Posted by: holdenlee | March 8, 2015

Byzantium


Starting up this blog again! I’ll begin by writing about a few books I’ve read in the past few months that I’ve really enjoyed. I’m also starting a habit of taking notes on the books I like and making them available at http://bit.ly/hlbooks. I’ll post detailed summaries/page notes there and write freely about my impressions on my blog. (For this book: https://workflowy.com/s/4qkO9xWz4M#/bfebf019358a)

When I meet someone new, I like to ask them for book recommendations. This is how I came across Byzantium by Stephen Lawhead. Historical fiction is not a genre I’ve read much in, but this definitely makes me want to read more. It’s an epic adventure full of twists and turns and at the same time very thought-provoking.

Summary

(taken from https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/405589.Byzantium)

Although born to rule, Aidan lives as a scribe in a remote Irish Monastery on the far, wild edge of Christendom. Secure in work, contemplation, and dreams of the wider world, a miracle bursts into Aidan’s quiet life. He is chosen to accompany a small band of monks on a quest to the farthest eastern reaches of the known world, to the fabled city of Byzantium, where they are to present a beautiful and costly hand-illuminated manuscript, the Book of Kells, to the Emperor of all Christendom.

Thus begins an expedition by sea and over land, as Aidan becomes, by turns, a warrior and a sailor, a slave and a spy, a Viking and a Saracen, and finally, a man. He sees more of the world than most men of his time, becoming an ambassador to kings and an inmate of Byzantium’s fabled Golden Court. And finally this valiant Irish monk faces the greatest trial that can confront any man in any age: commanding his own Destiny.

Spoiler warning!

What is faith?

A person of humble means makes for a good protagonist in a journey. Here a monk makes for the perfect protagonist, because it makes faith a central theme in the story. After all, Constantinople was the capital of the Holy Roman Empire and the seat of Christianity.

Aidan loses his faith during his journey, as he is captured by the Sea Wolves, witnesses the death of many of his friends, and is enslaved by the Saracens; in contrast his brother monks maintain their faith through similar travails. By “faith,” Lawhead means much more than simply following one’s religion, as he makes clear throughout the story; we see it as a pattern of life and thought for the monks.

What makes Aidan different? Aidan has a strong inner voice, much of which keeps him going (and makes for a good first-person narrated story)—indeed he declares that he will never be a slave anymore and will control his own destiny (422)—but his strong inner voice is naturally paired with a streak of self-centeredness and lack of far-seeing faith. (Fittingly, he was born a prince but sent to become a priest.)

The first chapter is very telling: after the abbot proclaims that three monks from their abbey will be chosen to join the pilgrimage to Constantinople, Aidan becomes the most devout of the monks, often standing in the cold stream for hours on end. Yet somehow he doesn’t admit to himself that his zealotry is because he wants to be chosen; he is surprised when he is. It’s the kind of mental separation when you work hard to gain a reward, and part of your mind knows you are working to gain the reward, but you close it off from the more conscious part of your mind so that you can think you are working for the virtue of working.

He suffers from a kind of literal short-term optimism/long-term pessimism: When the reason you’re cheerful about the world is that you have a cause-effect hypothesis about the world that so far hasn’t been proven wrong (work hard and you will succeed, believe in God and he will protect you) and when too long goes by without the effect happening, your hypothesis has been shattered and you don’t believe in anything anymore.

While he seemed most devout at the abbey, he had never faced any real hardship then—somehow his faith was too literal to be real. He takes a dream about his death in Constantinople literally, and when he finds himself still alive, it only lessens his faith, as even the hope of a martyr’s death had been denied him (306). Recounting the dream at the end, he tells Ruadh, “I expected to meet my death,” to which Ruadh replies, “We say the pilgrim seeks not the place of his death, but the place of his resurrection. A curious thing to say, unless the pilgrim was in some way already dead. (631)”

What is faith? Aidan took it as a literal belief that God will always be there to help people who are good. Aidan falls in love with an Arabian woman, Kazimain, but after seeing the man he has become, she rejects him.

“It is clear to me that you are no longer a man of faith.”
“I am no longer a Christian… so the difference in our beliefs need not pose any difficulty to our marriage. I love you, Kazimain.”
“But it is not love we are talking about. It is belief. I see that you are no longer a Christian, not because you renounced your faith in the Christ, but because you have abandoned God. Having forsaken God, you no longer believe in anything. Aidan, it is forbidden for a woman of Islam to marry an infidel. To do so is death.” (610)

Another episode, more light-hearted, is when he finds his shoes taken at the mosque–at a time when his faith is weak, he takes these events as blows.

“Why does this surprise you? It is, after all, the way of the world, is it not? The good man goes about his affairs with faith and good will, and the bad man looks only to satisfy his base desires…”
“I did not expect to be robbed by thieves within the holy precinct.”
“What better place to steal shoes?” (429)

And when he is convalescing in Amir Sadiq’s palace, he is amazed when the townspeople gather outside to pray for his recovery.

