So often, Christians target children’s fantasy literature for portraying the supernatural—especially if there are characters who happen to be witches, wizards, or sorcerers. Jonathan Stroud has written books that undoubtedly would have called forth ire from this group, had another, more famous boy wizard not provided a distraction at about the same time: Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy features magicians who summon creatures that they call “demons” (though the creatures call themselves djinni)*. Yet Stroud’s latest book, Heroes of the Valley, which features little “magic,” is much less consonant with Christianity than the Bartimaeus Trilogy. In fact, Heroes of the Valley can even be interpreted as anti-religious, in its dismissal of the “myths” of the past. How often do Christians overlook the truly un-Christian in books because we’re hunting for witches?
Heroes of the Valley is set in a clearly Scandinavian, pre-Christian society. By the time our protagonist Halli Sveinsson comes along, this society has renounced the violent, feuding ways of the past in favor of legal arbitration administered by a council. The Valley is made up of twelve clans, all supposedly descended from the Twelve Founders, heroes who died ridding the Valley of hideous, man-eating monsters called Trows. According to the stories Halli hears as a child, the Trows are kept back from re-entering the Valley only by the continuing presence of the dead heroes in their cairns—and by the Valley-dwellers’ observance of the boundary line between the Valley and the heights, where the Trows still dwell. If you ever go past the boundary, Halli is told, the Trows will eat you, and you will bring bad luck upon your clan.
Halli, as a fourteen-year-old boy, of course longs for heroism and adventure, as fourteen-year-old boys in fantasy literature are wont to do. Unfortunately for him, peace rules the Valley—until a series of offenses traded back and forth between the Sveinssons and another clan, the Hakonssons, escalate beyond the point of no return. The first half of the book proceeds as you might expect, with Halli becoming disillusioned with the vengeance and violence he had equated with “honor.” The one difference between Halli’s internal journey and that of a hundred other fantasy protagonists is that Stroud doesn’t bother to make Halli particularly likable or sympathetic as a character. Halli is more likable than the vain, ambitious Nathaniel of the Bartimaeus Trilogy, but the first two books of the Trilogy strike you with Stroud’s daring in creating an initially unsympathetic main character who you sense will be reformed by the end. Halli, by comparison, seems derivative—and his reformation leaves something to be desired.
Even unlikable protagonists must have their spunky girl sidekick, and Aud, a young woman from another clan, fills this role for Halli. Other than being a slightly more profane version of Lloyd Alexander’s Eilonwy, Aud’s main function is to voice skepticism about the legends of the heroes. She points out that the stories of the Heroes can’t all be true, and she doubts that the Trows ever existed. Halli, after having discovered for himself that the heroic code provides little satisfaction, is also willing to challenge the Trow-myths.
Now here’s where I’m going to get into some spoilers, because a lot of the book’s religious themes hang on this central issue of whether the legends are true or false.
I expected Stroud to pull some sort of twist in which the monsters are really men, and the heroes are really villains—and that’s sort of what happens. This in itself isn’t necessarily anti-religious; Orcs were once Elves, Reavers were once human, and there really isn’t that much difference between Beowulf and Grendel. In the ending, which seems to have generated much consternation and ire among Amazon reviewers, we learn that the Trows died off—or were killed—long ago, and that the mysterious creatures who kill wanderers on the moors are really the Heroes, who have somehow become undead. The undead Heroes are tyrants demanding the allegiance of the living, squashing their spirits and keeping them from living freely . . . are you starting to see where the anti-religion bit comes in?
If that’s not enough for you, Halli literally kills off the old myths by beheading the undead Svein (I’m still not quite sure how killing the undead works in Halli’s world). It’s not as blatant as killing off God himself (hi, Philip Pullman!), but I somehow doubt that Stroud is warning against literal ancestor-worship. It’s not a huge leap to say the book may be suggesting that any religious belief traps us, just as the Heroes keep their people trapped in the valley. Halli and Aud, by challenging the Heroes and their code, are the only people brave and intelligent enough to free themselves.
It’s the elevation of certain people as superior to others who are mere sheep-like followers that makes me particularly uneasy about Heroes of the Valley. That line of thinking contains too much of Ayn Rand and Nietzsche for my taste. Halli may not be the Aryan ideal—he’s dark and unusually short—but the book’s ending does set him up as something of an Übermensch, nonetheless. What particularly scares me is that readers, American readers in particular (Stroud is British), may not recognize the danger of this aspect of the novel because it fits so well with the message of American “civil religion”: trust no authority except yourself, and don’t accept any limits placed on you.
Stroud himself may be uncomfortable with this dimension of the book, because the last words in the book are spoken by an unnamed nurse, telling a hero-tale to a child, only this time Halli and Aud are the heroes in question. Their story has been altered and refined in the telling, just as the tales of the original Heroes were. Does this suggest that even the hero-worship of those who dared venture beyond is a false belief?
One last thing fascinates me about Heroes of the Valley: in the final confrontation with the undead Heroes, they accuse Halli of having “grown soft and tractable under the influence of women,” of being “weak, without stomach for a fight.” Effeminacy and peacefulness (interpreted as weakness) were the very charges brought against Christianity by pagan Scandinavian and Germanic tribes. Christ’s submission to death on a cross was a huge stumbling block to them initially. So I appreciate Stroud’s attempt to undermine pagan notions of heroism, but Halli, though he uses brains instead of brawn, doesn’t really seem that different. However, if you want a book extolling the Christian virtue of sacrifice, you don’t have to look too far away on the shelf: Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy portrays sacrifice and the renunciation of power more compellingly than any recent fiction I’ve read, magicians or no.
*I do want to make clear that the Bartimaeus Trilogy, like any book, should be read with discernment. The use of the word “demon” could be confusing for young readers, particularly since the djinni Bartimaeus is a humorous, appealing character. However, the books clearly condemn the desire for power that often drives people to the occult, so, if read with parental guidance, the Bartimaeus Trilogy actually serves to undermine the appeal of real-world witchcraft.
- How many of you read Stroud’s earlier works. Are you surprised by the seemingly un-Christian message in his latest?
- Who could read this book? Who should read it?
- Is reading a book like this somehow better than watching a film of the same sort?
- What are some other books that make a similar case against Christianity?