Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Hidden Kings Trilogy: Freedom Cry

Since my full trilogy has been published, I thought it might be worthwhile to take some time to put down my reflections and interpretations of my books. As a pastor, I'm always asking of a particular passage or book of the Bible, "What was the author's intent? What themes was the author intentionally weaving into the story?" So I always find it fascinating to read a book and then see what the author themselves felt was important. Some modern schools of interpretation would say that it's only the reader's interaction with the text that counts, and if you feel that way, then don't read this post. I'm certainly not trying to take away anything that my readers might have drawn out of their experience. But I thought it might be interesting for some of them to catch a glimpse of what was in my head when I was writing it.

(And just so you know, there are no real spoilers here, so even if you haven't yet read Freedom Cry, you'll be safe reading this.)

How Freedom Cry Came to Be Written: I'll begin at the beginning: Freedom Cry. Most of the first draft of this book was written while I was in the Sudan. I was doing a 3-month tour of volunteer service with a development group, and my main task was to use a dusty old computer to begin framing an up-to-date English/Sudanese Arabic dictionary. During the daytime I would often be with my fellow team members or meeting folks in my neighborhood (Diems, in "suburban" Khartoum--"Diems" sounds like the Sudanese Arabic word for firewood, so there were many local jokes about the people in our neighborhood being nothing but fuel for hellfire). But in the evenings, I was often on my own, so I decided to write a book to pass the time. At that stage of my very young literary path, I preferred to do historical fiction. But to do historical fiction well, one needs to be able to do a bit of research. I, however, had nothing on hand with which to do historical research--no English libraries accessible and no easy access to the Internet. So I decided to go back and pick up an old story that I had started writing back in the 6th or 7th grade. That year at school, our teacher would give us 15 minutes at the start of each day to do some writing. Most kids took her advice to do a bit of journaling or poetry; I decided to write a novel. I called it "The Knights of Elmorn," and filled up two notebooks with it by the time the year ended. I never finished that early proto-draft, but it had the basic elements of what would become Freedom Cry--an enslaved people working in the desert, liberated by a young man who turns out to be the heir to their kingship, and he and his friends, aided by a sword with special powers, try to make their escape through hostile territory. It also had a few other elements, like dragons and magic spells and so on. Well, I took my memory of that story and typed it up, working every evening simply for the sake of my own pleasure (it's amazing what one finds to do without a TV or the Internet). That early draft was a mix of first-person (the Dryhten scenes) and third-person, which I think worked OK, but I was advised to change it. (Although I later learned that that very mode of narration had been earlier used by Charles Dickens in Bleak House).

Themes: Since I was writing it mostly for fun, Freedom Cry was the least intentional of my works, at least in terms of my consciously inserting themes and ideas into the storyline. But, nevertheless, there are a few themes worth pointing out as being of special importance to me:

Freedom and Redemption: the biblical influences on this story will, no doubt, be clear to most readers. It's a fantasy-adventure re-telling of the Israelite exodus from Egypt, with a few themes borrowed from modern American notions of political freedom. The value of freedom is emphasized, but I wanted to make it clear that freedom is not simply the result of revolution. It is an aspect of divine redemption. It is, fundamentally, Imminya (their God) who sets his people free.

Virtue: Another theme is the link between freedom and virtue. What one sees in this story is two diametrically opposed civilizations--the Ferrian slaves and the Rameressian Empire. The former has almost nothing in terms of wealth, power, and high culture; the latter has everything. And yet, I hope it's clear that the Ferrians are in a far superior position simply because of the kind of people they are. Character counts more than any empire on the earth. And it's only because of the virtue-in-action of the Ferrian slaves that they are able to handle their freedom responsibly.

Friendship: One of the most common critiques I get of this book is that it starts off with too many characters to keep track of. While I admit that there are quite a few, it's not an uncommon convention within the fantasy genre. But there's also a very good reason why there are so many characters. One of my firmest beliefs and experiences is that human life is relational in its deepest aspects. We do not find freedom or redemption or virtue as atomized individuals; we discover those things together and confirm one another's journeys by the strength of our mutual support. Thus it is intentional and important that Freedom Cry is not about just one hero; it is about a band of friends.

The Sacrament of "The Other": I use a technical theological term here, "sacrament," to designate a tangible means of the grace of God. In Freedom Cry, I consciously chose to represent Imminya's gracious actions towards the Ferrians as occurring largely through the actions and mediations of other people. And in particular, I wanted to represent God's special affection for those people who end up on the margins of life and society. Thus it is through the outcasts and misfits that the Ferrians (themselves an unlikely candidate for a group of heroes) experience the grace of God: through "uncivilized" tribes, political dissidents, pirates, and the self-sacrificial actions of a nation under siege.

That's the general extent of the major themes that I was consciously building into the story. Of the three books, this one has fewer intentional symbols and allegorical elements than the succeeding volumes. It is largely written as a fun introduction to this fantasy world, and then in books 2 and 3 the "salvation history" of that world is explored in more depth. I'll do a post about each of them in the next couple weeks.