Monday, August 1, 2011

Religion, Damnation, and Epic Fantasy: A Review of R. Scott Bakker’s The White-Luck Warrior

The Darkness That Comes BeforeFull disclosure: I’m a scholar of religion and literature. So when a series like R. Scott Bakker’s The Prince of Nothing or The Aspect-Emperor comes out, I get very excited. Bakker is one of the most original voices working in epic fantasy today, and his novels revolve ceaselessly around issues of religious belief and metaphysics. For example, the first three books of The Prince of Nothing revolved around a religious war that looked suspiciously like the Crusades. Furthermore, the narrator of the series in general adopts a tone and vocabulary that are by turns historical, scriptural, and epic. The characters act out of a fascinating mélange of motivations, an amalgamation of passion, intellect, and belief. They are concerned with metaphysical questions in a way that not many literary characters are. My nerdish qualities in this regard probably blind me to some of the artistic blemishes of these books. Whatever. I love them.

The Prince of Nothing consists of three books: The Darkness that Comes Before (2003), The Warrior-Prophet (2004), and The Thousandfold Thought (2006). The Aspect-Emperor, picking up the narrative thread, consists of The Judging Eye (2009) and now The White-Luck Warrior (2011). Both series weave together a complicated narrative, but one that draws the reader in rather than pushes her away. No summary of this series can do justice to the sprawling narrative, and in fact many events that have occurred in the series have multiple and conflicting interpretations. So I will merely sketch the outlines, and let the chips fall where they may. What follows contains some minor spoilers for those who have not read the first series, though I am intentionally trying to leave the major revelations to the reader. Still, if you intend to read the first series, you might want to stop reading.

The Prince of Nothing revolves around a holy war between the Inrithi (followers of Inri Sejenus) and the Fanim (followers of the prophet Fane). Onto this war-like scene comes a poor, charismatic, quasi-ascetic figure, Anasurimbor Kellhus. We learn early on that Kellhus is one of the Dunyain, an order of human beings who aim to control the contingency of the world through intense physical and intellectual training. Kellhus attempts to use the holy war for his own purposes: he has been sent by the Dunyain to find and kill his father, Moënghus. Kellhus gains control over the holy war by slowly persuading them that he is a quasi-divine prophet. By the end of the first series, he has been declared the theocratic “Aspect-Emperor” of Eärwa.

Bakker’s other main characters are Drusas Achamian and Esmenet. Achamian is a powerful sorcerer of the Mandate school. The Mandate’s chief aim is to counter the forces of the Consult, an evil force intent on triggering a destructive disaster, a second “apocalypse,” by resurrecting the “No-God.” The No-God had been defeated in the first ancient “apocalypse” by an alliance between human beings, “Nonmen,” and sorcerers. Chief among the sorcerers was the Mandate sorcerer Seswatha, whose heroism ensured the ultimate defeat of the No-God. After Seswatha’s death, Mandate sorcerers continued to re-live Seswatha’s memories in their dreams, a prod to the order to continue to be vigilant against the re-emergence of the Consult.

Achamian joins the progress of the holy war along with his lover, Esmenet, an ex-prostitute, known for her sharp intellect, who leaves behind her profession to begin a new life. Achamian’s mission is to look for signs of the influence of the Consult. As the story unfolds, both he and Esmenet fall under the sway of Kellhus. Achamian teaches Kellhus about sorcery, and even begins to see him as the quasi-divine person he claims to be. However, Kellhus ends up seducing Esmenet (though this story-line is extremely complicated and cannot be reproduced here). Further, Achamian eventually discovers that Kellhus is not who he claims to be.

