Archive for the 'religion' Category

La Belle Sauvage – again…

October 22, 2017

If you think about it, the Dark Materials trilogy is a self-contained work that cannot itself be added to or extended: the events of those novels span multiple universes, made possible by the operations of Lord Asriel, and also by the use of the subtle knife, and when the novels end, the doors between the universes must all be sealed up, and the knife broken, so no further movement between worlds is possible: this is what makes the separation of Will and Lyra at the end of The Amber Spyglass so moving and painful – as well as necessary.

So, any subsequent books, including La Belle Sauvage and whatever the second and third parts of The Book of Dust is to be called, are additions: La Belle Sauvage happens in Lyra’s world, which we all know and love, but does not extend outside of it. The machinations of the Church, and Asriel, and others researching the Rusakov particle, will lead to the fantastic events of the trilogy ten years later, and the ten years after those events, the following books may be set in Will’s or Lyra’s world (or both) I imagine, but without connection between them.

What these limitations leave Philip Pullman with, it seems to me, are his ideas, which for me were always at the heart of the Dark Materials trilogy anyway: questions of innocence and experience, the notion of good and evil, original sin, and the role of God, if there is one.

The world of the Church and the Magisterium is a cruel and Calvinistic one, it seems to me, and its evil has been clarified for me by some of the reading I’ve been doing lately that has been prompted by the 500th anniversary of Luther‘s ninety-five theses and the start of the Reformation. One of the things which came from the Reformation was a stronger emphasis on what can only be called predestination: the idea that, in religious terms, or if one accepts that particular Christian doctrine, most people are born with no hope of salvation, doomed to damnation, and the small (smug?) band of the elect, or the saved, are saved through no effort of their own. Obviously I oversimplify, but it’s a pretty cruel God that some people have invented, and one that my own Catholic upbringing makes me find repellent.

The idea that we must try to build the Republic of Heaven here and now, in the world we are actually living in, is not a new one, though Pullman has made it clear and concrete in a different way in HDM. The choice to rebel against an arbitrary power (God, if you like) was evil, wrong, Satan-prompted, in traditional Christian terms, although even Milton in his epic Paradise Lost cannot help turning Satan into some kind of hero. But Pullman emphasises that the choice to reject control, to assume power oneself, is a positive and liberating one, as well as being the one that makes us fully human; again, it’s this final point that Milton cannot avoid in his poem. So, ultimately, is this choice to be human wrong – a sin – or inevitable, given our free will, and also liberating: this is what we are, and can be?

Free will is the problem, of course, for us humans now: many can and do choose evil, make wrong choices that harm and oppress others. Predestination removes the problem: we don’t have free will if we are predestined to damnation from the moment of birth, with no hope of changing our fate through our own actions, and what follows then is that nothing that happens in this world is of any ultimate significance or consequence at all: the elect get heaven anyway, and everyone else ends up in hell…

Back to Pullman, who nails his colours clearly to the mast in HDM: the Fall was a felix culpa, but not in the traditional Christian sense: the Fall liberates us to be human. Will and Lyra made many choices, considered and with the help and advice of many wise creatures, on their epic journey. Having read and enjoyed La Belle Sauvage, but thought further some of its inevitable limitations, I now realise that it’s the next two books that I’m really waiting for: what did happen next?

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On 31 October, 1517

October 13, 2017

All sorts of things have been reminding me of October 31 being the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther‘s 95 theses, whether or not these were actually nailed to the church door in Wittenberg. Having a Catholic school education in England in the 1960s was an interesting experience, as there was still some of the feeling of being a member of a persecuted minority in the air; we were presented with a sketchy outline of the split in the Church as part of history lessons at primary school. Moving to a secondary school where the Anglican Church was the norm and saw itself as continuous with the church brought to England by Augustine at the end of the sixth century, I was offered an account of events from an opposite perspective, together with no small amount of mockery of Catholic beliefs and practices. Then I moved to a Catholic secondary school and got everything in more detail from the ‘right’ perspective again…

I suppose those experiences were useful in terms of teaching me about different viewpoints; they certainly got me interested in what could have caused such major ructions at the heart of Christianity. I’m still learning, and there’s an excellent explanation of the doctrine of justification by faith alone in this week’s edition of The Tablet.

