PC018: Illuminated Dragon

By Sarah Prineas
Read by Steve Anderson
First appeared in Strange Horizons (full text online.)

The neatly lettered sign hung askew. Shards of glass spilled out from the front window, and scraps of charred paper blew around the front door, which hung crookedly from one hinge. Rafe came closer and, shaking, peered into his shop.

Shredded papers lay everywhere, in drifts on the floor and the worktable. Any representation of human or animal, Rafe knew, had been hacked out and burnt; the hearth was choked with ash and half-charred pages. Across one wall was a splash of vivid vermilion. The other colors had been tipped onto the floor and ground underfoot. Rafe crept further in, shards of the broken window crunching underfoot. With trembling hands, Rafe opened the book.

The bestiary was missing from its wooden stand in the corner. Rafe fell to his knees, pushing tattered papers aside, searching for it. A shard of glass cut his hand, and he left bloody fingerprints on every page that he touched. At last he found the book underneath his worktable, and for a moment his heart leapt; it seemed to be unharmed. With trembling hands, Rafe opened the book. He looked at it for a long moment, then closed it and laid it gently on the floor.

Most of the destruction in the shop had been done by unsubtle thinkers, typical Men of Truth, all brutality and swagger and the knowledge that they were, absolutely and rationally, Right.

But someone else had done the book. Someone subtle, surgical. The pages were nearly untouched. Except that every illuminated picture, every dragon, pard, gryphon, or mermaid, had been carefully and neatly excised.

Rated G. Warning: contains mythical creatures such as dragons and mermaids. May be illegal in some jurisdictions.

Please visit the thread on this story in our forums.

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30 Responses so far

  1. 1

    Travis said,

    July 29, 2008 @ 4:17 pm

    Wow, this was a wonderful story!
    The reading was appropriately subdued, as well, which just made it that much better.
    I really hope the author considers adapting this story into a full novel, furthering the story and detailing the renewed fight against the rationalists.

  2. 2

    I Like Podcasts » Blog Archive » Sarah Prineas Story Up at PodCastle said,

    July 30, 2008 @ 11:22 am

    […] Sarah Prineas’s fantasy story, “Illuminated Dragon”, read by Steve Anderson, is up at fantasy podcast site PodCastle. The story originally appeared in Strange Horizons in 2002. […]

  3. 3

    Josh said,

    July 31, 2008 @ 1:42 am

    This may be my favorite Podcastle so far. It used enough of the tropes of fantasy – dragons, conflict between magic and rationalism, etc. – to draw me in, but it still felt very unique. Sort of like 1984 meets meets sword-and-sorcery.

    A small request, though: when reading feedback at the end of the episode, could you guys give a brief mention of what the story was about? Often, I find I’ve forgotten the title by the time feedback comes around.

  4. 4

    Rachel said,

    July 31, 2008 @ 10:05 am

    “A small request, though: when reading feedback at the end of the episode, could you guys give a brief mention of what the story was about? Often, I find I’ve forgotten the title by the time feedback comes around.”

    I’ll make sure to pass that along to Ann.

  5. 5

    Chris said,

    July 31, 2008 @ 8:46 pm

    Easily my favorite so far, but I’ve enjoyed everyone of them so far. I really think I had gotten so lulled in by the lack of what I previously thought of “fantasy” that this one almost had a nostalgic fantasy feel to it. As much as I’ve enjoyed the many variations on fantasy, I’m very glad this one was more of what I think of as typical fantasy.

  6. 6

    CaroCogitatus said,

    August 1, 2008 @ 5:09 pm

    Nice premise, but it was marred by a couple of problems in my opinion. First, if the depiction of animals were really illegal, bookstores would have been the first to feel the heat. I got the impression that the protagonist, despite his past activities and his current profession, has been flying under the radar. He wasn’t nearly as careful with his work as any reasonable person would be in his shoes.
    Second, the ending was telegraphed in advance, which is unusual for me (count me slow-on-the-uptake in that regard, which makes the ending all the better for most of the stories I read). I wondered halfway through why he hadn’t already been doing what he did at the end.
    Alastair was a good choice of reader, though. Love his work on pseudopod and the match was good here.

