03 January 2011

A Message from One of Florian's Children.

Dear readers, I don't especially like to pick fights. I'm a poor fencer and a worse debater. However, I flatter myself that I'm a ridiculously devoted reader -- and a reasonably competent writer -- and, when I saw this piece a few days ago, I knew I would need to say something.

The review in question, which appeared at the usually dignified MercatorNet, is of my favorite series of children's books -- and, indeed, favorite books in general -- The Westmark Trilogy, by the late, great Lloyd Alexander. The series, although a trilogy, is brief:  All three of the books put together would be only a little longer than any given volume of The Lord of the Rings. However, in spite of its brevity, the books undertake a very ambitious task. They are, in essence, a complex, delicately-handled look at the effect of political turmoil in the lives of human beings. This topic is examined with Alexander's characteristic turns-of-phrase, but also with sympathy and even-handedness:  Although the trilogy deals with a pseudo-historical event not unlike the French Revolution, it eschews the narrative typical of American views of that event (revolutionaries = good; royalty = bad) and is sympathetic towards both its revolutionaries and its royals. The plot itself follows the life of Theo, a young man who goes from printer's devil to revolutionary leader to prince consort to, eventually, exile over the course of the books. Along the way, he encounters a variety of characters, espousing equally various views (or, in the case of the mountebank "Count" Las Bombas, lack of views) on politics.

Unlike other fantasy trilogies -- and Westmark is, like almost all of Alexander's works, a fantasy, albeit one that lacks "magic" in the typical sense -- the books are not given to the endless world-building and encyclopedic exposition favored by Tolkien and poorly imitated since. The Westmark books are about characters, about humans, and that is their primary value. They do not ignore the plight of others for the sake of the central characters' political and personal fulfillment, and side characters are, despite the less-than-200-page count of each book, every bit as bright and clear as the protagonists. In a singular tour-de-force in the third book, for example, the moment of the cataclysmic event in the revolution the books charter, a number of unnamed third-person narratives are created and discarded, showing the reactions -- and actions -- of random civilians, hitherto unconcerned with the fight that has raged since the very first page of book one. Each of these characters is a perfectly-drawn vignette, each one a singular cameo as memorable as the similar passages in Malcolm Muggeridge's Winter in Moscow, and used to as great an effect. Alexander has long displayed the ability to create a character in a single sentence; he uses this throughout Westmark (which is also the name of the first book) and its sequels -- to heartbreaking and thoughtful effect.

Apparently, Ms. Jennifer Minicus, the author of MercatorNet's review, missed all of this.

In a little less than 325 words, Ms. Minicus manages to dismiss all three of the novels as "not recommended" for readers aged 13-16. In two overlong paragraphs, she accurately but insensitively summarizes the novels, missing key points of delicacy and declaring that the book "presents less than exemplary characters." (Incidentally, Fyodor Dostoevsky, whom I quite happily read at 13, presents characters even less exemplary than Alexander's -- is Dostoevsky also "not recommended"?) For example, she characterizes the political partisans, with whom Theo is a fellow-traveler in the first book and, in The Kestrel (the second book) and The Beggar Queen (the third) as "a band of blood thirsty anarchists" (sic). In the first book, these characters are explicitly characterized as republicans. Which would mean that, quite contrary to desiring anarchy, these "blood thirsty anarchists" desire a specific variety of representative government -- as opposed to the hereditary monarchy currently in place in the nation of Westmark. While some of them are, indeed, "blood thirsty" -- the charismatic future sociopath Justin is a good example -- their leader, Florian, is not explicitly desirous of the blood of the nobility, and Theo is shown to be unsympathetic to their revolutionary ideals. (He joins them in an act of theft which becomes, unforeseeably, violent in an attempt to rescue some of his friends, who have been wrongly imprisoned.)

Ms. Minicus also says,

At the end of the first book of the trilogy(Westmark), Theo allows his nemesis, Cabarus, to escape because he does not want the blood of any man on his hands.
Political intrigue and rebellion lead Theo to abandon his good intentioned promise, however. In the second book (The Kestrel), he turns into a butcher who seeks revenge for the death of a friend.

