A Critique of A Landscape With Dragons
by Rose

If you’re a reader of Refracted Light, you’ve probably heard about Michael O’Brien and his book A Landscape with Dragons. For those of you who haven’t, he’s a Catholic artist and novelist who has become very popular among conservative Christians, especially homeschoolers. In A Landscape with Dragons, O’Brien attempts to define the purpose of fantasy for Christians, warn against the upsurge of “neopagan” values in fantasy literature, and provide guidelines for interpreting the moral value of various works. He then illustrates these ideas by analyzing a number books and movies, especially ones aimed towards children.

O’Brien’s apologia for fantasy is probably the best part of the book. He argues that fantasy is not mere amusement; rather, it is able “to incarnate invisible realities in forms that make them understandable” (28). By putting normal moral struggles into unfamiliar terms, “a good author clears away the rampant undergrowth of details that make up the texture of everyday life, that crowd our minds and blur our vision. He artfully selects and focuses so that we see clearly the hidden shape of reality” (29). Thus, fantasy is not unreal but super-real: it makes truth more visible than it often is in everyday life.

To illustrate his point, O’Brien relates the terror and fascination with which his children (and he himself, when young) regarded dragons. He argues that this is because dragons are an especially potent symbol for evil, against which even children must struggle. Therefore “it is good that our children fear dragons, for in the fearing, they can learn to overcome fear with courage. Dragons cannot be tamed, and it is fatal to enter into dialogue with them. The old stories have taught our children this” (33).

Thus far O’Brien stands in a long tradition of Christian artistry that goes right back to the parables of Jesus, and thus far I agree with him wholeheartedly. However, he also has a specific method for interpreting fantasy, and it is here that I part ways with him. The dragons that he uses to illustrate the purpose of fantasy are also a perfect example of his interpretive methods.

Dealing With Dragons

Dragons, according to O’Brien, are among the symbols “common to so many races and cultures that they . . . [are] practically universal” (30)–in this case, as a symbol of evil: “The dragon god devours human blood and is placated, which is a diabolical reverse image of Christ’s sacrifice” (31). Books about “dragons who are not evil, merely misunderstood” are trying “to tame the diabolical by dressing it in ingratiating costumes” (90). Their message is that readers should “integrate ‘the dark side’ into their natures . . . [and] to ’embrace their shadows'” (90-1). Dragons can never be portrayed as good or neutral creatures because

the meanings of symbols are not merely the capricious choices of a limited culture. We cannot arbitrarily rearrange them like so much furniture in the living room of the psyche. To tamper with these fundamental types is spiritually and psychologically dangerous because they are keystones in the very structure of the mind. (55)

O’Brien is certainly right about the tremendous power of symbols. Consider the different connotations of the words “sword” and “gun”: both are instruments of killing, but the former has become almost inextricably entwined with ideals of honor, knighthood, and chivalry, while the latter is associated at best with Western gunfighters and World War II, and at worst with high school shootings. [1] But he takes his thesis entirely too far.

For one, it’s simply not true that dragons are universal symbols of evil. To his credit, O’Brien does acknowledge that “in some Asian cultures dragons are considered good luck, or at worst a mixture of good and evil”–but he immediately dismisses the fact by saying that “this ambiguity is due to the blurred distinctions between good and evil in dualistic Eastern religions” (31). I freely admit that my experience with Asian thought is limited to one class that focused on metaphysics, not religion; but I did not see anything in the Bhagavad-Gita, Tao Te Ching, or Analects of Confucius that suggested any such blurring. [2] And I might also point out that, in The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis uses Hindu, Taoist, and Confucian beliefs in his defense of natural law (which he calls “the Tao“). If O’Brien is to make such derogatory statements about the moral sense of an entire continent, I think he should have more evidence at his disposal.

More importantly, O’Brien’s rule that a symbol can mean one thing only is not followed by scripture. The Bible calls Jesus the “lion of of the tribe of Judah” (Rev 5:5), while telling us that “your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, goes about seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet 5:8). And even though the devil took the form of a serpent in the garden of Eden, Jesus commands his disciples to “be wise as serpents” (Mat 10:16), and uses the bronze serpent in Numbers as a symbol for himself: “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (Jn 3:14-5). Clearly God has no problem with using one animal to symbolize contradictory things.