  7. 7

    CaroCogitatus said,

    August 1, 2008 @ 5:20 pm

    Oops. I confused the reader of this episode with Escape Pod 168.

  8. 8

    Abbie said,

    August 2, 2008 @ 2:50 pm

    I loved this story! But I really really wanted to hear more. Surely this is not the end of this character and his tale?

  9. 9

    Nae said,

    August 4, 2008 @ 9:53 am

    As an artist as well as a lover of books (illuminated and otherwise), I simply fell in love with this story. It was beautifully crafted, emotionally charged, well narrated & powerful, as well as intellectually stimulating. Great job! Just fantastic!!

  10. 10

    scatterbrain said,

    August 4, 2008 @ 6:51 pm

    Quite brilliant, quite unique in itself.

  11. 11

    George said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 10:58 am

    Excellent story! Great reading too.

    It brought back memories of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (the classic I fell in love with at age 12) and that made the end all the more meaningful and sweeter.


  12. 12

    George said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 11:00 am

    … and worthy of being published as an Illuminated ms

  13. 13

    Changwa Steve said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 5:59 pm

    I call shenanigans on this story. The Rationalist faction is a straw man.

    A rational skeptic would not discount the evidence of his own eyes that magic works, were such evidence presented. Nothing about rational skepticism leads inevitably to hating art and beauty, and there is no clear relationship between an evidence and logic-based worldview, and the violent suppression of dissent to that worldview.

    I would be interested to know why the author feels this way about rationalism, and what motivated her to write around the issue rather than confronting it more directly.

  14. 14

    SarahP said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 11:38 pm

    Thanks all, for the comments on the story!

    Changwa Steve asks,

    “I would be interested to know why the author feels this way about rationalism, and what motivated her to write around the issue rather than confronting it more directly.”

    Because it’s a story, not a treatise.

  15. 15

    Rachel said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 3:54 am

    “A rational skeptic would not discount the evidence of his own eyes that magic works, were such evidence presented.”

    There’s a discussion about this on the forums.

  16. 16

    Changwa Steve said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 5:12 am


    I am asking why you resort to a straw man argument, not why you made certain artistic choices. That’s clear, right?

  17. 17

    SarahP said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 8:45 am

    Steve, thanks for continuing this discussion. I don’t necessarily feel that way about rationalism. I’m not trying to make an argument in the story at all. The story is a story and not a vehicle for any opinions I might have on that issue. The reader is welcome to derive whatever meaning he or she likes from the conflict presented in the story.

    Interesting. You’re tapping into a larger issue about what stories, or fiction in general, should do. As an author, I don’t write in order to advance any agenda. At least, I hope not.

    Rachel directed this to the boards! I didn’t know there was such a thing, but I’ll try to track it down.

  18. 18

    SarahP said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 8:46 am

    Oh, and as far as the rest of it goes. It could very well be a straw man argument. If the story opens up discussion, I’m thrilled. But I’m not going to defend the argument either way. It’s not my story, it’s the reader’s.

  19. 19

    DrunkenGamer said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 8:43 pm

    I found myself truly admiring the lead character. He faced his seemingly inevitable doom without calling on vengefulness, victimhood or any other manifestation of anger. He had a humble heart throughout it all. It’s been awhile since a happy ending left me actually feeling happy and not pandered to.

  20. 20

    Greg said,

    August 8, 2008 @ 9:33 pm

    Great story. As for the view of rationalism the story presents, I think it was trying to represent the complex historical issues of idolatry/iconoclasm in a simple form. My sense is that the “rationalist” position would’ve been in a religious context, interpreting commandments again graven images to be anti-image. I appreciated that the author didn’t make it a simple conflict of magic vs. “religion” or “the church” as things are often simplified in fantasy. On the other hand, describing the anti-image group merely as the ‘rationalists’ doesn’t do justice to the religious context in which that view grew up. It would be difficult to say much more in a short story though, but there could’ve been a little more description on this point.

