Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Tale of the Tor (a book review by an orthodox rebel)

Book: Glastonbury Tor, by LeAnne Hardy. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2006. 233 pgs. (including maps, prologue, and afterword)

Introduction: Forgiveness is the lifeblood of the love of God. The love of God sent His Son to forgive us of all our sins, and that same Son taught us to forgive our enemies and love one another. In short, to forgive is to live the Christ-like, God-centered life. So says LeAnne Hardy by way of her ambitious little narrative set in Glastonbury (known formerly as the Isle of Avalon) during the heyday of King Henry VIII's reign. We follow the main protagonist, Colin Hay, as he sets out to Glastonbury Abbey to escape his past and seek redemption. While there, he finds hope in unexpected places whilst wading through the overall upheaval that marked the time when the "faith-dominated High Middle Ages" clashed with and eventually gave way to "the relatively secularized Elizabethan world" (237).

Summary (w/o spoilers): Colin Hay is the youngest son of Sir Stephen, a drunken and lecherous nobleman who dominates his wife and abuses his household. Colin's mother dies while giving birth to his sister, who is born stillborn. Blaming his father for both his mother and sister's deaths, Colin attempts to kill him. He manages to badly wound him, but not before receiving a wound himself. Fearing that he was successful in his attempted murder, Colin seeks sanctuary in his home church, where the local priest, Father David, instructs him to seek shelter with Sir Stephen's cousin, a monk at Glastonbury Abbey. Tormented by feelings of hate for his father and guilt over trying to kill him, Colin leaves home hoping to do due penance at Glastonbury.

While at Glastonbury Abbey, Colin meets an array of characters: the simple yet kind-hearted stonemason turned monk, Brother Roger; the round-bellied cousin of Sir Stephen, Brother Arthur; the eccentric, yet caring abbey doctor, Brother Urban; the kindly Abbot Whiting; and the draconian, darkly suspicious Father Bede. As he lives and works amongst them and others, he comes across unsettling currents and convictions: the whisperings of Henry VIII's destructive policies against the church; the beginning fires of Protestant unrest (such as in the friendly Thatcher family); and a rumor that the Holy Grail may in fact be at Glastonbury Abbey (the historic resting place of King Arthur as well as where Joseph of Arimathea supposedly brought the Grail).

All of these things coalesce around Colin as dark forces from both without and within attempt to take control of the abbey. As Colin tries to save his friends and (even more difficultly) to do the right thing, he struggles inwardly with his own anger and guilt that seek to consume him. The wound given to him by his father (both literal and metaphorical) threatens to undo him at every turn, and unless he learns the power of forgiveness, he may lose more in the end than the abbey. He may lose his very soul.

Review (w/ minor spoilers): I called this book "ambitious" earlier because it is dealing with an issue that is near and dear to my heart and mind. There are (in general) two kinds of lives: the self-centered life and the God-centered life. By "self-centered life," I do not mean something initially or immediately evil. Such a life may be highly moral and even philanthropic; but it is still a life based upon the self: self-realization, self-actualization, self-satisfaction, self-justification, self-aggrandizement, etc. In that sense, it will inevitably lead to the corruption of one's soul. In contrast, the God-centered life sees the self and all other things and persons as peripheral to the God who made them all; identity and being are only found and realized in Him, and without Him we and all else are nothing.

This is the concept that the book deals with (or at the very least flirts with) throughout its narrative. You could very easily divide all "good" and "bad" characters into those who seek (and struggle to seek) strength and salvation from God alone (such as the Thatchers and various monks in the abbey) and those who seek strength and salvation by their own hands or the hands of another (such as Father Bede).

Colin himself is pulled between these two poles: whenever he comes into contact with individuals such as the Thatcher family, he feels the warmth and pull that comes from the God-centered/forgiving life, which thinks nothing of itself; whenever he comes into contact with individuals such as Father Bede, he feels the burning rage and wounded pride of the self-centered/vengeful life, which thinks only of itself. While the plot of the narrative deals with the outer political threats from Henry VIII and the inward spiritual threats from the abbey itself, the constant undercurrent is Colin being halted between two positions: will he forgive (and be forgiven) or will he hate and hurt himself and others?

Some affective imagery comes to bear throughout the book as well. The two most obvious in the narrative are the wound that Colin received from his father and the ever-looming presence of Gwyn ap Nudd, the Celtic god of the underworld. The wound he received is both literal and symbolic in more ways than one. More than just a injury given to him by his father, it is also killing him due to infection, which is spreading because he refuses to tell anyone about it for shame of how he got it. Out of fear and guilt, he allows it to fester, and he nearly dies from it. The deeper meaning of this is obvious (a bit too obvious, in fact, a point that shall be discussed below).

Gwyn ap Nudd is the Celtic god who escorted dead souls to hell. His home was thought to be Glastonbury Tor (a hill outside of Glastonbury Abbey; "tor" is Celtic for "hill"), and he was known for his stag-head helm, black horse, and legion of demon hunting dogs. His image appears (in dreams and in daylight) as both a symbol of his father and a literal spiritual threat. As a symbol of his father, he stirs the hatred and guilt of Colin to a boiling point. As a literal spiritual threat, he incurs Colin's fear and dread. In either case, he serves as Colin's primary supernatural antagonist.