Finally, O’Brien’s argument runs against common sense. Sometimes a dragon is just a magical fire-breathing beast, and I think most children have the wit to realize it. When arguing for the use of beauty as a symbol of spiritual goodness, O’Brien says, “Children are not so colossally naive as to think nice-looking people are always nice or that unattractive-looking people are bad” (35). Neither are they so naive as to think that simply because a dragon is often used a symbol of evil, it must always be one. [3]

The Morality of Magic

O’Brien’s rigid method of interpretation also affects his thinking on a larger issue: the morality of magic in fantasy, which for Christians is usually the issue. As O’Brien correctly observes, “for us in the real world, there is no such thing as good magic, only prayer, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and abandonment to divine providence” (28). The only “magic” available to us is superstition or demonic bargains, and the Bible forbids both. How does a Christian reader reconcile that command with a love of fantasy? O’Brien’s answer is that “good magic and bad magic in truthful stories correspond to true religion and false religion in our real world. . . . True religion is about surrender, while false religion is about control” (29). He is right about the nature of true and false religion, but his assertion about the meaning of magic in stories is simply not true.

A good example is the animated film Kiki’s Delivery Service, directed by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki. Set in a vaguely European millieu, it tells the story of Kiki, a thirteen-year-old “witch” who has to spend a year working away from home to complete her training. Kiki moves to a big city and starts a delivery service with her broomstick, but when difficulties and disappointments make her burn out, she starts to lose her magic. This magic is not presented as in being any way spiritual or occult; Kiki does not enter into any kind of bargain with the devil. It’s a talent that she has to develop. In fact, the film draws an explicit parallel between Kiki and a young artist whom she meets. The artist tells Kiki about a period in her own life when she lost inspiration for painting and had to find a reason to start up again, and Kiki responds, “Maybe I need to find my own inspiration.” Her magic could be connected to the occult only if the devil were able to insert meaning into a story against the creator’s intent.

Unfortunately, the author’s intent is not something that O’Brien seems to take into account when evaluating the moral quality of books and movies. Thus, he critiques the Disney movie Aladdin because, while “the jinn is a demon,” he is presented as “funny and sad, clever, and loyal . . . Just the kind of guardian spirit a child might long for” (76). Yes, it would be bad if a child longed for a guardian demon. But–the genie isn’t a demon. The movie does not contain a scrap of evidence, implicit or explicit, that he is in any way connected with the angels who rebelled against God and now seek the destruction of souls. Jinni may be demonic or semi-demonic in the original Arab folklore (I can’t say), but in the world of the movie, they are not intrinsically evil.

This is a very important point. One of the chief characteristics of fantasy is it creates other worlds that work differently than ours–what Tolkien called “sub-creation.” Whether these worlds contain super-powerful beings chained to lamps or girls with the natural ability to ride a broomstick doesn’t matter so long as the fundamental moral order is the same. O’Brien himself uses this concept when talking about C. S. Lewis’s use of mythological creatures in the Narnia books: “In another universe, or on another planet, God easily could have chosen to make fauns and satyrs and centaurs. The forms of creaturehood might be different from ours, but the moral order of any and all universes God chose to create would remain the same” (129). Unfortunately, he doesn’t apply it to many other works. When critiquing Terry Brooks’s Shannara books (which I have not read), O’Brien says, “It bears repeating here that in the real world there is no ‘light side’ to occult activity; all such involvement, even so-called ‘good magic’ or ‘white magic’, is an exposure to the influence of the fallen angels” (107). To which I answer Yea, and Amen, and So what?

Similarly, O’Brien critiques Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain because “‘good magic’ is allied with genuine virtues for the purpose of defeating evil” and there is “an ambiguity regarding what is ‘good magic’ and ‘bad magic'” (106). He acknowledges the argument that the magic is acceptable because it’s part a “sub-creation” like that of Tolkien. But, he replies, Tolkien is different because (along with Lewis) he “portrayed original worlds in which the use of magic and clairvoyance is revealed as fraught with extreme danger” and “demonstrate[d] clearly the hidden seduction” of such powers (106).

Magic in Middle-earth

Certainly Tolkien is an exemplary Christian writer, but I do not think that his treatment of magic is quite what O’Brien claims it to be. O’Brien is certainly right when he says that “good magic in Middle-earth is never used to overpower, deceive, or defile” (123). [4] But Tolkien says in one of his letters that “neither [form of magic [5]] is, in this tale, good or bad (per se), but only by motive or purpose or use. Both sides use both, but with different motives.” [6] Furthermore, magic is “an inherent power” that is “not posessed or attainable by Men as such” except those such as Aragorn, who “is not a pure ‘Man’, but at a long remove one of the ‘children of Lúthien'” [7] (that is, a descendant of an elf-human marriage).