  21. 21

    Martin R said,

    August 10, 2008 @ 11:18 am

    This story is a heavy-handed allegory of the kind that Tolkien loathed. It’s designed to alienate every fantasy lover who, while happy to read about Faerie, has no wish to try to live there. Worst Podcastle story so far.

    Good reading, though. I always imagine Steve Anderson looking like Frank N. Furter in the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

  22. 22

    The Fix | From the Podosphere: July 2008 said,

    August 16, 2008 @ 9:31 pm

    […] final story for July is “Illuminated Dragon” by Sarah Prineas. In a world of rationalists, where magic is banned, a man hides his gift […]

  23. 23

    Rod Basler said,

    August 19, 2008 @ 4:45 pm

    An amazing story, and one that just cries out to be expanded into novel format – with more elbow room, the countless unanswered questions could be addressed, and with more subtlety.
    I must admit that for a good deal of this story, I had a hard time accepting it as fantasy at all – not because the fantastic elements are rare or incidental to the story, but because the world of this story so closely parallels some of the ugliest and most painful aspects of our own. It was less than a decade ago that ‘police’ went through the museums of a particular country with sledgehammers, destroying priceless artwork and artifacts because they were ‘idolatrous’; and as for denying the evidence of one’s eyes – the story goes that Galileo had the churchmen look through his telescope to see the moons of Jupiter, to see for themselves that there were bodies in the heavens that did not revolve around the earth…and they claimed to have seen nothing.
    As Einstein said: “Only two things are infinite: the universe, and human stupidity. And I’m not sure about the former.”

    Please, Ms. Prineas, I’d love to hear more.

  24. 24

    aaron said,

    August 20, 2008 @ 8:46 pm

    I know it’s an old story by now but I felt I had to comment.

    The description of the “rationalists” really bugged me.

    I, and most other rationalists I know, would love to live in a world with magic, physics, gods, and whatever other paranormal things you want to throw in, that’s why we love fantasy. The problem is that every bit of evidence suggests that world doesn’t exist.

    I can accept the caricature of a group to communicate a message about that group. The problem here is that the message is completely and utterly wrong. The rationalists of the story are polar opposites of what rationalism is but are instead based on the misunderstandings and lies of those making their living conning people as paranormal experts. On the contrary psychics, mediums, and religions have much more in common with the “rationalists” of this story than real rationalists ever could.

  25. 25

    Spork said,

    August 31, 2008 @ 11:58 am

    I really, really enjoyed this one. I could see and feel everything described, and the blood dragon was a great solution.

  26. 26

    Spork said,

    September 10, 2008 @ 7:30 pm

    Some of you are taking this WAY to literally.

    The rationalists are called such because it’s the only opposition one can muster to something that is inherently irrational. That being magic.

    You slap some paint, or blood, into an animal shape, wave your fingers, mutter a few weird words and whoosh! You’ve got a living critter made out of paint, paper, or blood.

    There simply couldn’t be anything more irrational than magic. Well, except for the RNC, but you get my meaning.

    Stop trying to apply fantasy stories to the real world in which we all live, you idiots! I read/listen to fantasy to escape reality, not to compare the two. Seriously. What’s wrong with you that you can’t enjoy a story with a giant dragon made out of blood and willpower?

  27. 27

    Rachel said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 2:52 am

    Spork, you have a history of trolling this site and others related to PodCastle. I am not inclined to tolerate you calling other posters “idiots.” Consider this a final warning.

  28. 28

    Spork said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 8:39 pm

    I give my honest opinions, I do not troll.

  29. 29

    Spork said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 8:48 pm

    By the way, nice try at burying my first and only warning 21 days after the story drops off the main page…

  30. 30

    Lessons Learned | Nicolette Jinks said,

    November 16, 2013 @ 12:11 pm

    […] including: Goblin Lullaby, a sort of “the other side of the questing adventure” tale; Illuminated Dragon, a tale of amazing magic which inspired my own start of an “illuminated” story; Black […]

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