Best Books: The Harper Hall Trilogy

Dragonsinger coverThe next work on my list of books everyone should read is the Harper Hall trilogy by Anne McCaffrey, which consists of Dragonsong, Dragonsinger, and Dragondrums.

As I’ve explained a number of times, I include books on my list only if they contain what Chaucer called “sentence and solace”—only if they both “teach and delight,” to use Sir Philip Sidney’s phrase—only if they are useful for both entertainment and edification. I endeavor to avoid both forgettable “fluff” and “reforming” books without any incentive beyond their moral.

Of course, some books lean more toward one of my standards than the other. Calvin’s Institutes, for example, qualify primarily because of their “content,” but as I argued in that post, while reading them may be slow going, even “work,” it is nonetheless enjoyable work. But the Harper Hall trilogy falls on thee other side of the spectrum; I placed it on the list primarily because of the delight of reading it.

But first I want to talk about its other side, the themes that linger long after the books are closed. The most obvious is music, which is a central part of the story from the opening scene of the first book onward, and can hardly be missed from the titles. There are several facets of this that I think are worth emphasizing: the idea of music as a constant part of life; of music as a delight, solace, and friend; of music as something that one does, not merely something one listens to; music as something one works at, to do well rather than “merely doing,” and even as a vocation; and music as a force for shaping culture.

A second theme is education. The stories are primarily concerned with education in music, but the principles they explore are more generally applicable. In the course of the narrative of the three short novels, McCaffrey describes various pedagogical environments, ranging from glorious to awful, and they all ring true.

And a third theme is friendship and companionship. The trilogy begins just after the death of Menolly’s one true friend, leaving her among a family that not only does not understand but is actively hostile to the longings of her heart, but over the course of the books she finds the companionship of first fire lizards, then people more like herself and a place where she clearly belongs.

The last point I’d like to make on this side is one that I’ve brought up in these “Best Books” essays before, and one that I got from various places in the Inklings corpus: that exploration of a secondary-world, of a “sub-creation,” can be edifying per se. Not that it always is, but I think that it is in this case.

I should also mention that the world of these books is not limited to them; they are set in the world that McCaffrey calls “Pern,” and the larger series is one of the major works … milieus … phenomena … of the last half-century, so I think it’s important to be at least minimally passingly familiar with it for basic cultural literacy, even aside from my opinion that many of the other books are enjoyable reading. This trilogy provides a brief and easy introduction to Pern, so that you will have met most of what’s needed to be basically conversant with it as a cultural phenomenon, and will have a good idea of whether you’d like to read more.

But the strongest reason to read the Harper Hall trilogy is for enjoyment. The books are full of unique, likeable, and compelling characters, in interesting and moving situations—I would say “heartwarming” if I understood what that term really means—and shows the characters going through significant growth and change, while at the same time changing their world. I find them so very enjoyable that I find it hard to put into words why.

So, for delight, but not only delight, everyone ought to read the Harper Hall trilogy.


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