Thursday, January 13, 2011

Suma Elvetica: a Casuistry of the Elvish Controversy – By Theodore Beale

Marcus Velerious of the renowned house of Velerious in Amorr, does not follow in the footsteps of his Father and Uncle, and their father’s before them.  Instead of a life in the army, he has chosen a more scholarly life, immersing himself in the literature and politics of the church – but this in a world where Elves, dwarves, Orcs, and Goblins do exist.   When Marcus, as a young man whose word, knowledge, and desire to further serve God has started to become noticed among certain political figures, is informed by the Sanctiff of the Church himself that he will be accompanying two well renowned priests to the elvish realms, he considers it a great honor.  But learning that this expedition is to decide whether or not the heathen elves possess souls arouses questions in Marcus that he seeks to answer through observation and reason while on his journey.  For one thing, elves do not believe in the One and Most High God, Immanuel – and as a result, often blatantly mock Him and those who serve Him.  But were not all intelligent, intellectual peoples of the earth created by God, and were not elves similarly imbued with wisdom and reason as was man… even if they do not follow God themselves?  However, elves are an alien species to man, and they are practiced in foul sorceries, which is against the very essence and commands of God – and since they are not man, nor angels, would they not then fall under the category of beasts, thus making them soulless?  But do not all men, and other free races as well, sin?  Are we not all fallen short of the glory of God?  But we can all be redeemed through Christ’s blood, and that is a gift reserved for those with souls…

And then there is always the fact that if the Elves are declared soulless, the Church will declare Holy War in an attempt to wipe out the heathen aliens.  That, of course, has to be taken into account.

Upon reaching the elven city, Marcus’ group is taken before the High Elven King, Mael, who seems already aware of why the group was sent.  They are shown around, and Marcus sees, to a small extent, the heathen and evil magics that the elven people practice.  But when Marcus learns from a young Elf Maid that there’s a plot set in motion to claim his life and that of the two priests he travels with – and that this plot is not from among the elves as would be expected, but from people in his own company who wish to see the elves killed for whatever reasons and plan to blame his and the priests death on the elves to start a war– he must trust the elf maid despite their differing religious and political outlooks – however alien she may be – in order to save his life and that of his companions… and to keep the two peoples – men and elves – from starting a war that will kill many on both sides.

My Thoughts:

I’m just going to take a moment to remind everyone that my views on this book – or any other books that I review, for that matter – are only MY views, and don’t necessarily reflect the opinions and/or views of other writers and/or readers.  I’m only writing down what I thought of the book as a whole, and whatever I say (good or bad – however it falls) is not meant to offend anyone in any way, shape, or form.  If it does somehow offend you, I apologize (although I seriously hope it won’t come down to that.  :D)  I also want to warn people now that the rest of the review does contain spoilers.

To be honest, Suma Elvetica was shorter than I expected it to be – at least the story in itself – which is a complete surprise if one is looking to read a long, thick, epic fantasy book debating the morals of elves.  After the main story there are some other, smaller documents, one of which is the actual Suma Elvetica that Marcus supposedly wrote when he returned to Amorr.  (The story titled “Suma Elvetica” is actually the story of how Marcus came up with the idea and the content of the Suma which he wrote later.)  There are also a few other stories after the Suma explaining certain points in the history of Amorr that are briefly discussed in the main text, along with a lengthy note from the author that I found useful in explaining some of the questions I had while reading the book.

When I opened this book, I expected a much more intricate philosophically based story about the common, though often overlooked, fact that elves and other fantasy creatures are not man and therefore most probably could not fall under the grace God bestowed on man.  Well, it was not quite as intricate as I expected, nor as deep, but there were a few interesting conversations between debating priests that caused a person to think it over… for instance, I, as a fantasy writer, always considered that elves (whether they existed or not) did posses souls as they were similar to man in too many ways for them not to have souls.  However similar doesn’t mean they are the same.  And I’d never really considered what the difference between those two words could mean when applied in this context.  It was definitely an interesting thing to think over.  However, while it is a good question, I wouldn’t say that this question could apply to all Christian Speculative Fantasy and Science Fiction… which was the point I thought the Author just might have been trying to prove, while I know it was definitely the point he was exploring.  

