The Eyes of the Dragon, Stephen King

Signet, 1995 reprint of 1987 original, 380 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-16658-2

When it was first published in 1987, Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon seemed like a significant departure for the author.  Occasional exceptions aside (such as the first novel in the Dark Tower cycle, or The Talisman), audiences had been conditioned, through the first fifteen years of King’s career, to expect adult horror fiction, not a fantasy fairy tale seemingly aimed at younger readers.  Now, of course, King’s brand is associated with a variety of dark fantasy subgenres; The Dark Tower did much to expand his perceived repertoire, and it’s no accident if that series is closely related to The Eyes of the Dragon, all the way to a common antagonist.

And yet, nearly 25 years after its first publication, the distinctiveness of The Eyes of the Dragon remains, and so does its interest.  From the first sentence (“Once, in a kingdom called Delain, there was a King with two sons”…), we understand that this is going to be a different kind of reading experience: The story is told as a fairy tale, by a narrator whose presence couldn’t be more obviously felt.  Taking place a long time ago in a country far away, this is a story of a weak king, an evil magician, and two princes.  Tired of waiting for his chance at power, the mage eventually frames the good prince for his father’s death, sets up the weaker prince on the throne and set about to take from the kingdom of everything of value.  Fortunately, a cunning plan is in the works…

But plotting isn’t the main feature of this novel, which is best appreciated as a storytelling exercise.  Reportedly adapted from stories King told his children, The Eyes of the Dragon sometimes feels like a self-imposed dare: different subject matter, different tone, and different rhythm.  The narration becomes its own reason to read the book, as King spends the first half of the book providing us with the backstory, the characters and the motivations.  The narrator is omniscient, but only to a point: He frequently addresses the readers to tell them that he has described everything as it happened, but the audience should make its mind as to what it means.  Meanwhile, the story is told with its own special charm, and the novel quickly gains the trust of its readers from the start.  It is, in other words, a lot of fun to read.

It’s also misleading to keep referring to this as “a fairy-tale for kids”: While the setting, vocabulary and sentence structure may seem destined to a younger audience, King doesn’t limit himself to simple sentiments or emotions in the telling of the story.  The words are simple but the thoughts aren’t, and The Eyes of the Dragon may work better as a fable for grown-ups, creating a sentiment of nostalgia for bedside storytelling while managing to address adult concerns.  There’s more depth to the book than expected, and a lot of sympathy for the fully-sketched characters.

Where The Eyes of the Dragon doesn’t work so well is in its pacing: Ironically, the novel gets a great deal less absorbing once the plot moves forward.  Rather than focus on the protagonists and the palace intrigue, it dissipates by changing focus and following minor characters.  Those characters aren’t so minor in that they are reportedly meant to portray King’s children in the story, but they do send the novel in another, less interesting direction just as it should move toward its conclusion.

Still, the overall impact of the book is strong, and it cements the notion that Stephen King is not just a gifted writer, but one who has continued to try new things along the way.  King scholars will better understand the relationship between The Eyes of the Dragon and the rest of the King universe (most particularly his fantasy work) but you don’t need to be a King aficionado to appreciate this book and what it attempts to do.

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