All posts by Lars Walker

Not a writer

I don’t want to know anything more about the VT monster. (I won’t write his name. He’s not worth the effort to learn how to spell it. I will repeat the name of Prof. Liviu Livrescu, again and again. May he live forever in honored memory. Yad vashem.)

As a writer, I suppose I should be fascinated by the dynamics that led the VTm to write a B-movie ending to his life’s story. I was bullied plenty as a child. I can sympathize with moody loners better than most.

But he lost me when he did what he did. He ceased to be interesting at that point.

I’ve blogged before about the banality of evil. In fiction we like to think up fascinating, multilayered antagonists, urbane Bond villains and Hannibal Lectors, accomplished and witty and charming, who are the kinds of people you suspect you’d like if you knew them. What we think we’d be like if we took up the practice of evil.

Yet so often, in real life, the bad guys turn out to be walking stereotypes. Abused or neglected as children. Poor social adjustment. Shy. Alienated from the peer group. Fascinated with violent games and movies.

Until the moment they set out to orchestrate their Big Moments, they have my sympathy. I think I could have been like that. I had a fair number of the same issues in my own life. Still do. I hope they get help. I hope they find somebody to love them. I hope they confess their self-centered, obsessive sin and find grace at the foot of the Cross.

But that ends when they strap on the guns (or bombs) and go out to hurt innocent people. When they do that, they are not only committing evil. They are becoming clichés. A smaller matter, it goes without saying, but if you want my attention, don’t do a Cagney imitation.

There was a time when the Charles Manson story fascinated me. Right up until I saw David Frost interview him, years back. Watching and listening to him, I realized there was nothing special about him. He was just like any number of stoners I met back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Manson wasn’t some Satanic mastermind. He was a narcissist with a messiah complex who eroded his inhibitions with drugs.


There was a time when I was fascinated by the Jack the Ripper mystery. I’m still sort of interested in it, not so much in the criminal himself as in the story and the setting. And the enduring mystery. The fact that the crimes are unsolved prevents us from learning how banal the killer probably actually was. If (as I suspect is true) Sir Robert Anderson’s contention is correct, that the killer was a man later committed to an insane asylum, well, QED.

I suppose there are exceptions. Ted Bundy, they say, was charming and “played well with others.” But I haven’t studied his story closely, and it appears to me to be a rare exception.

The VTm thought he was a creative writer. He wasn’t.

Creative writers have to be able to come up with original endings.

Out of uniform

In my list of Thinking Bloggers last night, I didn’t include Roy Jacobsen of Dispatches From Outland and Writing, Clear and Simple. This omission was not due to any waning in my enjoyment of his work, but due simply to the fact that he almost never posts anymore.

Just a hint, to nobody in particular.

I sat down at the computer tonight, and suddenly realized I hadn’t planned anything to blog about.

So I resorted to the scribbled post-it notes I collect in my pocket planner. There I found this thought, which is apropos of nothing in particular:

“If God answered all prayers in the same way, it would make Him appear to be an object, a device we can manipulate. But beyond that, it would make us objects as well. Uniformity is dehumanizing.”

One of the convictions that grows on me with every passing year is my revulsion against uniformity, when applied to humans. Uniformity is great in science and industry—understanding the laws of nature makes scientific progress possible, and the standardization of parts made valuable (and not so valuable) things available to more people than our ancestors could have dreamed of.

But the great enterprise of the modern Left has been to make people uniform. For all their talk about diversity and personal self-esteem, their definition of justice is equality, not of opportunity but of results. They believe (sincerely) that this will enrich human life, but in practice it reduces people to interchangeable ciphers. Why did Stalin have no problem murdering millions of people, merely because they were inconvenient to his plans? Because they were just numbers to him, just units. There were plenty more where they come from. I do not say that those who work for equal distribution of wealth are all like Stalin. But Stalins inevitably rise to the top when they acquire power. I think we see this in the increasing hostility to the very existence of humanity seen in sectors of the ecological and animal rights movements.

Many people think Jesus preached equality of wealth. They are wrong. He preached equality of contentment, a very different thing

On suffering

Phil mentioned several of my favorite blogs in his Thinking Blogger nominations. I might add Gene Edward Veith’s personal blog at World Magazine, The Recliner Commentaries, and S. T. Karnick.