The book is not without its flaws, mostly due to its good points not living up to their full potential. For instance, the "self-centered vs. God-centered" theme bubbles below the surface of the narrative but never really finds its voice. In its place, you get many moments of various characters simply asserting cliche calls for the need to forgive, all of which come off as more preachy than profound. In addition, the book seems to suffer from its small size, as many elements and characters feel underdeveloped. I found myself wishing that the book was at least twice as long so we could get to know the monks of the abbey and the Thatcher family better, a grand collection of characters who could have been expanded upon easily and delightfully. Also, Colin's romantic yearnings for a girl named Alice (the youngest daughter of the Thatchers) suffers from this sense of underdevelopment: Colin's non-narrated marriage proposal (or request) at the end feels equal parts arbitrary and irrelevant.

The symbolism is probably the most unfortunate casualty, however. Subtlety is a difficult art, but it is a necessary one. If your ideas and themes are not tightly woven into the narrative (its characters, events, places, and things), then they will burst forth to steal all the thunder that had been building.

Hardy's prose suffers from this many times throughout the book, an unfortunate (though not inevitable) side-effect of the story being told in first-person. Colin (who is the narrator) cannot stop giving things away. He explains away moments and events, carefully and quickly expositing their hidden meaning until they are stripped of all power and punch. For example, upon another heated confrontation with Father Bede, Colin muses, "Why did [he] always bring out the worst in me? Like my father" (124). The phrase "like my father" is completely unnecessary and robs the previous sentence of its literary power. The reader needs to make the connection between Bede and Colin's father by themselves by way of imagery, characterization, and dialogue. Giving away the hidden meaning of things takes all the fun out of reading. I gave only one example; the book is littered with dozens more, especially during the underdeveloped "romantic" moments between Colin and Alice.

This does not mean that the book is badly written. On the contrary, it has its moments, and plenty of them. I offer two. Not long after reaching the abbey, Colin meets a young, devout monk named Brother Fergus who plans to go petition the King on a journey called the "Pilgrimage of Grace". They have a discussion in a stable where Fergus shares his fears with Colin:
He looked outside the stable door to where the rain fell like a curtain that cut us off from that other world and its strife. "Father Cuthbert is prepared to lay down his life for the cause if necessary."
He broke a piece of straw into smaller and smaller pieces and dropped them onto the floor of the stable. "The thought frightens me."
I saw his lips form the words more than I heard his whisper above the rain. He shivered and shrank into himself like a half-drowned child. "My lord abbot and Prior Dunstan were tortured to get them to reveal the hiding places of our riches. It was for naught. We had already given all we had." His face was white as the bread of the Mass, his eyes dark as two bruises.
The wording and use of imagery here is solid and powerful. Fergus' fear is encapsulated in actions rather than explanations (e.g., his tearing apart the piece of straw), and the allusion to the "bread of the Mass" alludes to Fergus' sacrificial fate (the historical "Pilgrimage of Grace" did not end well) as well as his pain-filled life (e.g., "his eyes dark as two bruises"). This is all good stuff.

Another good moment of writing occurs later on, when Colin is told by a family friend that his older brother Walter has died and that he has been asked to return home. Colin gives his answer:
"I never asked to be heir. I never begrudged Walter his place. I wanted my own---to be seen for who I am."
Llwyd never moved, but something in his eyes reminded me of Mother's pain. I steeled my heart against it.
"I'm not going home," I said. "I am needed here. I, Colin Hay, have skills the monks value, skills my father laughed at. I will not be reforged in my father's image. I cannot become what he wants me to be."
I stood and looked at my childhood friend.
"Stephen Hay has no heir," I said with steady voice.
Here we see an effective use of dialogue that conveys all the meaning that we need while allowing us to connect any further dots on our own. Colin is slipping further into the self-centered life, longing so much for his own self-realization (e.g., wanting his own "place") that he can "steel" his heart against memories of his mother (whom he loved dearly). It is interesting that Colin used the word "steeled" rather than "hardened" in regard to his heart. The former sounds more positive, more manly and strong. The latter sounds more sinful and rebellious. Colin (and ultimately Hardy) chose his words carefully.

Recommendation: It is a hard thing to criticize a book because writing one (even a bad one) is a noble, hard-won endeavor, and those of us charged with critiquing it should tread softly. Having said that, Glastonbury Tor has its flaws, but it is still a fine little book all the same. It is short (read easily in a matter of days), and thus will not interest the heavy reader, but for those of you looking for a quick snack of historical drama, supernatural thriller, and theological memoir all rolled into one, Glastonbury Tor will satisfy your palate.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011


  1. Thank you, Jon. You are right that writing a book is a hard-won endeavor. I am constantly growing as a writer and will keep in mind your advice to strive for more subtlety with my current project. I hope your readers do give this a try and enjoy it.

  2. Mrs. Hardy,

    I am honestly flattered that you commented here. Thank you for that!

    I'm writing a book myself, so I have a large soft-spot for authors.

  3. Great! I started writing late in life. I think I subconsciously assumed that since I couldn't write like my favorite author, C.S. Lewis, that I couldn't write at all. Not true. I find it difficult to settle for being a good writer, not a great one.

  4. "I find it difficult to settle for being a good writer, not a great one."

    Amen, sister. 8^)