For one thing, when writing Christian fantasy, one must know that while to a degree one is bound to certain rules that one must not overstep, one is not always bound by the same rules or histories of this particular world.  If you are to understand what I mean by that, take a look at the works of Tolkien, or C.S. Lewis.  In the Chronicles of Narnia, while Aslan and the Great Emperor over the Sea where figures that represented Christ – and while certain instances in the stories were almost eerily familiar to historical events of this world – it wasn’t exactly the same.  This is mostly because no writer can ever embody all of what God truly is into a written character… it just cannot be done.  Lewis was able to capture the basic essence of Christ in his portrayal of Aslan, but Aslan, while it was hinted to the fact that he represented Christ, was not the actual Christ.  That is the reason that Christian Fantasy writers use what they call “A God Figure”, that will represent their outlook and religious viewpoint of Christ, but which could never actually be a Christ figure to the full extent of which Jesus was, nor could be as complex, wonderful, or Holy as the One True God.  Even when a fantasy writer decides to make their “God figure” be the actual God as Christians look at Him today, we can still only show our own knowledge and understanding of Him in what we write… we cannot actually portray, convey, or ever comprehend all of what He actually is.  Therefore, as writers we often only portray one aspect or truth of God per story… and often by having a figure that represents our viewpoint of God.

Then we have Tolkien who built an entirely new world based on a few Norse Myths and his own imagination.   There were similarities in his peoples, religions, and histories that hinted that they came from a greater knowledge of our world and legends, yet most of the world, histories, rules, and so-forth were completely imagined by the author, and the characters never stepped foot out of those bounds.  This would be because the aim, and perhaps the privilege, of Christian fantasy writers is to show and sometimes discuss through their creative outlets certain aspects or themes discussed in our world and our religious views.  However this doesn’t mean that we have to write everything exactly the same way it is debated in this world; characters may look at something differently in a different world, and they may have different views where the rules of our world to not apply, and where the rules of another world do.  This is always what makes fantasy so fun to write and to read… and I mean, all kinds of fantasy, not just speculative fiction.

What was uniquely interesting about “Suma Elvetica” was the fact that it basically did the exact opposite of everything I just talked about above; it was set in a world that shared – almost exactly – the religious beliefs, histories, legends, and even the Latin language that would have been common to our world’s medieval catholic outlook, while also possessing histories and aspects uniquely made for that world alone.  And, in this story, there is no “God figure”… there is only God as he was known to the Catholics of our Medieval world.  AND (to top it all off) – this WAS NOT an Historical fiction.  The difficult part was not so much separating the two worlds by means of race and layout as it was separating our medieval world’s philosophical views from that world’s views.  Which was part of what made it so interesting to read and contemplate. 


It was easier to read than I anticipated, which is certainly a good thing if you are one who doesn’t like to stumble over lengthy and often meaningless passages of flowery philosophical debate.  :D  And the story in itself was an intriguing one.  As a person whose fascination with elves was born with my first reading of THE LORD OF THE RINGS which only continued from there, I was particularly curious to see how these elves were rendered… and I was slightly disappointed.  I mean, I know in epic fantasy elves are often portrayed as sorcerers and whatnot, but I like to think of them as mysterious… not so much “evil sorcerers”.  However… for this particular story, because of the debate that was being posed, the elves were portrayed in an understandable and believable way… and there was something else that redeemed them in my eyes, but I won’t say what here.  You’ll just have to go read the story now to find out what it is.  :D

Also, once I got into the story, I did not want to stop reading.  There was enough action to keep me interested, and enough information given that I could guess at reasons for certain events… a thing I like to do with any book I read.  If the author can keep my mind actively engaged while I’m reading the book, I’ll probably enjoy reading it.