Whew. I came home tonight and found my renter here, unloading another carload of personal stuff. If I hadn’t seen him tonight, I had a tentative plan to start nosing through his personal possessions in the hope of finding a phone number I could call to check on him. Apparently he’s just making a graduated move.

Another glorious day in my favorite season of the year. Not as warm as yesterday, only a click above sixty, but very nice for my evening walk. It would have been perfect if it weren’t for the subject matter on the radio…

Not that Hugh Hewitt isn’t handling it like a champ. He’s hanging up on the second-guessers and finger-pointers. He’s concentrating on talking about the victims, and about how people can help the survivors. Very classy. Hewitt at his best.

He brought David Allen White on to talk about suffering, and White touched on a thought that has intrigued me for some time. He read from Colossians 1:24:

“Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” (NIV)

“How can anything be lacking in Christ’s sufferings?” we ask. Here’s what the passage says to me. I don’t insist on it, and I’m open to correction.

But it looks to me as if this means that Christ’s suffering is still going on. I don’t mean His suffering for our sins. I believe that’s finished, complete. But He also is the Head of His Body, the Church. When we, the parts of the Body, suffer, the Head suffers. In that sense His sufferings will not end until the coming of the Kingdom. Therefore none of us who are in Christ suffer alone.

I remember reading long ago about a female martyr (I forget who) who was warned by her judge of the terrible sufferings she faced. She replied, in so many words, “I am one with my Lord, and it will not be me who suffers. It will be Him suffering for me.”

I don’t know if I’d have the courage to make such a statement of faith, but I like the sound of it.

Excalibur by Bernard Cornwell

First off, my prayers go out to the families and friends of the victims of the Virginia Tech atrocity. Commenter Aitchmark tells me that one of his good friends is an instructor there. According to the last message I got from him, his friend would appear to be all right. But lots of other people’s friends weren’t so lucky, and there are just no words to say except that we are thinking of them and lifting them up to God.

The news didn’t match the weather, at least not here. It was an exquisite day. Seventy degrees. Last Monday it was winter. Today it was summer. It’s enough to give you whiplash.

I had a busy weekend. On Saturday my new renter moved in. So far he’s been the perfect tenant—he’s hardly been here at all. He brought three carloads of stuff in on Saturday, and then I didn’t see him again. I didn’t see him on Sunday, but while I was gone he seems to have brought some more in. Today, nothing as far as I can tell. I don’t have a number to call to check on him. Hope everything’s all right.

On Sunday I did one of my Viking PowerPoints for the Norwegian Federation in St. Paul. It’s a Norwegian-American friendship organization. They fed me a nice lunch, laughed at my jokes, bought a good number of books and promise to send a gratuity check. I have no complaints. On top of that the meeting was held at Luther Seminary, so I can now put “Lecturer, Luther Theological Seminary” on my resume. (I’m joking, I’m joking.)

When I got home I was pretty wiped out, as I usually am after public speaking engagements. But the day was so gorgeous I forced myself to go out for a walk, bribing myself by designating the local Dairy Queen the terminus of my route. There were two long lines strung out in front of the place (it’s one of the old-fashioned ones where you stand outside). Minnesotans have a lot of pent up cabin fever to work off right now. I think if the Blizzard machine had broken down, it might have gotten ugly.

I finished Excalibur, the final book of The Warlord Chronicles trilogy by Bernard Cornwell, on Saturday. I think I have rarely both enjoyed and disliked a book so much.

I enjoyed it as a drama and an action book. The battle scenes were outstanding, particularly the Battle of Camlan, Arthur’s last battle. As I read it, I couldn’t help thinking, “I can’t believe that someone could figure out a fresh, exciting way to do Camlan, after all the times it’s been done before.” But Cornwell achieves that. He mixes action, suspense, pathos and lyricism in a way I only wish I could emulate.

What I disliked was the general picture of religion in general, and Christianity in particular. Cornwell seems to hold the view of the average “sensible” Briton today, that religion is all well and good, but all you really need is a little simple humanity, because religion tends to get out of hand.

Cornwell clearly isn’t promoting heathenism. Although his narrator is a heathen (through most of the book, and always in his heart), Cornwell pictures the old gods of Britain as cruel and bloody. They are, however, powerful.