My travels have taught me how different the Reformation was in Germany compared with England; in Germany there seems to have been much more of a continuation than a violent rupture; no mass iconoclasm such as destroyed so many cultural riches in England. I continue to be appalled by the vandalism and wanton destruction of Henry VIII’s reign.

There are three writers who I’ve found very helpful in developing knowledge and understanding of the religious issues and historical events. One is a Catholic priest who wrote in the 1950s, Philip Hughes, who wrote a short volume on the Reformation in general, and a second, monumental tome, The Reformation in England, which details the demolition of Catholic England.

Then there is Eamon Duffy, who has written works of socio-religious history which trace the actual effects of the English Reformation on its people in two detailed and astonishingly well-researched books, The Stripping of the Altars, and The Voices of Morebath. This second volume looks at the changes as they affected on small rural community over the years between the first breach with Rome and the Elizabethan settlement.

Finally there is Diarmaid MacCulloch, whose hefty tome Reformation came out in 2003, and which I have decided to revisit as we come up to that symbolic 500th anniversary. I’ll write more about his book when I’ve finished it.

And then, I cannot forget some of the literature which uses the Reformation as its starting-point. Kingsley Amis‘ novel The Alteration posits the Reformation never having happened in England and focuses on the moral horror of a young boy who is due to be castrated to preserve his voice for use by the Church. And Keith RobertsPavane, a far better novel for my money, is set in a world where the Reformation also didn’t happen, along with various other events consequent upon it…

A curious novel – Q – was published a decade or so, apparently written by an Italian collective who presented themselves as one Luther Blissett. It focuses on the social upheavals in Europe during the early years of the Reformation particularly the Anabaptists and the events in Munster, along with the early efforts of Rome to thwart what was going on.

Finally, I can’t overlook the astonishing religious poetry of my favourite poet, John Donne, a man genuinely torn by the religious strife in England and the theological controversies – although he ultimately knew which side his bread was buttered on. He brings to his Holy Sonnets and other poems the same ardour he brought to his sexual conquests and fantasies in his love lyrics, before he ‘saw the light’, took holy orders in the Church of England and went on to become Dean of St Paul’s and a man whose sermons people came from all over Europe to hear. Not much likelihood of similar fervour nowadays.

My travels: L is for Lübeck

September 22, 2017

I’ve wanted to go to this northern German city for a long time, mainly to see the Marienkirche, because that’s where Dietrich Buxtehude was organist in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries; my hero, the young J S Bach, walked the two hundred miles from Arnstadt in Thuringia to hear the celebrated organist and learn from him. Having absented himself from his post for several months, Bach then walked back to work… apparently he could have stayed, and inherited the post of organist, at the traditional price of marrying the incumbent’s daughter (!), but Bach didn’t fancy Miss Buxtehude who, shall we say kindly was no beauty and quite a bit older than him.

The Marienkirche is truly stunning. First of all, it’s vast – the largest brick Gothic church in the world, a helpful verger told me (but wrong, as I surmised, the title going to St Mary’s in Gdansk, which I also know, and thought was bigger) – and it’s beautiful inside and out. It took me many years of church-visiting to realise that in Western Europe, churches and cathedrals are stone because there is stone, whereas there isn’t further east, so when in mediaeval times the citizens became jealous of what the French and English were building, they persuaded the architects to come and help them create similar wonders in red brick. There is a Backsteingothik route all the way across northern and eastern Europe, ranging from tiny village churches to huge basilicas and cathedrals, and the more I’ve seen, the more astonished I’ve been.

The RAF fire-bombed Lübeck in 1942, and the Marienkirche burned. The bells fell from their tower and remain smashed where they fell as a memorial to the wanton destruction; a small plaque notes that the smaller one had rung for over 430 years, the larger for some 270. The church maintains links with Coventry Cathedral. But, as the verger explained, the dust and grime was burned off the walls which had been whitewashed at the time of the Reformation, revealing wonderful mediaeval painting and decoration.

