So: Yesterday I finally read a book that is, for many people I have encountered, an instructive guide treated with reverence normally reserved for the writings of saints: "A Landscape With Dragons" by Michael O'Brien. For those who are unfamiliar with it, it's a guide to separating good, wholesome children's fantasy fiction from the morally dangerous stuff, written by a Catholic man who makes his living painting religious artwork and writing novels.
Prior to reading this, my only experience with O'Brien's work was a few articles he had written that are available on the Internet, all having to do with his favorite whipping boy of the past 20 years, Harry Potter. Indeed, he is better known for the books and articles he has written criticizing Potter and his fans than he is for his own creative work. The articles I read combined florid overwriting with hysterical paranoia, judging the books and their fans with emotion rather than reason and attempting to manipulate the reader into agreeing with O'Brien. They also seemed very bitter and sometimes even downright nasty (such as when O'Brien called Potter fans "dreaming slaves"). I was so disgusted by the man's attitude and his non-arguments that I dismissed him as a stupid jerk and a bad writer, probably a bad artist, too, and decided not to read his celebrated book on children's fantasy.
I changed my mind recently because I got into another heated discussion with parents who base their rejection of certain kinds of fantasy on O'Brien's book. It's not that I found the arguments from the book compelling; I didn't and I don't. However, if so many people of my acquaintance are going to treat this book as if it is just below Holy Writ, I figured I'd better read it so at least I could do it and them justice. I also decided I wanted to know more about O'Brien. For starters, was his art any good?
So I looked it up, and here is what I want: I want every Catholic to go out and buy as much of O'Brien's art as he or she can afford. First of all because it is amazingly beautiful and I want a lot of it myself. Second because it is obvious what the true vocation of this wildly talented man is, and I wish he could make a good enough living using his real gift instead of gaining recognition and valuable income from putting forth really poor non-arguments. Both we and he deserve better.
Then there's the book, which was written before the first Harry Potter novel came out and so is blessedly free of his characteristic bile on that front. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the book is elegantly written, the overall tone calm if not always gentle, and the writer clearly much more intelligent than I previously gave him credit for. He even made some good, thoughtful points. However, I still believe that he does not know how to read speculative fiction and that his central premise is deeply flawed.
In a nutshell, O'Brien's thesis is this: Humans have a (presumably inborn) set of immutable symbols fixed in their minds and souls, and we are no more free to tinker with this symbolism than we are to break the natural law. Good fantasy fiction uses symbols in the ways that O'Brien has discerned are correct. Dangerous fantasy inverts the symbols and is therefore not only immoral, but will also corrupt the incautious or inexperienced reader. The first part of this premise is surprisingly Jungian for someone who professes such virulent horror of Jung. The second part is audaciously authoritarian for someone who has absolutely no qualifications for teaching others how to read fiction or how to order their spiritual lives.
What O'Brien's theory means in practice is that books that have dragons in them - or even just reptiles - have to follow the "rules" of proper dragonish behavior. Dragons must be evil. He will not allow them to be good or even ambiguous, because according to him, the evil dragon/serpent is a universal symbol. (He does admit that there are good and lucky dragons in Asian mythology, but swiftly dismisses them because Asians blur the distinctions between good and evil. He offers no supporting evidence for that statement and apparently sees no reason to apply that same broad brush to other pagan peoples, like ancient Romans, for instance.) He applies this same unyielding grid to other imaginary creatures, but dragons take up the bulk of his argument. Anything that he thinks resembles a dragon or serpent is fair game, so he takes swipes at the "carnivorous worms" of the Dune novels and also the dragonish form of the cherub in Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wind in the Door". Indeed, L'Engles Time books take a fair beating, partly because one of them contains a good and wise pet snake, partly because O'Brien is unable to understand L'Engle's simple wordplay and literary allusions.
He even goes so far as to offer the suggestion that maybe God made dinosaurs so that we would have a living representation of the invisible "dragons" (namely demons) who prowl through the world seeking the ruin of souls.
He admits that of course reptiles living and extinct are not really evil themselves. Real dinosaurs were, like all animals, innocent. A cuddly stuffed toy that looks like a friendly dragon, though? Dangerous. (Yes, he really made a scathing mention of soft toys. And yes, it so happens that my three-year-old daughter sleeps with one every night, so I find that particularly interesting.)
Where does he draw the line, I wonder? Are turtles okay? What about those Lacoste shirts with the tiny alligator emblems? Are people who wear snakeskin boots and lizardskin watch bands righteous Christian knights like St. George, proudly triumphing over the wicked reptile, or nefarious sorcerors coyly proclaiming their true allegiance?
One of the oddest details, for me, was that he criticized the great Victorian Christian fantasist George MacDonald for using a tiny snake as a guide to Paradise in the luminous fairy tale "The Golden Key", yet approvingly quoted and described at length MacDonald's fantasy novel "Lillith", which lays out the author's hopeful belief in universalism.
He criticized C.S. Lewis, too, although respectfully and with the charitable assumptions that he completely withheld from L'Engle. No, it had nothing to do with incorrectly presented reptiles that time (why didn't he get onto him for giving King Caspian a ship with a dragon's head on it?), but with his rather astonishingly obtuse misreading of "That Hideous Strength".
He was very reverential toward Tolkien, who is of course orthodox on dragons but also writes about wizards and magic in a way that would bring down O'Brien's wrath if he applied his own principles consistently and fairly instead of just reserving his good opinion for the authors he likes.
I have no problem, really, with O'Brien's having a set of standards and writing about them. I do have a problem that he offers his standards as definitive and that his overly admiring readers hold him up as an authority. O'Brien is not primarily a fantasist - as far as I know, he has written one book of fantasy - and he has absolutely no educational background in fantasy or literature of any kind, or in theology or philosophy. Indeed, he is a high school dropout. In a way that makes his accomplishments as a writer more impressive, and it certainly doesn't mean he is wrong or has no right to speak. But it does mean there is no reason to take his arguments more seriously than anyone else's.
So. Buy his paintings! Seriously, they are stunning. Maybe if we buy enough of them, he can afford to devote himself more to his canvases and quit writing this stuff.