Christianity, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have any inherent power at all. The great advances it makes in this story are all due to the priests telling lies and extorting conversions.

Cornwell’s position, it seems to me, is the very one that’s killing Europe. “If we’re just sensible, practical agnostics, everything will be fine. We can counter militant Islam through our enlightened culture and comfortable lifestyle. We don’t need to believe anything ourselves to defend our civilization from holy war.”

Sorry. I’m obsessed with Europe these days.

Anyway, I give Excalibur high marks as a novel, low marks in the culture wars.

Addendum: I forgot to mention he puts horns on the Saxons’ helmets. This is an egregious fault for which I can think of no excuse.

Setting Lewis straight

This post will probably be completely incoherent, as I’m working under a time deadline. I have a Viking Age Society meeting tonight.

Actually, I have plenty of time to write this, but you never know what will happen. I might get an attack of writer’s block and have to leave without posting. I might have a sudden toilet explosion and have to spend the evening with a plunger and towels.

Worry as globally as possible, that’s my motto. Because disasters are always so much more bearable if you’ve worried yourself sick about them in advance.

Also I’m not entirely sure I haven’t posted on this subject before. But if I did it was a long time ago, and who remembers? That’s the upside of writing ephemera.

Anyway, thinking along the lines of my post last night, I thought I’d mention one point on which I differ (I think) with C.S. Lewis.

(That sound you hear is everyone who knows me intaking breath. [Taking in breath? Performing an intake of breath? Clumsy. Clumsy whichever way you go. Replace it or let it stand? Let it stand. I’m in a hurry here.]) I’m well known to be one of those Christian English majors who have trouble telling the works of CSL apart from canonical scripture.

But Lewis says in several places (I’d look it up, but like I said I’m sweating under a deadline here. High R-factor in those deadlines) that Jesus Christ introduced no new ethical ideas. And this is a good thing, in his view (and in mine) because good and evil are universal, and have been recognized, in generally recognizable forms, throughout all cultures throughout all history.

But I think Christ did introduce one fresh, unprecedented teaching. One teaching that no one had presented before. And that was personal humility in relation to one’s neighbor.

Other religions have taught humility before God. But Christ (correct me if I’m wrong) was the first to say, “You should treat your neighbor as if you were his servant. You should do nothing to defend your personal honor.”

Remember, you read it here first.

Unless you didn’t.

Hey, I’m done! In plenty of time, too!

Now I can worry about something else. Computer crash. Traffic accident on the way to the meeting tonight. I’ll come up with something.

Honor off

Good news. I’ve got a real renter. The guy who came to look at the place a while back called and said he wants to take it. So if my questionable e-mail renter happens to be legitimate, I’m treating him badly. But I don’t think the odds are very high for that.

I’m blogging about Bernard Cornwell’s Enemy of God again tonight, because the only subject I can think of for a post is a comment I wanted to make about that book in my review, and which I forgot to include.

I don’t mean to beat on Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles again and again, because that suggests I hate the books more than I do. If I really hated them, I’d have stopped reading them. I long ago gave up the compulsive idea that I had to finish every book I started (even—horrors—books I’d paid good money for). Cornwell is one of the solid professionals in the field of historical fiction, and he always gives excellent value for money. He’s too good to give up on, even when he irritates me.

He’s great at the details. He knows how linen was processed in the Dark Ages, and how the process smelled. He knows what plants grew in what region, when they blossomed and what the blossoms looked like (you’ve probably noticed, if you’ve read my novels, that “the flowers were yellow” is about as detailed as I ever get in matters botanical). He knows (or convinces you that he knows) how mounted cavalry fastened their horseshoes in Arthur’s time. Details like that are the result of careful and exhaustive research, and they make all the difference in bringing the past to life for the reader.

But I caught Cornwell in a big error. It’s the kind of error all historical novelists (me probably more than most) make, and make on purpose. But it’s more objectionable in some cases than others.

All historical novelists that I know of alter their characters a bit, giving them attitudes that didn’t actually exist in their periods. The further back in history the story is set, the more attitude adjustment the novelist has to do. Trust me. If you were to spend just a few minutes inside the head of a real warrior of Arthur’s time, the sheer mass of ignorance, superstition, prejudice, hate and tribalism would send you running for an exorcist.

