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Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Elizabeth Moon's Paksenarrion -- Christian or not?

This is a rewrite of a post of June 6, 2007.

I have previously posted about Elizabeth Moon's trilogy, The Deed of Paksenarrion (Riverdale, NY: Baen, 1992 -- combines three novels published previously). One question I wish to muse about is the question of Christianity in this work.

The Wikipedia article on Moon, dated June 6, 2007, discusses the question of religion, and the relation of the trilogy to board games, briefly:

Elizabeth Moon, not gaming herself, heard some people playing "Paladins" (Holy warriors in the service of a god) and doing so very poorly. Her reaction was of course that "such a person wouldn't act like that"... and in thinking about what they would act like, Paksenarrion was born.

The Wikipedia article on the trilogy, on the same date, says:

The Deed of Paksenarrion has an engrossing religious theme with Christian aspects. While this world appears to be polytheistic, there is a "High Lord" and saints, such as Gird, Falk, etc, who serve him. Also, there are prominent themes of atoning sacrifice and redemptive love, with Paksenarrion becoming a kind of Christ figure. However, some believe that comparing this work to themes such as "Hero as Redeemer" and "Hero as Saint" from The Hero with a Thousand Faces shows this is not particularly Christian. There are also several references to the World tree. [The links in this paragraph were copied from the Wikipedia article on the trilogy.]

In other words, religious, yes. Christian, maybe. I concur. This page states that Moon is an Episcopalian. Elliot has posted on religion in these books, and on Moon. One of his posts quotes a web page with an interview with Moon, describing her conversion experience.

I have previously laid out the following characteristics, one or more of which must be present, to satisfy myself that a novel is a Christian novel:
1) A Christ-figure
2) Belief, by central characters, in important Christian doctrines, such as a belief in the Trinity, or the resurrection
3) Monotheistic prayer or other worship
4) Expression of a relationship with God as Lord, by a main character
5) Consciousness of supernatural guidance
6) Explicit rejection of evil, by a main character

And I also said that if the work shows an overall Christian world-view, even though those characteristics aren't present, it could rightly be called a Christian novel, and I categorized Susan Palwick's The Necessary Beggar as Christian for that reason.

I have found some of these characteristics in The Deed of Paksenarrion, but most or all of them are polytheistic. That is, there is a High Lord, to be sure, but there are also saints. Gird, in particular, is one that Paksenarrion relies on. (There is occasional mention of Falk, and of Camwyn, both apparently of status like that of Gird.)

One of the characters in the book explains it like this, in response to a question on how Gird got his powers:
"Then came a new threat. Powers of evil, exactly what we don't know. Many feared them too much to resist, and fled far away. But Gird went out to face them with his old cudgel. No one saw that battle, but the dark powers fled the land for many years, and Gird was not seen on earth again. Gird's best friend, who had been away on a journey, had a dream in which he saw Gird ascending to the Court of the High Lord—saw him honored there, and given a cudgel of light to wield. It was after that, when he told his dream, that the priests of the High Lord recognized Gird as a saint. We don't claim Gird is a god. We say he is a favored servant of the High Lord; he has been given powers to aid his followers and the cause of right." (Chapter 25 of Sheepfarmer's Daughter, which is the first part of the Deed, pp. 255-6 of the combined book. This first part is on-line here.) It isn't just Gird, either. On p. 96, chapter 10, followers of Falk are also said to have healing powers. Some soldiers follow Tir. I'm not sure whether Tir is a saint or not.

There is a two-book combined prequel, The Legacy of Gird, and I am currently reading that, but expect to post this before I finish finding out about Gird.

I recognize that the Catholic church believes in saints, and that, as I understand it, they aren't recognized as such until after death, and until a process has proceeded that, among other things, requires that some after-death miracles are attributed to them. As a life-long Protestant, I have trouble with what I see as rivals to the work of Christ, including saints. However, the Bible does suggest that Peter's brief presence was sufficient to bring about healing.

1) So, is there a Christ-figure in the Deed? That, of course, depends on how you define Christ-figure. Paksenarrion, in some senses, qualifies. She is celibate throughout the book, and apparently throughout her life, except for being brutally raped. She is given some power to heal. She has a strong sense of right and wrong. Finally, and most importantly, she willingly offers herself to the evil priests of Liart (Chapter 27 of the last part of the book) expecting that they will torture her for five days, and finally kill her, in order that they give up five captives, including Duke Phelan, who is to be king. She is tortured publicly, expertly and brutally, and the torture includes rape. She depends on her call to be a servant of the High Lord, and of Gird, to endure this, and, finally, she is rescued -- miraculously healed of most of the damage from the torture, and freed from the evil group. At least one reader thinks that she died and was resurrected during this episode. I didn't interpret the events that way.

