March 12, 1984 12:00 PM

Not since St. George set off on his quest has there been such a flap over dragons. Those fire-breathing creatures bravely ward off evil on the mythical planet of Pern. Moreover, they are linked telepathically with their humanoid riders, a fearless race descended from earthling space colonizers.

Such is the substance of Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern (Ballantine/Del Rey, $14.95), a whimsical sci-fi tale that caught the imagination of readers and has become a firmly rooted best-seller. Yet Anne McCaffrey, 57, an expatriate American who lives in a bungalow called Dragonhold in Ireland, is not surprised by the interest in her creations. “Dragons have had a bad press,” she argues. “I make nice dragons.”

She has blithely done so through four adult dragon novels (Dragon-drums and The White Dragon were also best-sellers) and three for teenagers. Her devoted fans respond to the odd mix of adventure, science fiction and medievalism that pervades her writing. There is even a feminist touch: Fertile dragon queens control the planet Pern and are ridden by formidable “Weyrwomen.” “I’ve always had strong women around me,” explains McCaffrey, “so it’s easy to draw from that.”

One of those women was her mother, Anne, a tough-minded real estate agent. McCaffrey’s father, George, a Harvard Ph.D. in government, worked for a New York business organization. Following in his academic footsteps, Anne graduated cum laude from Radcliffe, where she majored in Slavic languages and literature.

In 1950, after working briefly as a secretary and copywriter, she married H. Wright Johnson, then a reporter for Women’s Wear Daily. The marriage produced three children: Alec, now 31, a graduate student in economics at MIT, Todd, 27, an engineering student in Dublin, and Georgeanne, 24, who has worked as her mother’s assistant. After the marriage ended in divorce in 1970, Anne settled with the children in County Wicklow, south of Dublin.

It is in these peaceful surroundings that she spins out her fantasies on a word processor. “The books come off the top of my head,” says McCaffrey, who first began exercising her imagination back in 1950. Housebound with bronchitis at the time, she began reading science-fiction magazines. “What attracted me was the sheer freedom. With sci fi, you have a universe and all its permutations to play with,” she explains.

McCaffrey is a celebrity in her field and is invited to conventions all over the world. Her literary passion has brought McCaffrey the nickname “Dragonlady”—a “term of affection,” she says proudly. McCaffrey is now working on an animated TV series on dragons and polishing a new book on the subject. Reflecting on her life’s work, McCaffrey deadpans: “I was born on April 1. I think I have lived up to the auspices of my natal day.”

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