Here Be Dragons

I love dragons. They are one of my favourite mythical creatures; they are powerful, cunning, destructive, disturbing, uncanny, magical, and downright terrifying. English literature is full of dragons, beginning with Beowulf, the oldest surviving manuscript in Old English. More than this, western mythology is full of dragon slayers, including heroes from ancient Greece, such as Cadmus, Perseus, and Heracles. Dragons have literally fired the imaginations of writers for hundreds of years.
Some of my favourite characters are dragons:
• Smaug, from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit,
• Norbert, the Norwegian Ridged-back, from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (although he isn’t much of a character),
• Ewstace, as a temporarily enchanted dragon, from C. S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader,
• and, Yevaud, from Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.
You can find an extensive list of young adult books about dragons on Goodreads. Just follow the link.
As so many writers have depicted these amazing creatures, it’s difficult to find much that is new or different in the world of dragons. Recently, I discovered a new book by Brandon Mull. Dragon Watch is Mull’s latest book that continues the story of Fablehaven, a series centring on Kendra and Seth Sorenson—sister and brother—who discover their grandparents are keepers of a magical preserve, a place that houses and maintains mythical creatures. This five-book series is well worth the read.
In Dragon Watch, the first book of the new series, Kendra and Seth find themselves caretakers of Wyrmroost, one of the world’s dragon preserves. Kendra is fairykind, and Seth is a shadow charmer; together, they have the power to resist the enchantment of dragons. While written less well than the books in the original series, Dragon Watch is full of, well, dragons, so if you love these creatures, then add these books to your list.
Where I live is pretty short on mythical creatures—but perhaps not as short as you might think. I recently took a trip with a friend to visit the royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller. The museum is an amazing walk through the geological and palaeontological history of Alberta. Even if you aren’t’ a dinosaur person, you will find this museum fascinating. All the fossils are creatures that walked the swampy forests or swam the Bearpaw Sea that was once Alberta.
The Tyrannosaurus Rex and Edmontosaurus on display might not be dragons of myth, but looking at these fossils will help you understand why dragons, or even the thought of dragons, has so fully entered the imaginations of countless writers. They are those creatures that lie on the edges of our imaginations. They slumber in caves or under mountains; they are hoarders of wealth and of secrets. Wake them, if you dare.

Reading and the Celebration of Spring

Spring is not only a good time for reading—although what season isn’t—it’s a time of year that features into many of my favourite books. Spring is a time of transition, but more than that, it’s a time the world explodes into new life. If you live, like me, anywhere north of the forty-ninth parallel, you know that we sometimes bypass spring altogether and go straight to summer. Technically speaking, spring begins with the vernal equinox, but sometimes it takes a while to get some traction, especially in a place like Edmonton.
Here are three passages from favourite books that note the interesting, changeable, and verdant nature of spring. Spring is the herald of new life, but sometimes, too, it’s the herald of new adventure. So take care the next time you leave your front door.

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, `Up we go! Up we go!’ till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.
“This is fine!” he said to himself. “This is better than whitewashing!” The sunshine struck hot on his fur, soft breezes caressed his heated brow, and after the seclusion of the cellarage he had lived in so long the carol of happy birds fell on his dulled hearing almost like a shout. Jumping off all his four legs at once, in the joy of living and the delight of spring without its cleaning, he pursued his way across the meadow till he reached the hedge on the further side.

L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
Spring had come once more to Green Gables the beautiful capricious, reluctant Canadian spring, lingering along through April and May in a succession of sweet, fresh, chilly days, with pink sunsets and miracles of resurrection and growth. The maples in Lover’s Lane were red budded and little curly ferns pushed up around the Dryad’s Bubble. Away up in the barrens, behind Mr. Silas Sloane’s place, the Mayflowers blossomed out, pink and white stars of sweetness under their brown leaves. All the school girls and boys had one golden afternoon gathering them, coming home in the clear, echoing twilight with arms and baskets full of flowery spoil.