An especially interesting parallel is that the Thieves' Guild is purified of its worshipers of Liart because of what happened to Paksenarrion, so that, in a sense, her sacrifice redeems thieves:

"Arvid, there may have been another way to save Phelan: I don't know. Paladins don't know everything; we only know where we must go. But think of this: was there any other way to save the Thieves Guild?"
He stared at her, mouth open like any yokel's. "Thieves Guild," he said finally. "What does Gird care about the Thieves Guild?"
"I don't know," said Paks. "But he must care something, to spend a paladin's pain on it . . ." (P. 992 of the combined book, Chapter 28 of Oath of Gold, the last part of the trilogy. Arvid was chief of the Guild.)

So we have a good figure who offers herself as a living sacrifice for others. A Christ-figure.

Moon, herself, has written about the sacrifice and torture of Paksenarrion, here. I didn't read anything in her post that changes my assessment of the book. It seems clear from other posts by Moon that she is a practicing Christian.

2) I don't find any belief in the essential Christian doctrines in the book. There is no explicit prayer for forgiveness of sin.

3) Intercessory prayer is mentioned several times, but it is often to, or through, Gird or another saint, as much as to the High Lord. However, Paksenarrion, herself, prays mostly, to the High Lord. It is the High Lord who comes to her aid during her torture.

4) Paksenarrion comes to realize that she has been specially called for a purpose, by the High One. There are a few paladins of Gird, but she is not one of them. The realization is a slow process, and others see this, sometimes, before she does.

It is clearly the High Lord who rehabilitates her after her torture. A symbol of Liart, an evil god, which has been branded onto her forehead, is replaced, miraculously, with a circle, a symbol of the High God.

5) Paksenarrion does come to recognize supernatural guidance (see above).

6) There are a number of instances where Paksenarrion explicitly rejects evil. Perhaps the most important is early in her career, when she tells the Duke not to torture an evil man, because the Duke's army is not like them, and she wants it to stay that way. (pp. 307-8, Chapter 31 of Sheepfarmer's Daughter) Many of the others involve sensing, and combating, evil non-human beings.

Perhaps the most remarkable episode is this one:
It was then as if several selves were present, mysteriously separate and conjoined. Trapped inside her body was the same child she had been, feeling each new torment as a wave of intolerable pain,each ragged scream as a fresh humiliation. The seasoned soldier watched with pity as her body gave way to exhaustion and pain as any body would, feeling no shame at the sight or sound or smell of it, for this was something that could happen to anyone, and she had never inflicted it on others. And someone else, someone newer, refused the soldier's tactics of defiance, anger, vengeance, and looked into her own fear to find the link to those around her, to find the way to reach those frightened tormentors, the ones not already lost to evil. (978, Chapter 27 f Oath of Gold.) Here Paksenarrion not only rejects evil, but does not allow herself to desire vengeance, even while she is being tortured cruelly by experts over a five-day period. She also tries to find a way to change some of those who are watching this torture from evil to good.

7) Does Elizabeth Moon's trilogy have a Christian world-view? I would have to say that it is not strictly Christian, but that the leading character comes to have a fictionalized Christian world-view.

Probably no one cares, but here's my bottom line. The Deed of Paksenarrion, though it has polytheistic elements, has an essentially Christian idea, that of a good person sacrificing herself to rescue someone else from punishment. On that score, it's a Christian novel, as much as, say Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. But it's certainly not explicitly Christian, and is not sold as such. Thus, in my view, Moon's work has much more opportunity to be salt and light to a world that needs such things.

Do Christians have to write only books that are explicitly Christian? Should they read only such books? No, and no. I am reminded of Till We Have Faces, by C. S. Lewis. Lewis was a Christian, but this book, arguably his best novel, has characters with a pre-Christian, or pagan, world-view. Nonetheless, it's a great read, and presents Christian truth, especially that God Himself is the only real answer to our questions about justice.

I have found a few other web pages that briefly mention Christianity in the Deed. This page says that the trilogy has "Christian themes," and recognizes the sacrifice of Paksenarrion for others. This post says that there are parallels to Christian ideas, and that the trilogy, especially the last part, is about "Faith," even faith in miraculous resurrection.

This page may be modified later, as I think of things, as you comment, or as I read about Gird.

Thanks for reading.

See this post for links to references to this topic in the Claw of the Concilator blog.

See here for a subsequent post on biblical morals in the Paksenarrion books.

On April 2, 2009, E Stephen Burnett wrote an essay, asking questions about how far a Christian author could go in writing fiction which has a God who is significantly different from the Christian God, and whether a Christian could legitimately create a fictional character who is in defiance of God. I posted tentative answers to these questions, which are related to the subject of the post above, on April 13, 2009.

Thanks for reading. Read Moon, if you have to time to commit to reading about 1,000 pages!


Weekend Fisher said...

I'll grant that by those standards Deed isn't Christian. But I have to wonder about those standards. By those standards, LOTR probably isn't Christian either. However, LOTR is deeply Christian.

