Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The End of Biblical Studies by Hector Avalos

This is a book written by a noted biblical scholar who, unlike almost all of his colleagues, argues that biblical studies as we know them today should come to an end, and the purpose of all biblical scholars moving forward should be to eliminate the influence of the Bible on the modern world. It is a text, Avalos argues, that has no relevance to modern society. The ancient civilization that produced the Bible held beliefs about the origin, nature, and purpose of the world and the human race that are contrary to the views of modern society. And the scholars and institutions that continue to study and support the study of the Bible do so more out of a sense of self-preservation than for any real benefit to the human race. In translating and re-translating the ancient texts, in writing and publishing their papers on newer and more socially-minded interpretations, in attending their conferences and writing their books, Avalos says, they are doing little more than creating their own Sudoku puzzles to solve.

I think my favorite part of the book was where Avalos examines the often fruitless quest for the Bible’s original text—the first draft written down by a human, supposedly from the very lips of God. Contrary to popular Christian belief, such a book does not exist—never did. “The Bible” is, of course, a collection of dozens of different books, written by scores of people over a few thousand years, and which of those books are included and which aren’t has been disputed by different denominations throughout history and is still disputed today. The oldest existing complete copy of the Bible is only about a thousand years old. What “the Bible” looked like before that is really anybody’s guess.

And that’s all before we take into account the Bible’s complicated translation history. Get this. The oldest existing texts of the Old Testament books are written in Hebrew (the most authoritative version comprising something called the Masoretic Text), and scholars know that it was then translated into Greek, then Latin, then English and all the other languages. The oldest New Testament books are written in Greek, and when they refer to Old Testament passages, as Jesus himself does a number of times, the reference is to the Greek version of the Old Testament, an accepted translation of the “original” Hebrew. This is often a problem, as Avalos explains:

The privileging of the Masoretic Text is somewhat of an embarrassment to those self-described Christian fundamentalists who otherwise extol it. It has long been known that Jesus and the other New Testament authors did not quote the Masoretic Text or even the pre-Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible. Instead, Jesus and New Testament authors routinely quote the Greek translation, even when it disagrees with the Masoretic Text.

Every translation introduces changes into the text. That’s the nature of translation. So if the original Old Testament was written in Hebrew (or perhaps some earlier language), why would Jesus (who, as God, should obviously know better) quote an inexact Greek translation of his own words? And, more importantly, we should realize that:

Even the oldest Greek manuscripts of Jesus’ words are translations because Jesus probably spoke in Aramaic.

That’s right. If he existed at all as a flesh and blood person in that part of the world at that time, he would have to speak in Aramaic in order to be understood by those around him. This means that even the “original” Greek version of the New Testament contains Jesus’ words in translation. We actually have no written record of Jesus’ exact words. The very source on which we have based our English translation is, in fact, a translation—and maybe a translation of a translation. How are we to know?

Another interesting section is when Avalos lists several famous Bible verses in the New Testament—verses upon which key doctrinal points are based—which are, by the best understanding of scholars, later additions to the books that comprise the New Testament. In other words, they are not original; we have versions of the New Testament books in question from earlier in history without these verses included. Among the verses so added later are:

Mark 16:9-20, which provides witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus:

After all, if Mark 16:8 ends with verse 8, then there is no story of anyone actually seeing or speaking with a resurrected Jesus. All we have is a statement that he is risen and a promise that he will appear. But it ends with nothing more than a group of women in fear. Thus, what is usually regarded as the earliest Christian gospel would not have much of a resurrection story—the door is left open for those who argue that the resurrection was not part of the earliest recorded Christian tradition.

John 7:53-8:11, which is used to preach against the death penalty:

One centers on John 8:7, where Jesus declared, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” He was responding to a call to stone to death a woman caught in adultery.

For some Christians this is a primary text to support the abolition of the death penalty. In the Hebrew Bible the death penalty was permissible if at least two witnesses were found to testify against a person in the commission of a capital sin (Deuteronomy 17:6-7). In this passage, however, Jesus changes the entire set of rules. Instead of making a minimum number of witnesses a requirement to execute the death penalty, Jesus requires the sinlessness of any executioner. Since no one is without sin, then no one would be qualified to carry out the death penalty. The death penalty consequently would be abolished altogether.

1 John 5:7-8, which explicitly describes the Trinity:

The King James Version reads in verse 7: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” This, of course, offers strong support for the doctrine of the Trinity. It is, in fact, the only text that is so explicit about a doctrine that is otherwise difficult to find in the New Testament.

Another interesting section is Avalos’ examination of biblical literary criticism. As part of that discussion he outlines the sometimes conflicting disciplines of ethics and aesthetics.

The role of ethics in evaluating artistic merit has been the subject of considerable discussion. Briefly, two polar positions may be identified. The “autonomist” position, advocated by scholars such as Clive Bell and Daniel Jacobson, views aesthetic value as independent of the moral content of any artistic depiction, textual or audiovisual. By this standard, Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment at the Sistine Chapel, which includes scenes of people being tortured, is beautiful regardless of the content.