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
Sam sat silent and said no more. He had a good deal to think about. For one thing, there was a lot to do up in the Bag End garden, and he would have a busy day tomorrow, if the weather cleared. The grass was growing fast. But Sam had more on his mind than gardening. After a while he sighed, and got up and went out.
It was early April and the sky was now clearing after heavy rain. The sun was down, and a cool pale evening was quietly fading into night. He walked home under the early stars through Hobbiton and up the Hill, whistling softly and thoughtfully.
It was just at this time that Gandalf reappeared after his long absence. …

From The Blog Archive: A Life-Long Adventure

Almost three years ago, I decided to set up a blog that focused on children’s and young adult books. Here is my inaugural post from 2014. The adventure continues.

As a kid, I was never much of a reader. I looked at my dad’s newspapers, the covers of my mom’s novels, and I flipped through the pictures in the National Geographic. In grade five, we had a series in our class that was supposed to help with reading comprehension. I was put in the orange readers, halfway between the books for dummies and those for the average kids in the class.
The summer after grade five I was blinded in a car accident. I spent four months in hospital because of a badly broken leg. My world had changed. Apart from trying to adjust to being blind after eleven years of running, biking, and rough-housing, the unspeakable boredom of the hospital bed nearly drove me crazy.
One day two women from the school board came to visit me. They brought me an oversized, open-reel tape recorder and some recorded books. One of those books was J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
The world of The Hobbit was the world as I had never imagined it. I had thought elves to be diminutive shoemakers, while dwarfs were funny little characters with funnier names, who helped runaway princesses.
In Tolkien’s world, the dwarves–not dwarfs–still had funny names, but they went on quests to steal back dragon-guarded treasure, while elves were tall, beautiful, otherworldly, and threatening. And what was a hobbit?
After the traction came off my leg, they put me in a body cast: three months flat on my back, and I was finally able to get up. One night after the nurses had done their rounds, I maneuvered myself out of bed, and hobbled and cruched my way down the hall to the schoolroom, the room for all the kids who were too damaged or messed up to go into the regular hospital classroom. In that room, at the root of a mountain, the strangest creature I had ever met waited for me; for me and a little hobbit, who was lost, in the dark, and all alone.
Meeting Bilbo, Gollum, and Smaug introduced me to a world of books that became my lifeline and my world. It took the place of the life I had lost, and it gave the visual center of my brain something to do. I imagined myself into every book I read, sometimes scaring myself into nights of wakefulness, as I did with H. G. Wells The Time Machine and later Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I have been on that road ever since, and it all began at a round, green door with a pipe-smoking hobbit named Bilbo Baggins, and an unexpected adventure to lands faraway.

