The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King
Illustrations by David Palladini
Published in 1987
“Once in a kingdom called Delain, there was a King with two sons.”
The first line of The Eyes of the Dragon begins like many fairy tales about knights, kings, and dragons; the difference, however, is that this book was written by Stephen King. Stepping away from the horror niche he is so often put into, King wrote a work of epic fantasy that tells the tale of King Roland and his sons, Peter and Thomas. Betrayal, intrigue, and the use of wit to overcome astounding odds can all be found in The Eyes of the Dragon.
The story begins with King Roland slaying one of the last dragons and subsequently placing its head in his personal chambers, along with other trophies from his past hunts. He and his wife, Queen Sasha, have two sons: Peter, who is strong and Roland’s favorite, and Thomas, who is cowardly but not altogether bad (the narrator emphasizes this quite a bit). King Roland’s chief advisor is the evil magician known only as Flagg, who has been plaguing Delain for many years and hopes to destroy the kingdom from within. He hatches many schemes, including the death of Queen Sasha, in order to take hold of the Kingdom.
As the boys grow up, it becomes apparent that Peter will become a good and just king. Fearing this, Flagg poisons Roland and is able to lay the blame on Peter; this allows Thomas to come into power with Flagg as his advisor. Peter is imprisoned in the Needle, which is a tall very tower, and uses his cleverness and patience to concoct a plan of escape. Much of the story deals with Peter’s escape plan and those loyal to him trying to break him out.
The main characters of The Eyes of the Dragon are varied and complex. King Roland is a squat man who enjoys hunting and empathizes with the common people. He is best described as a mediocre king until his marriage to the beautiful Queen Sasha. She is a direct threat to Flagg and because of this, he ensures her death while giving birth to Thomas. Peter is clever and kind, quickly becoming the King’s favored son which fosters jealousy from his younger brother Thomas.
The secondary characters play an equally important part in the story due to their involvement in the main events. Peter is aided in his escape by Dennis, the son of the royal butler, who eventually serves in that capacity for Thomas while he is king. Peter’s childhood friend, Ben, also comes to his aid after refusing to believe Peter murdered King Roland. Ben isn’t of royal (and barely noble) birth, and their friendship speaks to Peter’s strength of character. None of their plans would have happened without Anders Peyna, the judge who sentenced Peter to imprisonment and seeks to undo the mistake he made.
King has a habit of borrowing characters from his various stories and placing them in the different worlds his stories take place in. Roland Deschain (sounds like Delain) and Randall Flagg are major characters in the Dark Tower series and Flagg also appears in King’s 1971 novel The Stand as the personification of evil. King has done this with other characters like Father Callahan from ’Salem’s Lot; he also references the novel It when using the capitalized pronoun to describe Flagg.
The title refers to the hiding spot that Flagg shows Thomas as a boy. The two became something like friends (well, as close to being friends as you can with someone you are terrified of) and it is through this “friendship” that Thomas is shown a secret passage that leads to a chamber which allows him to look into King Roland’s private chamber through the crystal eyes of the dragon.
Thomas develops a habit of watching his father from this spot and his jealousy grows at seeing Peter deliver a cup of wine to their father every night. It is this regular custom that Flagg seeks to exploit by visiting the king with a poisoned glass of wine after Peter has already left. Thomas happens to see Flagg enter and kill Roland, repressing the memory and allowing it to build guilt for fear of Flagg discovering he knew who really killed the king.
As I said earlier, much of the book deals with the action leading up to rescuing Peter from the Needle. Using the thread from old napkins, Peter is able to create a rope and his escape aligns with his loyal friends’ rescue. Flagg does find out about the escape attempt almost too late and comes charging up the tower with a double-bladed axe (as one is wont to do). The story’s pace builds toward the rescue and Thomas redeems himself by defeating Flagg with his father’s arrow.
The narrative voice is the same as in King’s horror writing but in fantasy setting. My copy had illustrations which are well done and show key scenes, though their placement was sometimes premature. As I have found from reading other books by Stephen King, he likes to use seemingly insignificant elements from earlier in the story as integral parts of the climax, and The Eyes of the Dragon is no exception.
The publication of The Eyes of the Dragon was the catalyst for King writing Misery due to the disappointment of his fans who were expecting another horror book. While this isn’t the greatest fantasy story ever written, the plot is well written and the characters are believable easily identifiable. It is nice to see King write outside of the box everyone has put him in and The Eyes of the Dragon is an enjoyable addition to his immense bibliography.
Verdict: 3 poisoned cups of wine out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of fantasy, those who enjoy tales of retribution and righting wrongs, and you!
Not recommended for: Children (there are some questionably adult topics discussed), Thomas, Flagg, or diehard fans of King’s horror books.