I don’t think I have ever read a book quite like this one before. It takes place in 7th century England, so long ago that it’s hard to imagine what life might have been like. If you’ve ever wondered, or are wondering now, you should read this book. I could see and feel the world around me as I read it.
All things turn and spiral back like this, it seems. From this horror-time a peace-time will follow, if only briefly. Crops will be sowed and harvested. Another king, another court, and what is broken will be built, as the seasons turn, as day turns into night and night into day again.
This book is primarily exploring the question of faith and religion in a time of change and uncertainty. In this world of Kings, Lords, and peasants paganism still abounds. But Christianity is slowly sneaking up and taking over. The way in which this happens is interesting to read about; it is not because everyone suddenly sees the light, or even that missionaries are winning over the population; politics seems to have more to do with it than anything else. If a King has decided to embrace this new God, then all his subjects must also surrender their old beliefs.
For many, this is not easy to do. They have been making sacrifices to the old gods their whole lives – how can you suddenly drop them all to follow just one? How can one God do everything? And, what is to become of the seithkonas, the women who have devoted their lives to the gods, and who the villagers turn to when they need help or ‘potions’ for whatever ails them?
Wilona is one of these seithkonas, along with Touilt, the woman who took her in and trained her. When the King orders everyone in the village to pay tribute to the new God, Wilona and Touilt refuse and become outcasts.
Wilona, you should not put your faith in the gods so strongly. Be a willow, not an oak. Bend. Don’t break. Beware of unshakeable faith, especially if it puts you in the path of a powerful man’s displeasure.
Then there is Brother Egan, considered ‘different’ from the other monks and sent to Wilona’s village to help bring the word of God to the people. He is eccentric, but selfless and kind; unlike some of the other Christians who seem more intent on gaining power and favour with the King. He thinks of himself as “a little boat of faith in a sea of mystery“.
He never has to strain to see God in the deer or weasel, the stones, the trees, the stars; it’s only among humans that sometimes, sometimes, he doubts.
Wilona is wary of Egan when he comes around to see her, or when they run into each other, but they are more alike than she knows. Both are on the outside with few friends and family members, and both are deeply devoted to their beliefs. Egan’s continued kindness confuses Wilona – she keeps expecting there to be some kind of catch or trick to his methods. In the course of the story, Wilona begins to question things; the gods and their powers, as well as the new Christian religion and what it all means.
Reading this book made me think about why we believe what we do; where does it all come from? The transformation from paganism to Christianity is a fascinating subject. The book doesn’t have all the answers; just a snapshot of one village over the course of a few years, and what it might have been like for the people living there. The bottom line – faith and love, and the struggle to stay true to yourself in the face of great change.
Look, Brother Egan, look at the waves. Some larger, some smaller, some rolling, some spraying, all part of the great body of water, each playing their part without worry. You can almost hear them laughing as they reach the shore. Be like the waves, Brother. Be just a little merry. Rejoice and simply do your part.
Lauren B. Davis includes on her website a bibliography of her research, as well as the backstory to her novel and a breakdown of the Anglo-Saxon calender.