A Visit to Hobbiton



The green fields, intense blue sky, and forty odd hobbit-holes scattered over the landscape is enough to make you think you’ve arrived in Middle-Earth. Tolkien might have even approved. But as I walked past gardens and little round doors, I had to remind myself this place is Peter Jackson’s vision of a world conceived by one of the twentieth century’s most imaginative minds.
When the first of the Lord of the Rings films came out in 2001, I was excited but oddly apprehensive. As a Tolkien fan, I wasn’t worried that Peter Jackson was going to destroy the story for me; I was anticipating the release of the film, like millions of others. But mixed with my anticipation was the feeling this book, that for me had always been a private experience, was suddenly going to be there as a film, for anyone to talk about and critique. It was irrational, I know, but it bothered me at the time.
I got over it. The Fellowship was certainly my favourite of the Lord of the Rings films, but I watched and enjoyed them all. The Hobbit films were different. I felt more jaded—why did Peter Jackson need to stretch the story into three films? It struck me as more a commercial than an artistic decision.
While I wasn’t the only one disappointed with The Hobbit films, I’d rather have them than not. And with all of the films now out, it seemed appropriate that I managed to finally visit the film set in New Zealand over Christmas.
2015 was certainly my year for Tolkien related trips. Last August, I had the chance to visit Oxford. My daughter and I drove down from Glasgow, and we stayed at Magdalen College. We visited the Kilns, where C. S. Lewis lived and died, and we drove down North Moore Road, where Tolkien lived with his family. We wandered the college, walked Adison’s Walk, and visited The Eagle and Child, where the Inklings met weekly. Visiting Hobbiton over Christmas was fun, and I was excited to go, but it wasn’t the literary pilgrimage that Oxford was.
We had to drive down to Matamata from just outside Auckland, and we were late for our tour. The people at the I-Site in Matamata were helpful and got us onto the next bus. It’s a walking tour through the village, and I kept missing stuff our guide said because we lingered to look and talk about the hobbit-holes. It was interesting, and I kept reminding myself this was Peter Jackson’s Hobbiton—not that it wasn’t inspired. It was rustic and quaint, detailed and thoughtfully constructed.
On we went, making the walk up the hill, until we stood in front of Bilbo’s gate, hung with the sign, No Admittance Except on Party Business. There we were—in front of Bag End, Bilbo’s hobbit-hole, where the stories began. But the sign identified this as the Bag End of Lord of the Rings—years after Bilbo’s adventures that took him into the east, over the Misty Mountains, where he met Gollum and found the ring; and into Mirkwood, where he fought and killed spiders; and finally, to the Lonely Mountain, where he talked to a dragon.
Our tour guide pressed on. We walked down the hill and found ourselves in the field, with the party tree standing at one end. One addition to the Party field, which I thought very unlike Tolkien, was a Maypole, standing about half way down the field. Tolkien would, of course, been familiar with the Maypole, but he was assiduous in avoiding anything about sex in his books.
The end of the tour brought us to The Green Dragon, the inn where you can sit down, have lunch by the fire as you sip your mug of beer. We lined up outside and got a free glass of ginger beer, then went inside to look around the inn.
There’s a cat that lives in The Green Dragon. My daughter spotted it right away, sleeping near the hearth.
“That cat was here the last time I visited,” she said. “That was three years ago!”
Visiting Hobbiton was a little like watching the commentaries for the Lord of the Rings films. I’d never watched commentaries before, and I learned much about how films were made. Visiting Hobbiton was getting a peek at how Peter Jackson created the films. You can’t, for example, go inside any of the hobbit-holes—not really. One of the doors opens, and you can walk inside, but any of the inside scenes were shot in a studio in Wellington. It was fun to see, but I was strongly reminded that all of this went into creating the illusion of the films.
And there’s the difference, I think. Reading the books is not an illusion. Tolkien himself understood the difference, although he wasn’t referring to his own books when he wrote his essay “On Faerie Stories.”
Tolkien writes:
“The storymaker, as subcreator, makes a secondary world which the listener can enter– Inside what he relates is true.  It accords with the laws of that world; you, therefore, believe it, while you are, as it were, inside.  The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken.  The magic, or rather art, has failed.  You are then out in the primary world again, looking at the little abortive secondary world from outside.”
A reader’s willingness to accept a secondary world Tolkien calls secondary belief. The process of subcreation makes his books the experience they are. They are real—for as long as you are willing to accept the reality of that world. This kind of engagement doesn’t work for everyone, but it was certainly my experience as an eleven year-old kid discovering Tolkien’s world for the first time, an experience I have again and again, whenever I read the books.