On the other pole, the “ethicist” position, associated with scholars such as Berys Gaut, sees ethics as inextricably bound with artistic evaluations. As Gaut phrases it: “The ethicist principle is a pro tanto one: it holds that a work is aesthetically meritorious (or defective) insofar as it manifests ethically admirable (or reprehensible) attitudes.” While some autonomists may object that ethical judgments cannot be imposed on fictional characters that do not exist, Gaut argues that what is being judged is a work’s attitude toward the actions of those characters.

I’m sure these are two very interesting poles to observe in the realm of biblical literary criticism. In my own literary realm, I’d have to say I’m definitely more of an autonomist.

One of the great things about a book like this is that you’re bound to stumble across something that gives you a new perspective on things. As an example, the word “covenant” is tossed around a lot in the Bible and in the religions that follow it, and to my modern, uninitiated ears, it’s usually interpreted as some kind of promise—a contract, maybe—between God and his followers, to offer them his special protection in return for their worship and loyalty. Well, according to Avalos, covenants have another historical context that isn’t stressed by many Bible scholars today.

Covenants were not as benign as Eichrodt would have them. Covenants were instruments of imperialism and slavery—Yahweh was the slavemaster and Israel was his slave. As is the case with any slave, Yahweh rewarded his subjects for obedience and punished them mercilessly for disobedience. He required genital mutilation, called circumcision, of all his slaves. Far from providing a sense of security, the covenant caused the Israelites to dread the punishment that followed transgressions against it. Only one slavemaster was allowed, and a slave risked serious harm if he did not remain faithful to the one slavemaster.

Go back and read some Bible passages with that context in mind. Passages like Exodus 20:1-6 and Deuteronomy 28:15-46. Puts a whole new perspective on things, doesn’t it?

But Avalos’ main point, which he highlights throughout this work, is that the Bible grows less and less relevant in our modern world with every passing day, despite the efforts of a class of biblical scholars who seem focused on propping the Bible up as something that should continued to be studied and revered—and this in the face of an increasingly skeptical and less adoring student population. In one example, Avalos cites:

Robert E. Mansbach, the Wolford Professor of Religion at Hartwick College and a Lutheran minister, notes that his courses are populated by students with a variety of views, ranging from atheism to Christianity and Judaism. Mansbach hopes that students will retain the following five items after taking courses in biblical studies:

(1) see historical-critical problems as important, but important always within the framework of Judeo-Christian communities which produced the scriptures;
(2) understand that, even if one is an atheist, this does not change the way in which scripture-engendering communities understood themselves over time, i.e., as a people confronted, freed and blessed by God in history;
(3) understand that, even if one is an atheist, these communities grew to affirm the uniqueness and universality of Yahweh’s revelations (e.g., “I am Yahweh…and there is no other,” or “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”);
(4) know that these communities at their best saw themselves in tension with cultures calling for other, destructive allegiances; and
(5) have a sense that these communities, at their best, saw God’s empowering love and leveling justice as their historical mandate.

He adds: “Finally, in every effective method available, I would hope to build with the class a community in which they might experience a secular shadow or parallel of Christian acceptance, faith, loving empowerment, and leveling justice.”

If you’re one of those people who believe that any sense of “Christian acceptance” and “leveling justice” Christianity enjoys today arose strictly from secular influences dragging it kicking and screaming into the modern world, then you’ll appreciate Avalos’ comments on all this navel gazing.

Mansbach, like most other advocates of the academic study of the Bible, does not want to study the Bible or religion in order to examine negative or injurious aspects of either religion or the Bible. Some of the items Mansbach lists clearly assume that biblical religions have brought only good things that can be imitated even by secular people (e.g., “Christian acceptance…loving empowerment”). Mansbach’s fourth item sees biblical communities in tension with cultures that have “destructive allegiances,” which implies that biblical religions advocated no destructive allegiances. Why not reverse this statement and say that we would want students to learn that nonbiblical cultures were often in tension with biblical cultures who called for “destructive allegiances”?

One of the fascinating reasons Avalos gives for this desire to preserve biblical studies is the self-induced notion among some that scholars are modern-day heroes—heroes in the classical sense.

Any careful study of journal articles reveals that they have a familiar pattern found in many ancient heroic legends. Consider the legend of the Twelve Labors of Herakles, where Herakles (aka Hercules) finds ingenious solutions to problems that had defeated human beings. In more schematic form, in the legends of Herakles we often see: (1) a problem presented; (2) a review of how the problem had defeated human beings before him; (3) Herakles’ specific and ingenious solution to the problem; and (4) a triumphant conclusion.

If we look at a typical journal article in biblical studies, we see that it begins with a statement of a problem or challenge. Following this is a review of past research, which usually shows that the problem has not been completely solved by past scholars. This section is then followed by the author’s proposal to solve the problem. Finally, a conclusion is announced, and usually the author presents himself as triumphant or as “contributing” something new.

And why would these scholars seek to paint themselves as heroes?

To some extent, such articles must be heroic narratives because they are partly generated by the demand for “excellence” and competition for the precious few jobs available in biblical studies. The articles are the equivalent of the Herculean tasks given to scholars by the academy.

And it is this quest for heroics—for demonstrating the value of the Bible to our modern society—which has, in fact, permeated all layers of our society. The question of the Bible’s validity is rarely questioned openly, and as a result so much of our pop culture has adopted its sensibilities and lessons. Near the end of his book, Avalos focuses on how this adoption occurs and recurs to this day, citing numerous examples in the mass media of the favorable treatment of religion and religious themes.

