Friday, July 11, 2008

Thaddeus Jones and the Dragon

In 1970 I was in Second Grade. Every classroom in our little school had it's own library, and from their eclectic and casual nature we guessed they were stocked by whatever haphazard volumes the teachers themselves saw fit to add to what the teachers before had collected. No-one was obligated to check these books out, as we were our weekly reading from the school's main library. But during free period, while most kids bogarded the toys, I was interested in the books. I noticed the class reading had check-out cards in the back, just like the main library books, and I asked Miss Nowotny if I could check some favorites out. She seemed surprised but encouraging, and I started a little mini-trend of class check-outs.

One of my favorites was Thaddeus Jones and the Dragon. I devoured it again and again, trying to commit it to memory, because when I moved out of Grade 2 I knew I wouldn't see it again. Mom and Pop certainly couldn't buy it; money was tight and I'm not sure they would even know how to go about ordering a book on their own. There was no local book store at the time.

I moved on to Third Grade in due course, and details inevitably began to fade. In time I forgot the title, and some details became blurred. But I always remembered the sheer fact of the book's existence, the large details of the plot, and the name of the dragon: Dudley. When the Internet came along I tried to track it down, but without title and author (who pays attention to authors when they're seven?) it made it hard. There was another series of books featuring a Dudley the Dragon, always trailing across my search like a red herring.

Then just last month I put in Dudley and Dragon in a search engine as I did every few months or so, and the name popped up: Thaddeus Jones and the Dragon. Immediately a wave of remembrance washed over me. Of course, Thaddeus Jones, just like Thaddeus was Mr Toad's name in Walt Disney's The Adventures of Mr. Toad. I've always had a fondness for names like Thaddeus, Cornelius, Nicodemus. Perhaps that stemmed from this very book.

A quick scramble produced the author's name: Jerry Hjelm. I checked on e-Bay. Several copies were available. Soon, for slightly less than ten dollars, my old childhood dream was on its way. So, yesterday, a month later, here it was.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. It is one thing to have something from your childhood for years. You have the memories, but you also have the memories of the memories attached, so in a sense it has "grown" with you. But when you have a fresh steamy slice of nostalgia served up hot from the past, it can be a powerful revelation.

The first thing I realized was how much the illustrations had sunk in and affected my own drawing style. In 8th grade, when I really started trying to draw, I would have sworn I wasn't doing it. The six years in between was half my lifetime. But comparison between my drawings and the illustrations above show that Thaddeus was emerging in my style, whether I was thinking of it or not. In a lot of ways, I've been trying to draw that picture of the wizard all my life, and that castle on the hill keeps re-appearing in the background of many of my drawings.

I also realized one big blurred memory. I had always remembered the wizard's name as Metatoras. I found out it was Meteoras. But I did remember how Hjelm had broken the name down into syllables once--"Me-te-or-as"--to help young readers handle it.

My memory of the main plot were fairly accurate. Thaddeus Jones, a young squire to the king, is sent to get a new supply of instant magic for the castle from Meteoras. He comes to the wizard's tower and witnesses the explosive creation of the new batch.

Meanwhile Dudley, a cranky dragon who cannot breathe smoke and fire and so has taken up the habit of smoking five or six cigars at a time to mimic the action, has decided to capture the princess so he can blackmail the king into handing over the kingdom.

He does so, and the king puts up a proclamation along the usual lines: the hand of the princess to whoever gets rid of the dragon. Thaddeus arrives and immediately sets off to rescue her. When he gets to the dragon's lair, however, Dudley captures him and ties him up.

Helpless, Thaddeus remembers the bottle of instant magic and squirms it out of his pocket. Dudley sees it and asks what it is. Thaddeus, cleverly assessing the situation, tells Dudley not to drink it as it will fill his belly with smoke. The dragon instantly swallows it, and falls down rigid.

The king is coming sadly to hand over his kingdom, when he meets the princess, Thaddeus, and Dudley on their way back to the castle. Dudley explains the magic potion made him think clearly for the first time in his life, and that he realizes there is nothing wrong with being a smokeless dragon. The king makes him his liaison between the kingdom and other dragons.

"And did Thaddeus Jones and the Princess one day marry and live happily ever after?

"Well, what do you suppose?"

This time around I read about Jerry Hjelm. He was (or is) basically an artist, and did work for a nationally known advertising firm, illustrations for other books, and, if he is the same Jerry Hjelm I googled, now does realistic nature paintings for sale from an art gallery.