Monday, May 18, 2015

No Other Answer: My discovery of Fyodor Dostoevsky

I have this Hall Of Fame thing in my mind.
Favorite books. Favorite authors. Favorite songs. Favorite movies.
None of which I can think of when someone asks me, "What's your favorite book/author/song/movie?"

I'm stuck scrambling around in my mind, which, if you could see it, would look like like my desk, or my house, since now that I'm married my whole house is basically my desk. Rushing about, pushing aside random scraps of paper and scanning stacks of books, tripping over backpacks full of rock climbing gear that I left in the hallway, and noticing with annoyance the irrelevant but urgent fact that the fish bowl needs to be cleaned again. Muttering, "C.S. Lewis, I know it's by C.S. Lewis. Sort of." Or, "World War Two. Isn't my favorite movie about WWII?" And compromising by saying the first good idea that comes to mind, in the most non-committal way I can, with a vague sense that I am betraying a friend.

That's still better than when someone asks me what my book is about. *shudder*

Anyway, I began this train of thought when I realized earlier today that my Favorite Authors Hall of Fame has a new member. That venerable institution, long presided over by C.S. Lewis; that welcomed G.K. Chesterton and George MacDonald with joyously open arms; that slowly accepted J.R.R. Tolkien after a four year debate; whose ranks are filled with old-time friends like Laura Ingalls Wilder, Louisa May Alcott, and L.M. Montgomery; and swelled by the delightful additions of Elizabeth Enright and Jonathan Rogers, has quietly and without my express permission added a new member.
One that, until last year, I had never heard of.
And that is a real problem.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1821-1881
I'd heard of Leo Tolstoy, of course. Hasn't everyone? But his countryman, Fyodor Dostoevsky? I had no idea. I don't know whose fault it is that I'd never heard of him. But I blame the world at large.

Last year, I read a book by Phillip Yancey called Soul Survivor: Why I am still a Christian, (which was an excellent book, I highly recommend it) and it mentioned both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as novelists who had brought Mr. Yancey to a greater understanding of who God is, and how much he loves us.
I have since read Tolstoy's War and Peace, which I liked.
But Dostoevsky? The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment... I loved them.
Someone told me that Dostoevsky's books were dark and weird. I don't see them that way. Yes, they handle difficult subjects. The Brothers Karamazov is about a dysfunctional family torn apart by hate, lust, and murder. But it's also about a man clinging to faith in the face of heartbreaking events. About brothers showing love to each other despite vastly different world views. About hope and love triumphing over sin and pain.
And Crime and Punishment is about a young man who commits a pointless act of violence. About how he tries to justify and rationalize it. About how guilt breaks him down and destroys him.
But it's also about a love that passes all understanding, and a redemption that can find even the most broken, even the most evil. Even those who think they are above it.

"For no one can judge a criminal, until he realizes that he is just such a criminal as the man standing before him..." ~ Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

An artist's depiction of Dmitri, Ivan, and Alexei,
from The Brothers Karamazov.
“I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world's finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, for all the blood that they've shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.”
~ Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Dostoevsky attacks the greatest questions, the haunting doubts, the dangerous philosophies. And he doesn't exactly answer them straight out. But somehow, they feel answered. Dostoevsky's books are full of what this quote by C.S. Lewis means: "I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. No other answer would suffice."

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Short Story: The Archer's Oath