But there are limits, especially in books as well researched as Cornwell’s. There’s a scene in Enemy of God where Arthur and Derfel, the narrator, meet again after a long period of alienation. Arthur apologizes and asks Derfel’s forgiveness. Derfel gives it.

If I’ve learned anything in my historical research, it’s that nothing like that would have happened among Dark Age heathens (which Arthur and Derfel are in the book). Such men lived in an honor-based culture, in which “face” was the only thing that mattered for a man. Such men never, ever apologized, even to their closest friends. The best such men would have been able to do would be to take up as friends again, silently agreeing to say nothing about what had passed between them.

The only thing that made such an act (an apology and forgiveness between warriors) possible (if rare) was the coming of Christianity with its radical new ethic.

This scene is dishonest. Cornwell is trying to picture a “merry olde Britain” going along just fine before the Christians came along to mess things up. And to show us how admirable his heathen heroes are, he depicts them performing an act that they would never have performed, and that they would have despised if done by Christians, the only people who actually might have done such a thing.

Cornwell should know better than that.

Walker’s Theory

OK, this is getting ridiculous.

I’m supposed to believe in Global Warming, according to the Great and the Wise.

It’s April 10.

We got about three inches of snow last night and today.

The cognitive dissonance has become too great. I need a new paradigm.

And I have one. I’ve done serious thinking today (I work in a library, and the psychic emanations from all the wisdom that surrounds me marinate my highly sensitive soul). I’ve considered the situation, and I know what’s going on.

What are my credentials, you ask? Ha! I know as much about it as Rosie O’Donnell! And I’m almost as fat!

I offer Walker’s Theory of Global Cooling.

When you’re introducing a new paradigm (or theory, or hobbyhorse) of course, there’s one thing you absolutely need in order to enjoy real credibility. I’ve studied the discussion closely, as it has gone on to date, and it’s clear that a theorist really needs one thing to be taken seriously in our day.

You need a conspiracy theory.

So I’ll start with the C.T.

Every conspiracy theory needs a Hidden Hand, a secret cabal manipulating events for its own benefit. I have selected one.

The Jews are already taken. All the crackpots are ranting about the hidden hand of the Jews. I’ve got to be more creative than that.

I’ll go to the Number Two most popular Hidden Hand, the one they use in Hollywood all the time.


Yes, Global Cooling is the work of an international cabal of neo-Nazis.

If you’re old, like me, you remember the 1970’s, and how all the scientists back then were warning us about the new Ice Age that was right around the corner. Any day glaciers would advance to cover most of Canada, and snow would fall in Mexico.

Why did the alarmists change their boogeyman?

I believe it happened because scientists realized, to their horror and surprise, that global cooling was actually happening. What they’d intended as a fictional lever with which to pry research money out of the government turned out to be an actual danger.

Enter the neo-Nazis.

The neo-Nazis are still angry about how World War II ended. Ever since 1945, the Nazis and their heirs have been furious at Europe and America. “We offered you greatness, and you refused it!” they mutter. “If you want to decline, we’ll help you decline.”

Global Cooling is their method. Through massive bribery of the world’s scientists (with money provided by their anti-Semitic allies, the Arab oil states) they suborned the scientific community into promoting the entirely imaginary theory of Global Warming.

Meanwhile, the weather gets colder and colder, so we have snowstorms in April. The demand for oil increases, enriching the Arab allies, making more money available for bribes.

Soon it will be too late. Soon most of Europe and the United States will experience arctic conditions. Equatorial areas (where the Arabs live) will become temperate. Everyone will want to move there. There will be massive social upheaval, wars caused by food and fuel shortages, and the neo-Nazis and their allies will have the market cornered on those resources.

It’s almost too late, friends! You must demonstrate! You must riot in the streets! You must call scoffers bad names and throw ice cubes at them! Only through unrestrained international chaos and upheaval will we be able to make our voices heard!

(By the way, that part is up to you. I came up with the theory. My work is done.)

Weather and art

Guess what we’re supposed to get tonight in Minnesota? It’s white and it’s cold, and it rhymes with that word Don Imus is in trouble for saying.

As my late father used to say, “Why in blazes would anybody live in this country?”

In order to balance my negative review of Bernard Cornwell’s Enemy of God yesterday, I’d like to share a passage from the next book, Excalibur, which pleased me.