One case in point is ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (1974), in which a little mouse named Albert is portrayed as a thorough rationalist and skeptic with regard to the existence of Santa Claus. Eventually, Albert’s father convinces Albert to stop relying only on his physical senses and learn to understand with the heart. So Albert believes in Santa Claus again. Though overt denominational views may have declined in mainstream television, the affirmation of the value of faith and religion is still there.

But even this does not strictly come from the Bible. As Avalos argues, so much of what we today think of as “the Bible” is, in fact, a modern construct—a collection of human thought and understanding that our culture has pinned on the Bible but which has little relationship to it. Some liberal believers know this, but worry about the consequences of abandoning the Bible altogether.

Witness the plea of William G. Dever:

“If its professional custodians no longer take the Bible seriously, at least as the foundation of our Western cultural tradition, much less a basis for private and public morality, where does that leave us? If we simply jettison the Bible as so much excess baggage in the brave new postmodern world, what shall we put in its place?”

A question Avalos addresses head on.

But why do we need to put anything in the Bible’s place? Why do we need an ancient book that endorses everything from genocide to slavery to be a prime authority of our public or private morality? Why do we need any ancient test at all, regardless of what morality it espouses? “The Bible” is mostly a construct of the last two thousand years of human history. Modern human beings have existed for tens of thousands of years without the Bible, and they don’t seem to have been the worse for it. There are modern secularized societies in Europe that seem to get along just fine without the Bible.


Wednesday, September 22, 2010


“Absolute freedom will occur only when it doesn’t matter whether one lives or dies. That’s the goal for everyone.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Devils (Aleksei Nilych Kirillov)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

In the Far East, there are plenty of people who own a robe and a bowl. That’s all. They throw themselves on the waters of the world, and they know they will be borne up. They are more secure than you or I. I know by now that I can’t be like that. I’m too American. But I know it’s possible. That gives me a sense of security.

That comes early in Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, one character talking to another, and it struck me as interesting and wise in a Zen kind of way. By the end of the novel, our first person narrator, Ginny Cook, a person very much tied to her family’s farm and her dysfunctional but outwardly upstanding family, will do exactly that—throwing herself on the waters of the world in an attempt to get washed clean of her guilt and shame.

But you don’t know that going in.

What you learn bit by expertly-written bit is that Ginny and her sisters Rose and Caroline have lived all their lives in the fearful shadow of their domineering father, and have grown into women with three different ways of harmonizing those childhood experiences with their own independent personhood.

The story is loosely based on King Lear, and I wish my Shakespeare was more up-to-date so I could better understand all the literary comparisons. Ginny, Rose and Caroline are obviously Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, and their father, Larry, is clearly Lear—and aging landowner who decides quite suddenly to deed his farm—his thousand acres—to them in equal portions. But Caroline, Larry’s favorite as a child and most distant from him in adulthood, does the wrong thing at the wrong time, and Larry abruptly cuts her out of the deal.

One of the things that Smiley does really well in this novel is show you all sides of the characters, especially in how they relate to each other and their images of themselves. It’s so well done because none of the characters talk openly about their feelings. Like a lot of dysfunctional families, the passions and the guilt bubble and burn just under the surface. Here Ginny is talking about Caroline as a child:

We [Ginny and Rose, who had helped raised Caroline after their mother died] had no principles beyond those that were used with us, but it was true, as Daddy often said, that she [Caroline] was a better child than we had been, neither stubborn and sullen like me, nor rebellious and back talking, like Rose. He praised her for being a Loving Child, who kissed her dolls, and kissed him, too, when he wanted a kiss. If he said, “Cary, give me a kiss,” that way he always did, without warning, half an order, half a plea, she would pop into his lap and put her arms around his neck and smack him on the lips. Seeing her do it always made me feel odd, as if a heavy stone were floating and turning within me, that stone of stubbornness and reluctance that kept me any more from being asked.

Clear pictures of them all, in a small number of words, including Larry, for whom the “half an order, half a plea” comment demonstrates Smiley’s keen insight in into the psychology of all her characters, even her male ones.

This really impressed me. The novel is written by a woman with women as the main characters, but it is definitely not a “chick” book. Everyone in the book is a person—flawed and complete—both the women and the men. Here’s an especially perceptive dissertation on the inner differences between men and women.

Since my talk with Jess the day I planted tomatoes, my sense of the men I knew had undergone a subtle shift. I was less automatically critical—yes, they all had misbehaved, and failed, too, but now I saw that you could also say that they had suffered setbacks, suffered them, and suffered, period. That was the key. I would have said that certainly Rose and I had suffered, too, and Caroline and Mary Livingstone and all the women I knew, but there seemed to be a dumb, unknowing quality to the way the men had suffered, as if, like animals, it was not possible for them to gain perspective on their suffering. They had us. Rose and me, in their suffering, but they didn’t seem to have what we had with each other, a kind of ongoing narrative and commentary about what was happening that grew out of our conversations, our rolled eyes, our sighs and jokes and irritated remarks. The result for us was that we found ourselves more or less prepared for the blows that fell—we could at least make that oddly comforting remark, “I knew all along something like this was going to happen.” The men, and Pete in particular, always seemed a little surprised, and therefore a little more hurt and a little more damaged, by things that happened—the deaths of prized animals, accidents, my father’s blowups and contempt, forays into commodity trading and lost money, even—for Ty—my miscarriages. Of course he refused to try any more. He had counted on each pregnancy as if there was no history.