The White-Luck WarriorThe White-Luck Warrior picks up this thread. Kellhus is now leading a second holy war, the Great Ordeal, this time against the Consult, who Kellhus has discovered as a real, not imagined, threat. One of the narrative threads therefore follows the course of the Ordeal as it moves north toward the traditional home of the Consult at Golgotterath. As the massed army moves north, they engage in running battles with hordes of animalistic Sranc, genetically designed weapons of the Consult. This narrative increasingly focuses on Sorweel, a young prince whose kingdom was defeated as the Ordeal moved northward. Sorweel has been incorporated into Kellhus’ army, part soldier, part hostage. Sorweel fights valiantly for Kellhus, but it seems that he might have a metaphysical destiny beyond Kellhus’ designs, a pawn of a god who seemingly wants Kellhus to fall.

Meanwhile, Kellhus has left Esmenet, now the Empress of the Three-Seas, in charge back in his capital of Momemn. Esmenet must deal with rebellions against Kellhus’ rule on the empire’s outskirts, an insurgency led by followers of the goddess Yatwer, and also potential treachery at home. To complicate matters, Kellhus has ceased communicating with the city, and so Esmenet must maintain the empire’s power alone. This brings Esmenet into direct conflict with Kellhus’ brother, Maithanet, the titular head of the Empire’s religion, Inrithism.

The third narrative strand follows Achamian north, along with a group of Sranc scalpers known as the Skin Eaters, and Anasurimbor Mimara, the daughter of Esmenet who has left her mother in an attempt to learn sorcery at Achamian’s feet. Mimara possesses the “judging eye,” an ability to perceive the ethical and metaphysical nature of other beings. The group as a whole travels north to the library of Sauglish. Achamian wants to go there to find a map that will take him to Ishuäl, the stronghold of the Dunyain. Achamian seeks to learn more about the Dunyain in the hopes of defeating Kellhus and revealing him to be a pretender. He has enticed the Skin Eaters to join him with the promise of great riches at the Coffers of Sauglish. Achamian knows well the dubious nature of this promise, but he needs the scalpers as protection in the journey north. The group suffers real losses as Sranc repeatedly attack them. As a further complication to the narrative, Achamian and Mimara slowly fall in love.

As can be seen from even this cursory summary, Bakker’s books obsess about religion and religious belief. Bakker has written that, in his opinion, the fantasy genre has become a substitute for religious belief. When religion began to recede from the public imagination, one of its surrogates became fantasy literature. In an essay, Bakker writes, “Fantasy is far more significant than the adolescent escapism it’s typically thought to be … Let me put it to you in the most grandiose terms possible: Fantasy is scripture stripped of content, the very form of salvation. Fantasy is a return to a meaningful world” (emphasis his).

Modes of FaithScholars of religion and literature have been pointing out that religious belief has found many different forms of continuity in artistic forms. (The most recent expansion of this project is Theodore Ziolkowski’s Modes of Faith: Secular Surrogates for Lost Religious Belief, which traces the permutations of religious belief in early 20th century literature). Nevertheless, Bakker takes this insight, and then attempts to subvert the genre (so-understood) by problematizing the question of belief itself. The men of the Great Ordeal move to action because of their belief in Kellhus, but no one’s metaphysical status is more ambiguous than that of Kellhus. Even by the end of this book, Kellhus’ real aims are far from clear, as is his own self-understanding. And yet … Kellhus is surely right about the Consult’s threat, a threat that becomes more concrete the further north the Ordeal travels.

At the same time, Bakker pays tribute to the ancient epic origins of the novel. The Hungarian literary critic György Lukács wrote that “the novel is the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God” (The Theory of the Novel, p. 88). Lukács claimed that the novel was the genre that highlighted the human search for meaning in a world in which that meaning was no longer given. Don Quixote became the quintessential character of the modern novel for Lukács, projecting literary meaning freely into the future in the hopes of simultaneously, and paradoxically, discovering such meaning. The Homeric epic, on the other hand, gave us a world inhabited by gods and pervaded by a sense of fate. Human beings had to think concretely about how to live a heroic life given the agency of the gods and endlessly creative disasters cooked up by fate.

