Here, There Be Dragons is the first of a middle grade series by James A. Owen called The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica. It is based off of the concept that many famous fantastical settings from books are real places, and that many of the heroes of those stories were real as well. An unseen barrier separates the real world where the main characters are from with the Archipelago of Dreams.
The very concept of the setting makes its component parts unoriginal, as once main characters John, Jack, and Charles make their entrance into the Archipelago of Dreams, they find many of the lands and people from their own world–names that the reader will likewise recognize–are actually real. The mythical creatures that populate the world are a blend of traditional fantasy entities and new twists on more obscure creatures. Where Here, There Be Dragons places its originality is in the idea that nearly all “make-believe” locations can be found in the Archipelago, and that they are mapped in the somewhat magical book called The Imaginarium Geographica that has been suddenly placed under John’s care.
From here on, warning: spoilers abound.
Protectors of the Imaginarium Geographica
The importance of the Imaginarium Geographica is immediately made clear to the readers. The novel opens up with the murder of an Oxford professor, who is later revealed to be the previous Caretaker Principia–the main protector of the Imaginarium Geographia–and the subsequent flight of the main characters as they try to avoid the same fate.
The book is filled with the maps of every known fantasy land within the Archipelago, though it is implied that there are unknown lands not included within its pages. Unfortunately, most books are not written in English, which makes it impossible for all but the well-trained linguistics to read it, though “Here, There Be Dragons” is inscribed on every page, somehow allowing John to take those root words and expand his minimal linguistic training to read the annotations that give them directions.
The details on certain maps fade to just an outline when those locations fall to the story’s antagonist, and when they are saved, the map returns to its original state. Likewise, it contains within it important secrets that the antagonist seeks, spells that will supposedly help him conquer the entire Archipelago.
The Caretakers, the King, and the Parliament
The structure of power in the Archipelago is, in some ways, both clear and unclear. The land united under the might and charisma of King Arthur long ago, and all lands, all species, living within the Archipelago, swore fealty to his lineage. A parliament also exists, comprised of the main mythological entities. The extent of their power when a High King reigns is unclear, but at the supposed death of Arthur’s line, they do rule the Archipelago until such time as a new heir can be chosen or found.
Separate from that are the Caretakers, who are given high honors. They are given a seat in Parliament to witness, though not to speak, and John recognizes that being Caretaker Principia of the Imaginarium Geographica does not just make him caretaker of a book but rather of the entire Archipelago. However, what exactly that means is never defined. They assign themselves the duty of stopping the antagonist, and in subsequent books will continue to defend the Archipelago from similar sinister threats. However, they gain nothing for their troubles, no real reward or amount of power that explains why they should and do risk their lives constantly.
Mythical and Magical Entities
While humans are one of the main races of the Archipelago, they are by no means the only ones. Goblins, Dwarves, Trolls, and Elves are all considered the “great” races, and are the ones ruling the Parliament alongside the humans. There are also evil creatures such as Wendigo that are introduced at the beginning of the book–a cannibalistic mashing up of dog and human–as well as Shadow-born–men whose shadows, and thus their souls, have been ripped from them–both of whom work for the antagonist. Then there are the talking animals, such as the badger Tummeler, and dragons.
The narrative is wrought with references of ancient stories and the blurring of lines between past and present. The wendigo wear clothes reminiscent of Roman times and certainly wield Roman spears. Many of the old figures wear clothes befitting their own times, although they make no comment of the fashion of the main characters, suggesting they acknowledge the passage of time but are stuck in their own time, in a way.
Disappointingly, the line between good and evil is apparent in the clothing they are shown to be wearing. Naturally, the main characters are wearing clothes befitting England in the middle of WWI, but the other “good” characters continue the fashion of your traditional medieval-ish English/European styles, as seen on Tummeler above and the Parliament below. However, compare those to the “chinese”-styled Goblins, who turn to the side of the antagonist. Compare the depictions of The Winter King and The Cartographer of Lost Places, who, in later books, are revealed to be siblings from the same time period.
