Many years ago I got lost in James A. Owen’s Here, There Be Dragons and its sequels. At the time I was reading solely for my own enjoyment and found the series to be exciting, wholesome, and a fantastic literary puzzle for me to solve. When my well-read teen book club readers begged for more recommendations in the vein of the classics, I remembered this series and decided to reread it with the critical eyes of a mother, reading mentor, and book reviewer. So far I have only reread the first book, but it is even more fun than I remember.
Of late I have been living in the Nobel-prize-winning prose of Sigrid Undset, the epic poetry of J. R. R. Tolkien, and the edifying admonitions of Thomas a Kempis. I am delighted to say that I have been spoiled by writing par excellence. Understanding that that is the vantage point from which I come at this book, you might not be surprised to know that I found the literary quality of this writing less than impressive. The series, as I remember it, excels in imaginative quality, but the writing doesn’t live up to the standards of the classics it quotes. Tolkien, Dickens, and Shakespeare this is not, but it is far better than most of the other modern offerings out there that I have I read in the YA (Young Adult) category. The writing is good enough to bear more than one reading, and the creative plan is quite compelling.
Here comes the hard part: I can only recommend this book with serious reservation. And, while I am still discerning what I will do, I think that I will not offer it to my students. The creative and fun story line is marred by an inverted archetype, some questionable theology, and the glorification of characters who represent disordered morality.
I do not wish to spoil the plot twist of this creative story, but I do wish to explain what I mean by “disordered morality,” so I will try to be clear while also protecting the secret. The way certain characters come about in this story, it will naturally drive the reader to want to look up certain classics. While some of those classics are my absolute favorites, others are not, and some I wouldn’t want my teen readers looking into without some preparation and/or the permission of their parents. Said another way, I think this author chose to be a moral relativist (in this series) by putting truly excellent and worthy classics/authors/characters on the same of others without regard to morally questionable differences between them. Consequently, a reader of this series may walk away believing that a wholesome book and a scandalous one are equally noble or heroic. I am not comfortable with the moral ambiguity, and I think it unwise to recommend this scheme without noting that.
From here on, I would like to give details that necessitate the revealing of spoilers. If you do not want to see any spoilers, I think the paragraphs above are sufficient to help you decide whether or not you wish to pre-read the books for yourself. If you do not mind spoilers and want a little more detail, please read on.
*********SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT*********
While I think that this is obvious rather soon into the story, the scheme of the story is not explained until the last chapter. I need to articulate the ending here so you can understand my concerns.
The story opens with “John” receiving a letter from his mentor, Stellan, asking him to come to Oxford. When John gets there, Stellan has been murdered and John meets two other Oxford men who were also summoned; “Jack” and “Charles”. After a quick interlude with the police, the three strangers head to a club, 221B Baker Street, to have a drink to calm their nerves. At this point, strange things begin to happen.
The premise of the story is that our world is just one of many connected worlds in an Archipelago of Dreams. With the right portal, men can travel between these worlds. All of the worlds are equally real and, because they are connected, the worlds impact each other. What happens in Prydain, Avalon, or Narnia, has an effect on our world. War in the Archipelago with a Shadow King causes WWI in our world. As such, John, Jack, and Charles are caretakers of these worlds and they work in harmony with the High King Artus, a descendent of King Arthur.
John, Jack, and Charles are real men from our world. J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Charles Williams. Their guide and a veteran caretaker, Bert, is H. G. Wells. A former caretaker, James Barrie, is also mentioned. One of the villains of the story is Magwitch, a caretaker apprentice recruited by Charles Dickens from one of the other worlds. Captain Nemo also features prominently as one of the leaders of the “good guys”.
What we begin to understand in this book, but come to know better in subsequent books, is that our favorite authors based their fiction on characters, races, creatures, and worlds that are “real” in the Archipelago. For example, just before the battle scene, a ship of dwarves arrives just before a ship of elves pulls into port. Of course the captains of each are friends. (Legolas and Gimli, much?)
This is what makes the series so much fun. Almost everything is based on something we already know and love from our favorite classics or is an invitation to go and read more classics to understand the story better. But this is also the problem. The creativity is in the repurposing of other men’s genius, but sometimes trying to throw all of these things together the story becomes chaotic and a bit weird.
To make this work, the author has to adopt an “all religions are true” or an “all religions are myth” mentality. He could have done that without invoking Judeo-Christian tradition, but he doesn’t do that. As an example, Ordo Maas is the combination of Noah, Thor, and Deucalion. I am not sure how I feel about that. Is he suggesting that Thor and Deucalion are as equally valid as Noah? Or is he saying that Noah and his ark are a mere myth? Further, he assigns the blame of opening Pandora’s box and ultimately unleashing an army of shadow-born (think cauldron-born from Prydain) onto Noah’s wife. I am not sure how I feel about Judeo-Christian tradition being reduced to mythology.
Secondly, because his series is so obviously inspired by the classics we know well, it is very confusing when the characters meet with the oldest dragon, Samaranth, and are given help and a ring of power. A ring created by the dragon. My reading of Tolkien and fairytales tells me not to trust the dragon nor the ring of power. And yet, in this story, the ring aids their salvation in the battle and the dragons are their protectors. While the inverted archetype bothers me considerably, the confusion bothers me more. Because I know my Tolkien, am I supposed to distrust the dragon character who is behaving like Gandalf? But, Samaranth is a hero in the story. How do I separate what I know from Tolkien with what seems to be the complete opposite in the story? And perhaps, later in the series, we will find out that the magical dragons are actually bad. But what if I don’t read to the end of the series? It seems to me to be disrespectful to the reader to violate what long years of fairy tales and Christian fantasy have taught us.
Finally, I found myself looking at every clue and wondering which classic it came from and how it fits into the bigger picture. But the problem is that many of the “heroes” in this series are based on anti-heroes. James Barrie is an example. And, the inclusion of so many real life details makes me want to research the lives of these authors more and more. H. G. Wells, however, led a positively scandalous life, and I don’t think investigating the details of his sordid life is very edifying. Why is he a hero on par with J. R. R. Tolkien who made virtue his life’s work? Like the Ordo Maas situation, are we saying that Barrie’s suspected pedophilia and Wells’s long string of affairs are on a par with Tolkien’s and Lewis’s faithful marriages? And, sadly, from what I remember, James Barrie features much more prominently later in the series. Also, Bert has a wife and daughter in the Archipelago but, since his real life second wife allowed him to sleep with everyone including Margaret Sanger, I guess we shouldn’t be too concerned.
In conclusion, I am uncertain what I will do with this series. On one hand, I think it would be very good for my teens to read this book with a guide like me who will challenge them to unpack the subtext. I think this might be a good way to encourage their critical thinking and to help them development discernment in their reading. But, I am hesitant to give this series more attention than I think that it merits.