However, hindsight is always a kicker.


Most of these Cons were realized only after I had finished reading the manuscript: like I said, hindsight kicks.
This book was easier to read than I anticipated.  :D  No, really!  I was ready to read something very deep, intricate, and long and this, except for a few priestly debates, did not feel very… well… deep.  At all.  At least to me.  Plus it wasn’t very long at all – only about 250 pages (rough estimate) though it says it’s over 300.  About 100 pages are filled with other documents explaining historical events and religious views, which can be helpful in understanding the text, but which make the main story’s length a slight disappointment.  

It was also hard to get into… the first half of the book is basically just riding across open, barren plains on their way to the elf kingdom while listening to religious philosophical debates about why or why not the elves have souls.  I ended up skimming through several parts that just lost my interest or didn’t seem relevant to me.   Later I was told that the author was trying to use a style similar to that used in The Canterbury Tales.  Knowing this has actually improved my view of this particular part of the book.

The second part of the book was when I started getting really interested.  Earlier during the story, I was eager to learn anything I could about these Elves that were thought not to have souls.  The second part of the book is when we actually get to meet said elves, and it's also where the action picks up.  However, once the action picked up, it seemed that most philosophical debate on the matter of the soulless elves disappeared.  And Marcus never really discusses the subject of the elves’ souls with the priests except for during one brief moment.  There are hints throughout the chapters that he just might believe they do have souls like humans do, but I felt like he kept going back and forth on the matter and was never really sure exactly what his outlook on the matter was, or which outlook he was turning towards… which was part of the reason I wasn’t wholly satisfied with the book.  In the very last chapter Marcus does tell the Sanctiff that he does believe the elves have souls and he goes on to try and explain why.

Ok, I’ll give him the fact that he’s unsure of his standpoint on the issue at the beginning of the novel, but you would think by the end of the novel the reader would know, more or less, where the MC stands… before the MC says it all himself.  

There was also a moment where the sorcery of the elves (before only described as evil and what-not) was shown in a most disturbing manner.  However, that said, in most Christian Fantasy books there is a point in the story where the evil is shown in its most despicable form before any part of the book can get any better… (I can certainly name certain areas in different manuscripts of mine where there is a chapter or two that shows the character of my villain in his prime and full extant.)  That is a normal aspect of fantasy, so I wasn’t too perturbed by the scene, as it was shown the way it was meant to be shown. 

I give this book 3 stars out of 5.

As a story in itself, it’s a pretty good read, and it’s definitely captivating once you start getting into it.  And it poses some very intriguing questions that a fantasy writer would not be wrong to question themselves or their stories over, and for that alone – along with the internal debate it can easily inflict in a writer, thus revealing interesting character traits and story plot twists – it should definitely be read.  (I say this, because that seems to be the effect it had on me.)  However, the external plot seemed lacking in several parts when compared with the internal plot, thus making the book feel not entirely satisfying.  Yet even with the cons taken into account, this was a book worth reading. 

I hope this review makes sense and doesn’t feel like mindless babbling by the time you get to the end of it.  

Happy reading everyone!!!



Galadriel said...

Very interesting. The title caught my attention

Star-Dreamer said...

It was a good book on the whole. I did enjoy it, once I got into it, and the author poses an interesting question: in fantasy worlds, do fantasy creatures (intelligent or not)have souls? After all, God created man with souls, but did he create anything else with a soul?

Very interesting. Like I said, I would recommend this book... but, like many books, it's not perfect. But it's beautiful in its flaws. :D

Jake said...

Heh. :) I liked it, but I, like ye, was expecting a deeper book. The stories at the end were almost better than the actual book, ironically.

Star-Dreamer said...

lol. I actually haven't finished reading the stories at the end of the book yet. :) I guess I should do that. Well, I'm working on them slowly... :D