Revisiting The Eyes of the Dragon by Richard Chizmar
THAT WAS THEN…
Well, this should be an easy one.
When I began this journey many months ago, I admitted that there were two Stephen King books I had never read before. I purposely kept both titles a secret, promising to only let the cat outta the bag once I had reached each of the two books on my Stephen King Revisited list.
Roadwork was the first of the pair, and despite its overwhelmingly dark nature and (at times) rough prose, I greatly enjoyed that initial reading and regretted not doing so earlier.
And so now, ladies and gents, we come to the final Stephen King book I’ve somehow managed to never crack open: The Eyes of the Dragon.
My reasoning these past nearly thirty years was simple (and clearly misguided; but more on that later): Eyes of the Dragon, huh? It sounds a little too fantasy-oriented for my tastes. Castles. Dragons. Kings and Queens. Heck, there are probably a dozen characters with names I can’t even pronounce. And elves, I bet you anything there are elves running around a dark forest. And fairies living up in the treetops. And…
…and no thanks. I’ll pass for now and get around to it one day. When I have nothing else tempting to read.
But I never did.
Originally published in 1987, my brand new hardcover copy of The Eyes of the Dragon remained high on my bookshelf. Untouched. Unread.
* * *
THIS IS NOW…
An admission before we get started: even now, after all these years, I still had reservations. I still had doubts.
I even found myself emailing Steve one morning in early May and mentioning my wariness in passing and asking (in a hopeful moment) if there were at least maybe a lot of cool dragons in the book.
Steve answered something to the effect of, “Well, actually, there’s only one dragon, Rich, and it dies right in the beginning of the book.”
My mind immediately flashed a warning siren: Son of a bitch! I knew it!
Nonetheless, later that week, I picked up and started reading The Eyes of the Dragon. Cool dragons or no cool dragons, I had a job to do.
And, man oh man, am I glad I did it!
I didn’t know what I was missing all these years.
After a fairly slow opening act, I discovered I couldn’t put the book down. Fantasy or not, The Eyes of the Dragon features all the Stephen King trademarks we have come to expect and cherish: a big cast of believable characters, a wonderful sense of place and time, and a bullet-fast narrative drive (King’s short chapters propelling us forward in breathless fashion).
I immediately felt sympathetic affection for the aging and hapless (not to mention bow-legged and insecure) King Roland and fell in love with his good-hearted son, Peter. I immediately loathed the mysterious magician Flagg and felt pity for the tragic Thomas. As I turned more pages, I came to know the Kingdom of Delain as well as Castle Rock or Derry or the small town in which I grew up.
Most importantly, as I turned the pages, I came to believe. As usual, King had worked his unique blend of sorcery, and it had all became real to me.
I was somewhere near the halfway point of the novel when I realized something else: The Eyes of the Dragon is Stephen King channeling William Shakespeare.
Don’t laugh; think about it!
The story is absolutely Shakespearean in its landscape and scope. We have ghostly visions and foreboding dreams. Double-crossing villains and wrongly imprisoned heroes and dark secret passages that look upon a King’s lair. We have treachery and secrets and deceit galore. Balancing the scale, we have wisdom and courage and loyalty. All this wrapped up in a timeless ancestral power struggle.
A few of my favorite moments…
Chapter 17, where we get a proper introduction to the evil and timeless Flagg:
Sometimes the people of Delain called him Flagg the Hooded; sometimes simply the dark man—for, in spite of his white corpse’s face, he was a dark man indeed. They called him well preserved, but they used the term in a way that was uneasy rather than complimentary.
He had, in fact, come to Delain often. He came under a different name each time, but always with the same load of woe and misery and death. This time he was Flagg. The time before he had been known as Bill Hinch, and he had been the King’s Lord High Executioner. Although that time was two hundred and fifty years past, his was a name mothers still used to frighten their children when they were bad. “If you don’t shut up that squalling, I reckon Bill Hinch will come and take you away!” they said. Serving as Lord High Executioner under three of the bloodiest Kings in Delain’s long history, Bill Hinch had made an end to hundreds—thousands, some said—of prisoners with his heavy axe.
The time before that, four hundred years before the time of Roland and his sons, he came as a singer named Bronson, who became a close advisor to the King and a Queen. Bronson disappeared like smoke after drumming up a great and bloody war between Delain and Andua.
The time before that…
You get the picture, folks. As if so often the case with King, we get a wonderfully detailed backstory. The dark magician Flagg often made me think of Leland Gaunt of Needful Things fame, with his conniving and manipulative ways. I also saw flashes of everyone’s favorite clown, Pennywise, in Flagg’s black history, as Flagg appeared over and over again throughout time.