Bakker’s fantasy writing is significant in that he reinserts the epic back into the novel, in an effort to cast the beliefs and metaphysics of his characters into doubt and confusion. On one hand, we see how Kellhus can manipulate his followers into putting their lives on the line in the service of his broader Dunyain aims (whatever they might happen to be). At the same time, Bakker hints that there is a metaphysical reality to be discovered in his world. In this sense, Bakker’s series becomes a kind of metaphysical thriller. The reader is always attempting to discover whose metaphysics, whose view of ethics, whose relation with the gods (or God) is salutary. And there does seem to be an operative metaphysics here somewhere: Mimara possesses the “judging eye,” that allows her to see the metaphysical and ethical realities of a soul. When the judging eye opens, she sees the soteriological status of those around her. In The White-Luck Warrior this almost invariably means their damnation. Perhaps this will change in future books, but the novel seems to suggest that the judging eye is accurate.

And damnation is a major theme in The White-Luck Warrior. For example, those human beings who engage in sorcery in Eärwa are damned: it is the price for practicing sorcery. The sorcerer will be all-powerful in life, but eternally subject to punishment. A remarkable number of characters in these books are willing to make the trade. When Mimara looks at Achamian with the judging eye, she sees his damnation clinging to him. Now, since Bakker’s series is not complete, it is possible, indeed likely, that there will be some shattering metaphysical revelations down the line about salvation and damnation, especially in the next volume, The Unholy Consult. In fact, in some recent interviews Bakker has revealed some real whoppers. Nevertheless, Bakker’s series currently hangs on some metaphysical cliffhangers: is Mimara’s gift authentic? Is there a way for sorcerers to hold off damnation? What really lies in the metaphysical “Outside”? What is Kellhus’ metaphysical aim? Is there a religion beyond the religions of Eärwa?

If epic fantasy literature is a surrogate for religious belief, then Bakker’s book investigates the roots of the modern genre. Bakker will question the sort of quasi-religious belief fantasy provides, while enticing readers with the possibility of meaning in his own book. The desire for such meaning feeds the narrative desire of the reader; we want to read because we want to “get to the bottom” of this story, and perhaps glean some metaphysical insights of our own. Bakker gives us hints of this, and then pulls the rug out from under us at the same time, continually frustrating our attempts and generating a greater desire for knowledge.

This is all well and good, you might say, but is it a good read? It is. I find the world-building to be exemplary, and the characters to be rich. As I stated earlier, I’m attracted to the religious speculation and the explicit engagement with fantasy’s religious overtones. However, it must be admitted that the metaphysical speculation is also what threatens to plunge the book into soul-crushing exposition in a second. Bakker walks a fine line here, and he doesn’t always keep his balance. The problem is that he doesn’t just try to burrow into his character’s heads, he wants to know every last detail of how they think and reason. This means some passages of weighty, turgid prose, as well as some moments of undue portentousness. Bakker’s world is dark, but when he protests it too much, occasionally the reader wants to chuckle.

The narrative itself unfolds inexorably and steadily, but at a glacial pace. This is a curious accomplishment. One never gets the sense that Bakker is out of control of his narrative, and when major events occur one feels that they are emerging naturally out of the story, rhythm, and life-world the book creates. And for my money, no one does world-building in fantasy quite like Bakker. Eärwa is a world one wants to get lost in. It’s just that Bakker seems to be taking his merry time, and when his characters delve too deeply into their philosophies, the book … comes … to … a … grinding … halt. I suppose this is the price you pay for the strengths of the novel, but a little more attention to narrative pacing would be most welcome.

Still, for those who like a little theology and philosophy in their fantasy, The White-Luck Warrior is sure to please. The depth of the book’s world and the range of its mythology is just staggering. And one gets the sense that the series is on the verge of some earth-shattering revelations. It might not be for everyone, but I for one will be eagerly awaiting The Unholy Consult. I recommend Bakker’s books very, very highly.