More about the Reformation became clearer to me in this quincentennial year as I explored this and other of Lübeck’s churches: the altar is relatively unimportant, and the glorious centrepieces of the churches are the pulpits and the choir-lofts, because for the reformers, the sermons expounding the word of God and the hymns singing his praises were at the heart of everything. The choir-loft and organ in the Aegidienkirche (St Giles’), the smallest of Lübeck’s churches, left me speechless; the marvellous altar-pieces and gilded carvings there and in other churches made me realise just how much art we must have lost here in England in that orgy of state-sponsored vandalism that was the Reformation here…

There’s much else that is wonderful about this city, small enough to be walked around, surrounded by water, its two mediaeval gates, its astonishing town-hall, the numerous tiny alleys with courtyards and streets of houses almost hidden from view… and it’s also the home of marzipan. Which was duly sampled and enjoyed.

On death in literature (cont’d)

September 4, 2017

By way of contrast, I shall look at more recent encounters with death that have struck me in my reading, which I know is quite particular and in some ways obscure.

Two novellas focus on death itself, Victor Hugo‘s Last Day of a Condemned Man, and Leo Tolstoy‘s Death of Ivan Illich. This latter I found interesting both because of the hero’s perplexity as a seemingly trivial affliction turns out to be fatal, and also the strange withdrawal of his family and friends as they realised that he was terminally ill. I can understand both of these reactions, and yet it was quite unnerving actually to see them unfold as the story progressed. The idea that we do not know what do do about death or how to react it, is clear.

A play I studied at school for A Level, Eugene Ionesco‘s Le Roi Se Meurt, has never left me. The king learns that he must die – as must all mortals – but will not accept this; he is the king, after all. It’s an absurdist drama which nevertheless brings home real truths to all of us. He has two queens, one of whom insists he prepare himself for the inevitable, and the other who assists his refusal to accept it. Meanwhile, the kingdom physically disintegrates around him, ready for his disappearance. And he eventually realises that nobody can help him, because ‘tout le monde est le premier à mourir‘.

In Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, I have always found the suicide of the Jewish toyseller Sigismund Markus, because of the growing power of the Nazis and their anti-semitism, profoundly moving, precisely because it is presented through the eyes of the hero who is and who is not, a three year-old child. He describes calmly, almost lyrically, the dead body of the toy seller who has taken poison, and then proceeds to steal another of his beloved tin drums…

Umberto Eco leads us almost to love his young narrator Adso of Melk, the novice who accompanies William of Baskerville during his adventures in The Name of The Rose, who comes to know sexual love once, briefly, before a lifetime of chastity, and who says farewell to us in his dying days, having chronicled those events of his youth. He doesn’t die but we are saddened knowing the end is almost upon him.

Harper Lee teaches the children an important lesson about courage in To Kill A Mockingbird through the slow death of Mrs Henry Lafayette Dubose, who determinedly breaks her morphine addiction with their help before she dies. And Philip Pullman, in His Dark Materials, makes his readers think very deeply about life, death and the soul through his use of daemons in Lyra’s world, and the visit that Will and Lyra make to the world of the dead. To be sure, that isn’t our world, but there is much to lead us to reflect on the significance of our own eventual passing.

Readers will be aware of my interest in the Great War. The telephone numbers of casualties can only chill us so much; it takes the death of individuals to really move us, as great poets like Owen and Sassoon surely realised, in such poems as A Working Party and Dulce et Decorum Est. And the first time I read it I was shocked: in the finally volume of her Regeneration trilogy, Pat Barker imagines Owen’s death. It comes along quite suddenly, quite unexpectedly, and is over in a couple of paragraphs before we realise what is really happening – just like so many pointless deaths in war. A masterstroke of writing, though.

Literature allows us to experience things we would otherwise perhaps never experience, to think about things we might not otherwise consider. Some writers help us to confront the great unknown.

On death in literature (1)

September 4, 2017

I hope readers will bear with me, and not find the following posts too gloomy, but occasionally in a novel I come across a death which strikes me deeply. Characters die in novels all the time, in all manner of ways, and most of the time, because we are plot-driven, we register the death and then continue with the remaining characters and the rest of the story.