Another favorite moment occurs when Thomas finally gives in to temptation and returns to the secret passageway that gives him a glimpse into his father’s chambers. It just so happens that this journey coincides with the night of Flagg’s poisoning of the King:
Roland raised the back of his hand to his mouth for a moment, as if to stifle a belch. “Did you spice it?” he asked. “It tasted…almost mulled.”
“No, my Lord,” Flagg said gravely, but Thomas thought he sensed a smile behind the mask of the magician’s gravity, and that splinter of ice slipped further into his heart. Suddenly he wanted no more of spying, not ever. He closed the peepholes and crept back to his room. He felt first hot, then cold, then hot again. By morning he had a fever. Before he was well again, his father was dead, his brother imprisoned in the room at the top of the Needle, and he was a boy King at the age of barely twelve—Thomas the Light-Bringer, he was dubbed at the coronation ceremonies. And who was his closet advisor?
Fine, razor-sharp, evocative writing—that made me squirm in my seat while I was reading it.
And then we come to Peter—courageous and honorable Peter!
I was in awe of how he (just a boy at the time) stood up to Yosef and saved the life of the crippled horse, signaling to all the kingdom his inner strength and resolve; his character.
Some time later, even in despair, I was awed again by Peter’s heroic reaction to his father’s unexpected death and the subsequent accusations of Peter’s involvement:
“Very well,” he said. “Here is my command as King. I will put the crown aside until I am cleared of my father’s murder. You, Peyna, will serve Delain as Chancellor during the time it is without a royal head. I would that the trail should take place as soon as may be—tomorrow, even, if that is possible. I will be bound by the decision of the court.
“But you will not try me.”
They all blinked and sat up straighter at this dry note of authority, but Yosef of the stables would not have been surprised by it; he had heard that tone in the boy’s voice before, when Peter was only a stripling.
But, wait, there’s so much more:
Peter’s ingenious request for his mother’s dollhouse and cloth napkins to accompany his daily supper; Ben Staad, the brave and loyal friend Peter so much deserved; the never-ending passing of time up in that cold and lonely tower (who else thought of Andy Dufrene from Shawshank Prison when reading about Peter’s beard?: When he came in, it was only a shadow on his cheeks and a smudge under his nose—a boy’s beard. In the 1,825 days which followed, it grew long and luxuriant; by the end it reached the middle of his chest, and although he was only twenty-one, it was shot with gray.); Peter’s discovery of an ancient locket and note hidden away under a loose stone in the tower, artifacts of a centuries old crime committed by the creature we know as Flagg; a drunken and sleepwalking King Thomas; the King’s butler, Dennis, and a much-changed Peyna on a quest for redemption and the truth; Ben and fellow rebel Naomi (named after King’s own daughter and his close friend Peter Straub’s son), along with a massive husky, spearheading a rescue attempt in a raging blizzard; Flagg unveiling a crystal ball and commanding it to “show him!” and show him it does, as he watches the snowy image of Peter climbing down the tower to his freedom.
And then the clock really starts ticking…
…as Peter struggles with the knot on his rope…and Flagg makes his way up the long tower stairway (“Here I come, dear Peter, to chop off your head!” Flagg screamed and began to run up the stairs.), sounding quite a bit like Jack Torrance from The Shining; Flagg even calls Peter a “little whelp” at one point in his rage…and Thomas wakes up in the secret passageway and, as if moving in a dream, shrugs on his father’s robe and enters Roland’s chamber…and Peter finally goes out the window and starts climbing down the outside of the Needle…just as Flagg enters the room with an axe…and spots Peter climbing, and seeing that the rope is about to break, stands there at the window, grinning his awful grin, taunting him…only to see the rope break and Peter plummet toward the snowy ground and certain death…but falling instead into an immense pile of napkins which his friends have positioned below…and Peter is saved!
Or is he?
I won’t get into the final confrontation between Peter and Flagg in the King’s chambers…except to say that it surprised and delighted me, and I think it highlighted the perfect conclusion to The Eyes of the Dragon.
There’s certainly more to the story, but it’s left up to our imaginations, and as the final sentence of the novel reads:
But now the hour is late, and all of that is another tale, for another day.
* * *
The Eyes of the Dragon isn’t so much about scares—at least not in Stephen King’s traditional manner—as it is about wonder and adventure. With that said, the following scene gave me some serious heebie-jeebies:
“COMING, PETER!” Flagg shrieked, grinning. He smelled like blood and doom; his eyes were deadly fire. The headsman’s axe swished and whickered, and a last few drops of blood flew from the blade and splashed on the walls. “COMING NOW! COMING FOR YOUR HEAD!”
Up and around, up and around, higher and higher. He was a devil with murder on his mind.
