It’s been said that there are certain books you have to read at the right time in your life in order to understand them completely, novels that speak to particular age groups or circumstances. The Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace come to mind, for example; maybe The Sun Also Rises. All great works of fiction at any age, but particularly powerful when read as an adolescent (the Salinger and Knowles novels) and as a young man (the Hemingway). This seems axiomatic to me, and no work of fiction proves it more strongly than The Dragonbone Chair.
SF-Signal’s Larry Ketchersid recently wrote an article entitled “The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams and Its Place in the History of Epic Fantasy,” a timely retrospective on the 1988 fantasy classic written in anticipation of the forthcoming sequel series, The Last King of Osten Ard. Reading it made me want to talk about what The Dragonbone Chair and its sequels mean to me, as their impact on my life has been significant. Spoilers abound.
Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, the trilogy of which The Dragonbone Chair is the opening volume, is one of the seminal works of modern fantasy, and Tad Williams, its author, has become a household name for those interested in speculative fiction. But when I first laid eyes on a Tad Williams novel, I was 12 or 13, just about the same age as the protagonist of the trilogy, Simon, and just as lost in the world. It was in a bookstore in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, and the book in question was the paperback version of To Green Angel Tower, Part 1. I bought it based on the cover art and blurb, under the mistaken impression that it was the first book in the trilogy. Suffice it to say I was surprised and disappointed to learn, a few pages in, that there was a reason I didn’t have any idea what was going on. What can I say, I was 12. I didn’t pay too much attention to front matter. I was even more disappointed to find out I was not going to get a second ride to the bookstore that night. I was still fascinated by what appeared to be a very interesting story, though, and if I remember correctly, when I went back to the bookstore they didn’t have The Dragonbone Chair in stock, and had to order it. I waited impatiently for several days, and then after school one day I finally had it. In the car on the ride home, I entered a world that has stayed with me ever since (I am 32 now), a world that not only proved a source of personal joy and adventure but was integral to my own growing dream of becoming a writer.
Fantasy was a welcome escape, at the time: I was a chubby, unpopular kid whose parents were in the end stages of a difficult divorce. I had just moved to a new neighborhood where friends were few and far between, to the extent I wanted them anyway. I had discovered Tolkien a few years before, in the fourth grade, and had devoured every other bit of fantasy I could get my hands on since, mainly books with the names Brooks and Eddings on the covers. I was in between worlds when I found To Green Angel Tower, exploring the Science Fiction/Fantasy section at the bookstore in that glassy-eyed trance that is both frustrating and exciting–frustrating because you haven’t found that next favorite book yet, exciting because you might be about to.
That excitement was nothing compared to what I felt when I started reading. The trend in fantasy these days is to start in media res; the prologues and long first acts of more traditional fantasy are often deemed old-fashioned and unnecessary. But I’ve always loved epic fantasy that comes to a slow boil; I’m one of those odd people who loves the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring, the way it takes its time meandering through the world of the Shire and building tension. By the time Frodo actually sets out, Tolkien has cemented the reader’s relationship with this odd little fellow, and you start seeing the world of Middle Earth from a distinctly hobbitish point of view, which is no doubt precisely what the master intended.
The Dragonbone Chair shares a similar pace during its first act. We meet the aptly named Simon Mooncalf chasing bugs, and from that unassuming and distinctly boyish introduction to his exciting escape from the Hayholt, the seriousness and tension slowly builds until the kettle’s ready to scream–a good two or three hundred pages later.
Simon, or Seoman, is, I think, one of those protagonists who means more to you if you happened to read him at the right age. I’m not saying he can’t be appreciated by an adult–quite the contrary–but it’s sort of like a good Pixar movie: kids see one movie, parents see another one entirely, and both come away satisfied. As a troubled, pubescent child, Simon just made sense to me: his day-dreamy absentmindedness, his self-absorption, his raging hormones–and, of course, his well-developed sense of self-pity. Simon’s a good person at heart, as he shows at various points, but he’s still a kid, and an immature one at that. His quest is a coming of age that neither pulls its punches nor exaggerates the abilities or the learning curve of a 14 year old boy raised in a kitchen.
