Review of Elizabeth Bear’s, “She Still Loves The Dragon”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 20 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.
“She Still Loves The Dragon” works deliciously well as a metaphor for the pleasures and pains of being open to love. A knight-errant heads up a mountain to face her final challenge; a dragon. As the knight travels, the story illustrates the importance of healing old hurts when embarking on a new relationship:
The knight-errant who came seeking you prepared so carefully. She made herself whole for you…
She found the old wounds of her earlier errantry and of her past errors, and the other ones that had been inflicted through no fault of her own.
At the top of the mountain, the knight-errant finds a complex creature who she comes to love, and who loves her in its turn, but who always has the power to hurt the knight. By using fantasy to place the knight-errant in an unbalanced romantic relationship, the story underlines the important role trust & vulnerability play in making a relationship work. Unfortunately, when the dragon become bored, it sets the knight-errant on fire to see what will happen; illuminating the dangers inherent in laying yourself open to love.
The knight-errant keeps the fire stoked with her own anger because she is afraid of how she’ll be changed when she stops burning. When she eventually lets the fire die down she finds ‘The scars are armor. Better armor than the skin before. Not so good as the flames, but they will keep her safe as she heals.’ The scars are a defence mechanism, but she is also ‘stiff and imprisoned in her own hide.’ The heroine is in the middle of a healing process after a betrayal; not necessarily wishing to leave the dragon who broke her. It’s important to note that while Elizabeth Bear’s story works well as a metaphor, the dragon is not a stand in for an abusive lover. It is clearly a supernatural force that operates by different, inhuman standards, and the knight-errant is free to leave when she is finally able to do so.
Eventually, the knight-errant scratches off her scars, and finds she has become ‘the thing I am. I am the space I take up in the world.’ or as the dragon says ‘what you made of yourself this time was not for anyone but you.’ The knight is reborn into someone more ‘tempered’; more experienced, open, and ‘complete’ in herself. Bear has crafted a story that calls out to be examined from all different sides, and is full of artistry to be enjoyed as the reader travels through this story of identity, love, and bravery. I would be interested to know however whether readers think this story strays a little too close to imagining a magically healed disability as it evokes its story of emotional healing.