Friday, March 29, 2013

A Satanic Mind Bender

...was the opinion of one reviewer of Centurion's Daughter. The review tickled me pink. Here it is in toto with a reply from a reader that I also found interesting.

Excellently Written, Defeatist Propaganda


In the later years of the Eastern Roman Empire written works and poems infiltrated the culture of the people that corrupted the minds of Roman women to believe their men were weak and the Turks naturally strong and desirable. This book does the same cleverly using parallels from the last grasp of Western Rome and destruction of American Culture in the present age. 

The book portends to tell a tale of a God fearing loyal daughter who stands by her father through thick and thin. In fact all of the reviews tell the same but couldn't be farther from the truth. All along the way not only is her father's cause ridiculed mercilessly and he a patriot for Rome savaged idoicly but she every step of the way betrays her father, her town, and her country with her confused Christian faith grounds for the cause. The inevitability of barbarian rule in the weak accepting mind of a woman has her undermine her father's cause, labeling its patriots naive, and make the reader think it was God's Will the godless prevail. In a period of reflection the reader is brought through her thoughts that ridicule a former weak crush on a Roman mommas boy she betrays and finds the "natural love" that all women should have in the strong powerful men you should betray your home for. 

This is a well written book, one of the best written I've read recently but propaganda works best when accepted as a great work and one it is. I wouldn't be surprised if Leftists in education make it standard reading. Don't let your young women read this Satanic mind bender. They need no help in our day to believe their people and culture doomed and God working with our enemies. If you want to take away a lesson from this book learn no woman should ever have anything to do with raising a man past the age of seven. In the history of the world there was only one woman pure and just and she gave birth to God. There will never be another one. How do you raise men when the women are corrupted? They should have nothing to do with it to begin with, nor should this book be read unless you have a basic grasp of how propaganda works and want to expand your knowledge of it.

And here is the reply: 

Florentius says: 
This is a compelling though strange review. While I don't begrudge the reviewer his opinion on the matter, I suspect he has misinterpreted some of what the author is attempting to do in this book. For starters, the comparison between Western Rome and American culture might be apt if the author was American. However, the author's bio clearly says he's from South Africa and so is quite obviously not commenting on American culture--perhaps South African culture, but that is a different kettle of fish entirely.

Calling the book a "Satanic mind bender" is also truly bizarre. If one knows anything about the history of the fall of the Western Empire, it is not all doom-and-gloom--even for the large numbers of Romans who survived it. The Franco-roman culture which emerged in the aftermath of the fall ended up being beneficial for both sides, combining the culture and religion of the otherwise enervated Western Empire with the vitality and strength of the Franks. The France that was created from this amalgam became the Eldest Daughter of the Church and a source of Western Christian cultural, artistic, philosophical, religious and political dynamism for over 1,000 years afterward.

As for the characters and how the author developed them, I came away from reading this book with a totally different view than the reviewer. I felt that the Centurion (the father) was portrayed very sympathetically. The reader (at least this reader) consistently felt an affinity for him as he steadfastly pursued his doomed cause. As the archetypal grumbly old man, I thought he was described perfectly. He rises to the occasion at the crisis of the book and demonstrates his valor even as all those around him turn coward. His tragic flaw, however, emerges in his signal inability to accept the inevitable and his expectation that others--including his daughter--will join him in his maniacal quest to revive a defunct political arrangement that few others believed in anymore. At that point, he is no more patriotic than the KKK in the aftermath of the Civil War.

Neither did I feel that Aemilia was in any way weak-willed. Like her father, she is shown to be intelligent and valorous, but her worldview is colored by the optimism of youth--the desire to make the best of whatever situation she finds herself in. I thought the author did a wonderful job portraying this and the contrast between young Aemilia and her old centurion father is more a universal statement about generational differences in outlook than a criticism of Western civilization. I think the reviewer is reading much too much into that.

If the key theme of Centurion's Daughter could be summed up in one sentence, it would be this: God brings forth good out of evil. The tale told by Justin Swanton in this book is one of hope springing from tragedy, of the wisdom of God's Providence versus the best laid plans of men, and the unexpected joy that may be found in the midst of suffering. Sure, there are plenty of works of fiction out there that are propaganda for a left-wing, atheist worldview. But to call Centurion's Daughter one of them is to have a fundamental misunderstanding of both the book and of history.