Guinevere is talking to a bard (poet) who disparages the old-fashioned style of loud, bellicose songs. He says the younger bards are concentrating more on style and harmony nowadays.

‘Any man can make a noise, Lady,’ Pyrlig defended his craft….

‘And soon the only people who can understand the intricacies of the harmony,’ Guinevere argued, ‘are other skilled craftsmen, and so you become ever more clever in an effort to impress your fellow poets, but you forget that no one outside the craft has the first notion of what you’re doing. Bard chants to bard while the rest of us wonder what all the noise is about. Your task, Pyrlig, is to keep the people’s stories alive, and to do that you cannot be rarefied.’

‘You would not have us be vulgar, Lady!’ Pyrlig said and, in his protest, struck the horsehair strings of his harp.

‘I would have you be vulgar with the vulgar, and clever with the clever,’ Guinevere said, ‘and both, mark you, at the same time, but if you can only be clever then you deny the people their stories, and if you can only be vulgar then no lord or lady will toss you gold.’

Enemy of God by Bernard Cornwell

Enemy of God is the book I feared I’d encounter when I originally hesitated to read Bernard Cornwell’s “Warlord Chronicles” series about King Arthur. As I mentioned in my review of the previous book, The Winter King, there is evidence in the (scanty) historical record that the original Arthur made enemies in the British church. I feared that Christianity would be made to look bad.

And that’s what happened in this volume.

Oh, Cornwell covers himself. He has a couple positively presented Christian characters, notably the warrior Galahad, but that reads to me like the standard “Some of my best friends are Jewish” denial of anti-Semitism. In this book, the Christians are the bad guys. Even worse guys than the Saxon conquerors Arthur is fighting. Arthur is tolerant of religion but doesn’t believe in much of anything himself, except his honor, and Cornwell seems to see this as the best way to live.

Arthur (not a king but a warlord, and protector of the not-yet-grown king, Mordred) made himself the most powerful man in Britain at the end of The Winter King. He wants to solidify the peace through a marriage between Princess Ceinwyn, Princess of the kingdom of Powys, and Lancelot, whom he has made king of another British kingdom. But the narrator, Derfel, spoils this plan by running off with the princess. Later Derfel gets involved in helping the druid Merlin search for the cauldron of Clyddno Eiddyn, obviously meant as the inspiration for the quest of the Holy Grail. The story of Tristan and Iseult is also incorporated (in the most horrifying version you’ll ever read).

But the real struggle in this story is with Christianity. The Christians of Britain, whipped up by the oily Bishop Sansum and his missionaries, are working themselves into a passion to convert all Britain by force before the magical year of 500 A.D., when they expect Christ to return. They are being cynically manipulated by King Lancelot, whom they adopt as their leader despite the fact that his faith is questionable. This mob enthusiasm threatens Arthur’s peace and the very existence of what remains of unconquered Britain.

Except for the exceptions referred to above, all the Christians in the book are either stupid or evil, and virtually all the priests are assumed to be either sexual predators or pederasts. Derfel and Arthur look at the Christians as an alien group that has settled in Britain, grown in numbers insidiously, and now threatens to impose its laws on everyone. Perhaps Cornwell has the Muslim presence in today’s Britain in the back of his mind.

It bothered me, but I finished it. I’ve started the third book now, and that one is less offensive.

For the rest, good story, interesting characters, exciting action. A Cornwell novel.

Go Fish Meme II

OK, I’ll bite.

Yes, I certainly have Andrew Klavan books. In fact I think I have everything in his oeuvre, (including the Keith Peterson books) except for Hunting Down Amanda, which I’ve got to find one of these days.

Roy, do you have any books by Walter Wangerin?

R.I.P. Johnny Hart

Johnny Hart, one of the great cartoonists of our time–creator of “The Wizard of Id” and “B.C.” as well as an in-your-face Christian witness–died today at his home at Endicott, NY. He was 76 years old.

I think he was probably pleased to go home on Easter Day.

“Hey! Heaven got cartoonists!”

Letter from Jerusalem

Good Friday is a time for meditations. Here’s one of mine.

I imagine one of the Lord’s disciples, getting up early one morning, after the triumphal entry, and writing a letter home from Jerusalem.

Dear Mom and Dad,

Just a note to wish you a happy Passover and to tell you what’s been going on here.

