Note: This review contains numerous spoilers. To read more about tales of winter, check out my original Story Warren post here, as well as my review of Jonny Duddle’s The Pirate Cruncher.
Any honest plot summary of John Christopher’s young adult The Sword of the Spirits trilogy will have most conscientious Christian parents squirming in their chairs. The story unfolds something like this: Luke, son of a renowned warrior of feudal Winchester, is on the cusp of manhood when a prophecy handed down by the city’s Seers during a séance reveals that he will one day become Prince of Princes, a ruler to unite the whole of England.
Wait, Seers and spirits and séances?! Have you lost your mind, man? Why in the world are you reviewing this on Story Warren?
Hold your horses, dear reader, and I’ll explain. Actually, I’ll do better and reveal several major spoilers from the first novel, The Prince in Waiting: The spirits, Seers and séances are all part of an elaborate hoax. Luke lives not in some ancient British hamlet, but in a regressed post-apocalyptic world. At some point lost in the past to the residents of Winchester, the land itself shook with terrible earthquakes, breaking open to fire in spots and tumbling the great cities of steel and glass into ruins. After the disaster, pregnant women faced a much greater risk of birthing children afflicted with dwarfism or terrible mutations (which mark their offspring as “polymufs”). The survivors became convinced that technology itself had caused the upheaval and laid a ban on the production of any more machines. Enter the Seers—or should we call them scientists? Because that’s what they are, machine makers and hoarders of “forbidden” knowledge seeking to manipulate political affairs to their own benefit.
That’s a little better, I guess, but I don’t see why you’re so excited about it.
I owe a lot of my excitement to how Christopher subverts expectations. If the trilogy followed typical fantasy and SF conventions, Luke would trudge along a difficult, winding road to power, eventually securing the land under his benevolent rule and bringing science to the benighted, superstitious populace. That isn’t how it works. Luke struggles with anger and arrogance. Those vices serve him well when they propel him to victory in a citywide martial contest, earning him the attention of the Seers. But they prompt more agony than advancement as he marches his way to the throne. Luke’s conceit causes him to impulsively attack a mutated wasteland abomination; spurn ancient traditions, thereby setting his own men against him; imprison a friend and a romantic interest for unjust reasons; rule his people like a despot; and eventually bring an army to Winchester’s gates for the sole purpose of slaughter. In other words, Luke provides a prototypical example of the story of winter.
Yeah, I figured that much. Sounds depressing.
It’s not a sunny series, yet its downbeat tone serves a virtuous purpose. Jo Walton comments on the story over at Tor.com, saying, “In any standard SF novel in 1970 set in a world like this, science would triumph and the hero would get the girl. … I didn’t like the end as a child—it wasn’t the way stories were supposed to come out—but now I admire it.” The same holds true for me, especially regarding the scientific angle. Christopher reminds us in the final volume that the discipline which gave us penicillin and airplanes also bestowed the mortar and machine gun. It’s no accident that the series’ final chapters recall World War 2. And then there’s the way Christopher deals with religion.
Hold on, I thought you said the books portray the whole séance thing was a sham?
They do, but they treat Christianity very differently. Yes, in Luke’s world Christianity is a pitiful, marginalized faith, even more so because it allows polymufs to join its ranks. Various characters heap scorn on it—at least until the end when one of Luke’s companions comes forward with a startling revelation:
“I am a Christian, Luke.”
I started and laughed. “You jest! The truth you looked for was the truth of Science. […] Will you tell me now that you believe in this tale of a god born in a stable, out of the body of a maiden, who walked the earth performing wonders such as the Seers work in the Seance Hall, who died on a cross but three days later walked again, and who at last rose into the sky to sit among the stars and judge all men?”
“All that and more. Because Science gave no meaning to my life, but this does.”
The Sword of the Spirits trilogy certainly comes with its share of caveats. Numerous characters die unpleasant (although not explicitly described) deaths. Christopher’s Christians often act like an odd combination of Anglo-Catholic and Mennonite, half concerned with high-church rites and half given over to progressive ideals such as pacifism. While not denying Christ’s virgin birth, one bishop brushes it aside as a less important doctrine. And in a tangential aside, Christopher offers praise for a small tribe of post-apocalyptic communalists who share everything in common (even spouses!) and euthanize the terminally ill to ensure their peaceful passing. Obviously, this is a series that only very mature preteens should attempt. Still, the trilogy reminds us that society’s problems come not from learning or its lack, but from the innermost depth of the human heart, and only one Light can shine into its darkness.
(Picture: CC 2011 by Albion Europe ApS)
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Zach Franzen says
Thanks for introducing me to this series. I did not know of it. I recently heard an editor for a SciFi Publisher talk to a group of children’s book writers and suggest that someone should write a book for young adults based on Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness. Apparently the chief virtue of this book (according to this editor) was that it promotes androgyny and links fixed gender identity to war. The authors in the room bent their heads and started writing in their notebooks. No doubt they were scribbling “Adapt Left Hand of Darkness for teens. Promote gender confusion.”
It’s nice to know that despite the best efforts of writers and editors, the field isn’t completely overrun by militant relativists. I’m glad there are some glowing embers left in the fiction marketed to teens. Thanks for drawing attention to them.
Loren Eaton says
Thanks for the kudos, Zach.
True, The Left Hand of Darkness is an impressively written book. Le Guin was (if I remember correctly) an anthropologist, and in that book she wanted to imagine what a culture would be like without the male/female dichotomy. Interesting, but appropriate for kids? No way, no how, not ever.
To be completely honest, I don’t think Christopher was a Christian. But he did have some respect for our faith and even seemed to mourn its passing influence in his native Britain. I like that.
Christian Prof says
I appreciate your honest and fair review of a series I enjoyed very much as a child. I just have one small point to raise. It is interesting that you characterize pacifism as a “progressive ideal.” Historians almost unanimously agree that the Christian church was pacifist for the first 300+ years of its existence. One of the early church fathers stated that when Christ disarmed Peter, “He disarmed every soldier.” Only after Constantine institutionalized Christianity did the church compromise on this principle. Taking a long view of history, the idea that Christians can (or should) bear the sword would technically be a “progressive” idea.