I don't think Deed is anything like as deeply Christian as LOTR; it's got more in common with certain semi-Christian beliefs than with historical mainstream Christianity. Just saying, I think any criteria which would remove LOTR from the "Christian fiction" shelf have gone too far. Tolkien's fiction is much more subtle, on the level of parables. ("The kingdom of heaven is like two hobbits" ... after which the kingdom of heaven isn't mentioned again, even though it's the whole subject.)

Take care & God bless

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, WF. The standards are mine, and I'm having some trouble with them myself.

As to Tolkien, I would say that Gandalf is, in some ways, a Christ-figure (I have read some who argued that other characters also are, even Gollum). There are also special calls, recognition of guidance, and there is rejection of evil. So, by my criteria, whatever they are worth, his trilogy is Christian, even though there is little worship or prayer.

Weekend Fisher said...

Re: Messianic Gandalf: I loved the way Tolkien worked the Biblical "Moriah" references into LOTR.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, WF. The "mor" prefix was used quite a bit by Tolkien.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I don't know what your category of "Christian fiction" means; "out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks" so it seems like a book written by a Christ-follower that includes no spiritual content and no Christian distinctives ought to at least reflect Christ's priorities and something like a Christian "worldview." Unless, of course, said Christian doesn't care about Christ and his priorities, at which point question is no longer a literary one.

(Of course, there is always the question of *how much* of Christianity is obvious in a given story, which may be the question for you of what makes a Christian novel.)

However, I do like your depiction of Moon's inspiration, which seems Christian (in a way.) Moon, as a member of a Christian church, was in a position to argue that true believers don't act in the way so often depicted in fantasy stories. Her stories, then, seem meant to show something about the world that she could only see because of her Christian experience. So while I don't care whether her books are "Christian" or not, it is interesting to know that she is writing from a Christian faith--that her mouth speaks out of her heart-location, which loves and wants to defend those who dedicate themselves to holy service.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Chestertonian Rambler.

My assessment of this series of books by Moon is the same as your last two sentences, I believe.

She has written, and is continuing to write, according to her blog, more books in this fantasy world/universe/setting, and, I think about some of the same characters, but I haven't read them yet. I'm looking forward to doing so.

Karen Gladys Henry said...

This is a very interesting and thought-provoking post, Martin. I had never seen a list, such as yours, on criteria for judging whether a book is Christian or not. Now I have to discover what my own criteria are. I think it's been mostly intuitive for me. From your description of Elizabeth Moon's books, I'm not sure I would want to read them. I am not so concerned, for my own part, as to whether a book I read is "Christian" or not, but more what kind of atmosphere I am going to subject myself to when I read it. I can think quite well about whether I agree with an author's philosophy or not, but dealing with a pervasive spirit, mood or feeling is much more difficult. I like to get into what I read, and I don't enjoy evil. It sounds like the parts about the main character's torture is too graphic and drawn out for me. It's one thing to tell that it happened (the Bible itself tells many a gruesome story but does not dwell on it), but making me go through that in my mind is pointless. My problem with most fantasy literature (or most fiction for that matter) is that it seems to wallow in the evil even if it is supposed to be against it. Why would I want to subject myself to that? Yes, evil is strongly present in this world, but I would prefer to spend as little time around it as possible. The devil, death and darkness is what I got saved from! If a book is to be truly Christian, in my opinion, it would shine the light of Christ more than depict evil in all its intricate detail. Surely all of us have been subjected to darkness enough in this world. We are all very well acquainted with just how egregious evil is. However, too few of us know the Light. How much more beneficial it would be, and how much truer to the heart of God and the already-paid sacrifice of Christ which overcame evil, to portray the Light itself and the Kingdom of God which is growing in the world even now, than to dwell on the darkness. As a writer, this is what I plan to do, and what I am now working on in fact. I may read Moon's books (and skim over the bad parts) for instructive purposes, but I may discover more of what I would choose to shun as a reader and a writer than what I would embrace.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Karen Gladys Henry.

You probably won't see another such list, either. I'm not always sure it's useful, myself.

As to reading the Paksenarrion books, that's up to you. It would take a serious commitment.

But my assessment of the overall mood of the book is positive, or as positive as a book about a mercenary army can be. (Moon has been a marine herself, and puts in logistical details, such as that you have to have a latrine, and a way of transporting food, that many books on battles ignore.) The main characters are clearly good, and fight for the good, and against evil.

Yes, there is evil, and it is described. But I was uplifted by the books as I re-read them.

Finn Harder said...

Hi All.
Not being a scholar myself and to booth not being particular religious, I do not really feel qualified to comment on the religious content, if any, of her work.
I have, however< read "Paksenarrion" and her "Serrano" novels and whether, or not, they have a religious message they are still a bloody good read.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Finn Harder. That's why I read them!