Elves, Dragons, and Anarchy

Convention and Subversion in Michael Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter

Jeff Topham

I recall reading that Swanwick wrote much of this novel with a picture of the Sex Pistols pinned over his word processor, and it shows: The Iron Dragon’s Daughter simmers with an anarchic energy and rock ‘n’ roll sensibility reminiscent of the early days of cyberpunk. The audacity of Swanwick’s imagination has always been one of his most endearing qualities, and with this novel Swanwick has attempted nothing less than a reinvigoration of the genre-the result is a searing electric charge directed at the doddering corpus of contemporary Fantasy.

On the surface, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter deploys the most clichéd genre images imaginable. Elves? Yep. Magic? Sure. Dragons? Check. Beneath the surface, however, lies a profound distrust for and impatience with those very same clichés. The result is a gleeful demolition: Swanwick appropriates these images, packs them with dynamite, and cheerfully lights the fuse. The resulting explosion is both subversive and exciting. You can almost hear Johnny Rotten laughing…

This is, as I’ve suggested, an audacious novel. Swanwick takes as many risks as a tightrope walker, and while he occasionally stumbles, he manages to pull off enough of his show to give the entire performance a breathtaking sense of daring, excitement, and invention. Even with its shortcomings, which primarily consist of episodic and desultory plotting, there’s enough life in this novel to make the vast majority of its genre cohorts seem pallid and quaint. It is stylish and vulgar, violent and sexually explicit. It is often brilliant and never less than fascinating. It is also frequently hilarious.

Swanwick’s vision is relentlessly innovative, and much of the excitement of the novel comes from the synergy created from the juxtaposition of the fantastic and the contemporary. Faery is imagined as a land where magic mingles with microchips, and elves and trolls inhabit a landscape strewn with garbage dumps, shopping malls, and other artifacts of late consumer capitalism. This combination of tepid fantasy tropes with a fiercely contemporary sensibility generates an ironic tension that undercuts its own escapist impulses. As John Clute has noted, in Swanwick’s novel it becomes impossible to use the fantastic as an escape from contemporary social issues such as sex, drugs, poverty, racism, and urban violence (all of which figure in the novel to some degree). Filtering the fantastic aspects of Faery through modern sensibilities also serves to heighten the strangeness and grotesquerie of many of the novel’s images. The burning of the Wicker Queen, for example, is both primal sacrifice and media spectacle, and her death is finally distanced and desensitized in a way that is only possible in a media-saturated culture. The effect is chilling. The chaos of the Teind is similarly imagined as both an atavistic chaos and an outpouring of urban rage fueled by poverty and racial tension.

Although Celtic myth and legend serve as one of the novel’s important sources, Swanwick’s iconoclastic vision is, ironically, far closer to the spirit of the source material than the cute, sanitized images that have plagued the popular imagination. The inhabitants of Swanwick’s Faery are often possessed by a mischievous unpredictability and arbitrary cruelty, and the realities of random violence and ritual death are woven into the very fabric of their lives-the annual burning of the Wicker Queen and the bloody tithe of the Teind are as familiar and inevitable as sales tax and government elections.

The heart of the novel is its central character, Jane, a human changeling stolen from her home and set to work in a steam dragon factory. The grim portrait of child labor and the gloomy industrial setting of these early chapters are the most overtly Dickensian of the novel, but the structure of the narrative as a whole-the story of an orphan’s struggle to make her way in the wider world-is also an homage to Dickens. Swanwick largely succeeds in making Jane a complex and multifaceted character, whose struggles to define her destiny are fraught with both passion and contradiction. Neither a hero nor an anti-hero, Jane lies, cheats, steals, and even murders while remaining fundamentally sympathetic.

The majority of the novel follows Jane’s efforts to define a future for herself on her own terms. The opening chapters, set in the industrial nightmare of the steam dragon factory, remain among the most memorable, their dark layers of cruelty and hopelessness achieving an almost visceral quality. The novel follows Jane as she escapes the factory and lies her way into high school; Swanwick renders the aimless vandalism and delinquency of these years in a manner that suggests he has not entirely forgotten what a painful, awkward, and surreal experience high school can be. The chapters describing Jane’s years at college are even sharper, and her fascinating study of alchemy and erotic magic is set against a hilarious satire of academic bureaucracy and institutional ineptitude.