Smiley’s a master at this, and she needs to be, because the traditional gender roles of men and women are a big part of the subtext of her novel. Here’s an exchange between two of the men (Ty, Ginny’s husband, and Jess, her eventual lover), reflecting the time of the novel—the late 1970s.

What I had forgotten was the pleasure of a guest for dinner, someone unrelated, with sociable habits learned far away. While we helped ourselves, Ty said, “What do they think about this oil shortage out west?”

“Oil company scam.”

“They’ve got Carter by the short hairs.” Ty glanced at me, because he knew I rather liked Carter, or at least, Like Rosalynn and Miss Lillian. I rolled my eyes.

“The thing is,” said Jess, “he’s a realist. He looks at all sides. He ponders what he should do in a thoughtful way. You should never have a realist in the White House. Being president is too scary for a realist.” I laughed. Ty said, “Ginny likes him. I voted for him, I’ve got to say, though I don’t know a thing about farming peanuts. But every time something comes up, he just wrings his hands.”

“Nah,” said Jess. “He says, ‘What should I do?’ A president’s got to say, ‘What do I want to do? What will make me feel good now that I’m feelin’ so bad?’ He’s like a farmer, you see, only the big pieces of equipment he’s got access to are weapons, that’s the difference.”

Good advice for presidents, but also for farmers, and for anyone else—male or female—who wants to take charge of their circumstances and be successful. It’s something that Ginny has a hard time doing, plagued as she is by bouts of self-doubt and worry.

Had I faced all the facts? It seemed like I had, but actually, you never know, just remembering, how many facts there were to have faced. Your own endurance might be a pleasant fiction allowed you by other who’ve really faced the facts. The eerie feeling this thought gave me made me shiver in the hot wind.

Most of this indecision, we discover bit by bit, is driven by her father and her fractured and difficult relationship with him. Here’s a typical encounter for Ginny, in which she struggles with something as simple as cooking his breakfast.

He backed away from the door and I entered the mudroom and put on the apron that hung from a hook there. He said, “Nobody shopped over the weekend. There’s no eggs.”

“Oh, darn. I meant to bring them down. I bought some for you yesterday, but I forgot them.” I looked him square in the eye. It was my choice, to keep him waiting or to fail to give him his eggs. His gaze was flat, brassily reflective. Not only wasn’t he going to help me decide, my decision was a test. I could push past him, give him toast and cereal and bacon, a breakfast without a center of gravity, or I could run home and get the eggs. My choice would show him something about me, either that I was selfish and inconsiderate (no eggs) or that I was incompetent (a flurry of activity where there should be organized procedure). I did it. I smiled foolishly, said I would be right back, and ran out the door and back down the road. The whole way I was conscious of my body—graceless and hurrying, unfit, panting, ridiculous in its very femininity. It seemed like my father could just look out of his big front window and see me naked, chest heaving, breasts, thighs, and buttocks jiggling, dignity irretrievable. Later, after I had cooked the breakfast and he had eaten it, what I marveled at was that I hadn’t just gone across the road and gotten some eggs from Rose, that he had given me the test, and I had taken it.

Only later in the novel does this paralysis and fear begin to make sense—but only to a degree. In what must surely be one of the most surreal passages in all fiction, it is revealed to Ginny by her sister Rose that their father raped and sexually molested them both throughout their adolescence—a memory that has been completely suppressed by Ginny, to such a degree that she herself does not believe it until much later in the novel when she is overcome with the memory while lying down on her childhood bed in her father’s house. With Ginny as our first person narrator, the reader spends a good deal of time not knowing whether to believe Rose’s accusation or not—the evidence seems to fit, but the victim herself denies it. The denial is, in fact, Ginny’s primary strategy for living—denial and abject fear that feelings should be brought out into the open and displayed.

Rose is very different. She’s a fighter, scarred and bitter from the wars she has been forced to fight against cancer, against her father , and against a world designed by men like him—one that allows atrocities like his to be kept secret in darkened bedrooms while the perpetrators are lauded as successful businessmen and community leaders. Another crony of Larry’s (Harold, Jess’ father) is blinded (like Gloucester in King Lear) when he is accidently sprayed in the face with pesticides and is unable to wash the chemicals from his eyes because he has let his water tank run dry. Shortly after it happens, Ginny and Rose have this exchange, perfectly representing Rose’s view of things. Ginny begins:

“Well, it just struck me so vividly, that’s all. It’s every farmer’s nightmare. I almost threw up.”

“The actual event is shocking. I admit that.” She picked up her scissors and looked at me. “But I said it the other night. Weakness does nothing for me. I don’t care if they suffer. When they suffer, then they’re convinced they’re innocent again. Don’t you think Hitler was afraid and in pain when he died? Do you care? If he died thinking his cause was just and right, that all those Jews and everybody deserved to be exterminated, that at least he lived long enough to perform his life’s work, wouldn’t you have enjoyed his pain and wished him more? There has to be remorse. There has to be making amends to the ones you destroyed, otherwise the books are never balanced.”

“But this is Harold, not Daddy.”

