Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke

IMG_1126I wanted to read this book because it was a big book — period. I love big books! When I reach out and pull a big book off the stacks, I anticipate a story that will take me to an enchanted place, even if it is non-fiction — and if it is a good story and nicely enchanted, why would I want it to end? Therefore, I’m not afraid of a big thick book. In fact, I’m drawn to them.  Interestingly, I’m not a series reader. A series is something different — at least in my mind. I’m not sure what a series might mean about a person, but I don’t think it’s good. A big book, for me, seems a little less pathological.

Continuing with the Dragon Rider:

Since this is a children’s/juvenile/adolescent book, I needed to sell my daughter on reading it to her. Lucky for me the cover has an animal closely resembling a cat on it. This cat-like creature, which we eventually found out is a brownie — is sitting on a dragon along with a boy — I don’t think she noticed him, though. Anything resembling a cat is enough to hook my daughter.

We decided this would be a family read so my husband sat in on the reading sessions (which oftentimes is difficult because he usually spends the whole day asking when we are going to start reading — especially if the book is a good one.).

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It should be noted,  Dragon Rider is a translation. Cornelia Funke lives in Germany, and is, I assume, German, and she apparently likes to write in her native language. The translation is by Anthea Bell. Typically, translators never get any credit. Their names appear somewhere on the cover page or near the copyright year, which is sometimes hard to find. They are the invisible artists who bring to us news from other lands. Cornelia Funke would not be as widely read, and we would not benefit from her gift if not for Anthea Bell. This is not to say you need not study German. Most books are better in their native language. The best way to get a sense of any book, in my opinion, is to read it in its language of origin. Fortunately for translators, this is somewhat ridiculous advice. Something more practical and translator friendly would be to read as many translations of a book, in other languages and your own, as you can.  Seriously, translators vary, and the variance can be significant.

The three of us huddled in the living room and we began to read Dragon Rider. My husband voiced some concern as it is bleak in the beginning, and he, as a typical american, is a sensitive reader. Admittedly, it is a little jolting at first, especially with the appearance of Nettlebrand, a product of alchemy, a giant golden looking despotic dragon, who cannot fly or spit fire, but can do all sorts of nasty things, and only dreams of one thing: hunting and eating dragons. Nettlebrand, however, is not the first character the reader meets.  Very smart of Cornelia.

We meet Firedrake, Sorrel, and a rat first. The story begins with doom in the human form approaching. The humans and their machines are going to flood the land where the dragons live, (As I think about it now, I’m seeing some chilling similarities between Nettlebrand and the humans with machines). The dragons need to find another place to live, and one old dragon, Slatebeard, has a faded memory of a place called the Rim of Heaven. He vaguely recalls a beautiful place of peace where dragons lived many moons ago. It is somewhere near, in, around, the Himalayas, and, of course, there is an evil menace, the golden-one (Nettlebrand), who is looking for it too.

Cornelia Funke writes in a way that makes you want to go in search of this place yourself:

“Listen, then,” Slatebeard began again. “I don’t really remember very much. These days, the pictures get more and more muddled in my mind, but I do know this: You must fly to the highest mountain range in the whole world. It lies far away in the East. And when you get there, you must find the Rim of Heaven. Look for a chain of snow-covered peaks encircling a valley like a ring of stone. As for the blue flowers growing in the valley,” he added, closing his eyes, “their fragrance hangs so heavy in the cold night air that you can taste it.” He sighed. “Ah, my memories are faded now, as if they were lost in the mist. But it’s a wonderful place.” (21)

Firedrake decides to find the Rim of Heaven. Sorrel, a mushroom eating brownie, who does resemble a cat, will not let him go alone. First, as in all adventure stories, they must get a better understanding of where they are going; for this they are instructed to visit the big city that will be on their way, and within this city they will find a big abandoned warehouse that is home to an intense map-making snow-white mouse, Gilbert Graytail. It is in this warehouse where they meet and befriend a boy living on his own among the litter and filth. This boy’s destiny is that of the Dragon Rider.

And so Firedrake, Sorrel and the Dragon Rider begin the quest to find the Rim of Heaven — with an excellent map made by a mouse.

What I like most about how Cornelia constructs this book is her ability to leave plenty of open space so as not to get herself or her characters stuck in a corner. At the same time, she maintains a storyline that is sophisticated and unpredictable, but not farfetched — if one understands farfetched within the context of this story, and not simply an obvious characterization of a story about a dragon looking for the Rim of Heaven.  Interestingly, Dragon Rider contains historically accurate information — not the part about the dragon rider, the brownie, or the story itself — but certainly alchemy and the supernatural beings they meet along the way, are embedded within our universal cultural consciousness.

In the end, as mythical adventures often seek to teach us, life itself must be risked in order to come out on the other side of fear with a deeper appreciation of life and the world one inhabits.

This is a great read to your family book. It is an enchanting adventure. A well constructed tale.  My family loved it, and while the 500 plus pages were a little daunting to my seven year old, my husband never let us fall behind, and even convinced us to have a few afternoon reading sessions in addition to the evening ones.

 

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