Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Hidden Kings Trilogy: Pathways of Mercy

SPOILER ALERT - This post discusses some of the crucial plot elements of the novel.

Pathways of Mercy has the unusual distinction of being the only book of the trilogy that was not written in Africa and with no part written out by hand or told orally (Freedom Cry, incidentally, did go through an early stage where I was telling it as an oral story to a friend, in nightly installments). Pathways came together during the first few years of our marriage, while we were living in Colorado and studying at Denver Seminary. The title actually comes from a line of a poem that Rachel wrote to me during our season of dating/engagement. And although there were no elements of this story that were already in place in my mind when I first wrote Freedom Cry, it struck me as the natural next step as the closing chapter of the trilogy. Freedom Cry introduced a core set of characters, themes, and values, and gave a wonderful opening view into that world; and The Conqueror's Song explored its ancient history and its Creation/Fall narrative. The next step, from a Christian view, is the resolution of that story, where human history and salvation-history come together one more time in a grand, unexpected, miraculous explosion of grace. The history of this world needed the Gospel, and that's what Pathways of Mercy is--the story of Imminya's ultimate incursion into his world, bringing with him salvation to both Melatari and Arona, and the healing of the nations.

It was my most challenging novel to write, for two major reasons. First, it required me to create a fictional Christ, and to have him be a believable part of his world. One of the reasons why the novel follows the viewpoints of other major characters (Dryhten, Rehar, Jeolin, and Tavvis) rather than its central character, Hallanar, is because I found that I could not get close enough to his character as to describe him from the inside out and have it all hold together--there needed to be a mystery of holiness about him, and to do that, I found I could only bring him to life through other's eyes. But if we think about it, that's the way most of us see and experience Christ himself--mediated through the witness of the Gospels and the experience of his abiding presence with his church.

The second reason it was challenging was because I wanted to make this a novel of redemption, and the central transformative character in that regard was Addarax--the villain of The Conqueror's Song, and basically the right-hand man of the most wicked power in the world. Conversion-accounts are difficult to do because it's hard to make them actually believable--such radical transformations of character and outlook are exceedingly rare in real life (generally, people only experience such a thing once, if ever, in their lives). So I had to begin on a human level, by thrusting him into an unexpected friendship with Rehar, and only when we had seen his edges softening could we believe that he was capable of letting go of what centuries of wickedness had made of him.

As we did with the other books, allow me to frame some of the most important themes I was working with:

Grace: This is the heart of the Christian Gospel, and it's the heart of this book as well. In a world caught by sin and violence and war, the goodness and favor of God takes them completely by surprise. They're not looking for Imminya to come and strike straight at the deepest heart of all their problems, but that's exactly what he does. Through the mediation of Hallanar, who represents the re-incarnation of the Star King (who himself was an incarnation of Imminya), the root of their wars is taken on his shoulders and done away with. Forgiveness is offered for the ancient Fall at the dawn of time, and a way of reconciliation opened for the nations of the Arona.

God is searching for you: So many times in life we picture God as distant and removed, willing to sit back in the heavens and keep track of our failings until we finally muster up the strength to turn away from our sins and take a step toward him. That's not the view of God that Christianity teaches, nor is it the one that Pathways tries to show. Rather, God takes the initiative. He steps out into our world, intent on tracking us down, wherever we are. So Hallanar dives straight into the lair of his most ancient enemy, having made up his mind to find her and offer her the hope of redemption.

The treasures of the world are worthless compared to the grace of God: One of the supreme ironies of the book comes from the quest of Addarax and the Dark Queen, as they search for a relic that will bring them absolute power: the Star King's sword. This will bring them, so they believe, what they've always wanted: physical immortality and complete authority. But to God's eyes, those things don't matter. The misinterpreted prophecy speaks not of physical immortality and power, but of the eternal life of a relationship with God. In fact, the relic that they are willing to turn the world upside-down to obtain ends up being melted down by Hallanar and handed out for free to whomever he meets. The true treasure is not anything this world can bring, but only the favor of God himself.