Apologies that this comment has now gotten much longer than I had intended, but I found this review fascinating to the extent that two people can read a book and come away with diametrically opposed conclusions about the message and the author's intentions.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The little picture

Central to the novel is the character of Tarunculus, whose tragedy is that he has the potential to become a good man, but does not because he cannot let go of the big picture.

By 'big picture' I mean his obsession with the Roman Empire, its survival and glory. To that obsession he sacrifices everything and ultimately loses everything. He has an illness common in contemporary society, the notion that a life that is not humanly significant is meaningless.

What do I mean by 'significant'? I mean doing something that has a major impact on society, something which raises one above the obscurity of one's common and unremarkable fellow-men. The desire to do something significant can go with a sincere aim of improving things or with a simple desire for prestige. Either way, if it does not meet with success, it leaves the conviction that life is pointless. This is the motivator behind ambition, the notion that a life that is not significant is futile. Someone with this disease cannot grasp the fact that an obscure life is not necessarily a failed one. Simple maths tells you that. Someone who stands out from the others must have others to stand out from. If everybody stood out then nobody would stand out. Following the logic, human society by its nature must have a majority who do not stand out, and hence who - from the optic of a Tarunculus - are obliged to be failures.

Eyewash. The simple fact is that most people, by temperament, upbringing and circumstance, are not meant to be stars on the stage. If life has any meaning at all, it has meaning in obscurity. It is something emphasised more by Catholicism than perhaps any other religion. One common denominator of the saints is their preference for a humble life. The last thing they wanted was to be big shots. One reads of them going off into the desert, often permanently, to get away entirely from society. The ones who became socially significant were those who were not interested in significance but committed to doing a necessary job of reform. St Ignatius once said that if the Pope disbanded his order (the Jesuits), fifteen minutes of prayer would be enough to restore his tranquillity. He meant it too.

What is good about obscurity? Just this, that one does not sink one's heart and soul too much into human affairs. Not 'humans', just 'human affairs'. No matter how obscure a person's life is, he still has a real effect on his immediate entourage: family, friends, colleagues. They are what matter. But not being obsessed about human affairs frees the mind to look further. Aemilia gets caught up her father's dream of the restoration of Roman greatness, but eventually comes to herself and returns to her true centre of gravity, her faith in God. It's only after that that she finds her true calling, which is significant after all but not what she either looked for or expected.

Friday, March 8, 2013


Centurion's Daughter marks the very beginnings of western Christendom, a civilisation that would reach fruition in the Middle Ages before changing into modern European culture that eventually became the world culture.

But what exactly is meant by 'Christendom'? It's a question worth answering since our conception of Christendom and Mediaeval civilisation is almost inevitably a caricature. The world we live in now is so fundamentally different from the world as it was then that it is very, very difficult to grasp the thinking of people of that time. One automatically conjures up a picture of religious intolerance, bigoted narrow-mindedness and backwardness, all mixed with a propensity for violence and a low respect for life. It's the backdrop of nearly all the big Mediaeval movies (oh, yes, and they hadn't discovered soap either).

The truth is different. I can pick out a few things from the society of Christendom that set it apart from the world we live in now, but which do not add up to a straw man.

1. Social institutions respected and actively upheld the people's deepest convictions.

The secular state did not exist. It was inconceivable that the government and legal system should not support the beliefs and moral values of the majority of the population. This applied everywhere, not just in Christian Europe. Contrary to popular conception, religious minorities were rarely persecuted for their religion. They were left with their own beliefs provided they did nothing to disturb the social order built on the religion of the majority. That included proselytising, which inevitably led to religious civil war. The Inquisition was actually set up not to torture Protestants or Jews, but to prevent the social fabric from being ripped apart, something which happened when a heterodox movement took root in a region. Once it had gained converts it inevitably raised an army. The idea of accepting a government that did not actively endorse the beliefs and moral values of its citizens was simply unthinkable. That came later.

