Posted by: Robin | June 4, 2008

Pendragon; Or, “What’s in a Name?”

I am currently reading books 8 & 9 in D. J. MacHale’s juvenile fantasy series Pendragon. I am of Madeleine L’Engle and C. S. Lewis’ opinion that a good story is a good story, and good children’s literature is enjoyable at every age, but that isn’t why I’m reading these books. Three years ago when my then literary agent first submitted my novel to several publishers as young adult fiction, he told me to pick a series title as well as a novel title. I chose The Pendragon Prophecy because, though it is set in 2015 A.D., the plot hinges and is framed by events that began with Arthur, son of Uther Pendragon. Big mistake. My rejection letter from Time-Warner said that they had been interested, but they had some marketing concerns, they believed some of my characters needed to be better defined, and finally, it was too similar to MacHale’s Pendragon series.

I immediately ordered all five books of the series then in print and read them straight through. MacHale’s hero is a fourteen-year-old boy named Bobby Pendragon. About two-thirds of each book is told through various journal entries written in the first-person by Bobby. In the first novel the hero must mount a rescue in an enemy castle in a another world. He gets to this world through a flume. In the original version of my first book the story was in in the first-person voice of seventeen-year-old Samantha Fitzroy in a journal/chronicle. Five members of her family go to a hidden place through a gateway to mount a rescue in an enemy castle. And two characters are named Pendragon.

I dismissed the secret passage to a hidden land/place/planet similarity because the fantasy/scifi genres only have so many variables, and if the repetition of this one was a reason to dismiss a novel, over half the fantasy/scifi novels of the last ten years would not be in print. The same can be said for castle rescues. The device of a first-person journal narrative by an adolescent could cause a reader to think of MacHale’s books, or a handful of others, but though first-person has precedent (Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, as a case in point), it is not a common choice in this genre, especially in a female voice (which may have been one of the marketing issues). A few paragraphs read would be enough to differentiate the works. They have nothing else in common including their intended audience. Nothing that is except a name, a name with a powerful association, Pendragon–in Old Welsh meaning “Head Dragon,” and on occasion applied to a military and/or political leader. (Time-Warner doesn’t publish the series and may only have known it in a cursory way.) 

In MacHale’s series Bobby Pendragon becomes the leader of the Travelers, a group of individuals who must fight the demon St. Dane and protect the various worlds of Halla. He is in one sense a Pendragon, but as of halfway through book eight of a proposed ten-book series, King Arthur, Arthur map Uther Pendragon (Uthr Bendragon in Old Welsh), is a no-show in person or by reference. That is why I’m still reading, though I’m finding it harder as the way Bobby expresses himself stays pretty static despite him being three years older and having faced dangers and losses that would mature substantially and change anybody like, well . . . like Harry Potter changed and matured (I’m appreciating Rowling’s skill at aging her characters more with each page). I have to know if this series will ever tie-in with the other Pendragon. And if one-third of my rejection had any merit beyond a coincidence of name that gives the impression of being Arthurian.

I doubt very much that Time-Warner would have rejected my novel if a title was their only quibble. The marketing and character issues were the real concerns. I’m actually very gratefuI for the rejection because the version I have now is a much better novel, but I believe the coincidence in title brought to mind generic parallels they would not have recalled without it, and those parallels gave them pause. So let this be a cautionary tale for other prospective authors: Do title searches and be as well acquainted as is feasible with what else is out there in the same genre. Certain names have resonance, and we choose them for that reason. I’m sure it’s why D. J. MacHale chose Pendragon. But as I’ve learned the hard way, they can have baggage as well.

As for the Pendragon series, it is enormously creative. Bobby is likeable company and far from having it all together. It’s premise is original and mysterious. The action is non-stop but rarely redundant. And I have it on authority that my copies donated to my daughter-in-law’s middle school English classroom library are a universal hit. I doubt many of them are aware of Pendragon’s legendary origins. The series has found it’s audience and left them wanting more, a very good thing. Reading it has even helped me think through how my own novels might be better crafted.

So all’s well that ends well, right? Resoundingly yes . . . except for that tiny, wee crack of doubt that wonders if the rose had had any other name would it have smelled sweeter. Sigh!

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