[Note from RLM: I’m turning my normal writing slot over to author Jonathan Rogers. He grew up in Georgia, where he spent many happy hours in the swamps and riverbottoms. He received his undergraduate degree from Furman University in South Carolina and holds a Ph.D. in seventeenth-century English literature from Vanderbilt University (but don’t let that intimidate you–you’re in for a treat). Jonathan lives with his wife and six children in Nashville, Tennessee.]
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Once when eighteen or nineteen years old, my father and I were puttering up a familiar stretch of Georgia’s Ocmulgee River in a small aluminum boat. As we passed a sandbar that I had seen a hundred times, I was startled to see a part of the sandbar move. Only it wasn’t the sandbar that moved; it was a great, thick alligator, ten feet long at least, with a tail as big around as a saw log. I had been coming to the Ocmulgee River all my life, but I had never seen an alligator in its waters or on its banks. But there he was, as big as life and twice as natural.
It’s hard to articulate what I felt when I realized what I was seeing. The alligator was terrible to behold. But he was thrilling to behold too. If he had wanted to, he could have swept our little boat into the river and eaten us up. I know that alligators don’t ever behave that way (indeed, I knew it even then), but it wasn’t that reasoning part of my brain that first reacted to the sight of this monster. Was it the so-called “lizard brain”—the seat of the fight-or-flight reflex—that kicked in? Probably so. But it wasn’t just the lizard brain that came alive in that moment. It was also the part of the brain (or, more appropriately, the soul) that responds to mythology—to old stories of dragons and monsters and elves and dwarves that lurk at the edges of the worlds that we humans try to keep civilized and comfortable.
In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis describes those moments in which some earthly experience awakens us to the truth that there is more to the world than our earthly experience. In Lewis’s case, a little model garden his brother had made in a biscuit tin, Arthur Rackham’s illustrations of the Ring Cycle, a flowering currant bush—all seemingly inconsequential things—gave him “the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing” for a world beyond this world.
For me, the sight of that alligator was just such a stab of what Lewis called Joy. I had seen alligators before. I had been to the zoo. I had been to the Okefenokee Swamp. But this alligator lived only ten miles away from my house. He was in “my” river, where I had been coming all my life. A week earlier, I had swum across its muddy waters, not a mile from the very sandbar where this great dragon lay like Smaug on his pile of treasure.
I lived in a world where the roads were paved and hot water came out of the faucet. We had a television, a VCR, a microwave oven. There were McDonald’s restaurants in my world and Top 40 radio stations and convenience stores that sold Coca-Cola and potato chips.
But there were also dragons.
My friends think it’s funny that every novel and short story I have ever written involves at least one alligator. I suppose it is kind of funny. But alligators for me carry a lot of metaphorical freight. They remind us that this world, the one where we live and move and have our being, is still a place of myth and marvel. This world, too, is a fantasy world.
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Jonathan Rogers, author of The Charlatan’s Boy and the Wilderking Trilogy, is happy to announce that the Rabbit Room Press (home of Andrew Peterson’s last two Wingfeather Saga books) is republishing The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking.
These paperbacks may be pre-ordered, insuring delivery in March, well-ahead of the official April 1 release date. In addition, pre-ordered books will help defray the publishing costs, which will insure a larger printing.
These books, excellent read-aloud stories perfect for middle graders, particularly middle grade boys, have been out of print for the last three years, so bringing them back for a new group of readers is a brilliant move by RRP. It’s also a fitting way to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the original publication of the first in the series.