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 02, 2012

The Hidden Kings Trilogy - The Conqueror's Song

SPOILER ALERT - THIS POST GIVES AWAY SOME CRUCIAL ELEMENTS OF THE BOOK'S PLOT

The Conqueror's Song was written a couple years after Freedom Cry. I didn't initially intend to write a trilogy; that's why Freedom Cry stands pretty well on its own. But I did intentionally weave in threads that hinted at other possible stories, just in case it could turn into a series. And after Freedom Cry was done, I found that I had enjoyed it so much that I wanted to keep going. One of the threads I had woven into the story was about the ancient history of that world, and particularly of one great event--the triumph of the legendary hero Warlent the Conqueror over the forces of an oppressive and seemingly invincible invader. I didn't have a clear idea myself of what Warlent's story was when I wrote Freedom Cry, so I thought it was worth exploring. If you know me, you know that I love history, and this gave me a chance to delve into a history of my own and explore its surprises and ironies along the way.

I started working on the book in the summer of 2005, after graduating from college, and most of it was penned by hand during my free time while doing volunteer work in Angola. We were living in tents and using kerosene lamps for light at the time, so there wasn't much chance of finding a computer to type away on. But, again, without the time-sucking temptations of TV and Internet, I was able to take my evening time and scratch away my new story into reams of notebooks.

It carries over a lot of the same themes as Freedom Cry: the cultural richness of the peoples, the central idea of friendship and life in community, and the belief that God's providence is primarily seen through one another. But there are also other themes and ideas underlying the plot of The Conqueror's Song. Here's a few of them:

Historical irony - I don't know if most readers will catch this, but for me, who thinks like a historian, it was one of my great joys in writing this book. We humans so often tend to idealize the past, and I wanted to show that this is exactly what had been done to the character of Warlent the Conqueror by the time of Freedom Cry. So at every turn of the story, I try to throw in surprises contrary to what one would expect to find if one only had the thousand-year-old legends from Freedom Cry to rely on. We discover that Warlent was not really a great warrior at all--he's a frail, skinny young man who doesn't like violence and especially doesn't like swords (ironic, of course, because of his later association with the sword Allaris). I try to leave open the possibility in the early sections of the book that perhaps the main character, Havarr, will not turn out to be the legendary Warlent--maybe it will be his courageous friend Redlai instead (for whom a couple geographic features in Freedom Cry are named, because of his later association with the Kayador ruling family), or the brave Alcomri leader Koy (there's another very subtle linguistic hint of this possibility in Freedom Cry, added to heighten the suspense for any particularly neurotic readers of my books)--but no, it turns out to be the skinny kid who's more keen to make peace than to fight. Not only that, one would expect from the descriptions in Freedom Cry for Alcomor to be a great and powerful civilization. But no, at this point it's a jarring collection of fractious tribes who live in huts in the woods. They're looked at as almost barbarians by the nearest great power, the Kayador. The Warlent character, Havarr, comes from the smallest and most obscure of these tribes. One would also have expected the Alcomri to have been passionate followers of Imminya, the one true God, but no, they're actually henotheists, honoring Imminya but also a host of other local divinities and reverencing the spirits of their ancestors. It's only along the way that Havarr's view of God begins to shift. Other ironies abound--the lords of Firth, who play a key role in swooping to Warlent's and Alcomor's aid in the legend, turn out to be a bunch of argumentative business-meeting types, so petrified of making a mistake that they're unwilling to act. It is their failure, more than almost anything else, that allows Warlent to become a hero, because he finds he has to do it without them. And, of course, there's the surprise at the end in which Warlent is struck down by an assassin. (My wife, on reading that part in an early draft, got so mad at me that she stormed out of the room. I had to plead with her to get her to finish reading the book.) All of those elements stem from my odd delight in making history realistic.

The Turnaround--a happy ending in the face of all odds - It seems strange to call this a theme, since it seems to be simply a commonplace method of storytelling in our culture. We like happy endings, and we like the drama of having them come after all hope seems to be lost. But for me, it's more than just a literary convention. It's a fundamental belief about the nature of things. It's redemption theology written in epic form. This is a thematic element for me because it's a part of the Christian allegory I'm trying to create. We, too, were without hope when, in the face of all the odds, God sent a turnaround that fixed everything, the ultimate deux ex machina. I adopt this form not simply because it makes for an entertaining and pleasing story, but because it's true. And, of course, I hint directly at the Resurrection in the sequence at the end, of Havarr's apparent death and then his revivification on the mountain, including his glorious final appearance. This element is not crucial to the Warlent story itself (really, the novel would be just fine without that sequence), but it is crucial to the trilogy as a whole, because it becomes a theological "type", a foreshadowing, of something yet to come in Pathways of Mercy.

Courage - This novel is, fundamentally, a book about courage. We have a timid hero who does extraordinary things. The reason he does this is because he chooses to do so. That is to say, courage is not something intrinsic to a person's nature--it's not some kind of emotional bluster that some people have and some don't. It's a decision to act in the face of our fear. It's something that anyone can have, anyone can do. This, again, is a biblical idea, drawn in this case from the beginning of the book of Joshua--Joshua is commanded to have courage, not because he is naturally courageous, but because he can choose to step out and act, knowing that God is with him. The lords of Firth are a parable of the lack of this kind of courage--locked into a fearful and literalistic reading of old prophecies, they refuse to step out and do anything worthwhile.

Evil is a Sham - This theme draws its inspiration from several sources, most notably G. K. Chesterton and some of the early church fathers. What I mean by "evil is a sham," is that we in our current condition are often tempted to think that the wickedness, brutality, and pain we see around us is fundamental to the way things are, and that people who are too caught up in goodness and happiness are just deluding themselves. But the Christian tradition has always said just the opposite--goodness and happiness are fundamental to the way things are (God created them good, after all), and evil and pain are merely perversions of that goodness, passing clouds that cast momentary shadows but cannot blot out the reality of the sun. In fact, the early church fathers define evil as literally nothing--it doesn't have an identity in itself, it is simply the absence or negation of the good that should be there. So in The Conqueror's Song, the evil which the characters face is tremendous--they are on the brink of absolute, utter disaster, and the empire conquering them is evil in every way. But, as we find out, it's just a sham. The brutish Shallki warriors are actually a pleasant, laid-back people who have been tortured and twisted into something awful, and even their battle-rage is simply a manufactured frenzy that is really quite foreign to their nature. And the two leaders of the invading force, who at first seem like powerful anti-gods, are really just sinners broken by the fall, trapped by their own mistakes and guilts and fears. They do not represent the way things really are; the true reality of this world is one of shocking beauty and goodness.

The Fall - This novel, although it's main focus is Warlent, is really just a frame for the telling of another legendary, pre-historical past. In The Conqueror's Song we learn the story of how the world began and about how the Melatari, the first created people, murdered the Star King, the divine incarnation of Imminya living among them. This is the story of the Fall, of sin entering the world, and a foreshadowing of the Christ-story in miniature (which we will see again in Pathways of Mercy). We find out that the history of this world is not so much about the political interactions of Alcomor and Ferranor and Firth and Rameress (as we might have thought after reading Freedom Cry), it's really the story of a world that is struggling to deal with the consequences of the Melatari's original sin, and it's those consequences that have created the monstrous war in Havarr's day. The resolution of the story provides a glimpse of hope--of good triumphing over evil--but it doesn't solve the basic problem of the original Fall.

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