We are the only species that know about death, in that we must one day die; at that time, everything ends for us (pace those believers in an afterlife) and yet everything also goes on for everyone else, as if we had never been. What, if anything, comes next, we know not, as Hamlet once told us about ‘that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns’; everyone is the first person to die. It has long struck me that we devised religion as a way of coping with these awful certainties, and until relatively recently religion has done a fair, if obscurantist job; however, as the twentieth century progressed, and with it the gradual disappearance of religion from the lives of many, especially in the West, we have been inevitable brought to face our end unsupported, and our main response seems to have been to try and ensure we live as long as possible…

We are (mostly) creatures endowed with reason, and memory; we can think and reflect, and we develop attachments to people, places and things which can go beyond the merely instinctive, beyond the emotional, to another level, and here is our problem. Often we avoid, and novelists are not exempt from this ostrich-posture.

Jonathan Swift, in his Gulliver’s Travels, satirised the idea of living for ever, or even living as long as possible, far better than anyone has done since. The Struldbruggs are immortal; some of the ones met in the third part of Gulliver’s voyage are over six hundred years old, and they are the unhappiest creatures alive. Because, of course, for everyone life goes on: children want inheritances, younger folk want and need jobs; language changes over time and after six hundred years who will understand us and the way we speak? The immortals are an encumbrance. Does this remind you of anything today?

At the other end of the spectrum of taste and decorum, let’s put Jane Austen for a few moments. There are deaths in her novels, but only passim, at the very edges of the story, of minor characters, in order to facilitate an inheritance or shift the plot in a different direction, usually financial or marital: nowhere is such an unsuitable subject allowed to impinge with any depth. Eventually, at some vague point long after the end of the novel, the valetudinarian Mr Woodhouse will ‘pass away’ and Emma and Mr Knightley will finally move to Donwell Abbey…

Religion long determined artistic responses to death. In Marlowe‘s Doctor Faustus, the eponymous hero’s death must accompany Lucifer’s taking of his soul at the end of the contracted twenty-four years, but what horrifies Faustus and creates the terror at the end of the play is not so much the devils tearing Faustus limb from limb as his realisation of what eternity in Hell means; he thinks he could put up with damnation if there were an end in sight, but of course this is just what there is not. Similarly the young Stephen Dedalus, in Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is driven to distraction by the famous hell-fire sermon delivered during a school retreat: the walls of Hell are four thousand miles thick, and eternity is more years than all the grains of sand on all the seashores of the world… and it’s his destination for his sexual sins.

To be fair, religion recognised how difficult it was for the individual mortal to contemplate and prepare for death and did its best to help; in mediaeval times there was the Ars Moriendi, a treatise on how to die well, and, recognising that such help is still needed in our secular age, the Catholic church in England and Wales has just launched a new website The Art of Dying Well, which offers much careful and thoughtful advice, obviously from its particular perspective. But for religion, of course, death is a beginning – mors ianua vitae – which many cannot now credit.

Adam and Eve, in Milton‘s Paradise Lost, are the only humans who don’t know what Death is. In the Garden of Eden, there is no death, all are immortal, but Death is a latent threat which will be actualised by their disobedience of God’s command not to eat of the forbidden fruit. And the fallen pair are aware that they will die, that Death is part of their punishment, but still don’t know what it actually is. Will it come immediately and strike them into oblivion, or is it to be feared and awaited at some distant moment? Genesis has Adam live for several hundred years… But the point is, Milton recognises, understands and explores this psychological fear, this existential angst, which struck those first two mythical humans, our ancestors.

to be continued

Wilfred Owen: The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

August 11, 2017

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in the thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

This is, to my mind, one of Owen’s more obscure, or at least less accessible poems today, especially for students, because hardly anyone goes to Sunday School any more or is familiar with the Old Testament bible stories that are (or used to be) part of our cultural background, if not more – the story of God’s testing of Abraham, ordering him to sacrifice his own son Isaac as a test of loyalty. Let’s leave aside as irrelevant to our purposes the kind of God that would put anyone through this kind of charade, and focus on what Owen does with the story, which would, of course, have been instantly familiar to all his readers.

You need to read the story in the King James Bible; that’s the version Owen would have known and the language and syntax of today’s Tesco translations won’t make half the connections you need. So go to Genesis chapter 22 and read the story first.

