Monday, May 10, 2010
Unlike my other commentaries, where I had very little to no interaction with the authors prior to reading/commenting on their series, much of what I have to say will be informed by some of the discussions and email debates that Bakker and I had over a few years' span. This is not to say that I will be claiming what I say is in any shape or form "definitive", but rather these are takes derived from about 4-5 re-reads and some of the interviews and Q&As I arranged with Bakker (as seen in the links to the right under Interviews). But enough with the justifications, now on to analyzing certain aspects of this novel (and some will be held back for the other volumes) that occurred to me while re-reading this book yesterday.
Examine the book's title: The Darkness That Comes Before. What can this possibly mean? Is it a reference to an external EVIL force, or to something much more insidious and amorphous? Or is it a combination of both, perhaps with the result (if not "intent") to draw readers into the story and then to rip away some of their assumptions about what the book may "be about"?
Each time that I re-read this series, I find myself thinking more about this book's title and especially the key thematic point of "what comes before determines what comes after." And once that occurs, I "know" that I am no longer in a "safe" setting, where I can be a passive reader content to read the adventures of Kellhus, Achamian, Esmenet, Proyas, Conphas, and others. No, I am now actively engaged with the text, wondering what content buried within the narrative could apply to me. While this engagement certainly is nothing unique to this series, I believe (a very dangerous word in this milieu) that Bakker, more so than any other current epic fantasy writer, depends upon the reader being willing to take an "active" role in "participating" with the narrative, questioning assumptions and challenging assertions, for the unfolding story to have a strong impact.
The basic structure of the novel is deceptively simple. Kellhus, a descendant of a lost-lost royal dynasty, is the product of nearly two thousand years of breeding and training by a secluded monastic sect called the Dûnyain. Imagine some of the opening scenes from Kung-Fu or Enter the Dragon and some of the aspects of Kellhus' training can be understood more quickly. He receives word of a dream message sent by his father, Moënghus, calling him out to the southern city of Shimeh. The Ruling Council, the Pragma, sends him forth and then, contaminated, as they see it, by the Outside, commit mass seppuku.
Kellhus has grown up in a "conditioned" environment, where virtually all aspects of life, from emotions to muscular twitches to judging how a leaf will fall, have been controlled and analyzed to the point where the Dûnyain have heightened responses and the ability to master their environments. It is a wonder to Kellhus when he encounters the unconditioned world and he quickly grasps how easy it is to master it, and its people.
Against this is a setting of oncoming holy war. Some have criticized Bakker for following the major aspects of the First Crusade closely, but I suspect this is a deliberate similarity done in order to make several points about that world and our own. In the novel, several characters think or say that "war is intellect." But beneath it, there is something stronger. There is the sense that war is certainty made concrete. This is especially true for religious faith, which depends upon certainty for its bedrock. And what happens when an individual schooled in the ways of mastering environments encounters those who are "certain" of their causes?
In re-reading this novel, I was struck by just how different in tone and feel Kellhus's scenes were with those of the leaders of the Holy War. He is, for good or for evil, or rather, beyond good and evil, a Nietzschian übermensch in a world populated by unquestioning, non-skeptical humans. The manipulations that Kellhus begins to manifest in this novel seem at first to be a bit much, but is it really different from the Bene Gesserit "Voice" used in the Dune Chronicles?
Several readers have found Kellhus's character to be repulsive and question why anyone would want to read a series full of "unlikeable" characters. I have always wondered if in part the unspoken question is "Why would anyone want to read a story that makes me - and perhaps you - uncomfortable?" There is much, of course, that is unsettling about this novel and its setting. Take for instance, the way women are portrayed in this series. They are seen as objectively "inferior" to men, with lesser souls, and it is evident within the text. This runs so counter to modern perceptions of gender roles as to make several legitimately question as to why Bakker would create such a misogynistic society.
The answer I would posit is more unsettling than the possibility that Bakker himself sees women as being inferior (I don't believe so for a moment). In a world (imagine the late movie trailer guy reading this aloud) where Faith is True and Evident, where Scriptures come to life, this happens. But consider our own religious faiths and how women, slaves, people of "other" descent are portrayed. Is what is shown to be "true" in an imagined setting more unsettling because it is grounded upon certain core beliefs of this world's major religious faiths? I believe that it is. What "darkness" comes before our belief of what will come after?
The prose is at worst serviceable and at times is well-written. As hinted above, sometimes the dialogues feel a bit stilted due to the shifts back and forth from Kellhus's more "modern" perspective and those of the other characters. The characterizations I found to be well-drawn, although Kellhus certainly can be hard to swallow at times due to how "alien" he is compared to the others. Although there is little more than scene-setting and character introductions in this nearly-600 page novel, Bakker does a good job in establishing just how dangerous of a character Kellhus is and here, more so than in the latter novels, the direct impact of his manipulations can be seen. There are also elements of mysteries, in particular about the nature(s) of the enemy, the Consult, and of the other sentient species living on the planet, the Non-men.
On the whole, The Darkness That Came Before was an enjoyable re-read, my first in over three years. It still has the power to make me stop and question what I might believe to be "true" about the setting and its characters. While there are times where the prose did not live up to the quality of its themes (as I said, it was serviceable at times and not spectacular), overall this was an enjoyable re-read. Much more to say when I finish The Warrior-Prophet in the next couple of days.