and slavery roil beneath the surface of Faerie. There are the impoverished who live in slums built unknowingly in the shadow of the great elven houses. There are the sex slaves young and old, homeless folks persecuted for their poverty, spirits enslaved to machines for the benefit of military and state institutions, and innumerable innocents caught in the crossfire of the Conspiracy and its military-industrial collaboration with state power. The neoliberal imperialism of modern America, replete with the historical legacies of racial slavery, sexual atrocity, and state violence transmogrified by figures from the American and European fantastic, cannot but bleed through the supposedly unreliable narrative of The Iron Dragon’s Mother. Caitlin’s failure to offer anything like justice to anyone but herself — acknowledged by Helen, by Gradlon, by the haints, by her friends, and by the novel itself — renders the dark truth of the otherwise happily ever after. Swanwick’s Faerie trilogy is ultimately about power, and Caitlin’s story provides the grimmest conclusion yet.
The Iron Dragon’s Mother is explicitly concerned with the American contexts of fantasy, with the very question of how to write in a genre that (arguably) depends upon the depth and autochthony of myth while feeling as many white Americans do, not unproblematically, that they have no culture, no myth, no history beyond, for example, family stories of relatively recent immigration to the United States. All of this angst is bound up with ideologies of whiteness and anxieties about American belonging, and it has produced in Swanwick’s final Faerie novel a thoroughly fascinating meditation on the Nietzschean adventures of his earlier novels. Where The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and The Dragons of Babel deal closely with personal growth in an amoral world, The Iron Dragon’s Mother looks instead at the failure of those with privilege and power to address the wrongs of the world. It is as if Swanwick’s Faerie was our world all along, and the stories of Jane, Will, and Caitlin just a few among the options we have for dealing with the power others hold over us and our power over others.
But these are now old stories, and Helen has warned us against repeating them. As we heed the fables of old, knowing their stories never came to pass, let us heed Helen’s plea to tell new, better stories. It is time for the world to breathe again.