Two Modern Christian Novels

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!

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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.

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Wisdom of the Ancients: Martial – Book X, Epigram IV

While in my senior year of college, I discovered Ovid’s Erotic Poems.  Reading a few of them to my friends convinced them that they were too funny to keep to ourselves.  And so, my entire floor of the dormitory was invited to hear the poems.  This series of readings won the affectionate nickname “Wisdom of the Ancients” and continued until I ran out of Ovid and turned to Catullus.  Unfortunately, these poems proved too disturbing for the members of my hall, and the series ended promptly.

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I promise not to post any profane Catullus here–especially since he can write beautifully when he wants.  Instead, I’ll start with some of the best of Martial’s epigrams.  One of which, I have already posted about.  Essentially, I shall use the same format as was used in that article: writing the poem in the original, translating the poem, and elucidating on the ideas contained therein.  I hope to be able to do this daily.  Today, this series starts with the fourth epigram of Martial’s tenth book of epigrams.  Enjoy!

Qui legis Oedipoden caligantemque Thyesten,
Colchidas et Scyllas, quid nisi monstra legis?
Quid tibi raptus Hylas, quid Parthenopaeus et Attis,
Quid tibi dormitor proderit Endymion?
5Exutusve puer pinnis labentibus? aut qui
Odit amatrices Hermaphroditus aquas?
Quid te vana iuvant miserae ludibria chartae?
Hoc lege, quod possit dicere vita ‘Meum est.’
Non hic Centauros, non Gorgonas Harpyiasque
10Invenies: hominem pagina nostra sapit.
Sed non vis, Mamurra, tuos cognoscere mores
Nec te scire: legas Aetia Callimachi.

lighthouse Alexandria

You who read about Oedipus and endarkening Thyestes,

Medeas and Scyllas, what are you reading about except monsters?

What help to you is stolen Hylas?  What good to you is Parthenopaeus and Attis?

What benefit is the sleeper Endymion to you?

Or the boy slipped of his falling wings?  Or Hermaphroditus

Who hates the watery mistress?

Do these empty laughing-stocks of a miserable page help you?

Read this work of mine, because Life can say “The work belongs to me.”

Here, you will find no Centaurs, Gorgons, and Harpies:

Our pages understand man.

But you wish, Mamurra, neither to recognize your ways

nor to know yourself: may you read Callimachus’s Aetia.

Analysis of the Epigram’s Themes

The proper names are organized in a beautiful way so that the word monstra strikes the reader more strongly.  After all, Oedipus and Thyestes are people–as is Colchidas, literally “women of Colchis” refering to its most famous personage, Medea.  Scylla is the only being having the form of a monster, but Oedipus for sleeping with his mother, Thyestes for eating his son, and Medea for slaying her sons are all monsters through their deeds.  The fact that Oedipus and Thyestes are singular while Medea and Scylla are written in the plural form reflect on the repetitiveness of epic.  Even though Oedipus’ and Thyestes’ crimes are singular, many epics are written about them–the same as we see with Medea and Scylla.

Another thing to reflect on in the first two lines lies in that Oedipus and Thyestes unwittingly did wrong.  Also, Scylla is a monster and so has neither rational or moral agency.  Why is Medea there then when she wittingly slew her two children in order to revenge herself on Jason?  It cannot but be because the ancient pagans viewed women as irrational.  Just a little example of ancient mysogyny and perhaps even the trepidation with which men held women in the ancient world.  Naturally, men are stronger than women, but one always views beings which one considers irrational with a bit of fear.  Hence, women were kept locked up by their fathers and husbands in the ancient world lest they follow their passions and disgrace the family through adultery or fornication.  Thus, the first two lines strike us with the irrationality and unreality of epic.

A painting of Medea--scariest women in all of epic.

A painting of Medea–scariest women in all of epic.

The next four lines contain examples of pretty boys.  When we think of epic, we usually think of heroes like Hercules, Achilles, Odysseus, etc.  But, Martial would have us focus instead on the many pretty boys who have little agency in the stories featuring them and are pushed around by fate.  Even the most masculine of them, Parthenopaeus of the Seven against Thebes, becomes diminished by his association with boys who became love slaves of various goddesses and nymphs.  His masculinity is especially painted with dark colors by being placed next to Attis, who castrated himself in order to become the devotee of the goddess Cybele.  Lastly, Hermaphroditus hates the watery mistress because a certain nymph attempted to rape him while he swam in her waters–the ultimate form of emasculation.  Even the position of Hermaphroditus between amatrices and aquas give the impression of him being overwhelmed.  But, he must submit to fate no matter how much he hates it.  All this asks how epic can produce good men when we see so many examples of boys on one hand and monsters on the other.

The Latin word ludibria in line seven can mean mockery, derision, object of derision, laughingstock, or plaything.  It seems to refer to all the “heroes” of the epics above as well as to the epics themselves, which are vana–“empty or vain.”  I also believe that the position of vana colors iuvant to indicate that epics are vain helps to understanding life.  Also, one might be tempted to look at miserae chartae (“of a miserable page”) as miserarum chartarum (“of miserable pages”).  But, the latter, by being plural, seems to condemn only certain works of epic and myth, while the singular condemns the whole class of mythology and epic to perdition, making miserae chartae much stronger.  All epic is cut from the same silly cloth!

Hylas getting snatched away by the nymph.  Painting by Francis Gerard.

Hylas getting snatched away by the nymph. Painting by Francis Gerard.