Only God is strong enough to solve our ultimate problem: One of the surprises of this novel is that the Dark Queen survived. (And there are a few other, smaller surprises, too--insightful readers might have already guessed that Arman/Kelta are one and the same, but my hope was that that would be a pleasant discovery; as would be the fact of Rehar and Nara's marriage). The implied result of the battle of Varakis in The Conqueror's Song is that Warlent's stone, coupled with the floodwaters, killed the Dark Queen. This is what the characters there assume (and what the world at large assumes for a thousand years), but it's never stated directly; they never find confirmation of her death. And when we come to Pathways, we find that she's still there, and Addarax is still in her employ. The Dark Queen almost personifies the problem of the Fall and the sin nature in these novels--and these are things that we can't fix ourselves. Just as Warlent couldn't completely do away with this source of evil in the world; so we of our own accord can't fix the problem of sin. It's only in the age of grace, with Hallanar's coming into the world (the theological implication being that the incarnation itself begins the healing of human nature), that the Dark Queen's power is finally and completely broken.

Evil is not strong enough to hold back the power of goodness: This is a further aspect of the "evil is a sham" theme that I wrote into The Conqueror's Song. The Dark Queen re-emerges as a villain in this novel, and readers will expect to find her much as we left her--an image of absolute, wicked power, with impressive skills in black magic, ruling a land darkened and chained by her terrible presence. But that's not what we find. This will surprise some readers; some might even find that it takes away from some of the suspense of the parts of the narrative that take place in "the Queen's hills." But I did what I did intentionally, to make a theological point. We find the Queen's realm to be a place of astonishing beauty and peace, and the Queen herself sitting broken and bereft of power in her cave. The Queen's condition is a reminder that the power that wickedness brings is never our own possession, and it is never lasting. Rather than finding her in control of these dark forces, as she once seemed to be, we can now see that she is merely a pawn of wickedness, a victim of her own choices, and that her power has faded away with the years, leaving her an empty shell. Her presence, though still considerable, is not enough to hold back the innate power of goodness manifest in the souls of her people--they are, after all, still the good creations of Imminya, regardless of the dark power that holds them in its grip.

Miracles: Once again, we also see the theme that began in Freedom Cry: that God is radically involved with his world, but that we see it most clearly through one another. God's chosen instruments for mediating his miraculous interventions and actions in the world are his people. This theme is illustrated all through the book, but is stated most directly in the conversation between Rennelson and Kyran after their capture by the Queen's forces.

The power of friendship: Again, a theme that began in Freedom Cry. I elected once more to have not just a single hero, but a whole band of heroes (including a "reunion tour" of the original cast during their southerly voyage), because it's important to remember that we humans are who we were meant to be only in community with others. This is illustrated most clearly in Addarax's character, in his straining to understand his millennia-long relationship with the Queen and his new, liberating friendship with Rehar.

Following in faith and following in doubt: We don't always understand what God is doing in our lives. Sometimes we might find a rich sense of the presence of God, and a clear trail to follow, as Jeolin finds in tracking down Hallanar and then joining his company. But more often, we find ourselves in the situation that Dryhten is in--a dark vale of unknowing, of wrestling with when and how to act in faith. In those places, I think we can best do what Dryhten himself does--trust in God to move in his own time, and in the meantime to step out and make the wisest decision we can.

Resurrection: This, of course, is what is implied by the end of the book. I even intentionally added a scene which alludes directly to the Gospel account--Jeolin (or, in the Bible, the women disciples) going to mourn beside the tomb. But I left the final realization unstated (much as the original ending of Mark's Gospel does); it is something so wonderful that words seemed simply inadequate to describe it. This is where the difficult events near the end of The Conqueror's Song come in, as a necessary "type" and foreshadowing of what would happen to Hallanar. But the final message is simple: goodness and grace win in the end, and nothing--not even death--is strong enough to hold them back.

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