“What’s the difference? You know what Jess told me? Once Harold was driving the cornpicker, when Jess was a boy, and there was a fawn lying in the corn, and Harold drove right over it rather than leave the row standing, or turn, or even just stop and chase it away.”

“Maybe he didn’t see it.”

“After he drove over it, he didn’t stop to kill it, either. He just let it die.”

“Oh, Rose.” The tears burst from my eyes.

“Daddy killed animals in the fields every year. Just because they were rabbits and birds instead of fawns—I don’t know.” She looked at me and smiled slightly. “When Jess told me, I cried, too. Then the next day I helped Pete load hogs for the sale barn. I thought about Daddy saying, that’s life. That’s farming. So, I say to Harold, gee, Harold, you should have checked the water tank. That’s farming. They made rules for us to live by. They’ve got to live by them, too.”

But this is not Ginny. This is much too direct and honest. For Ginny, the most fearful thing in the world is to tell people what she really thinks, and for the world to know how things truly are.

It was terrifying to think of myself so obvious, so transparent. I remembered just then how my mother used to say that God could see to the very bottom of every soul, a soul was as clear to God as a rippling brook. The implication, I knew even then, was that my mother could do the same thing. My lips were dry and hot, and I thought of right then just asking Pete what he knew, how he found it out—from Ty or Rose or Daddy or Jess himself. Wouldn’t it be a relief to have everything out in the open for once?

But that question was easy to answer, too. And the answer was negative. The last few weeks had shown well enough for anyone to understand that the one thing our family couldn’t tolerate, that maybe no family could tolerate, was thing coming into the open.

And Ginny isn’t the only one whose life is affected by the need to keep up appearances. When things go so sour with her father he decides to sue his daughters (Ginny and Rose) and their husbands (Ty and Pete) to get his farm back, accusing them of mismanagement. For weeks leading up to the trial, Ginny and the others have to live under the watchful Eye of their entire community—doing everything they can to keep an orderly farm and orderly houses, not providing any ammunition for their father and his attorney to fire at them.

I was amazed at what I didn’t have time for any more—reading, sewing, watching TV, talking to Rose, talking to Ty, strolling down the road, departing from the directives of my shopping list, taking the girls places. That Eye was always looking, day and night, even when there were no neighbors in sight. Even when no one who could possibly testify for or against me was within miles. I felt the familiar sensation of storing up virtue for a later date. The days passed.

Around the first of August, Pete got drunk and took a gun over to Harold Clark’s place and threatened Harold, who was sitting on the porch and kept shouting, “Pete, you don’t think I can see you but I can, so you just get away from here before Loren calls the sheriff! Get away now. I see you for sure,” always turning his head the wrong way. Then after he terrorized Harold, he drove his own silver truck into the quarry and drowned, and nobody knew whether it was an accident. According to his blood alcohol level, he shouldn’t have been conscious enough to drive, much less to stay on the road.

The juxtaposition or Ginny’s reaction to the Eye, acclimated as she is to its presence, and Pete’s is stark and well constructed. That last paragraph is a shock when it comes, but at the same time it is totally understandable. Pete is a man and Ginny is a woman, and in Smiley’s deft prose and character development, it makes sense that one would be able to smother her true self away from the attention of others, and the other would have to strike out and futilely assert himself.

It’s sad to say, but the end of the book is a bit of a disappointment. It’s been foreshadowed that Ginny will eventually break loose from the familial bonds that restrain her, but when she does it rings hollow.

First, unbelievably, she tries to kill her sister, jealous that Rose has been romantically involved with Jess, the same man she has had a tryst with. It is not a direct action—poisoning some canned sausage she expects Rose to eat at some point during a long winter—but even that seems radically out of character for Ginny. And then she leaves her husband, leaves everyone and everything, waitressing for years under an assumed name in the Twin Cities. Eventually, she comes back to take charge of her two nieces after Rose dies of her breast cancer, but it’s only for a brief time, and she takes the girls back to the city with her. At the very end of the novel, Ginny muses on the life she had led:

And when I remember that world, I remember my dead young self, who left me something, too, which is her canning jar of poisoned sausage and the ability it confers, of remembering what you can’t imagine. I can’t say that I forgive my father, but now I can imagine what he probably chose never to remember—the goad of an unthinkable urge, pricking him, pressing him, wrapping him in an impenetrable fog of self that must have seemed, when he wandered around the house late at night after working and drinking, like the very darkness. This is the gleaming obsidian shard I safeguard above all others.

It’s a troubling end to a troubling novel, especially with the way Smiley chooses to link Ginny’s decision to kill her sister with Larry’s decision to rape his daughters. It leaves me wondering how like him she truly is, and what she is likely to do to her nieces. In Smiley’s world as well as the one we all share, after all, cycles of abuse will continually repeat themselves.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


“Thus fear of danger is ten thousand times more terrifying than danger itself.”
Daniel Defoe, The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (Robinson Crusoe)

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Chapter Two


Speculative Fiction
Approximately 33,000 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1990. All rights reserved.

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They built his castle high on the cliffs overlooking the Sea of Darkmarine. It was built at a record pace by hands that would take devotion to its limits. It was said that its towers reached high into the sky to embrace the love of Grecolus and that its walls stood solid against the hate of Damaleous. When completed, the Peasant King moved in with his wife and attendants. He would often come out to look down on the city and his people, of whom he had once been a member and now over whom he ruled.