It’s been just incredible.

I didn’t know what to expect when we came to Jerusalem, but I never expected we’d be rock stars! All the people turned out in the streets to cheer the Rabbi. They waved tree branches. They laid their robes down in the street for his donkey to walk over. The children were dancing and singing. It was a party! It was incredible!

I always knew the Kingdom was coming, but I’d never really expected to see it, I guess. Everybody’s talking about the Rabbi. We’ve got the whole city on our side. It’s going to happen! Soon the Rabbi will sit on the throne. He’ll drive the Romans out. Israel will be a mighty kingdom again.

And your son will be a governor, at least.

That little farm you’ve always wanted? I’ll see that you get it. Only it’ll be a big farm. And when you come to visit me in my palace, I’ll send you home with expensive gifts.

Pretty soon now. Any day, it’s going to happen. Nothing can stop us now. We’ve got the momentum.

Ah. There goes the Rabbi. He seems to be headed for the temple.

I wonder why He’s carrying a whip?

God’s ways are not our ways. That’s one of the lessons of Good Friday. But let us remember that it’s also a lesson of Easter.

Wheeling and dealing internationally

I was cited as a reliable source today over at Gene Edward Veith’s Cranach blog. I think this is good. Dr. Veith is now on his way to acquiring that high level of credibility he’s been striving for.

It looks like I’ve got a renter. The story (I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn) is rather weird.

Last night I got a call. It turned out to be a transcription call (or whatever they call it). That’s the kind of call you get from a deaf person. They type out a message which is read to you by the operator. Then the operator transcribes your reply so the caller can read it.

This caller was a businessman from Columbia, South Carolina, calling from Thailand (I’m not making this up). He was contacting me on behalf of his son, who is coming to study for a Master’s Degree somewhere in these parts. They (or he) saw my ad in the local Christian paper (probably on the web site, I would guess) and they want the room.

Sight unseen.

And they’ll pay an entire year’s rent in advance.

Hard to turn down an offer like that.

Around bedtime I got to thinking, “You know, this is suspicious. I get a call from a guy in the far east, whose voice I don’t get to hear. He offers me a sizable amount of money. I’ll bet this is a scam. I bet he’s going to end up asking for my bank account number.” (Which would be a joke on him. Hardly worth the cost of the phone call.)

But I checked my e-mail again and there was a message saying he’s sending a cashier’s check.

I can’t figure out a way for that to be bad.

Hope I get along with my new tenant.

When I get to meet him.

I think I know why it took this long to get a renter. This past Monday I sent an e-mail to the relatives in Norway, saying I wouldn’t be able to come to visit this year. I think if I’d had a renter, I might have opted to make the trip. And I think God doesn’t want me to do that in 2007. For reasons of His own.

His ways are above ours.

Have a blessed Maundy Thursday, friends.

Update: Commenter Susan warns me that this offer shows earmarks of a classic e-mail scam, and on checking I see that it does look suspicious. The main difference is the original contact by phone in my case. Security experts warn that one should never accept payment from a renter who contacts you by e-mail and does not examine the property first. I am going to take this very cautiously. Thanks to Susan for the heads-up.

The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell

Just as I expected (let’s face it—I’m always right, and it sucks) we had snow on the ground this morning. I can’t describe it as a blanket of snow. More of a sheet, with a low thread count. But it was white, and it’s not what we want to see in April (though we do, we always do). Most of it melted in the sun today, though the temperatures stayed below freezing. Tomorrow will be a little warmer, but it will be slow warming up. Easter, I think, will be about fifty.

Dave Alpern sent me Bernard Cornwell’s three Arthur books to read. I’d been thinking about reading the books, since I really like Cornwell as a writer (I especially enjoyed his seafaring thrillers, which he’s given up on because they didn’t sell). But I hesitated with these because I’ve become leery of all contemporary treatments of the Matter of Britain (reasons to follow).

Everybody, it seems, wants to write about Arthur, and some very good stuff has been done. I’ve thought about doing it myself, though it would mean trying to master a whole new cultural idiom. Stephen Lawhead did a series that pretty much accomplished what I meant to try (probably better than I’d have done it), so I figure, why bother?

