A Landscape with Dragons

One of those books you hear a lot about in Christian homeschooling circles is A Landscape with Dragons by Michael O’Brien. This very short missive basically talks about monitoring what your child reads and watches. Instead of concentrating on cuss words and sexual content, the reasons most children books are flagged for banning, he focuses more on pagan images and promotion of the occult. He examines certain popular series and movies for whether they fit his Christian criteria or not.

Now Mr. O’Brien talks about how traditionally dragons and serpents are representative of evil in stories. He claims that children know this instinctively and is very concerned about any piece of work that represents dragons or serpents as cute, nice, or anything good. He worries that it confuses kids about the absolute existence of evil. And even though he may not realize it, he is picking up on Carl Jung’s concept of psychological archetypes. Furthermore, this idea was further explored by Joseph Campbell. Where as Campbell noted the archetypal connections in mythology and literature, O’Brien goes as far as to judge which ones are good or correct.

O’Brien goes on to criticize certain works that he deems deceptively dangerous or using archetypes incorrectly so that his readers can get an idea of what they should be protecting their children from. One author whose work he examines is Madeline L’Engle. One of her most popular works that I first encountered in school was A Wrinkle in Time. I agree that her equating Jesus to Shakespeare and Einstein is rather sketchy. And there are a few other red flags when the books start following Meg and Calvin’s daughter Polly. However, I think he gets a little silly when he equates a plot device in which Charles Wallace jumps into people’s bodies in A Swiftly Tilting Planet with demonic possession. By his logic, Quantum Leap was satanic as well.

O’Brien goes on to break down a few “modern” Disney movies. Now in my opinion he doesn’t even skim the surface of everything that is wrong with the movie Aladdin. That move is truly a wolf in sheep’s clothing, no matter how much I enjoyed it when I was a teen. As an educated adult that movie has so much wrongness it’s not even funny. But then he goes on to attack Beauty and the Beast. He doth cross the line for me.

However, before he even got to his very lame criticism of Beauty and the Beast, he did the unthinkable. He attacked Star Wars. His book came out in 1994 so he is not just attacking Star Wars, but he is attacking Original Trilogy!! Now, not only to do I find this uncool because I love Star Wars (original trilogy), but it is also kind of silly. Just a few years after A Landscape with Dragons was released, there was a book written as a companion to the Smithsonian’s Star Wars exhibit that basically broke down Star Wars into traditional pyschological archetypes like the ones O’Brien holds so high. In fact George Lucas his a huge fan of Joseph Campbell’s and studied mythology extensively in college (besides film-making). O’Brien complains that Star Wars has too many elements of Gnosticism, Manichaeism, and other cultic religions (p 38). This assertion just goes to show how little O’Brien understands the Star Wars universe. The battle is never between the “good soul” and the “bad body”; it is between good and evil for possession of the soul. Sounds like a familiar Christian theme to me.

Before he gets into all of the books and movies that are wrong, he examines two authors as examples of what is right and good in literature. C.S. Lewis gets a lot of praise, however, O’Brien has a few concerns about his mixing of mythology in the Chronicles of Narnia. It’s funny because when I was in college I first heard that this was a criticism that came from Lewis’s good friend J.R.R. Tolkien. So it didn’t really come as a big surprise that O’Brien thinks that The Lord of the Rings is perfect in every way. He’s one of those people who just prefers Tolkien over Lewis, like people that prefer Springsteen over Mellencamp. They can’t see that they are just two halves of the same coin.

Now, I must admit that I am not a Tolkien person. I’ve tried to read Tolkien and just have not been able to get into him. Maybe some day I’ll actually finish one of his books. I did see the first movie; does that count? Something tells me, though, that someone could go through and find superficial things to pick apart in LOTR that may not be 100% kosher by O’Brien’s previous criteria. In fact, A Landscape with Dragons kind of comes off as his own opinions of whether a piece of work is good or bad for children based on whether he liked it personally or not. There also seems to be that element of “when I was a kid literature and movies were good but now it’s all rubbish”.

Maybe I didn’t like the book because O’Brien attacks many things that are personal favorites of mine: Star Wars, Beauty and the Beast, Chronicles of Narnia, and the works of Madeline L’Engle. Now I am not saying that I don’t have any reservations about any of these things just because I really enjoy them. And there are other works that I enjoy that I don’t believe are suitable for children due to mature themes. (He probably really doesn’t like Anne McCaffrey between the sexuality issues and that the dragons are helpful pets/partners.) I just can’t help wondering what fantasy/science fiction works besides Lord of the Rings would ever be deemed acceptable in his eyes. And something tells me that Harry Potter did not go over well in his house, either. Never mind that the magic is strictly a substitute for science in the series, not religion. He probably agrees with Laura Mallory that their too steeped in the occult.

