Tuesday, February 24

Biblical Epics: A Quick Reference Guide

Ever since the advent of the nineteenth century, fictional portrayals of the persecuted Church in Nero’s Rome have been a favored form of the Christian novel. Most have hardly been particularly noteworthy--indeed, a rather predictable formula made them all too facile. The plots were constructed in order to contrast the corrupt brilliance of Pagan Rome with the austere and pious life of the early Church. Most readers can recount such business by heart: the orgies, the arena, the glimpse of the bloated and sensual figure of the emperor and his perversely corrupted court, the delicate and beautiful Christian maiden with her hair let down her back, the ill-fated love affair between her and some swashbuckling, worldly-wise, well-placed Roman soldier, the soldier’s reluctant conversion just in the nick of time, the dim passageways and fleeting sanctuaries of the catacombs, the horrific conflagration of Nero’s fire, and the sad but heroic martyrdom of each of the protagonists in turn. Such pulp protocols seem to lie altogether outside the pale of literature, reserved entirely for the dogmatic propagandist. But there have been more than a few remarkable exceptions.

There were such early marvels as Zygmunt Krasinski’s tragedy, Irdion. It portrays a Greek rebel who tried to turn the Christian dissenters into revolutionaries. John Henry Newman’s Callista, captures the universality of the Christian message in a time of heaving uncertainty, Paul Bereille’s Emilie, Hermann Geiger’s Lydia, George Whyte-Melville’s The Gladiators, Renæ du Mesnil Marincourt’s Viva, Josef Kraszewski’s Caprea and Roma, and F.N. Farrar’s Darkness and Dawn all revolve around the lives, loves, and sacrifices of the early martyrs--each is considered a classic in its own right. Actæ by Alexandre Dumas and Salammbo by Gustave Flaubert, though hardly counted among their best-known works are undoubtedly among their best-written works--in large part because they were the passionate vehicles for their author’s own struggles regarding the Gospel.

In the United States, amidst a torrent of maudlin and sentimental tomes, a few works were able to emerge as genuinely edifying fictional narratives. Lew Wallace, a bitter Union general during the War between the States, began writing Ben Hur to disprove the claims of Christianity. But, much to his surprise, he himself was converted as he researched the period and developed the characters. The result was an invigorating paean to the faith. Lloyd Douglas likewise turned his experienced fictional hand to the days of the early Church. As a result, he not only produced two classics of the genre, The Big Fisherman and The Robe, he also reinvigorated his own flagging faith.

But as fine as each of these books is, all of them pale in comparison with the masterful Quo Vadis. The verdant prose, the substantive theology, and the masterful plotting of Henryk Sienkiewicz sets his work apart from all the others. As late as 1937, the French Larousse Encyclopedia asserted that the book was “one of the most extraordinary successes registered in the history of the book--both in terms of sales and in terms of literary merit.” The American literary critic Nathan Haskell Dole was hardly exaggerating when he commented, “It is said that if a person standing at the foot of Niagara merely touches the awful sheet of water with a finger, he is drawn irresistibly in; and so if a person begins this book, the torrential sweep of its immensity becomes instantly absorbing. It is one of the great books of our day.”

If you are planning to head out to see the new Mel Gibson film, The Passion of Christ, why not follow it up with a review of the Gospel narratives and then a bracing dose of Henryk Sienkiewicz's Quo Vadis? I warrant, you will not be sorry.

Quo Vadis

Henryk Sienkiewicz was an international phenomenon a century ago--at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. He was trained in both law and medicine. He was a respected historian. He was a successful journalist. He was a widely sought-after critic and editor. He was an erudite lecturer. And in addition to all that, he was an amazingly prolific and wildly popular novelist--selling millions of copies of his almost fifty books in nearly three hundred editions in the United States alone.

He wowed the world with his grace, his learning, his courage, his depth of character, and his evocative story-telling. His writing includes some of the most memorable works of historical fiction ever penned--raking with the likes of Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Samuel Johnson. Indeed, in 1905, Sienkiewicz (pronounced sane-KAY-vitch) saw his brilliant career capped when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.
It was an unlikely destiny for a passionately ethnic novelist from the isolated, feudal, and agrarian Podlasie region of Poland to fulfill.

Born in 1846, he lived during one of the most tumultuous periods of Central European history. Ideological revolutions, utopian uprisings, base conspiracies, nationalistic movements, and imperialistic expansions wracked the continent in the decades between the fall of Napoleon and the rise of Hitler. Wars and rumors of wars shook the foundations of social order to an extraordinary degree. His own nation was cruelly and bitterly divided between the ambitions of the Prussian Kaiser and the Russian Czar. The proud cultural and national legacy of Poland was practically snuffed out altogether--all the distinctive aspects of the culture were outlawed and even the language was fiercely suppressed.