This is not untrue. Not long after the beginning of The Kestrel, Theo, after uneasily remaining with Florian's revolutionary militia, finds the body of his close friend, the poet Stock. Stock has been horribly slain by the invading army of a neighboring kingdom; his body is already three days' worth of decomposed by the time Theo finds it. What follows is Theo's terribly realistic descent into madness and bloodlust in the wake of his friend's death. Later, he is shown to be genuinely horrified by the things he has done:  He spends the end of the book hiding from everyone who knew him while he was the titular Kestrel (the nom de guerre Theo had adopted during the fighting), trying to exorcise his demons through the power of art and attempting to find some peace with himself. He does not merely, as Ms. Minicus would have it, "[doubt] his ability to love"; he doubts his very nature as a human. He has seen some of the worst possible things humans can do to one another -- none of which acts, incidentally, are described in any kind of detail (and are related with much less detail than Raskolnikov's eponymous crime) and certainly no more detail than could be found in any history book intended for a thinking person -- and, having committed some of those acts himself, does not feel himself fit to dwell among other humans for quite some time. It is only when forced, by the desperate position of the woman he loves at the beginning of The Beggar Queen, that he comes close to rejoining the revolution -- but he does so with no love for the violence he knows will come of it. 

Ms. Minicus closes the review by stating:

Indeed, most of the main characters in the trilogy have questionable motives and commit grievous crimes, leaving the reader wondering who the good guys are. Mickle alone seems to live by a noble, truly human standard. Yet, even she does not have the moral conviction to confront Theo about his violent approach to political reform. Young readers would do well to avoid this series which contains heavy doses of graphic violence, including suicide.

There are a number of things wrong with this, including the fact that the series is about a revolution. Of course it contains heavy doses of graphic violence. So does history. History is virtually built on "heavy doses of graphic violence." But this is mere quibbling. Ms. Minicus is erroneous in identifying Mickle as the sole principled character:  Many of the others, including most of the misidentified "blood thirsty anarchists," do try to live by a "noble, truly human standard." As Theo himself states in the first book, he believes that humans are truly, fundamentally good -- and the leader of those "blood thirsty anarchists" agrees with him -- or at least acknowledges the value of human life, and the worth of individuals in society (hence his desire for a representative government). Theo's own actions appall him, when he realizes his madness, and he doubts his own position as a human because he does not believe himself to have behaved in a fundamentally good way. (Incidentally, when Mickle is first encountered in the series, she is stated to have been trained at some length as a thief and a housebreaker. An interesting form of nobility, indeed.)

The reason there may be doubt about "who the good guys are" is because Lloyd Alexander created complex characters. Even characters with whom he is sometimes less than sympathetic -- including a doctor-turned-cabinet-minister who feels himself forced to institute a censorship policy during a time of political turmoil -- are complex in their motives, and the "good guys" are good because their motives are, as far as the characters themselves know, good. The "blood thirsty anarchists" are republicans because they feel that the hereditary monarchy in place in Westmark is being abused by unscrupulous ministers. Alexander is unsympathetic to the violent methods used -- and abused -- by the revolutionary characters, and makes it clear precisely when and where "use" ends and "abuse" begins. (Which is to say, "abuse" begins when the shooting does.)

I realize that I am becoming tedious, so I will end shortly. I realize also that this response is already significantly longer than the review that made it necessary. I would, however, like to state two more points:  One -- the briefer -- I bear Ms. Minicus no ill will, and acknowledge that she is entitled to her own views of the series; two -- the more complex -- were it not for The Westmark Trilogy, I would have been far less able to comprehend the human realities of history (such as, for example, the fact that Constantine I was a great emperor -- who still had his wife and son assassinated for political gain) than I am now. The Westmark Trilogy occupies a special place in the development of my ability to think and, yes, to be someone who "...knows [she] is only human, but who tries not to be any less."*

Thank you for reading.

*Paraphrase from the dedication of The Kestrel.

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