Sunday, October 19, 2008

In Which We Unexpectedly Learn a Thing or Two Concerning War

It is interesting to note that while Christian fantasy has become a distinct sub-genre of literature, most of the early writers of fantasy were not only Christians, they also tended to produce distinctly Christian works. The most obvious examples are, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, though credit should be given to yet another Christian for inventing the genre of fantasy altogether—namely George MacDonald with his book Phantastes. In this sense, Theodore Beale's Summa Elvetica is a recent addition to a long tradition. But what gives Beale's work its peculiar appeal is that he has added to the usual fantasy world, resplendent with orcs, trolls, goblins and elves, an institution very similar to the medieval Catholic Church. Thus emerges the unusual plot: the protagonist, a potential candidate to the cloth and a learned if youthful philosopher named Marcus Valerius, is sent as the eyes of the Sanctiff, the head of the Amorran Church, to help determine whether or not the elves have souls. If the inquiry determines that the elves are lacking, it will be holy war, and possibly the extermination of the elvish race.

The story follows the journey of Marcus and those who accompany him to Elebrion, the home of High King Mael and his elf kingdom. On the journey, in addition to his slave Marcipor and his Dwarf bodyguard Lodi, Marcus travels and converses with a number of Michaelene warrior-priests, as well as two erudite scholars, Father Aestus and Bishop Claudo, who are also to weigh in on the theological dispute at hand.

But the priestly contingent is not the only one concerned with the elves. For there are parties that will benefit immensely from a crusade. Marcus is intellectually honest, if a bit naive, and is therefore genuinely interested in the answer to the philosophical dilemma. Before being sent on his way, his worldly father reminds him, "There are fortunes to be made in war, and not only by those who lead the legions... And for the great, the temptations are even more sweet. There are commands to be sold, territories to be governed, slaves to be gathered—and above all, glory to be gained." On the journey itself one of the Michaelenes points out, "[T]here’s a fair number of captains who make a living turning foolish young farm boys into corpses every summer."

These words are worth dwelling on, because they provide a key to one of the more interesting aspects of the book. To understand them, it helps to know that Mr. Beale is also "an occasionally controversial political columnist" who writes under the pseudonym Vox Day. Under this nom de plume he has recently penned a book titled The Irrational Atheist, in which he examines the various fallacies disseminated by some of the so-called New Atheists. One of these fallacies, chiefly propagated by one Sam Harris, is that religion is a major cause of war. In The Irrational Atheist, Vox lays this myth safely to rest: only seven percent of wars can be reasonably attributed to religious causes.

Theodore Beale takes up this theme in Summa Elvetica. When it is claimed that religion causes war, the crusades spring instantly to mind. If we read the prospective holy war against the elves as a parallel to one of the crusades of the middle ages, a complicated picture begins to emerge. The pious may be more likely to support a war if urged on to do so by their spiritual leader, but the war profiteers aren't going to be moved by indulgences and red crosses. In short, a variety of motives lead men to go to war, even an ostensibly holy one. Blame resides with fallen man, not with religion which serves to ameliorate his depravity.

Beale is not likely to join the company of Tolkien and Lewis—at least not yet—but he gives evidence of a lucid imagination and demonstrates that he can tell a good story. Its unusual subject matter may suggest merely an amusing novel, but Summa Elveticacreates a world in which the middle ages, its wars and its theological disputes, come roaring back to life.

2 comments:

Zachary said...

Would you believe that Theodore Beale and all of his works are nonexistent in both the Eastern Shores and Milwaukee Public Library systems? My confidence in public library catalogues has suffered a severe blow.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

Zach,

The book just came out, but the author has made the text available for free here.

Alternatively, I could find a way to get you my copy since I will not be needing to read it again any time soon.