Riding the Dragon centers on Cadfael Lewis, an ex-soldier turned farmer living on the planet Librae. Cadfael (Cad for short) hasn’t had it easy, and meeting up with Drake doesn’t make things easier for him.
A Broken Soldier
Cad is what most would call “a broken soldier.” (Cad tends not to think of himself this way, except when he’s feeling down on himself.) A rather horrific incident with a dragon leaves Cad first fighting for his life, then dealing with PTSD and a physical disability.
From an outside perspective, Cad might seem like a bit of a sadsack or an overexaggeration. One thing after another goes wrong for him. His marriage ends under strain, with his husband cheating on him. Cad finds he doesn’t have enough income to manage his house and his treatment, especially when his insurance changes; he turns to alternative methods to deal with his mental health, which leads him down the path of addiction. His social circle shifts too: friends move to new life stages, blame him for his shortcomings, or choose his ex instead.
This might seem like heaping on, but it’s not far off how a life can collapse. Cad is responsible for his share of terrible decisions, sure. He’s driven to desperation by a society that fails to support people and lays blame for illness at their feet.
The most unrealistic thing is that Cad goes into space and manages to run a farm, seemingly through sheer determination.
In short: I don’t recommend this route. Cad doesn’t have too many options. Getting shot off into space isn’t a good solution though. It’s lonely, for one, and it’s likely that someone with Cad’s history and issues would actually commit suicide.
A Deep-Seated Mistrust
Cad, of course, is responsible for some of his own decisions. He could, after all, try a little harder to make friends with the people around him. The Johnsons, his neighbors, may not oppose being on better terms with him. Eventually, it’s revealed that Cad wasn’t as alone as he thought—or at least, he didn’t have to be.
But we can’t necessarily blame Cad for that. He watched some of his most long-term and intimate relationships collapse. He had the social support he desperately needed yanked out from under him. That leaves him with two “truths”:
- Other people will hurt him;
- The only person he can rely on is himself.
Cad is afraid of getting too close for fear of getting hurt again.
That, of course, is part of what needs to be corrected. A large part of Cad’s journey is focused on him letting go of preconceived notions and learning to trust people again.
The other part of Cad’s journey is about forgiveness, in some ways. He was hurt, undeniably so. He is an antisocial character who deeply mistrusts others, because others have hurt him so badly. On top of that, he’s bitter, seeing himself as having been wronged—by his ex-husband, by his former friends, by society, or perhaps even by the universe itself.
In Cad’s case, forgiveness isn’t so much forgiving someone or accepting an apology. It’s acceptance, more or less, and moving forward. Cad’s inability to form relationships, his loneliness and self-reliance rest on “truths” he learned from other relationships. Until he can “unlearn” that, he can’t really move forward. He’s stuck in the same spot, doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over.
And that’s the broader lesson at the core of the book: that the balance of nature may be predicated on culture, on how we interact with each other. And that, perhaps, it’s time for a change.
Cad as a Skeptic
The other part of the dialog in the book is Cad as a skeptic. He’s the representative of Western culture: a skeptic, a rugged individualist. He’s left behind the idea of something beyond him. If he believed in a god or “fate,” he’d be hard-pressed to see it as anything but a total asshole.
Fate is often an easy explanation, but it can also leave us feeling powerless. If there’s a force greater than ourselves, we can blame it, most certainly. But we also become slave to it. We can’t fight god, so to speak. If there are supernatural powers at work, we, as humans, are unable to stop them.
This is an age-old dialog in theocracy. Do we have free will or are we all unwitting pawns in a game some higher power is playing? If we believe in fate, then there’s no room for free will; everything is predetermined. Some theorists hold that free will doesn’t actually exist. Anything that looks like a choice is merely the illusion of free will.
The Great Debate
Skeptics suggest we do have free will; we’re able to make our own choices, and that choice actually does matter—a different choice will effect a different outcome. Of course, we can’t always know exactly how things would turn out if we made a different choice, because we make one choice.
People who believe in fate say the course is set. There really isn’t any other choice, because, in that particular situation, we’d always make the same choice.
It’s a very difficult argument to untangle; it’s unlikely we’d ever really know the truth, to be perfectly honest.
Cad, of course, falls into the skeptic camp. Free will is appealing, because it gives us back our agency. We can choose and those choices have meaning. Sort of like how we’re told our votes matter in a democratic election. We make choices and those choices have meaning, although many feel their one vote can’t or doesn’t make a difference.
Cad’s disbelief in god and fate suggest he believes in free will, that he believes he freely chooses to do everything he does. He chooses to go to Librae over going to jail. He chooses to do drugs versus sticking with therapy and going into debt to keep his house. And he chooses not to be friends with the Johnsons and the other townsfolk, even though he probably could be friends if he wanted.
This belief in free will also suggests that he’s the author of his own fate, that he himself is thus responsible for everything that does or doesn’t happen to him. There is no room for “fate” in Cad’s universe, which is why he reacts so poorly to Drake’s suggestion something has brought them together.
The World Needs to Change
These twin values—individualism and free will—are part and parcel of Western culture. They ask us to each be responsible for our own actions. They suggest that there are no forces larger than we ourselves.
Everything that does or doesn’t happen to us is on our own shoulders.
This is a really shitty outlook, because it makes individuals responsible for the actions of large corporations, for decisions that are out of their hands. It makes people responsible for “fate”—for getting sick, by virtue of having “bad genes” or making “poor choices,” such as working in a factory to earn a wage to feed their families and ensure they have a roof over their heads.
Individualism also asks us to see other people in a very particular way—as unreliable and untrustworthy. Everyone, in this worldview, is out for themselves, and they’ll stab you in the back quick as look at you.
Cad, then, is a microcosm of Western ideology: skeptical, mistrusting, sad, and terribly, terribly lonely. Cad’s illness is, in part, produced by the society he lives in. Cad is sick because society’s dominant ideology is sick.
Drake’s suggestion that fate is at play, that there are larger forces at work in the background, speaks to an ideology that takes individual blame and redistributes it to some invisible force. And, perhaps more noteworthy, Drake’s belief in the will of the universe suggests that the very fabric of the universe binds everyone and everything together. That creates a ripple effect, so to speak. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, a tenet of physics as we know it. Drake’s philosophy brings this to a more metaphysical realm. When one being acts, it must have repercussions for the entirety of existence.
In that sense, that’s what is wrong with Cad’s ideology. It ignores the fact we’re all enmeshed, that none of us has truly free will because we’re so often left reacting to what others do.
Cad’s Character Arc
I think it’s safe to say Cad never fully embraces Drake’s philosophy of “fate.” What he does recognize is that people are more connected than he’d like to admit. He also realizes people are more likely to be supportive than he’d care to admit.
Perhaps, shifting the balance and healing begins with recognizing how enmeshed he is within a community—even if he doesn’t always think he is.
And because Cad is a microcosm of Western society as a whole, that trajectory is what’s needed for the entirety of society—not just one person, but a rewriting of culture, of understanding who we are, how we relate to one another, as a whole.