Saturday, February 20, 2010

Philosophy and Myth in John Gardner's Freddy's Book

I'm going to try to write little book reviews, as I forget everything I read. No offence taken if you skip them.

Horrible scan of a great cover.

I just finished Freddy's Book, a moody and ruminating frame-story tale set in the Swedish post-middle ages, right on the rise of Lutheranism and the birth of the printing press. John Gardner is a Medieval literature specialist famous mostly for Grendel, which I remember almost nothing about excepting that I really, really enjoyed it. Like all of his books I've read this one does a fantastic job of embedding various competing philosophies within the narrative. It overlaps the folklore and myth of Sweden with the contemporary continental issues at the time in a way that stays relevant and thought-provoking.

After the book got properly into its personal mythology the philosophical musings became especially powerful, kicked off with a discussion on evolution in terms of religious systems. Bishop Brask is a jaded clergyman who decides that the sustaining element of any man-made society is simply might. The strongest survives, he concludes, regardless of whether the strongest is correct. In his day he sees Catholicism losing ground to Lutheranism and foresees the eventual abandonment of religion as a folly. The constant revision of the bible in the 1500 years in-between Brask and Christ affrims his sense of Religious Darwinism. God is dead, or at least hasn't spoken to anyone sane in that millenia-and-a-half. Later, he turns his jaded eye toward the notion of truth and the intentions of those in power, wondering how truth can be found in a complicated world of many contending self-interests.

Though god may be dead, the Devil is more alive than ever, and physically manipulates the events of the world. His effects are observed by the knight Lars-Goren, who brings a taciturn contemplation to the novel's measuring of good and evil. The cut-throat city is pitted against the naive rural, Mysticism dances with rationalism, and everything is trivialized in the face of the individual passage from life, to death.

Gardner takes pleasure in his characters' turn of phrase, which is a bit much in the early introductory frame story. But after a while his characters self-consciously mock the meaning and use of rhetoric, whether it's the devil forgetting what he's saying halfway through spinning a plan into existance, or Bishop Brask being paralyzed by whether or not his delivery of some rhetorical point is staged perfectly or not. There are self-referential jabs about the point of striving to write, to communicate, and a decent story of political cunning to tie it all together.

All in all a book for boys (mostly), a chance to loosely brush up on medieval history, and several beautiful takes on melancholy philosophies along the way. The calm Lars Goren and his eerie confrontation with a dead witch are great. The mysterious indigenous Lapplanders of the north are beautifully created as well. If you start it and get bored, skip to the last 3 chapters for some great climatic mental struggles with futility, good, and evil.

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