A Letter to C. S. Lewis


Dear Professor Lewis:
I’m writing this letter fifty-two years after your death, November 22, 1963. You won’t get it, but I don’t care. I’m writing anyway.
I was actually born three days before you died, in a small town in southern Alberta. You won’t have heard of Claresholm, and I doubt you will have ever heard of Alberta, but I know you had an appreciation for Canada—you had a Canadian aunt on your mother’s side, Aunt Annie, wife to your maternal uncle.
I didn’t read any of your books until I was an adult. I read Professor Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings over and over again as a young person, but I didn’t even know that you were friends with Professor Tolkien until after I read Narnia and some of your other books. I was getting interested in children’s literature while doing an undergraduate degree, and I read about the Narnia books in one of my anthologies. I didn’t know anything about Narnia at the time, but the anthology contained an excerpt from The Last Battle. Not long after, I was able to get the Narnia books and read them.
You may be interested to know that I had to get the series on cassette tape. I’m totally blind, and in those days I had to read everything on cassette. I read the Narnia books many times, and I have to admit, and please don’t take offense, I felt a little let down. You have to understand that I was young, and I had the idea that I could find another world like Professor Tolkien’s. Well, I’m much older now, and I still haven’t found anything to equal Professor Tolkien’s world of Middle-Earth.
I’ve thought a great deal about the Narnia books, as well as many of your other books, and I’ve learned much from you over the years. For one, I’ve realized that you had different ideas about fantasy than your friend, Professor Tolkien. You had, for example, a greater sense of fun when it came to fantasy than he did—at least in most of the Narnia books, and maybe save for The Hobbit. I always thought Professor Tolkien must have taken great delight in writing that book. How could he not? Mr. Bilbo Baggins is such a delightful character. I thought you must have felt the same way about the Narnia books, although by the time you wrote The Last Battle, you seem to lose something of your sense of fun to an overwhelming seriousness. The end of the world is a serious thing, after all. But I could never manage to understand the joy the Pevensie children experience as they leave their old lives behind and enter the new Narnia. Perhaps I thought you were trying too hard to teach me something about Heaven.
I’ve always had many questions about the Narnia series, and I ask many of them every year in my children’s literature classes. I teach at a university here in Edmonton, and every year we talk about one of your books—usually The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Here are some of the questions we ask:
Why is Father Christmas in the book? And why did you make him say, “Battles are ugly when Women fight?”
Why don’t Mr. and Mrs. Beaver share a bed? And how could Edmund have possibly eaten so much Turkish delight at a single sitting?
These questions might seem silly to you, but my students are intensely curious, and they genuinely wonder about these smaller details.
We ask larger questions as well—one of the main questions being, do we have to read the book as a Christian text? There are always a few students in the class who read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a young person, and they were told that the book was a way to better understand Jesus.
Well, back to my purpose in writing to you. I wanted to thank you for writing the Narniabooks, not to mention your science fiction books and all of your books on Christianity. I’ve read most of them, an I’ve wrestled again and again with the things you say about God, about pain, and about literature. Reading many of these books simply raises more questions for me, but I won’t bore you with those.
I will say, however, that I absolutely loved Out of the Silent Planet. I know you loved the works of Mr. H. G. Wells, and so do I. Reading Out of the Silent Planet took me right back to reading those books as a boy, and I found great joy in reading about Dr. Elwin Ransom’s trip to Malacandra.
This, finally, brings me to my real purpose in writing. You are one of those giants who walks my own literary landscape. You stride around in that landscape, spinning stories about dwarves and talking lions and the strange people of Mars. Like Jack who encountered giants of his own, I’m afraid to get too close for fear of getting trampled. I even sometimes steal from you, taking bits from the worlds you weave and using them in my own stories.
It wasn’t until I read Surprised by Joy that I became less nervous about getting too close. I was able to get a different sense of you as a man and a writer by getting a glimpse of you as a boy. As I read your description of losing your mother, then being sent away to that terrible school in England, I felt I had more of a connection with you than I realized. I too suffered a loss at a young age. I lost my cousin in a car accident. I didn’t understand love very well at the time, but I knew I loved my cousin. I was in the same car accident, and it was there I lost my sight. It was after that—in the hospital, in fact—that I began listening to Professor Tolkien’s The Hobbit on tape.
Having said all of this, I mostly want to say thank you. Thank you for your books. Thank you for your many words—those that have inspired me, and those that have challenged me. Thank you for sharing something of yourself. And most of all, thank you for giving me worlds where I can visit—places where I can get inside, walk around, and stretch my imaginative legs. These are places where I can wonder and ask questions, and most of all, return to when the world gets too big or too scary or too hard, and I need a familiar spot to rest and sort out my life and my thoughts.
Your faithful fan,
Bill Thompson

