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Monday, April 24, 2017

The Deryni novels by Katherine Kurtz

I recently finished the Deryni novels, by Katherine Kurtz. There are, so far, sixteen of these works, published over a span from 1970 to 2014, an impressive output, indeed. (Kurtz has written other books.)

What is a Deryni? The Deryni are people with magical/psychic powers. Many of them can read the minds of others well enough to know if they are telling the truth. A few of them can heal serious sickness or wounds. They can communicate with other Deryni over long distances, using telepathy. They have built a network of portals, places where they can magically travel, almost instantaneously over long distances, from one portal to another. The Deryni mostly live among ordinary people, and can't be told from them by appearance. They can marry non-Deryni. Some Deryni can appear to be someone else. (One Deryni, Camber of Culdi, took on another man's appearance for years, for unselfish reasons.) The only humans with Deryni powers have one or more Deryni ancestors.

The setting of these works is from AD 903 to 1128, in a fictional Europe, probably the British Isles. The geography appears to be fictional, too. The culture is based on the culture of the area during the times specified. That is, government is by a hereditary monarchy and aristocracy. The most important people live in castles, or other impressive dwellings, with their subordinates. The church is very powerful, in some things more so than the king. There are several female orders, and several male ones, all related to the church. There are priests, and bishops, and archbishops, one of which is always the highest authority in the land of Gwynedd, where almost all of the books take place. There is no mention of a pope in any of the books. The religion practiced is a form of Catholicism, or much like Catholicism. Young men of high blood become pages, squires, and knights. There are battles, using swords, lances, knives and bows and arrows.

Much of the plots involve Deryni keeping themselves secret from non-Deryni, especially from most of the church hierarchy, who persecute, and even kill, people with Deryni powers. There are evil Deryni who misuse their powers, which is one reason, other than fear of the unknown, that leads to occasional persecution of the Deryni. Most of the Deryni are not evil, however. I would say that, although there are important plots in all of these books, that they are also character-driven, and, furthermore, rely on descriptions -- their setting. Kurtz seems to enjoy describing church and state ceremonies. In most cases, ceremonies of state, such as becoming a knight, or swearing fealty to the king, are both spiritual and temporal. The books also have lots of descriptions of what the characters are wearing, and of the dwellings they inhabit.

Kurtz is not shy about allowing her characters to die. Some die by violence, in battle, or by magic. Some die from sickness.

The kings of Gwynedd are all members of the Haldane family. All of them possess some psychic, or magical, powers, although not all who have such abilities are held to be Deryni.

A few years ago, I attempted to ask, and answer, the question, "what makes a novel a Christian novel?" My answer is this:
A Christian novel should include three things. First, some sort of important choice between good and evil. Second, there should also be evidence that a character has hope, beyond despair. These two are, in my opinion, required conditions for a Christian novel. Third, such a work should also contain at least one of the following options, as a significant part of the plot, or the theme, or as an attribute of an important character: 1) A Christ-figure 2) Belief in important orthodox Christian doctrine, on the part of a narrator or character 3) Practicing prayer to a monotheistic divine being 4) Having a relationship with such a monotheistic divine being in other significant ways, including receiving guidance from him, or being placed in his presence. (For more discussion of these points, see this earlier post.)

How do the Deryni novels measure up?

There are many choices between good and evil, and the protagonists almost always choose the good.

Several characters exhibit hope beyond despair. For example, Camber searches for a Haldane to place on the throne, even though there doesn't seem to be one. He finds such a man. There are several occasions where there is hope that children will prove to be worthy kings.

These two required conditions are met.

As to the optional conditions, I'm not sure that any character in these novels qualifies fully as a Christ figure. But there is plenty of belief in orthodox Christian doctrine. Here, for example, is a quotation from The Quest for Saint Camber:

“Why? Don’t you think God has a plan for each of us?” “Well, of course,” Dhugal said uncomfortably. “But only in a general sort of way. We have free will.” “To an extent,” Duncan agreed. “But what was my will, set against the will of God, Dhugal? He wanted me to be His priest. I’m not sure I ever had a choice in the matter—not really. Not that I mind,” he added. “Not now, at any rate, and not for many years—though I certainly minded after your mother’s death. “But there’s a certain heady comfort in knowing one has been chosen, warts and all. I don’t know why He wanted me so badly, but other than that one brief flare-up of rebellion—which may have been all in His plan anyway—I’ve been content in His service. No, more than content. He’s brought me joy."


Several characters, in most or all of the books, offer sincere prayer to God, or they are described as spending time in prayer, sometimes for hours. There may be occasions where someone received direct Divine guidance, but I can't think of one such.

There are two other features that are relevant. One of them is that every chapter, in all sixteen of these books, begins with a Biblical quotation. (A few of these are from the Apocrypha, or other non-canonical sources.) Another feature is that there are four Archangels who are occasionally dimly perceived, and exert influence, especially during the practice of Deryni magic for good causes.

I am satisfied that the Deryni novels, by Katherine Kurtz, are Christian in nature, without being preachy. They read, rather, like historical fiction, in imagined times, but with a Christian world-view.

Thanks for reading. Read Kurtz.

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