In the next line, Martial personifies life–vita–as if to show Life itself giving an endorsement of his poetry.  It is also worth noting that this line and the next three provide and interlocking order of themes: real life, myth, real life, myth.  The last line contains the philosophical dictum te scire–“to know thyself”–in opposition to Callimachus’s Aetia, which may correctly be called a work of belles lettres.  The epigram asks the reader to choose between real knowledge and fantasy.  (St. Augustine, if he read this poem, must have loved it.)

To end this article, I must say that I love the juxtaposition of Mamurra and Callimachus in the final lines.  Mamurra was one of Julius Caesar’s henchmen, while Callimachus was a famous Alexandrian poet.  Martial offers the chance to Mamurra to learn to repent of his evil life through reading works which show how to live a good life–poetry based on reality and philosophy.  On the other hand, Callimachus seems to be even more criminal than Mamurra by having written such nonsense as Aetia.  The poem even suggests that myth produces such criminals as Mamurra.

Review of Latro in the Mist

I have just finished a famous two volume compilation, Latro in the Mist, which combines Gene Wolfe’s Soldier in the Mist and Soldier of Arete.  Gene Wolfe achieves something beautiful in these two volumes.  They stand right next to Lord of the Rings in creativity.  The comparison is an apt one: where Tolkien relies upon archaic European languages and motifs drawn from medieval history and culture, Wolfe–also a Catholic–uses ancient Greek history, language, and mythology to immerse us into the world.  The immersion in the ancient world is so perfect that Wolfe makes us see it through new eyes.

Gene Wolfe has a great mustache, right?

Gene Wolfe has a great mustache, right?

The primary way in which he forces the reader to look at the ancient world with a new perspective is by translating the Greek place names to which we are accustomed.  This separates us from the notions we have of these places, and we come to view them from the perspective of the characters.  Athens is Thought; Spartans are Rope Makers; Salamis is Peace; Plataea is Clay; and Thermopylae is the Hot Gates.  The use of English translations for these places has the unique effect of making us feel as though the action takes place in a fantasy world.  This impression of fantasy is further enforced by the way Wolfe inserts gods, goddesses, nymphs, Amazons, and dead souls into the action.  The story begins after the Battle of Plataea, but the reader cannot view the tale as a historical fiction.  In the back of our minds, we know this story happens in history; but, we feel as though Gene Wolfe had created an original world.

Ancient Battle

None of the characters feel modern either, except for the people from Thought, i.e. Athenians.  This impression is helped by the fact that they are democrats and traders rather than subjects of a monarch.  Our hero, Latro, is particularly unique in that he suffers from both long and short memory amnesia.  This means that he knows little of his origins nor what occurred twenty-four hours earlier.  He relies heavily on his companions to tell him the truth and upon the scrolls he keeps as a diary, which is what the two volumes purport to be.  This can make things get tricky as people often attempt to lie to him.  Latro must keep his wits about him, though he often trusts people who appear genuine and accepts their version of events though he has no memory of them.  Even his most stalwart companions, Io and Seven Lions, need to be reintroduced to him daily.  As the reader, we need to keep a clear memory of events lest we get lost.

Latro in the Mist

Latro himself was in the service of the Persian king Xerxes as a mercenary during the Battle of Plataea.  His goal is to discover his origins and return to his fatherland or patria.  (We know he’s either a Roman or from another Latin tribe, though neither he nor his companions know about Italy.)  But, even people who recognize him are not forthcoming about his identity.

There is now one more book of the trilogy for me to read.  So far, the story has been a fun ride of divine encounters, political intrigue, philosophical discussions, and battle.  The friend who introduced me to the series claims that the last volume stands as the best.  And so, I greatly look forward to it and highly recommend the work to those of my dear readers who love fantasy and the Classical period.

The Wind in the Willows: Perfect for Every Age

A friend of mine from seminary once expressed his fondness for Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, which motivated me to download an audio book narrated by Adrian Praetzellis.  Normally, I would not mention the narrator, but he possesses stunning talent as a lector.  His voice captures the essence of each character and uses a gentle and pleasant tone for the narrative parts.  I actually felt a thrill when I realized that he also narrated Mr. Midshipman Easy by Frederick Marryat in the librovox series.  Mr. Praetzellis’s voice also works wonders for the characters in Marryat’s work.

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The Wind in the Willows turned out to be a tour de force.  Grahame has an excellent touch in lending an air of fantasy to his scenes.  This evinces itself most strongly in this work when he describes the forest during winter or the brief advent of a certain god in the midst of the night.  Then again, he has a deft touch when it comes to creating unique and likable characters.  A poor author may create many characters who seem rather the same, but Mr. Rat, Mr. Mole, Mr. Badger, and Mr. Toad all have a distinct air about them.  Grahame must not have taken life too seriously and had considerable leniency to his fellows.  At least, the Chaucerian manner in which he renders even the characters’ flaws endearing suggests this.  The Badger’s ponderous gravity, Toad’s egotism, the Mole’s maudlin attitude and impetuosity, and the Rat’s obsession with weapons all serve to make the reader love them more.

The Wind in the Willows

The work describes a series of adventures endured by the animals of the river.  This world is surprisingly gentile, like the Old South.  Little adventures occur to upset the flow of life, the most extraordinary of which surround Mr. Toad.  The authorities incarcerate him for automobile theft.  Then, he escapes prison  and discovers that his house has been invaded by other creatures, whom he must oust from his property with the help of his friends.  Mostly though, the tales contained in the work are episodic.

So, I heartily recommend this work to young children and adults who wish to immerse their minds in the gentle world of the river.