Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series put dragons on the map in the science fiction and fantasy world as both plausible alien creatures and the brand-spanking-new fantasy trope of the all-knowing, intelligent animal companion. The first two stories, “Weyr Search” and “Dragonrider” were published in Analog magazine in 1967; they later were incorporated into the first Pern novel Dragonflight. Published in 1968, it led to sequel after sequel that expanded upon the world of Pern and its medieval culture of lords and commoners, the poisonous alien spores that periodically fall from the sky, and the dragons and dragonriders that fight them.
I’ve got problem with the books themselves (see here) but have always loved the concept of alien dragons. Here’s different ways artists have depicted them.
One of the first covers of Dragonflight, a British edition, for all of 25p (!) It’s abstracted as were a lot of covers in the late 1960s, with a vague Gustav Klimt look, but artistically, not too bad. I can guess that the sheer volume of paperbacks published back then required quick turnaround for covers, and this one might have taken only a few hours, compared to a few weeks, for, say, a Michael Whelan cover. The dragon looks alien and monstrous, but the bright colors are attractive to the eye.
Cover from one of the first US paperbacks, mid-1970s. It’s intriguing, but let’s face it, it’s not a literal scene from the book. The undress of Lessa and her fluttering hair and robe are more in line with a Harlequin cover, though not the sideboob which was more common for SF and fantasy of the day, as were her gold sandals. The dragon’s head looks fine but not its neck, which is twisted awkwardly as it looks over its shoulder. In fact, it seems to be looking at the Red Star, the source of all Pern’s troubles! It echoes the Chinese legends of dragons pursuing pearls through the sky. In hindsight it’s not a bad bunch of analogies, but the whiff of cheese still lingers.
A very vicious-looking hatchling dragon appearing on the paperback cover of Get Off the Unicorn, a collection of McCaffrey short stories including “The Smallest Dragonboy” which inspired my own story “The Unchosen.” When I saw this cover in the mid-1970s as a teen I snatched it up from the drugstore book rack right away, because of the strength of that dragon. It’s a very powerful image even if a false depiction. The eyes aren’t multifaceted for one thing, as in the McCaffrey canon, but most of the artists don’t get that detail right.
And… actually… McCaffrey never sent into much detail describing the dragons, save they had smooth hides, forked tails, a pair of head knobs, and were variously colored green, blue, brown, bronze, or gold.
An eighties depiction by SF and fantasy artist Michael Whelan who painted a lot of covers. His creatures are more like robust pterosaurs, more alien looking than the multihorned, clawed versions above. They’re also not as fun. But the painting is magnificent in how it captures how they swoop and dive. Lessa here seems to be dressed more appropriately for flying. She raises her arm in triumph as she leads her flight.
This version shows creatures as more alien yet, with bulging, multifaceted eyes. The size also seems “right” for how they are written in the stories. I like this one a lot, because it balances what we think of as a dragon, and how an alien biology would come up with something like a dragon. For example, those eyes seem like they might be withdrawn into the creature’s skull at will, perhaps protecting them from the Spore.
A Tim Hildebrandt version of Jaxom and his white dragon Ruth. Ruth is depicted in a way similar to the artist’s earlier Smaug, but I don’t understand why Jaxom is wearing caveboy garb. As the son of a holder, shouldn’t he be able to afford nicer clothing?
Rowena Morrill’s version. She gets the multifaceted eyes right, and the sheer energy of a dragon playing in the surf. But this is one odd-looking creature. It has pecs, for one thing, and its humanlike arms seem too small for that massive neck and chest, giving it a Tyrannosaur look. The rider and wings look oddly detached from the rest of it. Not one of her better efforts, but at least she read the book!
Artist Steve Weston did few covers for British editions versions in the Pern series. His dragons are more detailed, especially their wings which grow out of a lattice of connective tissue. They have an Oriental feel, especially the heads and the talons. To my mind it’s an attractive depiction.
Here’s another dragon I like a lot. It shows more color than the previous versions — the creatures have markings here, like birds or modern depictions of dinosaurs, though again the artist missed those multifaceted eyes. My second favorite.