Friday, July 4, 2008

The Chronicles of the Inklings

I suppose that the title I have chosen for this article is a spoiler for the book I am about to review. But, I am wondering why anyone would bother reading Here, There Be Dragons (Book 1 of The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica, by James A. Owen; Simon & Schuster) unless they knew that it was about the fictional adventures of the three most famous Inklings: JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis and Charles Williams. Award-winning Science Fiction writer and political activist Orson Scott Card is quoted on the the back of the book's dust jacket:

Is there anyone who wouldn't enjoy reading Here, There Be Dragons? If there is such a person, I haven't met him, and I doubt that I would like him if I did. I am only disappointed that, because this book is so new, I'll have to wait too long to read the sequels.

Well, Mr. Card has not met me. Would he like me? I guess he would have reason to doubt it. I found Dragons an interesting read, but not enjoyable. I was interested enough to plow through to the end, but I did not enjoy the plowing very much. Owen tries to be clever and original; but I found him to be rather annoying and predictable. And his research and grasp of vocabulary is a bit pathetic.

The book begins by bringing the main players together in 1917 due to the death of an Oxford professor. I suppose Owen thinks himself surreptitious by using only first names and not fully identifying the Inklings until the end of the book. While correctly identifying CS Lewis with the name Jack, at the end of the book he mistakenly attributes the source of the nickname to WH Lewis, Lewis's brother. Lewis chose the name "Jack" or "Jacksie" for himself--it did not originate with his brother.

Even worse, JRR Tolkien is identified as "John." Although this is Tolkien's correct first name, he was always called by his second name, "Ronald." His friends knew him as "Ron," "Ronnie" or "Tollers"--never "John." Owen does correctly convey that "John" has been in the hospital, but incorrectly assumes that a young man suffering with Trench Fever would be able to participate in strenuous adventures. On page 6, he indicates that the disease, pyrexia, was just the body reacting to the stresses of war "and manifested its protest with a general weakness of the limbs and constant fever." But Trench Fever is not a reaction to stress. It is a serious disease transmitted by lice. The only cure at the time was rest--something "John" does not get much of in this story.

Not only is the research lacking, but some of his vocabulary is inaccurate. For example, on page 275, Owen incorrectlly equates the word "casualties" with only those killed in the battle. However, "casualties," by definition, includes the wounded, not just the dead.

I suppose I could have gotten by these annoyances if the story itself was at all captivating. It was not. Tolkien, and especially Lewis, have been criticized for the hodgepodge nature of their fiction. Dragons is much worse. The premise of the book is that the fiction of the Inklings and other writers were based on their adventures in the lands of the Imaginarium Geographica. But the book results in a poorly sown patchwork quilt rather than what could be taken for materials that could be used to create Narnia, Middle-earth, and other lands of the imagination. It reminds me of what Puddleglum says to the Witch in The Silver Chair when she tries to enchant them into believing there is no land of Narnia above.

Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if their isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.

Lewis believed that the world to come would be like this world, only more real. Narnia was written to help us appreciate the glimpses of that reality that are mirrored in our own world. Unfortunately, Dragons only creates a duller world than we have around us. I know I have profited from visiting Narnia and Middle-earth. I do not feel the same about Owen's Imaginarium Geographica.

James A. Owen's The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica series includes Here, There Be Dragons (Oct. 2006) and The Search for the Red Dragon (Jan. 2008). The third book of the trilogy, The Indigo King, is slated for publication this October, 2008.


James A. Owen said...

Sorry you were so disappointed in the book. I'd addressed similar concerns at some of the Tolkien and Lewis forums (and, uh, I'm the Guest of Honor at the next Mythcon), so I've run other people who certainly had reservations about my work. But I do appreciate the plug at the end, and hope you'll give one of the sequels a look. (Although, they probably won't be to your liking, I'm afraid - but hopefully my vocabulary has improved!)

Best regards,

James A. Owen

Mark said...

Thanks for stopping by, James. I do plan to give your second book a try before #3 comes out this fall. I do hope I will be able to give it a more favorable review. :)

Anonymous said...

I'm a little confused by your harshness toward Mr. Owen's writing. You don't seem to have applied the same standard to your own.

"The only cure at the time was rest--something "John" DO not get much of in this story."

"It reminds me of what GLUMPUDDLE says to the Witch . . ."

Mark said...

Touché, Anonymous. Of course, I am merely a blog writer, whereas Owen is a paid author. But your point is well taken, even if the editing issue was a very minor one in my review.