A Visit to Oxford, Part II


My daughter and I had six days in Oxford, three of which we used for day-trips—one to Stonehenge and two into London. Our final day in Oxford we dedicated to Lewis and Tolkien. On the Saturday, we got a bus on the High Street and headed to our car-park. The plan was to visit the places where Lewis and Tolkien had lived.
The Kilns is the house where Jack Lewis lived with Warnie, his brother, Mrs. Moore and her daughter Maureen. They purchased the house together in 1930, which is around the same time that Lewis was becoming a Christian—something that happened over the period of several years. The Kilns is outside of Oxford at Headington Quarry, but we found the house in only a few minutes.
Parking the car along a side street, we walked into what is now called Lewis Close—the short street leading up to the house and nature preserve. The house is unremarkable. It’s a quiet house on a quiet street. The place is maintained privately by the C. S. Lewis Foundation, so we weren’t able to get inside. I didn’t mind, particularly. This is the house where Lewis lived, and died, November 22, 1963.
We crossed the street and entered the park. The park has a pond—they call it a lake—and we walked about for a while. I was a little distressed at the amount of litter, and I got stung by nettles. A young family was also making their way through the park—a boy, apparently with the name of Jack, tagging along behind. Leaving the park, I feltsomehow let down, but I wasn’t sure why.
What exactly did you expect? I asked myself.
We stopped at the house once more, and I kept looking for the connection I wanted to feel. This was the place I had read so much about. This was the place where Lewis had lived for over thirty years.
Back at the car, we plugged Tolkien’s old address into the satnav and headed for Northmoor Road. And there, in not very long, was the house, number 22, one of two houses on this street where Tolkien lived with his family. The houses were tall and brick, and not the sort of place you would think the author of Lord of the Rings would live. But Tolkien, even more than Lewis, lived an ordinary life—married with four children, and working hard to raise a family.
After Northmoor Road, it was back to the car-park and Magdalen College. We wanted to look around the college grounds. We had to enter through the porter’s door again, but this time it seemed more normal—two lovely young women nodding and smiling, and handing us a leaflet on C. S. Lewis.
We found New Building right away, the building where Lewis lived on campus, and the place where the Inklings gathered in Lewis’ rooms on Thursday evenings. We wandered around inside another of the buildings, passing other visitors and students looking for their classrooms. A wedding was going on inside one of the courtyards, and the bells rang out from Magdalen Tower.
We saved Adison’s Walk for last. It’s a peaceful path encircling a deer park in the centre. Trees border the path, and a little river runs along one side. As I walked along, I thought of Tolkien, Lewis, and Hugo Dyson walking here in September of 1931. It was late, after an Inklings meeting, and the three men walked and talked of myth.
In a letter to his life-long friend, Arthur Greeves, Lewis wrote of that night:
Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even though I could not say in cold prose ’what it meant’. … Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: ….
I felt closer to Lewis and Tolkien on Addison’s Walk than I had anywhere else. Maybe it was the quiet, broken only by the sound of bells from the college—or maybe the relative solitude of this place gave me the chance to fully appreciate where I was. It wasn’t Narnia or Middle-Earth, but I was finally getting a glimpse into the lives of these men who lived very structured lives: teaching, reading, and researching; meeting with friends often to talk and drink and smoke, arguing about religion, philosophy, and pedagogy; and finally retreating into their imaginations to create and write into being the worlds that so many have come to love.
Lewis, C. S. C. S. Lewis, Collected Letters, Volume 1: Family Letters, 1905 to 1931. Ed. Walter Hooper. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2000. 975-76. Print.