Sienkiewicz became a part of the underground movement to recover the Polish arts--music, poetry, journalism, history, and fiction. He used the backdrop of the social, cultural, and political chaos to reflect both the tragedy of his people and the ultimate hope that lay in their glorious tenacity. He was thus, a true traditionalist at a time when traditionalism had been thoroughly and systematically discredited the world over--the only notable exceptions being in the American South and the Dutch Netherlands. As a result, his distinctive voice rang out in stark contrast to the din of vogue conformity. Thus, his novels not only introduced the world to Poland, they offered a stern anti-revolutionary rebuke in the face of Modernity’s smothering political correctness.

His massive Trilogy, published between 1884 and 1887, tells the story of an ill-fated attempt to save his homeland from foreign domination during the previous century. With all the scope of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the depth of Martorell’s Tirant Lo Blanc, and the passion of Hugo’s Les Miserables, the novels are unquestionably a monumental achievement of prose mastery--regaling the essence of culture upon the canvas of an eminently readable adventure story. Happily, a remarkable new translation of the books by W.S. Kuniczak has been released by Hippocrene Books as With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Fire in the Steppe.

When they were first released in the United States, the books became instant best-sellers. They made Sienkiewicz a household name--so much so that Mark Twain could assert that he was the first serious, international writer to become an American literary celebrity.

Even so, the Trilogy did not achieve for him even a fraction of the acclaim that came his way with the publication of Quo Vadis in 1898. It was nothing short of a phenomenon. It was the first book the New York Times dubbed a “blockbuster,” and became the standard against which all future mega-best-sellers was judged.

The book was intended to be an epic retelling of the great fire of Rome in 64 AD. Its broad, Biblical sweep of events includes the machinations of Nero’s court, the rising tide of persecutions against the fledgling Christian community, the movements of the Germanic tribes along the Roman frontier--not surprisingly featuring the Polish Ligians--and the ministries of the Apostles Paul and Peter. According to an old Christian legend, Peter was fleeing the Emperor’s persecutions when he had a vision of Christ along the Appian Way. Awestruck, the Apostle addressed the Lord, asking, “Quo vadis?” or “Wither do you go?” Jesus answered him, To Rome, to be crucified anew, inasmuch as you have abandoned my sheep.” Fully comprehending the rebuke, Peter returned to the city to face his inevitable martyrdom.

In the hands of Sienkiewicz, the legend comes alive with bristling dialog, fully-dimensional characters, abiding faith, and informed political rage. His portrait of the Roman world and its ethos is dynamic--rivaling even Walter Pater’s Greco-Roman classics. His ability to emotionally identify with protagonists across the centuries is stunning. His to faithfulness to the straightforward Gospel message of the early church is inspiring. But his ability to relate the struggle of the first generation of believers against the juggernaut of Messianic Caesarism to the struggle of modern believers against the juggernaut of Messianic Statism is nothing less than brilliant.

The story is never compromised by a propagandistic message, nevertheless, Sienkiewicz’s message of anti-revolutionary, anti-ideological, and anti-modernist traditionalism sounds out, loud and clear. Indeed, the way Sienkiewicz weaves the historical narrative, the plot line, the character development, and the message of the Gospel, it is evident that he was working out of the same worldview context as his Dutch contemporaries, Groen van Prinsterer and Abraham Kuyper, as well as the later English Distributists and Southern Agrarians. For many readers, the transformation of that kind of confessional faith into vibrant art is a kind of revelation in itself--akin to discovering G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Thomas Chalmers, Caroline Gordon, or Walter Scott for the first time.

Not surprisingly then, Quo Vadis became a model for aspiring writers—both Hemingway and Faulkner argued that it was the finest historical novel ever written. It has been lauded by such widely varied authors as It has been lauded by such diverse writers as Mario Vargas Llosa, Andrew Nelson Lytle, James Michener, Shusako Endo, Allen Tate, David Morrell, Peter Ackroyd, Colin Thubron, and A.N. Wilson. In addition, four film versions of the story have been made in Hollywood, two more in France, one in Argentina, one in Peru, one in Brazil, and another one in Italy. The 1951 MGM big-budget production starring Peter Ustinov, Robert Taylor, and Deborah Kerr, is a confirmed classic--and is now available in video.

Sadly, the only English version of the book available throughout most of the twentieth century was the convoluted and archaic British translation of C.J. Hogarth. Thankfully, that has now been bracingly remedied with the brilliant new translation by W.S. Kuniczak. Published by Hippocrene, this new edition has restored the soaring prose, the dynamic pace, and the immediate accessibility of Sienkiewicz’s original.

Quo Vadis is the kind of classic work with which the ever growing Christian fiction market--consisting of both readers and writers--really ought to be nurtured. The sooner the better.

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