Despite Jane’s moral failings, she is in many ways an admirable character. In an environment where loyalty is often compromised by pragmatism and friendships are extended lessons in using and being used, Jane is no worse than the characters that surround her and is frequently better. Swanwick’s depiction of her sexuality is especially interesting. Jane uses sex in ways that are traditionally male-for power as well as pleasure-and she is both confident in and in control of her own sexuality. While Jane struggles for autonomy, however, there is a malignant shadow hanging over her: the dragon Melancthon.

A sentient war machine, Melancthon is the embodiment of hate, destruction, and deceit; the proponent of a nihilism so profound that its only defining feature is the impulse to utter annihilation-not only of the self, but of history and existence itself. In his unrelenting hatred for the Goddess, Melancthon recalls Milton’s Lucifer, and his sole ennobling quality is his refusal to bow before an authority he despises. Jane’s tumultuous relationship with the dragon is the ultimate ambiguity in a novel fraught with ambiguities: her commitment to his rebellion is both a quixotically heroic attempt to overthrow a fundamentally unjust order and a rejection of all order, meaning, and responsibility.

Throughout the novel, Swanwick stubbornly refuses to reduce his moral landscape to a prim black and white, and Jane often finds herself struggling in a murky and puzzling moral realm. She makes both good and bad decisions, but the results are almost always disastrous. She struggles for independence, but continually finds herself frustrated. Her escape from the steam dragon factory leads to continuing humiliation and disgrace in Grunt’s sadistic school, and the status of her college scholarship is continually besieged by outside forces: first by the threat of the Teind and later by the intervention of the suave but deeply disturbing Galiagante, who basically buys Jane from the cash-strapped university.

Part of Jane’s problem, Swanwick suggests, lies in the nature of Faery itself. Despite its frequent outbursts of anarchy and chaos, it soon becomes clear that Faery is both rigidly stratified and curiously static, its inhabitants caught in recurring patterns that are neither acknowledged nor questioned. As Jane’s tutor tells her in a blackly comic scene, “We are all of us living stories that on some deep level give us satisfaction. If we are unhappy with our stories, that is not enough to free us from them.” As the novel progresses, it becomes evident that Jane herself is caught in a recurring story whose details may vary, but whose conclusion-despite Jane’s best efforts-is always the same. By the end of the novel it becomes clear that Rooster, Peter, Puck, and Rocket are iterations of the same character, their role in Jane’s life part of an ineluctable and inscrutable design. In a world where individual autonomy seems illusory, Swanwick asks, and fate seems to override the will, does it still matter what we do?

In the end, Swanwick’s novel turns on some pretty big questions: What is the meaning of suffering? Is there a purpose to our lives? Although Swanwick (and Jane) seem ultimately to reject Melancthon’s nihilism, it’s not clear that too many viable alternatives remain. After Melancthon’s demise, the Baldwynn tells Jane that she is permitted to ask anything of the Goddess, but Jane learns that the freedom to ask does not necessarily guarantee an answer. Jane’s half-anguished, half-accusatory stream of questions is met only with silence, and the answers to these questions (if they do indeed exist) remain inscrutable. Like the needle and dog’s tail extracted from the mystified Jane’s chest (the final iterations of the Tetisgistus and Kunosaura figures that have woven themselves through the fabric of her life), all that remains are clues to an elusive and potentially illusory meaning. In the face of such uncertainty, Jane’s final act is another Miltonian defiance: a refusal to serve or accept a justification that justifies and explains nothing. This renunciation, it seems to me, is the central moral act of the novel.

I would also make the case that the entire novel is Swanwick’s own renunciation of stories that have become stagnant and meaningless; stories that cannot accommodate truly meaningful questions; stories whose conventions will not allow them to illuminate or address the complexities of our lives. The critique of genre conventions is largely implied, but unmistakable: Swanwick assaults conventional Fantasy’s reluctance to engage with the complexities of our experience at the same time that he demonstrates with great skill its ability to do so. Convention, after all, protects us against risk, growth, and change with heavy walls of comfort and familiarity. The power of Swanwick’s novel is that it forsakes this familiar territory and encourages us to do the same.

Copyright © 2001 by Jeff Topham.