The past makes sense of the present. It frees us from the fetters of fashion and liberates us from the little prejudiced and provincial cosmos that the zeitgeist presents to us…
Good literature takes us out of ourselves and into other worlds. It liberates us from the little provincial cosmos that we have made for ourselves in the limiting confines of our own heads. It takes us on a voyage of discovery of the infinitely wider cosmos that is found beyond ourselves. It shows us a breathtaking and soul-shaking reality that challenges our insular pride and prejudice. It introduces us to the Other, to the Real.
In the realm of so-called fantasy literature (“fantasy” being a poor label for such a great thing), we pass beyond the wardrobe of the self-enclosed mind into the wideness and wonders of an expanding imagination. And yet the wardrobe does not merely contain a door of enlarged perception through which we pass but a mirror in which we can see ourselves more clearly. It is in this sense that Tolkien insisted that one of the great values of fairy stories was their ability to hold up a mirror to man. They show us ourselves.
What is true of good literature is also true of history. The past is a different country, the visiting of which enables us to see the present-day, which is our own small and short-lived country, all the more clearly. The past makes sense of the present. It frees us from the fetters of fashion and liberates us from the little prejudiced and provincial cosmos that the zeitgeist presents to us. It shows us the breathtaking and soul-shaking lessons to be learned from the collective experience of humanity over millennia of trial and error. It allows us to learn the lessons without making the mistakes. It is in this sense that the sage reminds us that those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them in the present and are destined to live with their disastrous consequences in the future. The past is a perilous realm in the sense that we ignore it at our peril.
Treason, a novel by Dena Hunt, brings together good literature and good history, the two becoming one flesh in a nuptial embrace, the fruit of which is a journey to another place that is frighteningly close to home. It shows us ourselves in the lives of our ancestors, and reminds us that our forebears are as close to us in their humanity as they are distant from us in time. They are our neighbours whom we are called to love. It takes us to a country, Elizabethan England, in which the forces of secularism have outlawed the Catholic Church. It leads us through a political landscape in which the rights of the secular state, as defined by the state itself, tramples underfoot the rights of people to follow their conscience and practice their religion. It introduces us to a legal system in which Catholic priests are declared to be traitors to their country and enemies of the people. It shows us a culture of Machiavellian realpolitik in which the practice of religion is declared to be a political act and in which the state has established its own church as the only religion to be tolerated.
At its best, Miss Hunt’s modest novel resonates with the epic power of Kristen Lavransdatter in its unflinching depiction of sanctity in the midst of human folly. For admirers of the great priest-novelist, R.H. Benson, parallels with Come Rack! Come Rope! will be unavoidable. Less obviously but perhaps more palpably, parallels might also be drawn with Benson’s apocalyptic and dystopian tour de force, Lord of the World. The latter parallel is rooted in the unsettling paradox that history seems to be repeating itself and is now uncannily foreshadowing the future. As such, Treason has a Janus-like quality; it looks forward, even as it is looking back. It sees the past as a portent of the future; a warning to be heeded. It sees the past as a prophet. Although Treason is formally a work of historical fiction, depicting a past that has passed away, it is also, trans-formally, a work of cautionary potency as frightening as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, or the aforementioned Lord of the World. It is a work about the past that should be read with one eye on the present and the other on the future. As a manifestation of unchanging truth, the reality that it depicts was and is and is to come.
This essay is a revised version of Joseph Pearce’s introduction to Treason.
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