Creating “The Steam-Powered Dragon and his Grandmother”
by David Lee Summers
(appearing in Gaslight and Grimm: Steampunk Faerie Tales, funding now http://tiny.cc/GandG)
Grimm’s Fairy Tales were among the first stories I remember hearing. My grandmother read me such stories as “Hansel and Gretel,” “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” and “Rumpelstiltskin.” Among the first movies I remember seeing were Disney’s Snow White and Cinderella. Of course, I can’t forget The Bullwinkle Show whose “Fractured Fairy Tale” segments featured delightfully twisted versions of “The Fisherman and his Wife” and “Rapunzel.”
Much as I loved fairy tales as a kid, my real appreciation for the work of the Brothers Grimm came in college when I took a class in German literature. One of our assignments was to translate “Schneewittchen.” In English, we know the story as “Little Snow White.” I learned that the wicked queen worked much harder at dispatching Snow White and the sweet girl of the story exacted horrible revenge on the queen by having her dance to death in red-hot shoes. I learned the stories were much darker than I imagined, written for audiences of all ages and not just children. What’s more, I learned the Grimm Brothers did not create the tales. Rather, they collected and curated German folk tales of antiquity.
When Disney released their Platinum Edition of Snow White on DVD in 2001, my interest in Grimm’s Faery Tales was rekindled and I sought out a collection of the original tales in German. I found a wonderful set that included reproductions of the Grimm’s notes about the stories. I went on to translate a few of the lesser known tales for my own enjoyment. One of those stories was “Der Teufel und seine Grossmuter.” The word “Teufel” can be translated several ways including devil, demon, and dragon. Grossmuter is grandmother. No matter how you translate it, the tale of a scary being and his granny has got to be a good one!
In the original story, Der Teufel flies in on wings, breathing fire. I pictured a dragon a bit more than a devil, even though both ideas are interesting. The story tells how a dragon meets three soldiers who run away from battle and gives them a magical whip to create gold and mischief. In seven years, the dragon promises to return and pose the soldiers a set of riddles. If they solve the riddles, they get to keep the whip. If they fail, they become the dragon’s slaves. One of the soldiers persuades the dragon’s grandmother to help him solve the riddles. I published my translation of the story in Tales of the Talisman Magazine in 2006.
When Danielle Ackley-McPhail came to me with the idea of a steampunk fairy tale anthology, one of the first stories that came to mind was “The Dragon and his Grandmother.” I loved the devilish dragon and the idea he had a granny hidden away somewhere. I could relate to the soldiers who had no desire to die in a conflict they didn’t believe in. When I retold the story, for this anthology, I wanted to do more than glue gears on it and call it “steampunk.” I looked to Rudyard Kipling and his tale “The Man Who Would be King” for inspiration.
I set my steampunked version of the tale in the Afghan Kush. British soldiers pressed into service face a Russian advance and make plans to be elsewhere. The dragon who finds them is the product of a master craftsman and his mother, a Hindu alchemist who imbues him with consciousness. Instead of a whip that creates gold, the dragon gives the soldiers an alchemical engine that turns coal to diamonds. In this setting right out of the Victorian era, the soldiers and the dragon must confront their assumptions about one another with the help of a grandmother’s wisdom, which I think is a fitting tribute to my grandmother who introduced me to the Grimm Brothers in the first place.