2. There was no such thing as social climbing.

One of the lynchpins of modern society is the belief in material success. The idea that with hard work, positive thinking and the right skills one can rise up the ladder of a society in which social prestige is built exclusively on wealth. That didn't exist then. True, social prestige did to a large extent depend on wealth, but wealth could only be born into; it could not be made by fair means or foul. Which meant that the acquisition of money was not a primary objective of life. Other things had more importance. Looking after one's family or fulfilling ordinary obligations were honourable in themselves. For the wealthy class the notion of chivalry took hold, using one's wealth and power to protect the less fortunate, not prey on them. In a word, there was a sense of place, staying where one belonged and doing one's job in one's slot in the world. Sure, there was always room for greed and ambition since mediaeval society, like modern society, was composed of humans, but the fundamental outlook was different.

3. Material improvement was not a priority

Christendom was a highly conservative society, which meant that technologically very little changed for centuries after the fall of Rome. The Mediaevals did things the way their fathers had done them and did not try to find ingenious ways of doing them better. I put it down largely to something which the Mediaevals understood and we have somehow forgotten - the fact that there is no cure for death. We live, if we are lucky, seventy or eighty years, then we die. Everything we have built up in this life we will lose at death. We will be torn away from our possessions, occupations, social prestige, projects, friends, family, everything. All these things in themselves do not matter. They only matter inasmuch as they have a bearing on a future existence that will not end. It is only when the idea arose that this life is all we have and we must make the best of it, that the impetus was given to material improvement. Today the drive for material improvement is all-encompassing and it is killing us. The Mediaevals had no notion of it.

Was Christendom a better system than the one we have now? One thing it did do at least was to prevent the nightmarish excesses of a secular system in which power is ultimately under no moral constraint.  The Holocaust, the Gulag, the Cultural Revolution, the World War are children of the secular world, not of the Mediaeval. Compare about 4,000 executions by the Spanish Inquisition in its 350 years existence with 6,000,000 Jews over four years and 10,000,000 Kulaks over two. These horrors could not have arisen in the Middle Ages.

The question ultimately is a moot one. The ideas of religion as having a public as well as a private aspect, life as a sense of place, and contentment with a modest material lifestyle, are long gone. We are seculars to a greater or lesser degree and have no choice but to make the best we can of a secular world.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Illustrating Centurion's Daughter

Let me start with a question: do the illustrations in Centurion's Daughter enhance the book or detract from it?

I ask the question because I have acquired the notion that a literary convention rules out illustrations for a 'serious' book. This convention is fairly recent and perhaps not across-the-board. There was a time, not so long ago, when novels intended for adults were illustrated (remember those old Readers' Digest compressed novels?), but that seems to have fallen away in recent decades.

To illustrate the novel I decided to use the pen-and-ink medium for a couple of reasons. It is a technique I was fairly confident with, as opposed to painting which I'm no good at. It would also reproduce well on a black-and-white printed page, and it would hold its quality regardless of the printing quality (greys might have been inaccurately reproduced).

Here are a few examples of how I did an illustration. The first is the newly-crowned emperor Ennodius, on p156 of the printed edition - like several other illustrations it's not in the kindle version, so you do get slightly better value for money if you buy the paperback. I decided to base my style on Robin Jacques, a master of the technique back in the 50's and 60's. He illustrated Steel Magic, a fantasy children's book I won as a prize for a writing competition when I was ten. Here are some examples of his work from that book.

Before starting I needed some raw material. First Ennodius's upper torso with the clothing and armour. for that I used this image (from Wikimedia Commons)

Then the face.  This bust of the emperor Elagabalus from the University of Texas' Introduction to Ancient Rome came as near as I wanted.

Using these two I first did a pencil sketch then followed with the ink, first doing the main lines - outline of the head, edges of the cloth - then following with the details - the folds in the cloth, the details of the face the hair, uniform details. Finally the finished result:

Merovec was a bit more difficult. I found this image for his helmet, which I modified.

The face was largely made up. for the hair I needed an example of braiding and found this. OK, not exactly a barbarian warrior but it did the trick.

And the finished result:

For the picture of Aemilia and her father Tarunculus in their apartment I found a couple of willing volunteers to pose. Here is 'Tarunculus'. He is Brother Crispin from the nearby Mariannhill Monastery. I persuaded him to let me take a few snaps of him whilst there for a Christmas retreat.

Then 'Aemilia'. She was a fellow-retreatant.

I found references for the plates, lamps, lampstand, chest and the table. The end result: