I’ve written/ discussed before how fiction informs some of my morals and I still think it’s relevant. (most recently in last month’s Patreon devotional, you can sign up here for it!) I hope never to be caught in a war, but I can learn from reading about one – and I prefer my wars to be fictional. Otherwise, severe nightmares ensue. But one book that has been on my mind lately is the below, Echoes of the Great Song by David Gemmell. Now I didn’t fully pick up the lesson in this when I read it first as a teenager, but as with many of Gemmell’s books, I’ve reread it a lot over the years and one thing struck me graphically on this latest reread.
The story is not quite relevant to what I’m about to say, but from the back cover: The Avatars were immortal and lived like kings, even though their empire was dying. Their immortality was guaranteed by magic crystals, crystals whose influence was now waning, overwhelmed by the power of a great flood and a freak ice age. But when two moons appeared in the sky and the ruthless armies of the Crystal Queen swarmed across the land, bringing devastation and terror, the Avatars united with their subjects to protect their universe. As the cities faced imminent destruction, three heroes emerged, Talaban, a warrior haunted by tragedy. Touchstone, the mystic tribesman, seeking his lost love, and Anu, the Holy One, the Builder of Time. And when all seemed lost, two others entered the fray: Sofarita, the peasant girl who would inspire a legend, and the madman, Virul, who would become a god.
It’s some story, and I love it, although there are elements that feel less comfortable now than in the 90’s! But the bits I wanted to talk about today were the bits that highlighted how legends change over time as people’s understanding and language changes. Every few chapters, there are excerpts from the Morning, Noon and Evening Songs of the Anajo, outlining how the legends grew up around these feats and events. And to me, it shows the difference between the actual events and the stories we tell about them. I’ll use the names of those mentioned in the blurb above as examples, because one crucial thing to remember is that the tribesman speaks the language of the Avatars as a second language, hard won following his captivity following a raid on his land. So all through the book, he is speaking less sophisticated language than the people around him, purely because he has not been speaking the language since birth.
And it is this man’s tribe (it is implied anyway) that records the events.
Talaban, the haunted warrior, becomes Tail-avar, the god of wisdom
Questor Sto, the techincal wizard, becomes Storro, Speaker of Legends
Touchstone the tribesman, becomes Touch-the-Moon, god of tribes.
The ice age becomes the Ice Giant, and the fearsome creatures living on the ice beomce demons living in the giant’s hair.
Viruk, the madman, becomes Virkokka, god of war
Sofarita becomes the Star Woman, that the All Father created from earth and starlight.
The Crystal Queen becomes the Queen of Death.
And even in the book (in my copy it’s page 422) there is a line that I will paraphrase here because it might contain spoilers otherwise: “They will not remember you. Not as men. You will first become legends, and then the gods you dreamed of being.”
And this is the crux of things for me. Who are these people we call gods? Are they simply the ones that learned to harness the power of the universe and change things so that we remember the echoes of their songs? Or are they all-powerful beings from the beginning, never wavering, never doing wrong? Or is it a mix of the two? While I’m not sure David Gemmell ever set out to write a spiritually challenging book, this book does cause me to examine and reflect on questions like this. It is also a bloody good story, but let’s put that to one side right now.
To a certain extent, part of me thinks it doesn’t matter. I recognise the power of Brigid in my life, the journey I’ve been on to get this far and recognise there is a journey yet to come. I can see times and places in my life where she has intervened, helped, guided, etc. I also know that another person could look at my life and see something entirely different – but that’s ok, there is no One True Way in life. But I think examining these questions, asking uncomfortable questions is how we grow, how we develop our spirituality and our consciousness. Staying stagnant and still is just another form of death, because stasis =/= life.
But there’s also hope here. If our stories have turned humans into legends and then into gods, then what’s to say we can’t do the same? In 1000 years, will people be remembering Carrie Fisher as Saint Carrie Fisher, Our Lady of Rebellion, Our Blessed Rebel Queen? Will people be remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the Lady of Dissent? Will people remember Donald Trump as the evil god of supremacy and opression?
I mean, ok I’d prefer to be on the side of Carrie Fisher and Ruth Bader Ginsburg there – anyone reading my blog knows my opinion of Trump I hope, at this stage! But still… We tend to think of today’s world as the pinnacle of human achievement – and in some ways it so, so far at least. But there are hopefully more generations to come. We can learn from history and from folklore and from legends, we can see what stories have survived through the ages and what haven’t. What traditions were so common even 100 yrs ago that have now died away? The written word has given us great power in maintaining the collective memory, but with great power comes great responsibility as well. What are we writing? What do we say? Is it accurate? Are we carefully separating acknowledged fact from gnosis, whether unique or generally accepted?
Even the language issue with a big one. We can see how in the book, names got changed due to the different use of language between the Avatars and the tribe recording the legend. Sounds work differently in different languages – we’re seeing this change in Irish in this generation in that the r sounds, the ch sounds, are changing and morphing into something closer to the Irish version of English. Even listening to recordings in English from people in the 1980’s in Ireland, you can hear the differences in sounds and accents. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it means that when I write about things like the meanings of words, particularly from Old Irish. I try to be careful not to be definitive about it.
If this prompts any thoughts on your part, I’d really love to hear them. Also, if you’re a David Gemmel fan, cos his books really are good stories!! And if this poses questions you’d like to think through or see as the topic on a future post, let me know!