Novel * Stephen King * Stephen King High Fantasy? * 1987
I haven’t read The Eyes of the Dragon since… I don’t even remember. High school? Earlier? Needless to say it’s been a very long time, and this is only important because I think I read it before my Dark Tower fever set in, and so I kind of forgot about it. Coming back around, after having read the vast majority of King’s output as well as the entire Tower cycle in the meantime, the novel is an anomaly. The Eyes of the Dragon is strange not only because it’s a weird, Tower-adjacent tale, but because it is a genre that Stephen King doesn’t really fuck with, and that’s high fantasy. So that’s odd, but not out of character. After all, with a writer as obscenely prolific as Mr. King, it’s perfectly natural for his interests to swing all over the place, genre-wise. The thing is, King has a very specific, well-honed voice and style that sets him apart from anyone else. When it comes to writing, you don’t have to be a fan to recognize a brilliant craftsman. Anyway, The Eyes of the Dragon is high fantasy, but it’s Stephen King high fantasy, if you can dig that.
If you’re a fan of The Dark Tower series and haven’t read this, well, it’ll mess with you. And it’ll do it right away, so while I get deeper into the connection later on in the article, we should make something clear right away. This is not a Dark Tower story. It is a story which takes place on one of the infinite levels of the Tower, but nothing in this tale really touches on any of the core series in any meaningful way. That said, the novel opens up like a fairy tale: “Once, in a kingdom called Delain, there was a King with two sons.” That king’s name is Roland the Good, and shortly after that we learn he has an uneasy advisor, the court magician, Flagg. Right?! The thing is, this book was written in 1984 (for his daughter) and not published widely until 1987. So, after the first Dark Tower novel but before even The Drawing of the Three came about. So, as strange as it may seem to read about a Roland who’s a bowlegged drunk, it probably didn’t register with all that many people when it first appeared. Also, as I mentioned, The Eyes of the Dragon is entirely its own thing. After finishing it, my only real disappointment is that King never revisited the Kingdom of Delain.
The Eyes of the Dragon sits somewhere between the epic high fantasy of Tolkien and a fairy tale. It’s not quite as simplistic as a fable or an actual fairy tale, but then it’s not nearly as detailed and daunting as, say, The Wheel of Time. The novel is briskly paced, there isn’t too much in the way of leaden world-building, and the cast of characters is every bit as well-drawn and compelling as you might expect from Stephen King. The outline of the story is pretty simple. King Roland is in poor health, and soon the kingdom will fall to his elder son, Peter. Flagg, the malicious magician advisor, would prefer the crown go to Peter’s sad, flawed brother, Thomas. As you might imagine, things don’t go terribly well for young Peter. As the story unfolds, we learn a lot about the royal family dynamics – this is primarily a story about characters and less about magical adventures. While that might disappoint some fantasy fans, I found the relationship between the various characters to be fascinating. Especially when concerning poor Thomas, who really didn’t stand much of a chance throughout. Even if the narrative can only end in one way, it’s still a fairy story after all, the journey is well worth the time, if only to get to know these characters.
Roland the Good isn’t actually that good of a king, but I guess Roland the Mediocre doesn’t have the same ring to it. He clearly wants to go the right thing, but he’s a bit simple. He likes to hunt and drink and that’s about it. Women frighten him, which is a little bit off stereotype for the hedonistic king model, but that’s what makes him intriguing. All in all, he’s weak, and that weakness threatens to undo the solid work of his fathers before him. However, Roland knows quality when he sees it, and he sees it in his son Peter. Unfortunately, he also unwittingly sows discord in his sad son Thomas because that poor son of a bitch was never going to measure up to his older brother. Peter’s character is probably the least interesting of the main characters here, if only because he’s a little too awesome all the time. Most of this he gets from his mother, the kind Queen Sasha who in the end was too smart for her own good and triggered the wrath of Flagg. In due time, the quality that Sasha passed onto her son also put Peter in Flagg’s crosshairs. Of course because Peter is so wonderful and kind and good, he manages to win instant loyalty among a small core of helpers, which eventually gets him sprung from his tower-jail.
Peter, alongside Flagg, is indicative of the fairy-tale aspect of The Eyes of the Dragon. The dude just doesn’t have all that much depth, because he’s supposed to be the pure, moral center of the tale. Peter always does the right thing, and his heart is pure. There is no point where he has a dark thought, and the only point of weakness I can think of is his relationship with his younger brother, Thomas. Even there, it seems like he does all he can. He’s modest and thoughtful and puts other people first. It’s a little much, to be honest. Likewise, Flagg is pure chaotic evil. There’s no point in the story where the reader is made to empathize with him. There’s not a single shade of grey. Flagg doesn’t think he’s doing the right thing. Flagg is simply there to fuck shit up in the most grandiose way possible. These two characters are at the extremes, and are broad oversimplifications of human nature. They’re there to provide a clear moral to the reader. Be like Peter, fear Flagg. If this were an actual fairy tale, the overall plot would be the same, and these two characters would also remain. The major difference would be the rest of cast, who in a fairy tale would be simple cardboard cutouts of humanity.
Lucky for us, Stephen King has almost never delivered a flat character in his life. Instead we get dull, listless Roland and the pathetic, tormented Thomas, both of whom add much needed depth to the story. Beyond them, we also have an assortment of ancillary characters who also brim with life. I particularly enjoy moody Peyna and the irrepressible Naomi. To be fair, the latter isn’t as well rounded as either Penya or even Ben, but it’s nice to have at least one woman in the story who’s not immediately murdered. Honestly, this is the main quibble I have with the book, because if King wrote the book for his daughter, why not deliver a kickass princess to save the day? Well, whatever. It should be noted that one of the reasons King excels at character building is his ability to deliver relevant anecdotes about people at appropriate times. It’s in this way that we learn a little more about Penya’s integrity and his loyalty to his servant. By the same token, we are quickly made to see Naomi’s self-assurance and her faith in her good dog, Frisky. The Eyes of the Dragon succeeds due to the depth of the cast of characters here, and you’ll note that I didn’t talk about the plot much. I mean, Flagg frames Peter for regicide and gets him imprisoned in a tower. Peter, an intellectual, escapes via napkin-rope, and saves the day with the help of his friends. The plot is almost an afterthought. What’s important are the people.
All Things Serve The Beam
As I noted at the beginning, The Eyes of the Dragon is pretty clearly a story from another level of the Tower. The name of the kingdom is Delain, which is very close to Roland’s surname in the novels, Deschain. Obviously King Roland should raise some eyebrows among fans. What’s fascinating about King Roland is how much he has in common with the badass gunslinger we know the true Roland to be. Roland the Gunslinger isn’t dumb, but his thinking is slow. Painfully so, sometimes. He’s a man of action, after all, and he readily admits that he has trouble “thinking around corners.” Still, Roland the Gunslinger is adept at improvisation, which is key to the situations he finds himself in. Meanwhile, Roland the King was born into a stable, stagnant situation. He had none of the training or trauma that his gunslinger doppelganger went through. Despite that, his one inborn talent is hunting, which lines up nicely. That said, if Roland the Gunslinger was ever confronted with this version of himself, he would be disgusted. Meanwhile, Flagg is Flagg is Flagg. This version of King’s ur-villain is less giddy than other incantations, but is still the same chaotic evil monster as represented in The Stand and as Walter in the Dark Tower novels.