A Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child’s Mind by Michael O’Brien has sparked some interesting conversations in our household so I thought I’d write about it. (Unfortunately, I finished it Thursday but didn’t get a chance to write up my impressions before we left for Maine on Friday. So things aren’t quite as fresh in my mind and these reflections might be a bit briefer than otherwise.)
Dom and I are both in hearty agreement with O’Brien’s primary thesis that parents can’t be too careful these days about what their children are reading. I also feel very strongly that much of what passes for children’s literature nowadays is not suitable for children and is in fact downright poisonous. A recent trip to the local Barnes and Noble found me again shaking my head at the sad state of the children’s section and appalled at the teen/young adult section where the majority of the books were either horror/occult or inappropriate romance.
I found O’Brien’s classification scheme very helpful. He divides literature into four categories:
1. Material that is entirely good.
2. Material that is fundamentally good but disordered in some details.
3. Material that appears good on the surface but is fundamentally disordered.
4. Material that is blatantly evil, rotten to the core.
I like that O’Brien doesn’t fall into the trap of seeing things in black and white. He allows for a very generous gray area. However, the book challenged me when it came to O’Brien’s categorization of particular works within this schema and also with his treatment of dragons and what he refers to as inversion of symbolism.
I was taken aback when O’Brien labeled on of my childhood’s favorite authors, Madeleine L’Engle as a Christian neo-pagan. He places her in category three, saying many of her details are good but her foundation is fundamentally flawed. I’m not sure I can do justice to his argument since I disagree with it but essentially he points out a number of problematic areas which create a pattern .
First, he argues that the books pose a problem because they are set in our world and the child-heros are likely role models with psychic powers yet “the kinds of things they are involved with in actually spell spiritual disaster.” He points out that the angelic powers that help them come in troubling guises, a witch, a medium, a cherubim who they take to be a dragon, a pet snake. O’Brien is troubled at Charles Wallace’s “possessing” the bodies of historical figures in A Swiftly Tilting Planet and by Meg’s naming of the evil spirits in A Wind in the Door: “A very interesting theology is dramatized in this climax. The suthor appears to believe that if evil spirits are embraced, they will cease to have power; they will be absorbed into oneself or filled with oneself (implying that evil is merely an absence of good, a vacuum, a nonbeing or unbeing). While it is true in one sense that evil is the absence of good, that is not the whole truth, for in reality the evil spirits are more than an absence of light. They are conscious, willfully distorted beings. They are absolutely corrupt angelic persons. To think that one might pacify them is similar to thinking one can tame a hungry shark or an angry scorpion if one loves it enough.”
While I can’t really argue with O’Brien’s objections, he definitely has a point, I think perhaps he is too literalist in his reading. I would be willing to place L’Engle’s books into category two, but I think to say they are fundamentally flawed is extremist. At their heart is the struggle between good and evil, undertaken by ordinary people. I am too much in love with these books to condemn them so thoroughly.
And this is what I find troubling… perhaps love has blinded me to their very real flaws. I have a hard time arguing with O’Brien’s evaluation, except that my heart says he’s overstating his case. As I discussed this book with Dom one thing became clearer to me, though: we grew up in a very different era from the one our Bella will grow up in. Perhaps O’Brien has a point in that what seems mostly harmless to me would be much more harmful in the current cultural climate. After all, when I was in high school I never encountered people who called themselves wiccans or pagans. And yet I know that is much more common now. One of the boys in the confirmation class I taught last year had his “wiccan” friends show up to protest at our church’s All Saints concert a couple of years ago. Perhaps I am naive and these questionable elements of the books are more dangerous than I realize.
Dom and I had similar discussion about the dragons of O’Brien’s title. He highlights the way in which the dragon which was once in Western culture universally a symbol of evil has more and more frequently been characterized as harmless, friendly, good. Moreover, he contends that
…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. They are a language about the nature of good and evil; furthermore, they are points of contact with these two realms. To face evil without the spiritual equipment Christianity has given us is to put oneself in grave danger.
As Dom said, this raises an interesting question. At what point did dragons start to be good rather than evil, pets and friends rather than monsters? But I was certainly raised on a steady diet of such material.I recall a picture book about a princess with a pet dragon that had baby dragons. And of course, the movie, Pete’s Dragon was one of my favorites. So I have a hard time seeing his point.
Dom and I both agreed, contra O’Brien, that in the case of Anne McCaffrey’s “Pern” stories we’re much more concerned about the questionable sexual content than the good dragons. Overall in fact we are much more sensative to issues of morality and sexuality than to what seems to be O’Brien’s primary focus of the spiritual valance of symbols used in books. Are we simply too shaped by the steady diet of such fantasy books we read when we were younger?
Perhaps my imagination has been corrupted, as his argument implies. Or perhaps these symbols are not quite so hard wired as O’Brien implies. I’m not quite comfortable with his assertion about the immutability of symbols. But I’m also somehow reluctant to dismiss it out of hand. I’ll have to chew on this one a bit, talk to more people. There seems to be a flaw in his argument, but I’m not exactly sure where it is or how to counter it.
Of course, O’Brien concludes, it is up to individual parents to discern what is appropriate for their own children:
A simple rule of thumb is to ask the following questions when assessing a book, video, or film: Does the story reinforce my child’s understanding of the moral nature of the universe? Or does it undermine it? Does it do some of both? Do I want that? What precisely is the author saying about the nature of evil? What does he tell the reader (or viewer) about the nature of the war between good and evil?
These are indeed the important questions. Would my answers always agree with O’Brien’s? Probably not. But he’s definitely given me some meat to chew on. I might just have to reexamine some of my prejudices to see if what I’ve enjoyed and accepted for myself is really what I want to pass on to my children.
I found this book hard to put down. It sparked a series of interesting conversations with Dom and will be the food for many more with other people whose literary opinions I value. Definitely a book with some good meat. I might have to add it to my library in the future.