+ + +

The dwarf entered a tavern called The Quarter Pony a few minutes after midnight. He was of average height for a dwarf, about four feet tall, and had the stocky build typical of his race. He had the customary dwarven round face with red cheeks and a protruding brow and nose. But unlike the traditional dwarf, who wore his beard as long as possible, this one had his light brown whiskers cut very close to his face, like the moss on a tree stump. He was dressed in a green tunic and tanned leather pants. A brown cloak fell from his shoulders to his boots and on his head he wore a broad-brimmed hat. At his belt was sheathed a short, thick sword in a jeweled scabbard, and on the middle finger of the hand resting on the sword’s pommel was a slim gold band.

The dwarf walked up to the bar and heaved his heavy frame up onto a bar stool. The three quiet patrons gave him a quizzical look but soon turned their attention back to their glasses. The bartender wiped the bar down in front of the dwarf. He was a tall young man in a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up over his large biceps. His blonde hair was long and tied together in back with a red band.

“What’s your poison?” the bartender asked in a clear and unhurried voice.

The dwarf did not answer him right away. He looked for an odd moment or two into the bartender’s face, almost as if he recognized the young man. Shaking his head, he muttered something to himself and quickly lost the look of familiarity.

“A cold mug of ale will do for my throat, my boy,” the dwarf said in a low tone of nearly fluent common tongue. “But I also require your indulgence in answering a few questions about this part of the world.”

The bartender arched an eyebrow. He had not expected such an eloquent manner from his stout patron. Most of the dwarves that came in from the nearby mines were proletarian folk who, by and large, drank more than they spoke. But, of course, those dwarves were dressed in grimy rags and had dirty faces behind their long beards.

The bartender poured a mug of ale and set it before the dwarf. “Ask away,” he said. It was about as eloquent as he got.

The dwarf took a long drink from the mug. He looked both ways down the bar and leaned closer to the bartender. “Would you happen to know where I might find a man named Roy Stonerow?”

The bartender chuckled. “You know,” he said quietly. “If you had asked anyone else in this town that question, they would probably have led you to an open mineshaft.”

The dwarf smiled. “I doubt I would be that gullible.” He took another drink of ale.

“Well, whatever,” the bartender said. “I do know where he is.”

“Can you take me to him?”

A door behind the bar opened and through it came an aging man with a small wooden keg held on his right shoulder.

The bartender spoke to the man. “Otis,” he said, “I need to help this gentleman find his way. Can you tend the bar for a while?”

Otis nodded. “Don't be gone too long.”

The bartender walked through a swinging gate in the bar and the dwarf hopped off his bar stool. The pair left The Quarter Pony and the bartender led them down the street. The dwarf stared up into the night sky as they walked on in silence. Soon they came to a small red house. The bartender stopped at the front door, knocked loudly twice, and opened the door.

“Roy?” the bartender called out as he and the dwarf walked down a dark hall to a single lighted room at its end. “I’ve brought someone who knows your name.”

The bartender and the dwarf entered the lighted room and found a middle-aged man sitting in an overstuffed chair with a massive tome in his lap. His hair was black and cut short. His face wore a charcoal-colored van dyke beard and his eyes were steel gray under a furrowed brow. He was dressed in a red v-neck tunic with black cuffs and collar, black trousers, and red houseslippers. The room itself was a library of sorts, the walls lined with heavy bookshelves and the floor richly carpeted.

The man in the chair let his eyes fall upon the dwarf. He slowly smiled. “Nog Shortwhiskers,” he said. “It is good to see you again. How did you find me?”

The dwarf called Shortwhiskers pulled up a chair and sat down. “It wasn’t easy, Roystnof. After that last adventure, you really dropped out of society.”

“Roystnof?” the bartender asked.

“The name I used in my career before I settled here,” Roystnof said to the bartender. “I told you about those days and my companions. This is the dwarf I associated with.”

Associated, he calls it,” Shortwhiskers said sarcastically. “We would go out and nearly get ourselves killed for gold and treasure, and then we would, ah, we would…” The dwarf trailed off strangely in the middle of his comments and gave the bartender another odd look.

“Have we met somewhere before?” Shortwhiskers asked the bartender.

“No, I don't think so,” the bartender said.

“Nog,” Roystnof said. “This is a good friend of mine here in Scalt. His name is Gilbert Parkinson.”
“Parkinson?” Shortwhiskers said, his tone of voice indicating that he did not believe it for a second. “No, his name’s not Parkinson. I don’t know how it’s possible, but Moradin strike me dead if his name isn’t Brisbane.”

Brisbane and Roystnof exchanged glances.

“How do you know that?” Brisbane asked the dwarf.

“Gil,” Roystnof said. “Nog knew your father. He must have recognized the family resemblance.”

Brisbane looked intensely at the dwarf. “You knew my father?”

Shortwhiskers nodded. “And your grandfather. Finer men I’ve never met.”

Brisbane pulled up a chair of his own and studied the dwarf’s face and hands. He looked to be a man in his forties. “My grandfather?” Brisbane asked, puzzled. “But how can that be? You look so young.”

