Whenever I look back on my childhood, it seems to me to be full of dragons. Roaring and spouting flames, glittering with scales of green or gold or red or black, they coil and slither or flap on bat-like wings through my earliest days, in songs and poems and pictures and films, and above all, in books. Books that I lost myself in, that contained whole worlds of magic and wonder where I could dwell for a time, where dragons and other fabulous creatures could exist. But I especially recall an anthology on the subject of dragons that was edited by Roger Lancelyn Green, because of a single sentence. In a story called "The Chinese Dragons," a wild dragon speaks to a pair of tame ones who are being kept as pets in a garden. Describing the glories of flight and freedom to his earthbound kin, the dragon declares: "I rest in the regions outside the bounds of space, I go wherever I like . . ."
Nowadays, I understand the phrase "regions outside the bounds of space" to refer to the mystical dimension where the dragons, gods and spirits of ancient China were believed to make their home. But at the time I was both puzzled and intrigued by the use of the word "space" — which to me meant outer space, the realm of the stars and planets — in a story with a magical theme. I was accustomed to watching television broadcasts of rocket launches, while the moon to me was not a shining thing in the sky but a place, where men in space suits played golf and planted flags — a place to which it was not altogether impossible that I myself could one day go, in that Space Age future that was said to lie just around the corner. But dragons had nothing to do with this, to me, quite prosaic and attainable realm. Dragons belonged to the magical yet also more earthly dominion of myths and fairy tales. How then, I wondered, could a dragon travel into space? I pictured a scaly form soaring away through the stars, powered by some unknown magic that defied the laws of physics, and I was utterly enchanted by the image.
As my brothers and I grew older we were drawn to science fiction, and checked out all the books we could find on the subject at our local library. But fascinating as these tales of interstellar travel were, for the most part they seemed to me to be lacking in the sense of wonder so prevalent in fantasy and fairy tales. Once more, a short story in one anthology stood out for me because of a single sentence, but this time it was a sentence that brought disappointment: a bit of dialogue in which one character casually informed another that the spaceship in which they were riding was bound "for the Pleiades." It was somehow disheartening to think that the stars—those beautiful glimmering objects that had enthralled me from my earliest childhood, that featured in so many wondrous myths—might one day seem as mundane to the human race as bus stops or train stations. If only a story about traveling to outer space could be as enchanting as a work of fantasy! It seemed that when it came to writing my own stories, I would have to choose: I could write about dragons (and the misty realms of Once Upon a Time) or about the stars (and interstellar omnibuses). But I could not have both.
And then I came across C. S. Lewis's novels Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra. I had loved his Narnia books at an earlier age, but doubted his science fiction could be as engrossing. Reading banished all doubt. His tales of Mars and Venus were filled with wonder, and not merely because of his rich descriptive prose and gift for creating haunting alien landscapes. The Lewisian Mars was inhabited by giants, and invisible godlike beings, and furry animals that could talk, while among Venus's marvels were mermaids—and a small but very dragonish dragon! In fact, these books read more like fantasy than science fiction. When I later read Lewis's biography, I learned that he had known quite well at the time of writing that the real Mars and Venus bore no resemblance to his fanciful planets. He had simply wanted to write modern myths, he explained, and had turned to other planets as the only possible settings for his imaginary lands. That same year, my brothers started nagging me to go and see a science fiction movie they had recently enjoyed. Expecting boredom—most science fiction movies in my experience were dreary post-apocalyptic tales of survival in radioactive wastelands — I nevertheless humored them and went to the film, which was directed by somebody I had never heard of named George Lucas. Much to my astonishment I saw that here, again, were the trappings of myth in a science fictional setting: a good knight with a shining sword and a bad knight in black armor, a captive princess and a heroic quest. Even the introduction to the film—"A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . ." recalled the "Once Upon a Time" of fairytales. Interestingly, Lucas offered the exact same explanation as C. S. Lewis for setting his own new mythology in outer space. And the more I reflected on this, the more it made sense to me. With the Earth in our age so thoroughly explored, and photographed and mapped out in detail by satellites, there could be no more tales of adventures in uncharted islands or hidden vales in the Himalayas or secret countries at the North Pole. Contemporary fantasy stories could still be set in purely imaginary places — but never again in any place that might be a part of our own reality. Unless they were set on other planets, circling far-off stars . . . And once again the old image of the dragon that could fly to the uttermost reaches of space came to my mind.
Had Lewis and Lucas shown me the way? I had been trying for years to write an epic of my own, inspired by the many fantasies I had read and enjoyed. Now at last that story began to take a firmer shape. And so The Stone of the Stars was born, and its two sequels that make up my trilogy The Dragon Throne. Based in part on the Chinese mythology that began it all, it is a tale of distant worlds that are joined by magic and of heroes who travel between them on adventurous quests: a tale for those who, like me, want both stars and dragons.