Notice how Owen has chosen to use archaic words to mimic the feel of the KJV: ‘clave‘, ‘spake‘, ‘builded‘, (and I can’t help reflecting on whether this deliberately echoes the words of Blake‘s Jerusalemand was Jerusalem builded here?‘ too, or whether it’s my notion. Either way, it doesn’t matter), ‘lo!’ and so on…

Then see how Owen follows the bible story only so far before it begins to warp, to unravel, to develop a mind of its own. There is no ‘fire and iron‘ in Genesis, but there was on the Western Front. Abram bound his son ready for sacrifice, but not with the ‘belts and straps‘ of a soldier’s uniform and kit; he built an altar, but no parapets and trenches: these details of war creep in, in an almost hallucinatory distortion of the original story.

In Genesis, when Abram has passed the test, the angel of the Lord does appear and save the boy; there is the ram caught in the thicket for a substitute sacrifice, which the dutiful Abram offers to God… but not this Abram, who flies against God’s command, kills his son anyway, and half the seed of Europe.

Subtle in its development, if not in its message, Owen calls the war and its effect on future generations into question, and suggests to the reader that it is morally wrong, not what God would have wanted. And yet, this did not stop him from serving his country or doing what he perceived to be his duty to his men, right up to the very end. It’s a simple poem from the perspective of language: no fancy assonance or half-rhyme, just a bitter twist on a story his readers would have been familiar with, and perhaps all the more shocking because Owen chose to meddle with a story from the Bible.

Johannes Fried: The Middle Ages

July 27, 2017

I’m starting this post with a really major gripe, that a major academic press should publish a book like this, that has been so poorly edited and so sloppily proof-read. In places it reads as if it’s been translated using google translate, with infelicities of expression and poor syntax making it at times almost incomprehensible; there are errors in some Latin expressions and in a couple of places, proof-reading annotations have been erroneously left in the final text… good grief!

The book itself is a difficult read: there’s such a huge sweep of time and material to cover that it seems impossible to corral it all coherently, and the author has to keep doubling back on himself, picking up threads he dropped for a while. And there are so many names, of tin-pot local rulers in the Europe of those times. Fried’s focus is mainly on France, Germany and Italy – or the areas that comprise those nations today – and in some ways that’s understandable, as the core of the story was there, and the rest of the continent was peripheral.

And yet – it’s really good. It challenged me, and the picture I’d had of the Middle Ages, almost through my entire reading life. It is a revisionist approach, countering the perceived idea of those times as a swamp of ignorance and barbarity that was finally and thankfully swept aside by the flowering of the Renaissance, followed by the Enlightenment.

The major calamity or disruption to civilisation was the collapse of the Roman Empire: after that, the story is one of people and principalities attempting to pick up the pieces and stick something back together again, a tale of warlords and would-be aristocrats learning how to build and maintain countries, defining the nature of kingship and its relationship to those being ruled, against a backdrop of the Church and the Papacy also flexing its muscles and trying to assume ever more power, as well as defining itself in increasingly secular terms. You can certainly see, by the end of the book, where the impulses for the Reformation came from: the corruption of the Church was truly scandalous.

The scale of the task of recovering from a collapse of civilisation is vast: Fried shows us how much had to be rediscovered and re-invented (and was – the idea that all learning vanished until the Renaissance is clearly untrue). Even the capacities of language itself were limited, as the universal language had disappeared…

A great deal of work clearly went on: monastic orders were founded and texts were preserved, even if then lost again or not understood; cities developed and the necessary apparatus of law painfully developed to allow trade and the slow evolution of what would become capitalism, and Europe itself; the old religious attitudes to money (root of all evil) and interest (sinful) were gradually reinterpreted as everyone came to see how essential both were to progress…

Equally, Fried shows us the beginnings of the growth of reason, the gulf opening up between it and faith, which I had again always associated with the Renaissance and Enlightenment: ways of thinking evolved and you can see the gradual development of the European mind; the task of defending religion (specifically the Catholic Church) against the onslaughts of reason was already a challenging task towards the end of these times.

The picture of the Middle Ages as an obscurantist epoch is ultimately, Fried demonstrates, a product of the Enlightenment rather than a truth about those times. The quest for knowledge was pursued vigorously and moved towards the era of exploration and contact with the world outside Europe; even though a great deal of geographical knowledge from earlier times did in fact still exist, it was not easily accessible or directly usable, and this helped keep the brakes on discovery.