Simon doesn’t strike out on his own to find himself capable and independent, he narrowly escapes death time and time again due to a string of friends and mentor figures who take pity on his incompetence. He survives the debacle at the Hayholt because of his benefactor Doctor Morgenes’ wit and self-sacrifice, and even then almost manages to kill himself escaping. The reader discovers along with Simon that it’s not nearly as easy to survive on one’s own–whether you’re in a primeval forest or middle school–as it appears to be. The adventure stories lied. You don’t suddenly turn into Robin Hood just because you spend a few days in the woods.
The realism of Simon’s character arc was unprecedented: rather than the farmboy-cum-superhero who learns the sword overnight and discovers grand wizardly powers that save his skin, Simon discovers that he knows far less about the world than he thought he did, and survives only because of the charity and skill of others. Even the Bagginses had the benefit of maturity and experience, however slim and narrow, by the time they set out on their respective quests; Simon, on the other hand, truly is a sheep among the wolves. The fact of his parentage, when revealed, really only becomes relevant when Simon has proven able to endure to the end; if he’s learned anything by the end of the trilogy, it’s that keeping your wits about you, having a conscience, and listening to those wiser than yourself is more kingly and useful than any amount of gallantry or skill.
Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn was ahead of its time in many ways. The realism of its characters and its world presaged the gritty, grimdark imaginings of writers like Abercrombie and Martin, the latter of whom has stated publicly that the trilogy influenced the creation of A Song of Ice and Fire. The world of Osten Ard might not be quite as bleak as Logen Ninefingers’ homeland or the Seven Kingdoms, but the politics and history are decidedly darker than the black and white conceptions of Williams’ contemporaries. Yes, roughly speaking, it’s a quest story starring a boy who would be king, but it’s one in which neither kingdom nor quest turn out to be quite what was promised. Erkynland, the supposed apple of Osten Ard, turns out to be more than a little rotten, built on a legacy of greed and its own in-world version of white privilege and racism, and the quest itself–for the eponymous trio of magic swords, believed by the heroes to be the key to defeating the trilogy’s big bad, the evil Storm King–turns out to be the greatest ruse of all time. The Storm King’s rage, if not his methods, becomes increasingly understandable as the true history of the land becomes clear.
Williams’ facility, too, with taking the tropes of traditional fantasy and twisting them to his own ends foreshadows the postmodern era of fantasy we seem to be going through now. Seeing as how Tad Williams was also responsible, with this selfsame work, for helping establish many of these tropes, it’s rather astounding that he was this far ahead of his time. In an introduction to a new edition of the book in 2004, Williams commented on his intentions when he set out to write it:
I had wanted to write these books, this story, in part because I was so irked by all the pseudo-Tolkienalia floating around (and guess what–it’s still going on to this day!) So why would I want to do the same thing as everyone else?
For all its ingenuity, the characters shine through warm and pure and real; there’s a simple beauty to them, even in their flaws. The fact that the novels preserve a familiar archetypal framework makes them all the more powerful when the story strays outside of it, and allows it to serve as an excellent bridge between Tolkien and his copycats and the legion of innovators writing today. But the reason it’s important to me is because at its core, it’s a morality play, a fairy story in the truest, most laudable sense; a celebration of choosing the right even when your choices are black and gray. Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn taught me that the question of whether or not the world is a benevolent one is less important than choosing to have faith in the idea that it ought to be. That friendship, love, and hope can prevail over conflict, hate, and despair if we believe they can. That life is a journey, and it’s the journey, not the destination, that’s important. It’s a story that is confident enough in its own merits to have a happy ending, a rarity these days. Call me trite, but I think these are the things that call to us most clearly and weather the test of time the easiest.
It comes as no surprise to me that experts now say that the Harry Potter books might be teaching kids empathy: I learned about loyalty, sacrifice, friendship, and courage from Tad Williams as assuredly as millions of millennials learned it from J.K. Rowling. The Dragonbone Chair, The Stone of Farewell, and To Green Angel Tower form a tale for the ages, a story that will always welcome you home, no matter how long you’ve been abroad. Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is like a favorite chair, cushioned with eiderdown: ever comfortable, but apt to poke you in sensitive places with the sharp quills of wisdom and adventure before you drift off.
Coming to the very end of the tale, we hear the author’s voice, just audible beneath Simon’s, inviting us to come again:
“Simon gently took his arm. “Now come, please. Come and join us. Up the corridor you have a room full of friends, Eolair—some of them you don’t even know yet!”
He led the count toward the dining hall. Firelight and the sound of laughing voices reached out to welcome them.”