Recently, I had the pleasure of reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead and What’s Mine’s Mine by George MacDonald. Novelists like these, the kind we term “classic,” well deserve that term. Every book of theirs brims with insights into the human condition. So many other writers’ concerns are only skin deep, but Dostoyevsky and MacDonald write of the soul. MacDonald has the tendency of doing this in a sermonizing fashion, which has perhaps made him less popular among moderns. Yet, there was a time when great preachers could attract crowds. Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, wrote one hundred years ago but his insights the evils of socialism and fallen man strike one as still relevant.
The House of the Dead focuses on the dark side of man–his fallen nature. And no wonder: this novel derives from the experience of Dostoyevsky being exiled to Siberia for his involvement in a radical political group. What Dostoyevsky saw of human nature in prison cured him of Marxist ideas and the concept of the perfectibility of man forever. This novel records the sheer divide between nobles and commoners and the great diversity of the convicts: there were Chechens, Old Believers, Muslims, a Jew, Orthodox, Catholics, Poles, Russians, rich, poor, middle class, laborers, soldiers, craftsmen, and others. Many were perfectly well off, but this did not prevent them from committing crimes. The commoners in the villages outside of the prison referred to the prisoners as “unfortunates.”
A fascinating top ten list of books from the author’s reading in 2016. I can see half of them (The German High Command at War, Before the Feast, The Sympathizer, The Land of Green Plums, and The Paper Menagerie) winding up on my reading list for 2017.
I was happy to have the pleasure of reading Howard Pyle’s Otto of the Silver Hand (Pyle’s first work of fiction) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sir Nigel during the same time. Doyle wrote Sir Nigel to be the prequel to his The White Company. The White Company held as great a readership as Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes until the Second World War, yet it still retains enough popularity to have been published continually since 1891. That book’s superiority over Sir Nigel is plain from the former’s variety of action, variety of characters, and better weaving of religion within the martial code of chivalry. Pyle’s novel, Otto of the Silver Hand, also better excels at weaving together the religious origins of chivalry into the knight’s code.
The reason behind this lies in the manner of the protagonists: Otto and Allen Edricson are both cloister bred, while Nigel Loring, whom we see as a squire in Sir Nigel, was raised within a knightly household and taught to value the manly virtues more than the decent–the loud virtues more than the quiet. It is like comparing Robert E. Lee to Nathan Bedford Forrest. Both were valiant men, but the heavily Christian upbringing of Lee better tempered his irascible nature than the more worldly education of Forrest tempered the Wizard of the Saddle’s hot blood. And so, his peers called Lee “the marble man” for his peaceable and orderly character, while Forrest struggled to control his temper almost until the very end. Even so, Nigel Loring takes about as long as Forrest to fully assimilate the gentle virtues, while Allen Edricson and Otto start from the decent and work to the manly–although, Allen is described by his friend Hordle John as already having a stalwart heart despite his meek exterior.
Many people neglect Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s military and medieval fiction. Prior to this, I have reviewed The Adventures of Gerard, which follows the sometimes grave and sometimes comedic adventures of a French dragoon during the Napoleonic Wars. Now, I turn my attention to Doyle’s romance of the Hundred Years’ War: The White Company. One senses that Doyle immersed himself in the period, both its history and its literature. (In the preface to Sir Nigel, the prequel to this book, he lists some excellent resources on the medieval age.) As far as this medievalist can tell, Doyle makes no factual errors on the equipment, weapons, clothing, economy, or habits of the people.
One does wonder whether he lets some of his ideas about the French Revolution get mixed into his description of the impoverished people of France and their wealthy overlords. However, there can be no doubt that interminable war had reduced the people of France to a sorry state, even if not entirely reminiscent of late 18th century France. One finds the character of the longbow men well delineated. The chivalric attitudes of the nobles drop easily from the mouths of the characters, just as they would have from the knights of old. At the same time, their chivalry adjusts to the real world situations in which they find themselves.
Humor is an essential element of human existence. C.S. Lewis recognized that our very nature was molded to incorporate joy and laughter.
In a great article on the subject, “The Role of Laughter in the Christian Life,” Terry Lindvall introduces the subject with the story of an early Christian monk who wrote this truth.
In the fourth century, a monk named Evagrius identified key temptations against living the Christian life. He named eight of them, and they became the eight deadly sins. Now we know that Pope Gregory the Great reduced them to seven to fit them in with the symbolic biblical number.
But unfortunately the sin that Gregory conflated into sloth was the sin of sadness. Sadness in the face of God’s grace and mercy was a denial of faith and hope.
But it isn’t the vice that concerns me. It is its corresponding virtue, what Evagrius identified…
I have written before on my trip to Athanatos Christian Ministries Arts Festival. In the following paragraphs, I would like to write a little about two works written by award winners in ACM’s novel contests. Joseph Courtemanche’s Assault on Saint Agnes is the first reviewed, and my thoughts on Robert W. Cely’s Beyond the Steel follow. Both are excellent works offering a Christian ethos behind the action. They avoid the extremes of preachiness and amorality–similar to Andrew Klavan’s work. One wishes that more Christians would write like them. (Speaking of Christian fiction, I hope to finish Taylor Marshall’s Sword and Serpent and Paul J. Bennett’s (another contest winner) A Fall of Sparrows in the near future.) The first is an anti-terrorism thriller, and the latter is an allegorical fantasy. May our dear readers pick up the work which best suits their taste!
Assault on Saint Agnes benefits from the writer having intimate experience with the worlds of intelligence gathering and police work. This gives the thriller a sense of realism comparable to a Tom Clancy novel. However, this novel takes place not on the world stage but in the American Midwest. A retired Arab linguist foils a terrorist attack on a Catholic church in Minnesota, which attracts the unwanted attention of both local and federal authorities. The latter decides to enlist his aid in stopping the worst terrorist attack plotted since 9/11.
Studying World War One has been on my mind for the past while. The Great War set the course for all the events which came after it and deeply altered Western culture. The part this war played in shaping the fiction of Tolkien and Lewis has also aroused my curiosity. And so, this book supplies for both of my wants, since it describes the world prior to the war, the attitudes of Tolkien and Lewis to WWI, their careers during the war, and how it shaped their lives and works. The book contains an impressive amount of information in its short two hundred pages.
The early chapters inform the reader of the important intellectual movements prior to the war. These movements proposed that science, technology, and the state could build a superior society without reliance upon God. Eugenics and Social Darwinism played a huge role in these Utopian schemes, which all crumbled in the cataclysm of 1914-1918. World War I ushered in an era of pessimism with patriotic and religious values being suspect and often disowned. Former soldiers often led the way in literature by sucking all the glory and meaning from war. The book attempts to answer the question why Tolkien and Lewis defended traditional values in a world where most intellectuals were turning against them.