Creepy as heck and, once again, shades of our old friend, Jack Torrance.
Chapter 27, when Thomas is spying on his father from the hiding place Flagg showed him earlier in the story:
Thomas saw that his father, whom he had always loved and feared, who had seemed to him the greatest man in the world, often picked his nose when he was alone. He would root around in first one nostril and then the other until he got a plump green booger. He would regard these with solemn satisfaction, turning each one this way and that in the firelight, the way a jeweler might turn a particularly fine emerald. Most of these he would then rub under the chair in which he was sitting. Others, I regret to say, he popped into his mouth and munched with an expression of reflective enjoyment on his face.
And a little later:
Most times he simply stood up and pissed into the fire, often farting as he did so.
Yep, that’s it; my favorite scene. I’m pretty much twelve at heart—and not many things are funnier to a twelve-year-old than farts and boogers. Sorry, mom.
That is the story, and sometimes stories tell more than histories, and more quickly, too.
Simultaneously sums up my deep love of storytelling and my longstanding tolerance of history classes. (More of that twelve-year-old coming to the surface, I guess.)
SCENE THAT STILL MAKES ME CRINGE…
At the end of the ceremonies, which were conducted in such solemn silence that even those at the farthest edges of the huge crowd could hear them clearly, the crown was placed on Thomas’s head. Cheers rose again, louder than ever, and Thomas looked up—up and up the smooth, rounded stone side of the Needle, to the very top, where there was but one window. He couldn’t see if Peter was looking down, but he hoped Peter was. He hoped Peter was looking down and biting his lips in frustration until the blood flowed down his chin, as Thomas had often bitten his own lips—bitten them until there was a fine white network of scars there.
Do you hear that, Peter? he shrilled in his mind. They’re cheering for ME! They’re cheering for ME! They’re finally cheering for ME!
I saw this scene coming a mile away—I think we all did—but that didn’t lesson the impact of this tragic and disappointing moment. Not one little bit.
CHARACTER I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO…
I can’t very well say all of them—though I want to!—so how about I go with black-sheep brother, Thomas, and his faithful servant, Dennis? When the novel comes to a close, both men have just set out on a journey of redemption:
“To find Flagg,” Thomas explains. “He’s out there, somewhere. In this world or in some other, he’s out there. I know it; I feel his poison in the wind.”
I have a feeling Thomas and Dennis are up to honorable and heroic acts—wherever they are.
START DATE – May 3, 2016
FINISH DATE – May 17, 2016
The complete list of the books we’ll be reading can be found on the Stephen King Books In Chronological Order For Stephen King Revisited Reading Lists page. To be notified of new posts and updates via email, please sign-up using the box on the right side or the bottom of this site.
Nice write up. I really loved this book. I’ll have to revisit this one myself.
Nice write-up indeed. I share the same problem, and I have no idea where it comes from: I’ve only read THE EYES OF THE DRAGON twice*, though I enjoyed it immensely both times. There’s just something about it, considered when it’s out of eyeshot, that is somehow a trifle distancing, almost off-putting–when I’m not reading it. Which means it’s time to read it again, I think.
BTW, the character in NEEDFUL THINGS is Leland, not Roland, Gaunt–though the similarity of names, and the sense that TEOTD is a cadet branch (wing?) of THE DARK TOWER, make the confusion more than understandable.
*To be fair, there are several much more recent King books I’ve only read once, so far–like CELL, DUMA KEY, DOCTOR SLEEP, and so on–and (since I just got it yesterday), I haven’t read END OF WATCH at all–yet…
This book is in my top ten King.
It’s a real fun book.
As always, I love reading these stories through your eyes. Boogers & all.
Knew you would love it!!
It’s one I haven’t read yet.
He wrote for Naomi right?
I’ll have to read it myself, now.
Loved the essay. All of what you say is why I have been teaching Eyes of the Dragon for the past 21 years at my high school in Massachusetts. I must say that I was disheartened to find out the the book is now out print – I tried ordering 50 paperback copies the other day to replenish the old ones. I was wondering if you could do a little query on my behalf to see if Mr. King intends to bring in back into print any time soon. I am hating the thought of picking another book. Thanks in advance for your help.
There is a new Kindle edition coming out from Scribner on January 1, 2017, so I would bet that’s the target date for the new paperback as well.
Five months later, and still no word on a new paperback edition. I just don’t get how someone as popular as King would let something go out of print for such a long time.
The eBook has moved to January 1, 2018 so I have no idea what’s going on there. Might not hurt to ask over on his official message board. His office staff might know!
Ooh! very good, Richard. I will have to read that one and catch up on some new characters I have been missing out on.