Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Sea of Trolls

The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer. Read by Gerard Doyle. (Recorded Books)

Well, howdy, blog fans! This is the third in a series of reviews of children's and young adult audiobooks I've listened to recently that I wanted to share with you.

The Sea of Trolls has much to recommend it. It draws heavily on Norse mythology, an Anglo-Saxon epic, and even a famous nursery rhyme to create an exciting fantasy full of action and adventure, memorable characters, fantastic creatures, and exotic landscapes. This otherwise excellent novel for young people, however, is marred by what seems to be the author's philosophical or theological agenda and some rather heavy-handed editorializing. Christianity and the old pre-Christian religions of Europe are constantly compared, and Christianity nearly always seems to come up short.

In a small coastal village in early medieval England there lives a young boy named Jack. The most exciting events in his everyday life are tending sheep, mucking out the barn, and feeling vaguely jealous of his, pampered younger sister Lucy. All that changes one day when the local poet, wise man, and shaman, known simply as "The Bard," recruits Jack to be his apprentice. The Bard begins teaching Jack the ancient lore of bird and beast, flower and field, tree and leaf, river and ocean. In a clever twist, author Farmer imagines that The Bard is the author of the great Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, and thereby hangs the plot. The poem tells the story of how the great warrior Beowulf defeated first the monster Grendel and then Grendel's mother, only to be defeated himself many years later by a terrible dragon.

In Farmer's imaginative departure from this tale, it seems Grendel's mother had a sister, the half-human, half-troll princess Frith, and she's still plenty ticked at The Bard for participating in her sister's downfall. Every night she sends out her spirit, a ghastly malevolent phantom, on a night-mare (literally a monstrous eight-legged horse) to destroy The Bard. When that fails, she sends out a fierce band of Vikings under the command of Olaf One-Brow (so named because his bushy blond eyebrows seem to flow continuously over both eyes) to raid Jack's village. Jack and Lucy are captured by Olaf's men, and The Bard, for some strange reason, is reduced to a babbling idiot, seemingly incapable of coming to Jack's aid. An unusually intelligent crow that Jack names Bold Heart appears out of the fog at a crucial moment, however, to accompany Jack and Lucy on their journey.

Jack and Lucy seem destined for a life of cruel slavery, taunted by Thorgil, the "shield-maiden" or female ward of Olaf, who is just a little older than Jack. When Olaf and his men learn Jack has some skill as a wizard and poet, or skald, however, they treat him with more respect and even a trace of fear. Over time, Jack comes to develop a grudging respect for the Northmen and even the tentative beginnings of a friendship with Olaf. After a long sea voyage, Jack and Lucy arrive in the land of Queen Frith and her husband Ivar the Boneless (so named because of his morbid obesity and his utter inability to stand up to his shrewish wife).

When a bit of Jack's poetry in praise of Frith's hair magically and accidentally makes her hair fall out, the queen is outraged. She commands Jack, Thorgil, and Olaf to go on a quest to Jotunheim, or the land of the trolls, in search of water from Mimir's Well. Water from the well will give Jack the knowledge he needs to restore Frith's hair. If Jack and his companions do not return from the quest before the specified deadline, Lucy will be sacrificed to the goddess Freya. If they return in time, Frith will allow Jack and Lucy to go free.

Jack, Thorgil, and Olaf find Jotunheim, but the trolls and other magical creatures in it are not what they expect. Olaf sacrifices his life on the quest, and Jack and Thorgil must each sacrifice something of great importance to gain water from the well. Along the way, Jack learns Thorgil too, was once a slave, and that her real name is Jill. This discovery, and the quest for water from the well, lead to the creation of a famous nursery rhyme (Can you guess which one?) Jack and Thorgil return from Jotunheim with the cure for Frith, but her own greed and arrogance prove her undoing. Olaf's son agrees to return Jack and Lucy to England, and upon his return, Jack even learns the reason for The Bard's strange illness and the true identity of Bold Heart the crow.