   High in the sheltering branches of a massive fir, Torben pulled the spider-wool cloak tighter around his slim shoulders. The warlock had forgotten to give them hoods. Torben’s keen eyes searched the forest below him, peering through the rain dripping from his hair. He drew a finger across his bowstring, careful to keep the weapon dry.
       The afternoon was darkening. Fog rose from the wet trees. The earth steamed in the cold air, like a great beast breathing in winter. The trail through the forest grew dim, obscured by drifting wraiths of mist.
       Carefully, slowly, Torben climbed down a few feet. His feet found new anchors against the wet bark. The cloak was faulty; he was shivering.
        A crow called. The archer tensed. There was a slight movement in the forest. A shower of droplets fell from laden vine maple leaves. He drew his bow, arrow poised and ready to fly.
        The figure of a woman stepped into view, clad in a long green, hooded cape that hid her face. Torben could see no weapons. But from what the warlock said, she didn’t need any.
She paused for a moment, looking around. He would regret this kill. But he was bound by oath.
       His fingers loosed the arrow.
       Instead of the soft thud of impact, instead of the target crumpling, instead of readying another arrow for a finishing shot, Torben felt the tree give way beneath him, and he was falling.
       His arms flailed, trying to slow his fall. Wet branches smacked his face and arms. The spider-wool cloak caught on a limb and tore. He struck the ground with a thud that drove the air from his chest.
       Instinctively, he rolled over and pulled his dagger from his belt, struggling to get a breath. The ground was wet. Mud seeped into his clothes.
       His target was smiling slightly. She had thrown back her hood, revealing a young face and long red-gold curls. She was not dead, not wounded. Torben looked around feverishly for his arrow. In answer, a hawk landed on the girl’s shoulder, the missile in one talon.
      She looked up at the tree Torben had fallen from and nodded. “My thanks,” she said graciously. Torben looked up at the tree and caught a slight bow from the big fir, a motion that could have been merely the tossing of boughs in the wind. But the evening was still. The tendrils of fog drifted untouched by breezes. Even the gentle drizzle had paused for a moment.
        Torben pushed himself to his feet and drew a long, ragged breath. He pointed his dagger at the girl, but she just laughed and came towards him.
      “Drop the blade, archer,” she said. “I would leave you unhurt.”
       Torben gripped it tighter. She would see that he could fight with a knife as well as he could shoot. And no bird could swoop from the sky to seize it.
       But she stopped before she was close enough to stab. “Do you know who I am?” She stood tall and proud, but her voice was gentle.
       “No. I do not need to.”
      She took the arrow from the hawk on her shoulder, and with a quick wave, released the bird to fly free into the trees. There were no straps or jesses. She turned the arrow over, examining the black head, edges sharp enough to pierce a dragon’s wing. “Who is the maker of this arrow?” she asked. “The same who wove your cloak?” The spider-wool cloak lay, torn and muddied, at Torben’s feet.
      “Yes,” he said shortly.
       “It is ill sewn,” she said, and turned back to the arrow. “But this was carefully forged.” She looked directly into Torben’s eyes, and he knew that any attempt to lie would be useless. “Do you know why he sent you to kill me?”
        “I ask no questions,” Torben said. “I am an archer of Camden, sworn to serve the lord of Great Mountain.”
        “An archer of Camden?” Her eyebrows rose. “Then you have elf blood in you, bowman.” She tossed the arrow lightly into a clump of moss and it stuck fast, sending dewdrops quivering to the earth. “Does it not gall you to serve a mortal?”
         Torben frowned. She knew his people. “Who are you?”
        She lifted her head. “I am the last of the elf-queens,” she said, her voice ringing through the trees as if each living thing in the forest sang with her words. “I return to take my throne in the Great Mountain.”
         Torben lowered his eyes. The dagger slipped from his hand. His people had long awaited the return of the elf-rulers. The warlock was indeed a galling lord to serve.
         He picked up his bow from the mud, the string wet and useless, and laid it at the queen’s feet, bowing deeply. “My queen,” he said, “I plead your forgiveness.”
        “Stand,” she said.
        He straightened and met her eyes.
        “I do not fault you for obedience to your people’s vow.” She hesitated only a moment before adding quietly, “I loose you from your oath. You are free to choose whom you serve.”
        Torben stared at her for a long moment. Freedom was unfamiliar. Confusing. He bowed again. “I-I thank you,” he stammered.
        She smiled. “If you choose, I would welcome your free service when I claim my throne.”
        He nodded, lifted his bow, and walked away. He stopped once to look back.
       The woods were growing dark. Mist rose high into the forest. Beads of water fell in a fervent shower as the trees bowed before the queen. Rain began to fall once more, a cold drizzle against his skin.
      The queen pulled her hood over her hair and disappeared.