Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends. Or at least it seems to never end. The Grand Stephen King Experiment has, as of this posting, encompassed more than 35 pieces of media(36 to be exact). We have had movies, books, and one TV mini-series that have been inspired by the writings of Mr. King in this process. Most of these have been firmly in the horror genre. Granted, with some of the Bachman Books and a few of the novellas and short stories, King has strayed from the horror genre from time to time but, as we all know, most of the entries in TGSKE have dealt with horror of one sort or another. And that simplicity of one genre that is well known, tried, and true is what appealed to me about King’s stories as a child.
However, as I’ve embarked on this experiment at an older and, hopefully, wiser age of 33, I’ve realized that many of the works of King that I still enjoy some 20 years after I first discovered the eponymous author of this experiment are not merely works of horror but great metaphors for struggles that we all face in life, love, and other pursuits. In other words, for a pulp horror writer, King has unexpected depths.
This is why I was excited to dig into The Eyes of the Dragon. For one of the first times in this experiment, King would be leaving behind all of his horror roots for a full-length novel under his own name and writing a book of pure fantasy. Now, I know that some of you will argue that he did this already with The Gunslinger but I would argue that many aspects of that first book of The Dark Tower series had all the feeling of a post-apocalyptic horror novel rather than a true work of pure fantasy. That is just my opinion. However, nobody can argue that The Eyes of the Dragon is anything other than a work of pure fantasy of the swords and sorcery persuasion.
So, how did our intrepid literary companion fare in this trip outside of his proven wheelhouse?
Before I begin my discussion of the book in earnest, it is time for us to lean heavily on that wonderful crutch that is the official synopsis of the novel at StephenKing.com:
Once upon a time, in the Kingdom of Delain, King Roland is murdered and his son and heir, Peter, is framed for the crime. Peter and his loyal friends must battle an evil wizard and Peter’s usurper brother, Thomas, for the throne. Imprisoned in a tower, Peter conceives an escape plan that will take him years to execute before taking on Flagg, the powerful sorcerer who has masterminded this coup.
The eagle-eyed reader among you will notice that, though this is a novel that stands alone with no true direct connections with any of the works we’ve discussed as part of TGSKE to this point, that a few names do stand out as being familiar. For one, King Roland shares a first name with our famed gunslinger from The Gunslinger. We will see Roland several more times as we continue through The Dark Tower series, seeing as how he is the lead character of that epic, so it will be interesting to see if there are further connections between him and King Roland besides just the name. I can say, in no uncertain terms, that the King and his gunslinging namesake have very little in common as of yet, other than the name and an uncanny ability to hit targets with weapons. But we shall see as we get further into TGSKE if the connection becomes clearer.
However, a much more direct connection to other works that we have discussed as part of this series is the evil wizard/magician/sorcerer/whatever you want to call him for the King, Flagg. Flagg is the same name that we have seen used before to describe the Dark Man in The Stand. It is, also, generally agreed that Randall Flagg, the name for the Dark Man in The Stand, is also The Man in Black who Roland the Gunslinger pursues through the desert in The Gunslinger and future novels in that series. This makes for quite a few ties to the other works that we have found in TGSKE thus far, even if they are possibly tangential. However, I don’t think they are and I will explain my theory on that in greater detail at the end of this post as it does contain spoilers for this book.
Let us discuss this book on its own merits first, though.
This book, as I stated in the introduction, is a huge departure for King from his usual stomping ground. It is a novel that is firmly planted in the sword and sorcery genre. There are kings, queens, and princes. There are baronies, castles, and servants. Dragons, wizards, and magical poisons are all featured heavily. In other words, this is a book that leans heavily on the influences of Dungeons and Dragons and the writings of Tolkien, more than on the usual King influences of Lovecraft and Bradbury.
I should state that, for the most part, I don’t like sword and sorcery novels. Pure fantasy is just not my thing when I’m reading a book. I don’t mind playing video games of the sort(Dragon Age is a favorite), nor do I mind watching movies in this vein(I love The Lord of the Rings films). However, when I sit down to read a book, I very rarely(read never) want to read about magical kingdoms with epic swordfights and dragon-slaying.
With that being said, I actually found myself not hating The Eyes of the Dragon. I didn’t love it, by any means, but I could enjoy it for what it was. An author trying to stretch himself outside of his comfort zone by writing against his type. Also, with the innovative voice that King adopted for his narrator(it is told to us as if the narrator is a storyteller in our universe telling us a tale of an epic kingdom from another world entirely), I was much more inclined to enjoy the novel. I’m not sure exactly what caused that but, if I had to hazard a guess, I would wager that it had as much to do with the fact that King focused on some of the more mundane details of the Kingdom of Delain more than he focused on the single dragon battle of the story. The fantastical elements were held at bay to a certain extent.
As the synopsis above states, the book deals with a prince who is wrongly imprisoned for killing his father, the king, while the true murderer exerts his will over the younger, more naive prince who becomes king in his brother’s absence. It is a stock tale if ever there was one. And, Spoiler Alert, Prince Peter escapes from his captivity, proves that the bad guy was bad, and becomes King again. And this is where my theory about how this novel ties in much deeper to other King novels begins.
Okay, this is a bit of a stretch, and I may be proven wrong when I read further in The Dark Tower series, but I’m going to put this out there anyway.
At the end of this novel, the deposed King Thomas, youngest son of King Roland and brother of newly-crowned King Peter, departs towards the south of Delain in search of Flagg, the evil wizard/demon who has escaped at the very last second from the clutches of the heroes as they took back the seat of power that was rightfully theirs. Thomas, who was a miserable failure as a King, had one thing in common with his father, King Roland, that was stressed multiple times in the story. He was a superb shot. In fact, it is his shot that almost slays Flagg.
Now, as I’ve stated above, it is generally accepted that Flagg is also both Randall Flagg from The Stand and The Man in Black from The Dark Tower series. Flagg is now being doggedly pursued by Thomas, who has left Delain both to pursue him and because he was afraid for his life in the wake of being found out that he was not the rightful king. This would lead to him, more than likely, deciding to change his name. As a man who worshiped his father with a devotion that was almost obsessive, would it be that hard to think that when choosing a new name to call himself that young Thomas might not choose to be called Roland, like his father?
My theory, and it is filled with holes, trust me, is that when The Gunslinger opens with the famous line “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed” that we are really continuing the saga of deposed King Thomas in his dogged search for Flagg in the southern reaches of the world that holds the Kingdom of Delain.
Or maybe I’m just crazy.
Anyway, though I was not a huge fan of this book on its own merits, and it took me a bit of time to work my way through the 320-some pages of it, I didn’t hate it. I wouldn’t suggest picking it up unless you are a huge fan of sword and sorcery type stuff but I wouldn’t steer you clear of it like I would from Maximum Overdrive or The Long Walk. It is not offensively bad nor is it fantastically good. It just is.
Next up in TGSKE is Creepshow 2, which is one of the only sequels that I am including in the experiment because of the fact that the vignettes are taken from stories directly written by King. I’m not expecting good things from this film. However, it cannot possibly be worse than Maximum Overdrive.
Until next time.