At the beginning of this review I mentioned how this otherwise excellent novel is marred by the author's apparent need to compare Christianity to the ancient pre-Christian religions of Europe (and, I suspect, their modern "New Age" or neo-pagan counterparts). Jack's dour father, the local monks, and other overtly Christian characters, are constantly making grim pronouncements about suffering and the will of God. Jack notices that The Bard does not piously cross himself and intone "Amen," when Jack's father makes one of these sententious statements in the way that Jack's family does. In private, The Bard will even exclaim such things as, "May Odin preserve me from such idiocy!" or, "Thank Freya, you're all right." The Bard is a follower of the old ways.

I might be able to take this with a large grain of salt (Coleridge's willing suspension of disbelief and all that), if it weren't for The Bard's inane prattle about "serving the Life Force" that sounds as if it came from a bad early draft of the script of Star Wars. (The Bard does indeed sound like some kind of medieval Obi-wan Kenobi, and as he ranted on and on during these monologues, I half expected him to whip out a lightsaber and announce dramatically, "Jack! I am your father!") When Jack and Thorgil find Mimir's Well, they also find Yggdrasil, the tree of life from Norse mythology. This is a kind of gigantic, earthbound Noah's Ark that shelters every creature on earth and every possible spiritual destination for those creatures--Asgard and Valhalla for Vikings, heaven for Christians, "and other places I don't even know about," Jack explains. It's cool. It's all life, right? Whatever.

For a Christian, there are so many problems with this line of reasoning I hardly know where to begin. In the first place, Christians are not expected to actively seek out suffering (Even Jesus before his crucifixion prayed, "Father, if it be your will, let this cup pass from me"), When (not if) suffering comes, however, Christians are expected to embrace it as the will of God as Christ did. (He also prayed, "Father, not my will, but yours be done"). Christ, however, did not embrace suffering merely for the sake of suffering, but because it was redemptive. Christ's sufferings accomplished his Father's plan of redemption from sin for the whole world. When followers of Christ suffer in imitation of their master, they are called to join their sufferings to the sufferings of Christ (Col. 1: 24) and participate in the work of their own redemption and the redemption of those around them. What Farmer implies, therefore, about the Christian position on suffering is almost a parody or caricature of the truth.

In the second place, for the Christian, life is not an abstract, impersonal "Force" that somehow exists apart from God to be served or worshipped. It is the result of concrete action by a loving and personal God who created all that is (Col. 1: 13-23). Jesus Christ came that we might have life and have it to the full (Jn. 10: 10) for the God of Christians is "not a God of the dead, but of the living" (Lk. 20: 38), and Christ's resurrection from the dead is conclusive proof of God's power over life and death (1 Cor. 15).

Despite all these Scripture references, I don't consider myself some kind of Bible-thumping Fundamentalist. I am, however, a Christian and a Catholic, and over the last year especially, I have struggled with these questions of suffering, life, death, and resurrection. It pains me to see the Christian position distorted in this way, and some kind of neo-pagan alternative peddled to kids under the guise of fiction. I suppose I can be grateful that Farmer didn't insert additional twaddle about "the sacred feminine" á la Dan Brown.

I am also not a Fundamentalist in the sense that I don't become apoplectic any time I see any reference to magic in fantasy fiction, out of some hysterical fear that it will promote the occult. I've read the Harry Potter books, Jeff Smith's comic book epic Bone, the Shannara books of Terry Brooks, and Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, all of which use magic with little or no reference to Christianity. I've also read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, which are, of course, solidly Christian in their outlook and present Christian truth indirectly, symbolically, and allegorically through the conventions of fantasy. I've even read Katherine Langrish's juvenile novel Troll Fell, which like Farmer's, draws extensively on Norse mythology, but unlike Farmer, without reference to Christianity. Why Farmer felt motivated to engage in this "comparison shopping," or simple-minded relativism is beyond me, unless she has an axe to grind.

Bottom line: If you can overlook the pseudo-religious, pseudo-mystical piffle in this book, read it (or listen to it) and enjoy. If not, there are lots of better fantasy and adventure titles out there that don't have all the questionable baggage.

1 comment:

K T Cat said...

Darn! I thought this was a book about Kos readers who come by and leave comments on your blog.