All in all I think A Landscape with Dragons is highly over-rated, unless you’re a Tolkien person or someone who really enjoys defining books strictly as either literature or twaddle. I think the author at times doesn’t really understand the material he is criticizing, and he is trying to make his criticisms sound more academic than they really are. I also think that some of his criticisms are very shallow, like the ones you hear from people who want to ban The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. While I understand that Mr. O’Brien is not trying to ban works outside the home, I sometimes think his criteria for banning them inside the home are very superficial if not just completely incorrect at times.

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6 Comments on “A Landscape with Dragons”

  1. nickoomba Says:

    I’ve never read the book myself. However, I do not think that I would like it at all. For one thing “Aladdin” is mostly wrong because Disney got it wrong. In Arabian mythology, djins were actually evil, and there are many references to them throughout different interpretation of the Bible. As for C.S. Lewis, I do not know a church that does not posess a complete set. LOTR is more World War II than it is biblical. I wonder what OBrian thought of Pilgrim’s Progress. Let me finish by saying that even dragons are God’s ceatures, and should not be stereotyped just because they are dragons.

  2. Kelly Says:

    I didn’t agree with all of his assessments, either, but I feel I got a bit more out of it than you did. Probably because it was one of the first of that sort of book that I read, even before homeschooling books, I think. It helped me to look critically at the contents of material that was in a way a bit more beyond “is anyone naked and are they swearing?” I started looking more at the deeper message of the book or movie, and evaluate that.

    What is he going to think about Harry Potter was a popular topic for awhile, but O’brien did write an essay that settled the question:


  3. Laura Witten Says:

    I don’t know about dragons being God’s creatures – or even being real. However, I love sci-fi/fantasy novels and movies of all types. I did read the entire LOTR before I even knew they would be making movies, and I loved it for the way it was, not the correctness of its symbolism. Same for Star Wars – no books for me in this world – but the movies are a classic fight between good and evil, with high action. Hard to go wrong with that!

    I don’t see the problem with aladdin or beauty and the beast – I absolutely loved those, along with Little Mermaid. I know there is a always an obvious lack of a mother figure in these Disney movies, but I think the basics of “what’s on the inside is more important than the outside” is a good basic kid theme. Aladdin I see more issues with due to the theft of the lamp, stealing food, posing as a prince, etc., but all in all I think its still worth watching.

  4. barboo77 Says:

    I didn’t read the entire article, but I could tell that he “didn’t get it” just from his plot summaries. He portrayed the Dursleys as poor innocent people who have been “terrorized”. He can’t even give HP props in passing for keeping giant snakes as symbols of evil, per his own obsession with archetypes. And then he complains about the kids acting like….kids. In fact the books have very tame depictions of how teens act compared to the reality.

    I seriously doubt that there is any work that has been printed in the last 30 years that he would find acceptable for children or teens. I really think that he should stick to his own fiction, and stop acting like some authority on what is good and what is not. His book “Father Elijah” was pretty good.

  5. barboo77 Says:

    Some other problems with Aladdin is that Jasmine goes around dressed like a prostitute/concubine. It would be like if Cinderella went around dressed in fish nets and a negligee. As my first commenter mentioned, ginis were considered evil and manipulative spirits not cute and lovable, although I can almost give that a pass. Then like you say there is the lying and stealing and such.

    The biggest problem with Aladdin is that it has horrible and ignorant portrayals of Arabs and Muslims. In fact, the original version offended so many people that Disney had to go back and change some of the lyrics and lines. On one hand I’ve been tempted to show it to my kids because the movie is fun and the songs are catchy. However, given the political climate we live in and the fact that we interact on a regular basis with so many Arabs and Muslims, I don’t want them think that Aladdin might be some sort of accurate portrayal.

  6. nickoomba Says:

    I don’t think it was because of the portrayal of Muslims themselves, considering the fact that all people were semibarbaric during that time period. The issue there was the implied violence. Parents made a similar stink about “Snow White”, in which the Kng is seen carrying a bloddy pigs’ heart. There was, however, racial issues with Disney’s “Song of the South”, causing it to be banne from the U.S. My mother bought copy from Great Britain, and I honestly don’t get the racist implications, except for historically accurate images for the time setting. I could, however, be wrong because it could be within the visual images, and I would miss that. As far as Jasmine looking whorish, I wasn’t even aware of it until now, but I’m not surprised. Disney has always had sex symbols hidden throughout their films, and Tinkerbell has been used as a sex symbol before.

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