From the Introduction, by David Sloan:
A Landscape With Dragons is about the shift in literature from a Christian-based world view to that of a new and revised paganism. The author examines the difference between the two and shows how the pagan message is being packaged to appear as “Christian” writing. But he deals with far more than just the problem of deception. He is examining a major crisis in traditional culture.
O’Brien uses anecdotes from his family life experiences, skillfully woven, insightful, and often amusing. He begins with a story of his own childhood night-time fears and the wise way in which his mother helped him to overcome them. Having captured our attention, he then explores the fundamental struggle that every person encounters between courage and terror. At this point he introduces us to one of the most helpful subjects covered in the book: the role of symbols, fables, and fantasy in the development of the imagination and of a healthy world view.
Focusing on Christian fantasy writing, he examines its important effect in the education of children. Choosing three major authors in this genre, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and George MacDonald, he proceeds to show how the greater body of their writing represents the constructive role that such literature can play in a child’s development. He points out, however, a few details of their work in which they deviated—unintentionally, he believes—from the proper employment of symbols. Despite their flaws, they stand in marked contrast to those authors whose misuse of Christian symbols is actually a thin disguise for a deep-seated paganism.
The author is concerned about the growing illiteracy of the Western World. He maintains that without exposure to a literature springing from authentic spiritual sources, a society will be ill-equipped to detect the influences of false culture. Furthermore, it will be unable to establish a healthy culture. O’Brien argues for a return to the traditional role of the fairy-tale, and for a simultaneous development of new forms of literature. He believes that both movements can recapture the imagination of the present generation, and of generations to come.
The role of symbols is one of O’Brien’s central concerns. The symbols employed in traditional storytelling signified real presences in the invisible world, be they angels or devils. They offered spiritual insight into the nature of the Christian cosmos, imparting to the reader some essential insights into the invisible realm and the struggle between it and the natural realm where we must live. The book examines one image in particular—the dragon. The author describes how this symbol is common to almost all cultures in some form or other, and how in Western literature it has represented the antagonist in a clearly defined battle between good and evil. The battle lines have become blurred because of a growing moral illiteracy and departure from traditional use of classical symbols. It is now widely held that dragons are merely misguided, in need of compassion, and in some cases misjudged altogether. The monster is being tamed. This kind of reversal of symbolism constitutes an invasion of the imagination, undermining our ability to recognize truth.
Because of man’s vulnerability to the power of impressions, he is becoming less able to grasp reality itself. Good is no longer perceived as good, nor evil as evil; traditional Christian values are considered to be the product of a narrow-minded prejudice. This has led to a blend of human and diabolical concepts in the written word. A new world view is being propagated, one which attempts to convince the young that demons are friends or cuddly pets, and that people can use evil means to achieve “good” ends. The author maintains that the growing confusion which has resulted draws modern man away from traditional Christian spirituality and prepares him to accept occult replacements.
O’Brien goes beyond the written word to examine the power and mechanics of cinema and television, and of the video phenomenon which is an offspring of the two. Although he does not dismiss the value of these media, he does make some cautionary notes about the way in which they affect the developing mind of the child, and contrasts this with the effects of the written word. He goes further into some difficult territory when he addresses the problem of the new genre of films being produced for children. He gives special treatment to one of the most charming of all, the 1993 release of the story of Aladdin from Walt Disney Productions. This animated video appears at first glance to qualify as a valid fable according to the principles set forth in this book, but the author provides a thought-provoking insight into the way in which it departs from the traditional role of the fairy-tale.
A Landscape With Dragons closes with an essay on Christian “intolerance.” The author points out that God was intolerant of our damnation and took it upon Himself to remedy it. Our participation in that remedy has certain implications. This closing section serves as a warning cry to a Christian civilisation sliding back into paganism. The result is a book which is always interesting and readable, yet at the same time deep, powerful and helpful. A key idea throughout is that there is a line over which healthy Christian literature will not cross. In this collection of essays we are not told where that line is; we are told how to recognize it. The author does not pretend to cover the subject exhaustively. He does offer some suggestions for further reading but it seems that his primary goal is to introduce the basic concepts in the hope that they will enable the reader to examine the problem with greater awareness. This landmark work will serve as a stimulus for other authors to explore the subject.
“A Landscape With Dragons is one of the best books I have read in a long time . . . clear, beautiful articulation of an important message.” — Dr. Ruth Beechick
“Fantasy books and movies for children are examined in a thoughtful, generous manner that smacks of neither paranoia nor over-scrupulousness . . . O’Brien’s consciousness-raising about the battle for the imagination is quite intriguing.” — Catholic World Report
“This is a most important book. It tells us what we need to know about our time, our culture, our prospects for the future. It also tells us a lot about our Faith . . . Mr. O’Brien may save us a lot of grief.” — Challenge Magazine
A Landscape With Dragons: Christian and Pagan Imagination in Children’s Literature was originally published in 1994 by Northern River Press, Quebec, and is no longer in print. The greatly expanded edition, A Landscape With Dragons: the Battle for your Child’s Mind, published in 1998 by Ignatius Press, is currently in print and available through numerous sources.