Fried’s overall sweep is masterly, through such an enormous amount of material: over the course of the book he does manage to draw together the vital strands and show how they came together over time; the thematic chapters were for me far more interesting than the endless iteration of names of princelings throughout Europe. He shows us the gradual development which ultimately led to the coherence of Europe as a place and an idea, the centre of a particular civilisation which, for better or worse, we are all part of…

James Blish: A Case of Conscience

July 15, 2017

51pvowfQhAL._AC_US218_ (1)Occasionally a senior moment – or too many books – leads me to buy a book I already have in my library. Something recently prompted me to read this, so it duly went onto my list of books to look for. But a nagging thought sent me to my database, and, lo and behold, I already had a copy, last read over thirty years ago…

It’s an interesting novel from almost sixty years ago. Contact has been made, and humans have visited, intelligent life on another planet. As always, the scientific details of how FTL flight works have to be vaguely explained, the reader has to be blinded with science; what our world is like in the year 2049 has to be guessed at, and the longer that elapses since the novel was written, the more outlandish it seems: humans still recording messages and data on tape?

The moral dilemma at the centre of the novel is faced by a Jesuit priest, who is a biologist and one of the first four humans to visit the planet Lithia with a remit from the UN to recommend what the nature of human interaction with the inhabitants should be. Unfortunately, the technologically advanced Lithians are incapable of anti-social acts and behaviour; they are good because it is logical and natural to them to behave thus. And they have no religion or concept of God. From our Jesuit’s perspective therefore, they must be a creation of the evil one (because it removes the necessity of God from the picture) – Satan – to test the human race; by making such a judgement he falls into the Manichaean heresy, allowing creative power to the forces of evil, and must face the consequences of this. His recommendation, that the planet be quarantined forever from contact with humans, seems logical to us nowadays, but he is out-manoeuvred by those who would exploit its resources, with ultimately disastrous consequences.

All sorts of complex issues are raised in this novel, including that of whether the hero’s moral judgements are inevitably flawed because limited by his own earthly perspective. Sadly, I feel Blish loses focus in the later parts of the novel, where a Lithian is raised on Earth and causes chaos and mayhem through the contradictions between his Lithian heritage and its interaction with flawed (fallen?) humanity: it’s harder to see what the writer intends us to focus on, unless it is the complexity of any interaction with an alien species. Where are the possible points of contact and understanding? For me, the theological strand was the only really interesting one, the moral, cultural and social questions being rather more run-of-the-mill.

Well worth a read: I’m not aware of much good quality, thought-provoking SF from the fifties, but this one certainly woke me up.

Ellis Peters: Brother Cadfael

July 12, 2017

I’ve long been partial to these mediaeval tales, and a recent trip to a charity shop brought me a good deal closer to completing my collection, with three more novels. I like detective stories, I’m interested in mediaeval history and monasticism and have grown to love Shrewsbury and Shropshire over the years. Also, in the Abbey church today is Wilfred Owen’s monument. So, what’s not to like, as they say?

Ellis Peters (a pseudonym) was well-versed in place and time, as well as the daily life of Benedictine monasteries; though I don’t go looking for errors, I have not yet come across any. And, in the genre of the detective story, she does extremely well.

To begin with, her hero (?) Brother Cadfael, is no ordinary monk, called to a life of prayer and contemplation from an early age, and knowing nothing else: his was a mature vocation, after adventures in the Crusades, full experience of worldly life which we gradually learn about through the cycle of novels. Eventually we learn of his loves in the East, and that he has a son. As the abbey’s herbalist, he needs to be out and about collecting what he needs to make his remedies, and this allows him to pursue his investigations. He’s a very sharp observer, and his past gives him a broad knowledge and understanding of human behaviour that many of his fellow monks lack.

The formula for successful detective stories often requires a sidekick – a Watson to every Holmes. Ellis Peters develops, over the course of the novels, an interesting tweak: once the old Shropshire sheriff is succeeded by his deputy, a true friendship and effective working relationship develops between the religious and the secular, as Cadfael and Hugh Berengar work together to unravel a range of mysteries.