Shortwhiskers smiled. “We who live under the mountains may not see as much of the sun as you humans do, but we are generally given more opportunity to do so. I am a hundred and sixty-three years old.”

Brisbane was astounded. He had only known one person who had ever met his father—his mother—and no one who had ever known his grandfather. Here was a dwarf who claimed to have known both. “Tell me about them,” Brisbane said, his need to know sudden and clear in his voice.

“Sometime,” the dwarf said, “I will tell you all I know about them, which is much indeed. But for now, more pressing matters are at hand.” He turned to the wizard.

“What has happened?” Roystnof asked.

Shortwhiskers cleared his throat and sat back in his chair. His feet came off the floor and he swung them absentmindedly as he spoke. “Two weeks ago, Roundtower and I caught a rumor in Queensburg. It told of a forgotten temple standing at the source of the Mystic River. Surely exaggerated, this rumor told of uncounted wealth awaiting the brave souls courageous enough to face its keepers. I can’t speak for Roundtower, but I never claimed to be brave. Greedy, yes, but not brave.”

Brisbane spoke as the dwarf paused. “Roundtower?”

Roystnof nodded. “Ignatius Roundtower. The other warrior I associated with before I settled here.”

Associated again,” Shortwhiskers snickered. “Anyway, we suited up and started following the Mystic into the hills. Boring landscape. About one day out, we encountered something that absolutely scared the marrow out of my bones.”

Brisbane nudged closed and Roystnof closed the book in his lap. He took out a pipe, mumbled to himself, and lit the tobacco with the end of his index finger, which had begun to glow red.

“Go on,” the wizard said.

Shortwhiskers coughed into his fist. “Yes, well, we first came upon this low stone wall, which seemed to enclose a large area between two hills. Inside the wall there were plenty of trees and bushes, as if someone had made an oasis amidst all that barren rock and soil. We spotted some fruit trees and, already tired of our dry rations, hopped the wall to get some fresh fruit. We went to the nearest tree and Roundtower pulled down some fruit for us. We were just eating the fruit and taking in the scenery when…it happened.”

“What?” Roystnof asked.

Shortwhiskers swallowed hard and looked first at the wizard and then his young friend. “Roundtower called out my name. He was about thirty feet away behind some bushes. ‘Nog,’ he says. ‘Look at this—’ I turned as the words stuck in his throat. He stood frozen for a moment, with one finger pointing ahead of him, and then he slowly turned dull gray in color. Not just him, either. Everything he wore drained all its color away and became just like granite. In less than ten seconds, he looked like a statue someone had chiseled out of a slab of rock. And still he did not move.”

Roystnof and Brisbane only stared at the dwarf.

“I crouched down beneath the branches of the tree I was standing next to and looked in the direction Roundtower had been pointing. It came out of the bushes slowly. It moved like a snail, as if hours were only minutes to it. It was a huge lizard, as high at the shoulder as a large dog, and longer than young Brisbane here is tall. Its scales were dark brown along its back and brightened to yellow in its underbelly. I couldn’t see its head, it was moving away from me, and for some reason, I felt relieved that it couldn’t stare at me. Most freakish of all, however, was that it had eight legs. It gave me plenty of time to count them. With that many legs, I would think it could scamper along like lightning, but it moved so slowly.”

Roystnof nodded and blew a smoke ring. “And Roundtower?”

Shortwhiskers clenched his hands together in his lap and bowed his head. “That is why I have sought you out. I waited until the beast was finally gone. It seemed like hours, but I waited anyway, unwilling to reveal myself to it until I had determined what it had done to Roundtower. Eventually, I was able to get up and move over to him. All this time he had been frozen in place and had remained entirely the color of granite.”

The dwarf looked up suddenly. “He was granite. Vile Abbathor, I knew that before I even touched him. I’ve smelled that stone too often to mistake its scent, no matter how impossible the situation. I could salvage nothing from him. Everything he had carried had become stone as well, and was securely attached to the statue that had once been my friend.”

Shortwhiskers drifted off briefly into silence. “Then I began my search for you, Roystnof,” he said quietly. “I left him standing alone in that garden. There was little else I could do. It took some time, but eventually I was able to track you down. I can only hope you know what manner of creature it was I saw that day, and that you know something that can be done to help Ignatius. He is certainly beyond my power to assist.”

Roystnof quickly got up and went over to a bookcase. He spoke as he chose a book from the shelf. “I believe I do know what manner of creature it was. I have read of it in the years I’ve spent away from you, my friend.”

Roystnof came back to his chair with a slim book in his head. “It is called a basilisk, and it has the power to turn men to stone. It accomplishes this by merely gazing at its intended victim. If that victim meets the creature’s gaze, as Roundtower must have done, he will actually turn to stone.”

Shortwhiskers was staring intently at Roystnof, listening carefully to every word he said. Brisbane was doing much the same but, unlike the dwarf, who was hopeful at the wizard’s words, Brisbane was somewhat fearful. Shortwhiskers had already asked Roystnof if he knew of anything that could help this Roundtower. If Roystnof did, it would mean only one thing to Brisbane. Roystnof would be leaving Scalt to administer this help.

“Can anything be done, Roystnof?” the dwarf asked.

Roystnof looked at Brisbane when as he answered the dwarf’s question. “Yes. I know a spell that will return Roundtower to his own flesh.”

