There’s no wrong time to read The Dragonbone Chair, a rich fantasy epic from the 1980s that was inspired by The Lord of the Rings and went on to inspire Game of Thrones, but conditions at this moment are curiously optimal for cracking open its pages.
As America staggers through one of its more turbulent transitions of power, The Dragonbone Chair (the first of a four-book series) manages a neat little trick: It’s both a distraction from and an illustration of the country’s ongoing transformation. Do you want to stop thinking about the decay of contemporary politics for just a moment? Great, here’s a book with cool witches and wizards. Do you want a new perspective on humanity’s intricate endless dance of power and control? Super, the book is also about how countries are altered by choices about who should suffer. Did you like Game of Thrones? Fantastic, this book is basically that but satisfying.
Also, provided those vaccines finally arrive, our hibernation periods may be curtailed later this year, so if you were ever going to dive into a multi-volume fantasy epic, now's the time.
Here’s the setup: It’s fantasy-times. (You know, people living in thatched huts and stone fortresses, wooden wagons rolling through muddy rutted paths, scullery maids seizing boys who do not yet know they’re the hero of the book and scolding them with “now just a moment young master so-and-so.”) The good king’s time is nearly up, and a creep is poised to inherit the throne instead of his more thoughtful scion (who is missing a hand, hey that seems kinda familiar). Various factions align and re-align behind the scenes. An ancient evil stirs. There’s magic, but it’s hard to find. Meanwhile, as so many fantasy novels boil down to, a young man discovers his penis.
The book opens with a nearly imperceptible buzz. In the foreground, a 14-year-old castle orphan named Simon bumbles into adolescence under the tutelage of a wizened court doctor, but constantly in the background is the swarming of powerful men who see chaos ahead and who know that, as someone once said, chaos is a ladder. As innocent young Simon learns how to read and write—and also how to be the person he will become—there’s ominous foreshadowing of power struggles to come. He’s oblivious, of course; just some kid who sweeps the floor, what would he know about rulers and battles, aside from the heroic stories of the past as told by victors? How would he know those stories are never, ever true?
I’ll avoid spoilers here—a lot of the book’s pleasures are in its surprises, though I’m not sure that “pleasure” is the right word to describe the sensation of recognizing our own moment in a novel about an ancient evil. What seems like a peaceful, if regrettable, transition of power turns out to be just the start of a slow unraveling. Bit by bit, the kingdom slips toward ruin, sometimes in small measures as with the new ruler’s erratic behavior and sometimes punctuated by larger catastrophes. The destabilizing of a nation doesn’t happen in a moment, but like a jigsaw puzzle being assembled: A fragment of the frame; some blobs of similar colors; and then it takes just one well-placed piece to connect them all in the middle.
And of course, most of the people themselves are inconsequential, at least compared to the greater malevolence pulling at their strings. In The Dragonbone Chair, a great destructive power motivates much of the bad guys’ action (I don’t think that’s a spoiler, given what a love letter the book is to Tolkien), just as America’s rot of authoritarianism and racism and fascism are greater than any one person. That greater evil is only satisfied with disequilibrium and disaster. It can’t be compromised with, it can’t be reasoned with, it can only be rejected and fought and—hopefully—destroyed.
Tolkien’s works rose out of World War II, when the world could heave a sigh of relief at what had just been accomplished. Though The Dragonbone Chair was written halfway between then and now, it now reads like a warning. Or, if you’d prefer to focus instead on the fanciful yarn of a young man discovering his capacity for bravery, it can simply be an escape. For now.