Thursday, June 03, 2010

Book Review: A Landscape with Dragons

This book has cropped up so many times in so many different conversations, that I realized I had to read it. Now that I have, I am of the opinion that every Catholic parent, teacher, or serious writer/artist ought to read it as well. Agree with Mr. O'Brien or not, his argument is thought-provoking and requires serious reflection.

Michael O'Brien is an artist. He is also a writer of no mean talent. He is the author of the international best-seller Father Elijah and many, many other books--a fact that I did not appreciate until immediately before I read this book. In fact, if you visit his author page on Amazon, the man has a literary resume that puts most other contemporary Catholic writers to shame. So he can't simply be dismissed as a hack or a fraud who knows not of what he speaks.

In brief, A Landscape with Dragons posits that much of the literature meant for our children today is demythologizing in nature in that it inverts the classical symbols of Christianity so that the scary is made to appear friendly, the dangerous is made to appear misunderstood, and the diabolical is made to appear harmless. Meanwhile, the good is made to appear hypocritical, the holy becomes buffoonish, and the pure becomes boring. The end result of this trend is the creation of de-Christianized, re-paganized children and ultimately, the warping of society's moral sense as a whole.

O’Brien’s initial concern in this book is the representation of serpents or dragons in modern literature as friendly, good, or tame creatures. He posits that this trend turns on its head the scriptural symbolism of the serpent/dragon as a representation of the devil. But his central thesis goes well beyond this. O’Brien points out that much of what the world presents as “the good” or “conventional wisdom” is actually gnosticism, thinly disguised:
“If you watch this, you will know more, be more grown-up, more smart, more cool, more funny, more able to talk about it with your friends.”
And the messages broadcast in much of the media meant for children and young people only appear to be benevolent and wise on the surface:
"Truth is what you believe it to be. Right and wrong are what you feel right and wrong are for you. Question authority. To become what you want to be, you must rebel. You make yourself. You create your own reality."
If these messages sound familiar, it is because you probably read them in the book of Genesis: “If you eat of the fruit, surely you will not die. You will become like God, knowing good and evil.”

It’s hard to deny that these messages saturate children’s books and movies and such sentiments are often found coming out of the mouths of the “heroes” of these works. O’Brien rightly points out that these tantalizing ideas are infinitely more damaging and destructive than overtly evil messages that are easily detected:
"Evils that appear good are far more destructive in the long run than those that appear with horns, fangs, and drooling with green saliva."
So parents need to be vigilant to make sure their children aren't ingesting harmful messages with their tacit approval. O’Brien understands that this can be an arduous task, but provides a helpful scale for parents to rate materials aimed at their children:
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.
He then goes through several popular books and films and analyzes them according to this scale. As A Landscape with Dragons is now 12 years old and was written before the Harry Potter phenomenon, the books and movies O'Brien critiques here are a bit dated: A Wrinkle in Time, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, the Goosebumps series, etc. But his thesis is solid, and I think the majority of his points are well made, even if he does carry them a bit too far in spots.

I fully expected O’Brien to make unreasonable exceptions for those works which are traditionally accepted and lauded by Catholic critics, such as those of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. To my surprise, O’Brien even levels a few criticisms at these works, though admittedly, he seemed at pains to do so. But ultimately, I could not with fairness accuse him of holding a double-standard.

O’Brien is not merely a critic, however. At the end of the book, he provides over 100 pages of suggested reading material for children and families, compiled by the good folks at Bethlehem Books. He also offers parents some guidelines for how to determine if a book is good for your child to read. Here he includes one bit of sage advice that is often neglected--pray about it. This section alone is worth the price of the book in my opinion.

My feeling upon completing this book is that Michael O’Brien is on to something. Does he go overboard in spots? Yes. Is he perhaps overly scrupulous? Maybe a little. But his central thesis, buttressed in many places by Aquinas, Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien and others, is hard to deny.

As I have said on many other occasions, what is really needed to combat these destructive forces attempting to influence children is compelling and authentic literature and media created from a Catholic perspective--and beyond that--media which is utterly unafraid to portray profound truths overtly. How many Catholic saints and heroes from history, unafraid to speak the name of Christ publicly, richly deserve a novel or motion picture portraying their lives and exploits? I can name two dozen of them off the top of my head. If done well by talented artists with excellent production values, such tales would be smash successes along the lines of The Passion of the Christ. All we need are writers and artists with the talent and courage to do it. And we all need to pray that God will send us such individuals.

This is a long review and really, it only scratches the surface of this discussion. In short, if you are a Catholic parent, read this book. If you are a Catholic writer or artist, read this book. If you are a Catholic scholar studying literature, philosophy, or theology, read this book.


Very recently, Mr. O'Brien published a book called Harry Potter and the Paganization of Culture. I have not read this book, but as part of my background research for this review, I read the preface online. In it, Mr. O'Brien detailed the spiritual attacks he endured while reading the Harry Potter series. At one point, he says the following:
Throughout the initial dark period of research and writing, however, an amazing array of breakdowns and catastrophes occurred in the external details of our family life. These were more serious and frequent than the usual ups and downs of car problems, financial crises, sickness, and leaking roofs. It was these and much more--and all at once. I might add that I know seven other Christian writers who have publicly critiqued the Potter series, and all but one of them experienced the same phenomenon. Two had dreams like mine, and most of them had struggled to resist the cloud of oppression combined with an uncanny convergence of external trials.

Back in 2007, I read the entirety of the Harry Potter series in about six months with the aim of critiquing it on from a Catholic father's perspective. I published all my reviews on this very blog--the last one, where I blasted JK Rowling with both barrels, may be found here.

When I read Mr. O’Brien’s statement above, I got a funny feeling and remembered my own experience reading Harry Potter. As I was nearing the end of the series, I went through one of the most difficult and spiritually exhausting stretches of my life--our youngest son was born with a complete bowel obstruction that required immediate surgery. He was hospitalized for over two weeks and for a little while, we were concerned he wouldn’t make it. Thanks to excellent medical care and a huge amount of prayers, he is now a thriving two year old.

But I can distinctly remember reading book six of the Potter series while my wife was in labor--and then putting it aside for several weeks to deal with our crisis.

Coincidence? Maybe....

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