So magic is a talent that you’re born with, and it’s good or bad entirely based on how you use it. There are 10,782 fantasy novels that use exactly the same explanation of magic, albeit usually with more wands and flashy lights. It’s true that in Middle-earth, magic can often present peril: for instance, Denethor is deceived by Sauron because he cannot control the palantir. But the danger is a practical one. When Aragorn uses a palantír, it isn’t presented as a trespass into occult territory, but as a calculated risk. In this case it pays off: he is able to gain control of the palantír and get important strategic information while fooling Sauron into thinking that he, and not Frodo, is the real danger.

The point is that, while O’Brien holds up Lord of the Rings as an example of all that’s good and beautiful in Christian fantasy, its treatment of magic is not so different from other books–including The Chronicles of Prydain, where it’s linked to descent from the Sons of Don [8]. I think that O’Brien needs to examine some of his criteria more closely; I do wonder what he would think of a book, by any author but Tolkien, where a hero descends into a cave and summons an army of ghosts to do his bidding.

Back to Basic Principles

Ultimately, I think that my basic disagreement with Michael O’Brien is how much benefit of the doubt one should give to a work. He says quite rightly that neither denial nor paranoia is an acceptable solution, for “both approaches are going to have negative effects on our children,” and calls on parents to adopt “a third approach . . . the discernment of spirits” (112). However, he also says that, given a choice between two evils,

denial is definitely worse. Denial breeds a state of blindness, a false peace with untruth, which can only deepen as the spirit of the times contineus to invade our families. By contrast, no one can sustain hysteria for long, and with prayer, grace, and an effort to examine the problem in the light of reason, a proper balance can be restored. (112)

In other words, better safe than sorry. It certainly sounds like a reasonable position. However, I am convinced that it is not only wrong, but importantly wrong.

What happens if parents reflexively label a multitude of fantasy books as “bad” or “satanic” and forbid their children to read them? Children aren’t stupid, and they aren’t going to stay ten forever, either. Sooner or later they’re going to notice that their fantasy-reading friends aren’t turning into satanists or neopagans. They may even read some of the forbidden books for themselves, and realize that there’s really nothing harmful in them. If the parents have made a big moral issue out of the books, they’ll be discredited, and not just on literary matters. The children may very well think, “If being a Christian means thinking that innocuous books are secretly evil, maybe being a Christian isn’t so smart.” And they’ll be far less likely to listen to their parents, because they’ve seen how faulty their parents’ judgement can be. The scars from such an upbringing can last a long time and keep people very far from the faith.

I certainly don’t mean to downplay the power of stories to affect the imagination, or the danger of not exercising discretion over the books you let your children read. The damage done by parents who blythely let their thirteen-year-olds read The Da Vinci Code is real and tragic. And I freely admit that I only have the experience of having been a child to drawn on, not that of raising one.

But good parenting is not just a matter of protecting children from malign influences; it’s teaching them to know the faith and be strong in virtue. If they grow up thinking that Christianity means paranoia, the parents will have failed just as surely as if they taught their children that truth is relative and virtue a social contruct. By all means let us beware of dragons. But let us teach our children to fight them as well.

All parenthetical citations make reference to Michael O’Brien’s A Landscape with Dragons: The Battle for Your Children’s Mind, published by Ignatius Press in 1998.

[1] This is probably one of the main reasons why fantasy novels are littered with Swords of Destiny, but not many Guns of Destiny.

[2] The Bhagavad-Gita is an ancient and highly important Hindu text (as well as a major inspiration for T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets). The Tao Te Ching is the foundational text of Taoism, one of the main philosophies of China. The Analects are the foundational text of Confucianism, which was the official state philosophy of China for centuries.

[3] O’Brien himself approves of using toy swords to teach children about chivalry (36-7), even though Jesus says that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt 26:52). Obviously swords (if not dragons) can have several different meanings.

[4] See The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981). In Letter 155, Tolkien says, “The supremely bad motive is (for this tale, since it is specially about it) domination of other ‘free’ wills.”

[5] Tolkien is referring to “magia” and “goetia,” which he uses to distinguish between “‘magic’ that produces real effects in the physical world,” and some form of illusion (Letters, 155).

[6] Letters, 155.

[7] The ever-popular Letters, 155.

8] See the ending of The High King.

Posted by Rose | July 2, 2005

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