Not that Lawhead entirely succeeded. I don’t think anyone has succeeded in writing a great Arthur novel since T. H. White. Since White everybody tries to set Arthur in his proper historical period. That’s fertile ground, and yet… no novel ever seems to achieve the promise.

When I read Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, or any of the earlier Arthurian material, I feel as if, from time to time, I get to peek through a spy hole in a theater curtain, looking at a great drama being performed. I can only see bits of the action and hear scattered words of dialogue, but it looks like a great play. Modern attempts to retell the Arthur story always look to me like attempts to reconstruct that hidden play, but they never live up to my hopes.

That said, Cornwell’s The Winter King (first of a trilogy) is pretty good.

Cornwell’s Arthur is not a king, but a “warlord,” regent for a king who’s still a small boy. This agrees well with the (meager) historical record, by the way, since our earliest reports of Arthur never call him a king. Also authentically, his primary concern is defending Celtic Britain from the inroads of the Anglo-Saxons. His primary challenge is the disunity of his own people, a situation he himself makes worse when he breaks an oath to a neighboring king. Real tragedy is at work here, in the classic sense where a man means to do good but is frustrated by his own passions.

The narrator is Derfel, a Saxon by birth and a former slave, who rises to become one of Arthur’s lieutenants. Derfel is a sympathetic voice, a deeply feeling and compassionate man, yet a great warrior, who writes the story in a monastery in his old age.

It was the religious element that made me wary of these books. The second volume is called The Enemy of God, after all, and that accords with some of the earliest accounts of Arthur in books of saints’ lives. Arthur seems to have had a bad reputation with the church. It’s been speculated that he appropriated church treasures to pay for his campaigns. There’s much opportunity here for an author with an anti-Christian axe to grind.

I wasn’t entirely happy with Cornwell’s treatment, but it could have been much worse, and I can’t pretend it lacks historical probability. Cornwell’s Arthur is a man of no particular religion in a Britain divided between Christians and heathens. The wars are not religious ones, and any given kingdom or army is mixed. One Christian priest is pictured pretty negatively, but other Christians look good (though it seems to me they are treated more sympathetically in reverse proportion to their orthodoxy).

On the other hand, Cornwell does not, as so many do today, gloss over the ugliness of heathenism. His Druids, even the friendly ones, are dangerous and half crazy, and their rites and ceremonies are bloody and ugly.

Merlin is presented as a Druid. He’s amusing, and reminds one of Gandalf, if Gandalf were utterly amoral and ruthless. He’s on Arthur’s side here, but everyone knows that that’s only because he finds Arthur useful. If Arthur becomes inconvenient to him he’ll throw him away like a small animal whose guts he’s divining from.

Cornwell doesn’t stick strictly to historicity. Later accretions like Lancelot and Camelot are included without apology.

As in any Cornwell novel, the battles are well thought out and vividly described. The end is extremely satisfying, but you know there’s more coming. Fortunately there are two more volumes.

I liked it a lot. It was as good as any Arthur book I’ve read, since White. It may even be the best since White.

The sweepings of the day

Well, it was a short summer.

(That’s a Minnesota joke. We like to use it in spring, when an early mild spell is followed by a return of cold weather and snow. Which is what happened today. It snowed on us, although the stuff melted when it hit ground. I expect the snow predicted for tonight will be waiting for us in the morning though.)

Just to bring you up to date on my personal life, which I know is why you come to this blog, I actually had a guy over to look at my room to rent on Sunday. What amazed me was that I’d made a special prayer that morning for the Lord to send me a renter. Then I got a call of inquiry before I left for church.

What spoils the story somewhat is that I suspect the guy won’t take the room. If I’m any judge of people (and I’m not), I don’t think he was much interested in what’s on offer here. But we’ll see.

Today counts as a good day, all in all. I banked my tax refund (smaller than I’d hoped, but welcome) and the Spectator ran my piece. I feel almost like a person today.

I close with the following quotation, which I found in a devotional book this morning. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that I like this one a lot:

What an amazing, what a blessed disproportion between the evil we do, and the evil we are capable of doing, and now seem sometimes on the very verge of doing! If my soul has grown tares, when it was full of the seeds of nightshade, how happy ought I to be! And that the tares have not wholly strangled the wheat, what a wonder it is! We ought to thank God daily for the sins we have not committed.

(Frederick W. Faber, 1815-1863)