Obviously crime is a key element of such fiction, but the kinds of crime are not the same through the whole genre: in mediaeval times murder, revenge, theft and concealed identity dominate; financial and sexual crime, blackmail and the like, which are more prevalent in recent times, are pretty much absent. And in an age where the rule of law is not firmly established in the same way it is now, it is much easier for criminals to flee and escape justice completely: the relative lawlessness and foreign jurisdiction of Wales are literally on the doorstep; the English crown and government is by no means secure in the mid-twelfth century, either… Like Holmes, who can be his own moral compass as a consulting detective and allow someone to avoid the strict penalty of the law if he feels it justified, so Cadfael too chooses at times not to reveal facts others have not managed to notice; his moral judgements are between himself and his confessor.

Atmosphere and continuity are further aspects of success in the genre: consider Conan Doyle’s masterly evocation of Victorian London, the largest metropolis on the planet at the time, ultra-modern, at the heart of a huge world empire and yet concealing much darkness, poverty and evil, or Raymond Chandler’s wealthy, sexy and sleazy California or Colin Dexter’s Oxford. Peters’ evocation of a mediaeval city, its religious and secular sides and its hinterland, is masterly, convincing and detailed; it builds up through the series of twenty-one books, and is often supplemented by carefully-drawn maps. We come to know the abbey in detail; the personnel change, as they would over a period of about ten years covered by all the stories; relationships and interactions develop over time just as does that between Holmes and Watson over the fifty-six stories of that canon.

Compared with other detectives and other times, I often feel there is not a lot of actual detection in these stories – the sciences that would support this in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are obviously undeveloped – although a sense of mystery is sustained, solution of the mystery follows in the usual way by not letting the reader in on everything that the detective has observed or deduced until the very end, and often all is cleared up through a forced confession by the guilty party. The pace is leisurely, couleur locale is paramount, the characters are interesting: Ellis Peters is a full member of the club of master detective story writers. Easy and enjoyable reading.

Paul William Roberts: Journey of the Magi

July 4, 2017

41TF4DFJVCL._AC_US218_A recent read that I found very interesting and thought-provoking explored some of the early history of Christianity: Paul William Roberts’ book also does, although from a very different perspective and in a very different way. He sets out on a physical journey, beginning in modern-day Iran, to retrace the journey made by the Magi at the time of Jesus’ birth; they were Zoroastrians, a faith that predates Christianity by at least five centuries and which the author demonstrates to have had major influences on early Christianity as well as Judaism as it exists today, and on Islam too. He contrasts Roman Christianity as basically established by St Paul and dependent on faith, with early, gnostic forms of Christianity based on personal experience of God and the individual search for truth: the early church clearly soon divided and it was the Pauline version that won the day, aided in the fourth century by the power of the Roman Empire itself.

Roberts’ travels through Iran, the places he visits and the various people he encounters, are very interesting and thought-provoking; he moves from Iraq into Syria and then to Jordan and Israel, as you might expect given the nature of his journey, but his accounts grow thinner the further he gets until they become quite cursory: it’s clear that the major interest was Persia and the Zoroastrians, and this part of the journey provides the bulk of the book.

The material he presents can be seen as quite controversial in many places, and he is clearly well-educated in his field and very widely-read. So I did find it pretty inexcusable, whether it was his decision or his editor’s, that there are no notes, and even worse, no bibliography: I did not want to take everything just on his say-so. Add to this a somewhat cavalier tone and attitude to details, irreverence at times, and the rather broad-brush approach generally, and you can see why I was often rather irritated. Certainly, it does not have to be like this – Carrère’s book which I read recently and refer to above, is referenced and supported without any of the apparatus getting in the way of the general reader. At times the book reminded me of various odd-ball texts of the past, like Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods, or Velikovsky’s Ages in Chaos.

Clearly the book adds further evidence to the picture of the origins of Christianity being very complex indeed, much more than I knew, even though I’ve already read quite a lot: much is still mysterious and unclear, and much has evidently been deliberately obscured or even eradicated in the intervening two millennia… there are links between Zoroastrianism, early Christianity, Manichaeans, the Essenes, and even the Cathars, who came along much later, find their place in the jigsaw. I also found the evidence Roberts presents for the ultimate interconnectedness of all faiths quite comforting somehow.

He travelled and wrote in the mid-1990s, so I found his rapturous descriptions of the glories of Palmyra in Syria very saddening, given what has happened in that benighted land so recently. I think you will have gathered that I found the book both fascinating and frustrating. And I will moan again about any publisher who thinks it’s acceptable to publish travel writing without providing maps…

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