The Cartographer is on the side of the protagonists, and his heritage is less obvious than the Winter King’s. And it is worth pointing out that James A. Owen did his own illustrations; this is not the work of someone else possibly misrepresenting his characters. Although Nemo, not shown, is depicted as presumably Indian, and is a great and noble character, it is otherwise clear by the depictions who are good and who are not.
Forces of Good and Evil
As the two sides face each other in the field, the set-up of the military is revealed. The dwarves, elves, humans, centaurs and talking animals are on the side of good. Surprising no one, the dwarves’ primary weapon of choice is the axe. Elves have their blades. Both are skilled archers. The centaurs seem to prefer the pike. The leaders are all apart of the war council, and together they make plans on how they might defeat the odds. Eledir, the king of the elves, is given command of the forces.
On the opposing side, only the Winter King holds any real power. He has under his thumb the goblin and troll forces in addition to his wendigo. Later, it is also revealed he has thousands of Shadow-born, enough so that the mortal army is rendered nearly moot. Who holds the position of command in his encampment is unclear, though it does not appear to be himself, as the Winter King has his sights set off the battlefield, wanting to summon the dragons. Possibly, Uruk Ko or the Troll king.
Heroes of Old
Almost all of the named characters in the book are figures a well-read reader would recognize. In the Archipelago, there are Nemo, Deucalion, Mordred, and so forth. The Green Knight is a title given to whoever currently guards Avalon, the border between the real world and the Archipelago. Pandora’s Box plays a major role. The souled ships like the Indigo Dragon are supposedly built from the remnants of an Ark.
But those are not the only names by far. Many of the most famous writers of the past are involved as past Caretakers of the Imaginarium Geographica. Jules Verne, Sir James Barrie, H. G. Wells, William Shakespeare, even Harry Houdini. And it is here, too, that the reader learns of the identity of the main characters: John is none other than J. R. R. Tolkien, Jack is C. S. Lewis (hating his birthname, Clive), and Charles is Charles Williams.
Ancient Witches, Magic Cauldrons, and Incantations
The magic is rather loose and undefined, but nevertheless present. In addition to the magical properties of the Imaginarium Geographica itself, the entire world of the Archipelago is steeped with magic. There are figures known as the Morgaine who see the future and who swap identities depending on the day. The Green Knight who guards them is turned to wood. The Dragonships have souls in their mast that allow them to travel the seas with some amount of intelligence. People’s souls are connected to their shadows, and Pandora’s Box can rip them of both, but also restore both. The High King can summon dragons through an incantation spoken at Stonehenge, and the dragons answer.
All of these amount to a soft magic system where anything is possible, befitting a narrative about a whole land of imaginary places.
Here, There Be Dragons is a good example of why originality need not be a deterrent or a point of gate-keeping. It reads almost as a book full of easter-eggs for the knowledgeable reader. Furthermore, one can see how Owen took major elements and visuals from the story to give an “origin” to the ideas of Tolkien and Lewis. I am unfamiliar with Charles Williams, but I would assume his works are the concept. The idea of another world, of characters who turn “dark” only to find their mistake and realign with the forces of good parallel nicely with Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Tolkien’s obsession with languages, the idea of a magic ring, the ultimate battle between good and evil, are implied to be the foundation for his Lord of the Rings trilogy.
I think there are certainly opportunities where Owen could have integrated more originality into his work, added twists to the species archetypes of dragons, dwarves, elves, and trolls. The problematic depictions of the evil forces could have clearly been adjusted; the artwork of Nemo and the implication that neither time nor place are bars of entry for heroic figures and lands to be included in the Archipelago suggest that Owen was more than capable of diversifying both the good and evil sides of the narrative and simply didn’t. But, overall, the story is meant to hold a sort of magical whimsy for the reader, and despite the more problematic elements of the world-building, it does at least achieve that whimsy.