“Thank Moradin!” Shortwhiskers exclaimed as he rose to his feet. “I knew you would know what to do, Roystnof. I just knew it. You always got one more trick up those red sleeves of yours, don’t you?”

Roystnof and Brisbane were exchanging glances. Brisbane got up to leave suddenly but Roystnof detained him with an outstretched palm. Brisbane obediently sat down.

“Nog,” Roystnof said. “I will need some time to prepare this spell tonight.”

“Oh sure, sure,” Shortwhiskers said. “I understand. I’m beat anyway. I’ll go back to the inn and get some sleep. I’ll come back in the morning and we’ll head out. Okay?”

“That’s fine,” Roystnof said.

Shortwhiskers looked about himself to see if he was leaving anything behind. “Tomorrow, then.” He extended a hand to Brisbane and the young man promptly shook it. “Nice to have met you, son. Someday we’ll sit down and I’ll tell you just what your name means.”

Brisbane smiled. “I’d like that.”

Shortwhiskers patted him on the back, said a final farewell to Roystnof, and left the house.

Roystnof sat down and put the slim red book he had taken off the bookshelf on the low table in front of Brisbane. “Take it, Gil,” he said. “Open it and look inside.”

Brisbane picked up the book. On the outside it looked ordinary. It was bound in featureless red leather and was perhaps fifty pages thick. Brisbane opened it and met a blank first page. He began to leaf through it and recognized the magical writings that filled the rest of it. Some of the twisted and arcane runes he could understand from the lessons he had stopped years ago, but most were beyond his comprehension. He continued flipping through it and glanced at the page numbers as they went by. Fifty, one hundred, one hundred fifty, two hundred. The book isn’t this thick, Brisbane thought as he kept paging through three and four hundred. He looked up at Roystnof.

“There are seven hundred and twenty-six pages,” Roystnof said. “All of which I have magically slimmed down to exist in the space of fifty or so.”

Brisbane shut the book with a snap and handed it back to Roystnof. The wizard put the book back on the table.

“Gil,” he said. “When I came here six years ago, I had boxes and boxes of books that I had collected over my travels.”

Brisbane took something out of his shirt pocket. “I know,” he said. “I carried them in.”

Roystnof smiled. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, you did. Those books were filled with magical information. Spells, magical research, summonings, curses, component enhancers. It was a treasure trove of knowledge.”

Brisbane rubbed the thing he had taken out of his pocket between his thumb and fingers. It had a slim silver chain that hung down between his knees.

“In the past six years,” Roystnof continued, “I have gone through those books. Page by page, paragraph by paragraph, line by line. And I have consumed and understood nearly all that I have seen. My abilities must have increased a thousand fold.”

Brisbane looked sharply into the eyes of the wizard.

Roystnof indicated the red book on the table before them. “All of this knowledge, Gil, all of this power I have set down in this book. It contains everything the other books in this room have taught me, and a few things these books have enabled me to teach myself.”

Brisbane only rubbed the silver medallion in his fingers.

“The time has come,” Roystnof said, “For me to take this book and see what I can do and attain with it. I must go with Nog to help Ignatius, yes, but after that I must continue with my travels. Scalt is a nice town, but six years is too long for anyone to spend in it.”

“I’ve been here for eighteen,” Brisbane said. He did not want Roystnof to go and he suddenly decided that if that was the way it would be, then he meant to go with his friend.

“Gil, I want you to come with me.”

Brisbane almost dropped his medallion.

“The time has come for you to continue your training. Although it has been a while, I doubt you have forgotten a single thing I have taught you.”

“I haven’t,” Brisbane said.

Roystnof smiled. “But, it is your decision. If you feel you should stay, I will understand and wish you well. I am sure Otis will want you to stay, and if you feel you bear any obligation to him, perhaps you should stay. But again, it is you who must decide.”

Brisbane fastened the clasp of his medallion behind his neck. The silver pentacle rested in the space between his collar bones, below his adam’s apple and above the swelling of his pectorals. He thought of how upset Otis would be if he left with Roystnof. The elder Parkinson still instructed him in the knightly virtues and the holy words of Grecolus, but Brisbane had only been studying these to avoid a conflict for years now. He had lost most, if not all, of his faith in the benevolence or even the existence of Grecolus and the evil Damaleous. The only proof he had was the existence of magic, which he had been taught was the tool of the Evil One. But Brisbane no longer believed that either. Roystnof worked magic and he was not evil. Or if he was evil, then the concepts of good and evil were not absolute, and were subject to interpretation. The more Brisbane thought of these things, the more confused he became.

Brisbane then thought of his mother and the wishes she had had for his life. If she were still alive, he was sure he would be traveling to Farchrist Castle to appeal to the King to start his formal training to become a Knight. He would have done it if she had asked him to go but, somehow, with her gone, it didn’t seem as important. Her last words to her only son had been about loyalty, and staring at Roystnof’s red book of magic on the table before him, Brisbane realized that he felt more loyalty towards his wizard friend that he ever had for his mother’s dream.

“I will go with you,” Brisbane said finally, and he lowered his head, feeling somewhat ashamed.

Roystnof put a reassuring hand on Brisbane’s knee. “The choice is made, my friend. Go now and sleep a dreamless slumber. I will fetch you in the morning.”