This weird thing about dragons is the pet idea of Michael O’Brien, and it always amazes me that so many Catholics have paid attention to it. He contradicts himself in his book, misunderstands some of the fantasy works he attempts to analyze, and even abuses Christian theology. His overview of dragon imagery in world mythology is selective, inadequate, and inaccurate. The book is simply terrible, and yet I keep finding people who take it seriously.
O’Brien’s favorite trick is tossing around certain inexplicable words to lead you by the nose. He compares fantasy works with “traditional” fairy tales, but never explains what he means by “traditional.” Dungeons and Dragons is a “cult,” but he never explains why he calls it that. Dragons are positive symbols in China because of “dualistic eastern religions,” but he doesn’t explain why dualism would lead to positive dragon symbols. Nor does he explain why serpents are consistently negative in Zoroastrianism, which is unquestionably dualistic. He mentions Tiamat from the Enuma Elish as a sort of dragon and seems to think that helps his case, but he’s apparently unaware that Tiamat’s vanquisher, Marduk, has serpents and dragons among his sacred symbols. He claims J. R. R. Tolkien is on his side in all this, but he is apparently unaware of Tolkien’s Farmer Giles of Ham, which contains a tamed dragon, the very thing O’Brien claims will drag children into neo-paganism.
When attacking the work of Madeline L’Engle, he criticizes her for describing cherubim as dragon-like, apparently unaware that in ancient iconography, cherubim are winged sphinxes. He is also apparently unaware that seraphim are winged serpents with legs–that’s a positive use of snake imagery right out of the Bible. He also gives no account, that I remember, of John 3.14 or of the good dragon, representing Mordecai, who battles the evil dragon in the additions to Esther. Scripture does not contain a univocal use of serpent imagery, so there can be no basis for a Christian argument that snakes in fiction must always represent only one thing, all the time, unless we’re prepared to condemn the Bible as a confused neo-pagan work.
He trips over his theology on a few occasions. In an attempt to discuss beauty as a property of being and the symbolic use of beauty in fairy stories, he gets confused and ends up–I hope by accident–saying pretty people are inherently better than ugly people. Even though he praises fairy tales for showing evildoers as ugly and do-gooders as beautiful, he turns around in one of his essays on Harry Potter and attacks J. K. Rowling for doing the very same thing.
During that aforementioned criticism of L’Engle, he criticizes her for (correctly) depicting evil as non-being, even though he admits she’s basically right on that point. But though O’Brien himself (correctly) understands demons as beings as wholly dedicated to evil as beings can be, and (correctly) criticizes L’Engle for a universalist bent, he (incorrectly, very incorrectly!) says some living human beings are the same way, “completely ruled by evil.” Sometimes he sounds more like a Lutheran or Calvinist than a Catholic.
He also excuses George MacDonald for his universalism. In Lilith, MacDonald depicts even Satan being saved, and O’Brien gives this a pass, but for some reason, that sort of thing is absolutely condemnable when Madeline L’Engle does it. He also praises MacDonald for depicting Lilith being converted back to good, even though she’s a demonic figure, though he condemns the depiction of the conversion of other demonic figures. The heroic characters in Lilith also use magic, just as Lilith does–yet when discussing Harry Potter and other fantasy works, he condemns books where both heroes and villains employ magic. For some reason, the use of magic by both good and evil is something O’Brien is willing to excuse in works by the authors he favors. O’Brien simply can’t be consistent in his criticism, so how can anyone seriously expect fantasists to use ideas like O’Brien’s as a moral guide for writing their work?
O’Brien may be a fine novelist. I know from experience he’s a competent painter. But in the realms of folklore or literary criticism the man is a sophomore, the Richard Dawkins of Catholic literary moral criticism, making facile arguments based on some master key to interpreting stories that he claims to have discovered, and huffily dismissing anyone who disagrees with him as “illiterate.” I do not understand why anyone treats A Landscape with Dragons or O’Brien’s essays on this subject as anything other than an embarrassment.