Someone once cracked wise by saying, “Everyone has a book in them…and for most people that’s where it should stay.” Therefore when someone sends me the manuscript, the book, the outline for a book, or a book idea, I usually shrink. When a friend sends me a copy of his book I shrink into my shoes.
Will I find the time to read the darn thing? What if it’s terrible? What if it is simply not the sort of book I like? How do I break it to them that I realized they could not write before I got to the second paragraph? How do I delicately point out that no one is really interested in the memoirs of their high school drama career? If the book is very ambitious it is even worse. “I’m sorry Fred, but I’m afraid you really are not the next John Steinbeck.” “I’m sorry Joan, but Agatha Christie does not yet have competition.” “Jimmy. The next J.R.R.Tolkien you ain’t.” Friendship ended. I brace myself for the hurt expression, the anger, or the haughty air of the unappreciated genius.
So when my friend Taylor Marshall sent me his novel, Sword and Serpent, the shrinking began. I read the back cover only to find that it was a re-telling of the story of St George. Oh dear. Hagiographies are not my cup of tea, my cup of coffee, my cup of soup, my cup of anything. What were we to have, a simpering tale of a pious knight who overcame his lustful thoughts and thus “slew the dragon”? Was I being faced with an interminable account of the patron saint of England and a potted history of the British Empire—all Land of Hope and Glory? Maybe it would be a tiresome Boy’s Life adventure of a dull lad who speared a serpent: all Bland and Dope and Gory.
I was therefore delighted to find a full-length, skillfully-written, well-researched tale of a young Christian boy named Jurian in the fourth century. Jurian and his sister Mari are orphaned in the wave of persecution under the Emperor Diocletian. After their escape they set out for Rome, and as their journey unfolds they meet a range of famous fourth-century saints. Christopher and Nicholas, Blaise and Pope Marcellinus all befriend and help them on their way. Jurian—whose other name is Georgios—finally faces his destiny when he is given the sword Excalibur brought to Rome by a Celtic chieftain who whispers the ancient prophecies of the mysterious Merlinus. Nice one. I always like it when Merlin makes an appearance.
As Georgios makes his heroic journey, a young pagan priestess named Sabra is also searching for a way to overcome evil and find redemption. In every good tale the outward story reflects the inner story, and Taylor Marshall builds sympathy for Georgios and Sabra as they learn to battle their inner dragons of fear and doubt, learn to repudiate revenge, discover their courage, and step up to make the personal sacrifice necessary for salvation.
Dr. Marshall, a former Episcopalian priest, is the author of books of popular theology and apologetics, and an intriguing trilogy on the Jewish roots of the New Testament. In addition to his writing he maintains a popular blog, communicates through podcasts and short videos, and has started an online theology college called the New Saint Thomas Institute, which delivers to more than 1300 students in twenty-four countries. In his spare time he is the father of seven children and the founder of the Troops of St. George—a fully Catholic scouting movement for young men and boys.
His accomplishment in Sword and Serpent is a remarkable blend of historical fiction, fantasy, and myth. Using the fact that the story of St. George is rooted in history, but surrounded by mythical elements, Dr. Marshall avoids the temptation to de-mythologize and, through the use of imagination and fantasy, decides to re-mythologize. He does so skillfully, never quite revealing whether the dragon is a literal reptile, a paranormal manifestation of evil, or a beast from the realm of the daemonic. It doesn’t matter. A dragon is a dragon is a dragon, and Georgios is led by providence to enter the cave, encounter the serpent, and slay him once and for all. That the beautiful Sabra stands by in a white bridal gown says all that needs to be said about Dr. Freud’s interpretation of the myth.
Dr. Marshall also manages to capture the intriguing religious atmosphere of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. The story opens with the lament that the ancient gods have died. The haruspex can no longer discern the future in the entrails of the victims. The sybils are silent, and the pagan prophets are blind. Christianity is on the rise, and George’s slaughter of the ancient dragon is a powerful victory over the old gods and their demonic domination of the world. The book evokes the tender and wise world of the early Christians—avoiding persecution with gentleness and taking hold of the future with confidence.
In his handling of these elements Taylor Marshall shows a profound awareness of the power of myth and the deep reach of classical symbols and stories. Jurian-Georgios travels the archetypal hero’s path, leaving his homeland and setting out on the fated adventure. He encounters allies and enemies in the path, overcomes his obstacles one by one until he is faced with the great ordeal. Like the hero in Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, Jurian-George sets out on the adventure to overcome evil in order to save others and redeem his world. When he rides off into the sunset on a splendid white horse, we realize he is heading off to his next battle, and knowing how it ends, we realize that his final battle will be that of martyrdom.
My only grumble about Sword and Serpent is that it gets bogged down in the second act. It’s a hard slog for an author to complete the middle section of a story and keep interest. I put the book down for a month or so while I focussed on other tasks, but when I picked it up again, things moved swiftly and the pages were turning once more.
Taylor Marshall is to be commended for crafting a unique mixture of fantasy historical romance and myth. It’s an apt book for all ages. It should serve well on a reading list in a classical school and will provide a fascinating, informative, and entertaining read for all ages.
Sword and Serpent is a fine exception to the rule that most people’s books should stay within them.
Books mentioned in this essay and other books may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.