“I could not help thinking that it would not have happened in Constantinople, or anywhere else in the Christian world that I knew… here, a stranger in a foreign land, I had received a continual outpouring of prayer from the moment I had arrived. (407)”

History is gray

We get a sense of the largeness of the world of those days from how difficult and far the journey is; the unbelievable wealth and scale of Constantinople from someone who came from a much humbler place; the wonder of travel from the simple newness of lemons and spices and olives (20 kinds, while no king of Eire had tasted a single one!); and how different the cultures are–in Ireland, Byzantium, the Abbasid Caliphate.

“I began to believe that any similarities between East and West were purely accidental, and not an affirmation of a common humanity. (426)”

Aidan’s misfortunes are part of the larger picture of history. Lawhead doesn’t glorify history for the sake of the story: splendor and corruption are inseparable. The story isn’t about saving a “good king” from an “evil usurper,” even though that’s what we’re led to believe most of the story. Those in power all seem to be bad in some measure: the king who asks Aidan to be his spy got the throne by questionable means; the new emperor is no different. Aidan only finds out near the end that the real purpose of the pilgrimage is not to gift the emperor but to take their grievances (The Book of Sins) to the emperor and ask for support – a dispensation for free practice of their faith, an advocate for them against Rome (516).

The crux of the story is when they have captured the traitor Nikos and brought him before the emperor Leo for justice–only to find that Nikos had conspired with Leo to assassinate the old emperor! Leo gratefully uses Nikos as a scapegoat; he rewards their party handsomely, but brushes away the monks when they appeal to him to hear their petition – the reason they made the pilgrimage in the first place.

“The Arabs would be happy to see the treaty restored, and the Danes could be bought off with silver – but the monks would only be satisfied with justice, and Leo knew he could not offer that. (601)”

For Aidan, this is the last straw:

“when those who uphold justice are far more guilty than those whom they must judge, there is neither hope nor redemption. (607)”

Aidan has been on a personal quest for justice, perhaps to find faith again, but history dismisses his claims and moves on. It’s rare but fitting for a epic novel like this to not come down decisively on a good ending.

People aren’t what they seem

“We live in uncertain times, Brother Aidan… trusted officials use their powers to rob and steal for their own gain, and barbarian raiders argue for justice and pledge loyalty. (267)”

People aren’t always what they first seem, and they change. The Sea Wolves attacked the monks and captured Aidan–but when he lives among them they seem like normal people with families and a living to make (Gunnar tells him that they have to go “a-viking” so that they can pay tribute to the king), and over time and through their common troubles, he grows close to them. They are loyal to one another and fight valiantly.

The Sea Wolves are comically outmatched when they arrive at Constantinople: King Harald fully intends to sack the city even though their small crew has no chance. Their incorrigible tendency for barbarism—they hold the harbor master captive for lying to them about the value of their silver coins—coincidentally also show their insistence for justice (even if selfish)—as they wormed out the harbor master as a long-time crook! Harald, impressed by the city where every house seems to be grander than anything he’s seen, pledges himself to work for the emperor. (And for comic relief, they steal silver when they’re captured and forced to work in the mines.)

Compared to Aidan’s concern over justice, the Sea Wolves are simplistic.

“They were so like children, so simple and uncomplicated in their pleasures and desires, unaware of anything save the present moment… [I] wished I could return to that quality of innocence. (614)”

At the beginning, Gunnar and the others were curious as Aidan made his prayers; they asked him to explain his faith. Over time, their curiosity increases even as Aidan’s faith wanes. Part of it seems coincidental (they are saved soon after some of Aidan’s prayers); part of it is just because they have the mistaken impression that Aidan’s God will make them invincible. But later Gunnar understands the reason for Christianity and even try to explain it to Aidan:

“God cares nothing for us.”
“The people of Skania pray to many gods who neither hear nor care. But I remember the day you told me about Jesu who came to live among the fisherfolk, and was nailed to a tree by the skalds and Romans and hung up to die. And I remember thinking, this Hanging God is unlike any of the others; this god suffers, too, just like his people… Jesu also died, so he knows how it is with me.” (638)

Locally happy endings

When Aidan returns to Ireland, he finds the abbey suffocating. “I looked around at all the places I had once thought sublime in their humble simplicity, and found them coarse, ugly, vulgar, and repugnant against the glowing reality of all I had seen and done in Byzantium. (629)” (Lesson? When you travel you shouldn’t ask why is this happening to me, why is that happening to me, but rather revel in everything you experience because when you get back it’s going to be same-old same-old.)

Faith isn’t a cause-and-effect system where the good are rewarded and the evil rot in hell, but a determination to keep doing and do what good you can. There’s no globally good ending, and one has to find a measure of peace in the smaller and more local. Impressed with the monks’ faith (and their belief it will make them invincible!), the Danes seek out Aidan. Aidan finally lets go of his mistaken conception of faith as an entitlement to protection, and agrees to go with them to establish churches back at their homeland.

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