I am devoting my first blog post to Dr. Taylor Marshall’s debut novel Sword and Serpent.
Marshall describes the book in his own words as “a retelling of Saint George and the Dragon.” I brought the book along with me to read on the long Transatlantic flight to Rome for my honeymoon, as well as the 2 hour train ride from Rome to Assisi. Here’s a picture of me with the book in front of the Roman Colosseum.
I often tell people that while I do an enormous amount of both reading and writing as a graduate student working on a Master’s degree in History, I have very little time to do either “for fun.” That fact alone should indicate that I had high hopes for this work, since I dedicated a significant amount of holiday time to this work.
It did not disappoint. I finished all 400 pages in the ten days of my honeymoon. I know this is a cliche, but it was very hard to put down. The plot flowed along very well, and Marshall mastered the art of successfully wrapping up a chapter while also leaving it with a bit of a cliffhanger, to keep the reader interested in the next chapter. Marshall also employs a narrative strategy of presenting the story from the viewpoint of certain characters, in this case alternating between George (Lucius Aurelius Georgius, who goes by the nickname his father gave him of Jurian) and Sabra, the daughter of the governor of Libya, whom George eventually rescues from the dragon. This is especially interesting when Sabra and George finally meet and seeing the same interaction through two different viewpoints. Marshall is an excellent writing and his writing clearly communicates what he is describing.
Reading the book while in Rome was a great experience. As the will of God would have it, I read the part of the novel where Jurian visits the tomb of St. Peter on the train ride to Assisi, the day after my wife and I visited the tomb of St. Peter ourselves, where we heard the history of the tomb which Marshall relates in the novel. Similarly, I read the part of the novel where Jurian visits the catacombs on the day after we visited the Catacomb of Saint Callixtus.
The best part of the novel is the way in which Marshall takes the story of George and the Dragon, a legend rife with anachronism, and integrates it into the cultural milieu of the historical St. George, who suffered as a martyr under Diocletian in the beginning of the fourth century A.D. All the aspects of the old legend are there, but with a twist that makes them make sense in the last year of the third century. In this version, the dragon is believed to be a manifestation of the old pagan god Molech, and receives sacrifices of children from the city of Cyrene, Libya. Similarly Sabra here is a priestess of the old god, overseeing the sacrifices until her own name is chosen in a lottery. In the legend Sabra is a princess, but in the novel she is the daughter of the governor, although she does present herself as a princess later in the story.
The most emotionally charged part of the book, from Sabra’s point of view, is when she attempts to save her slave, secretly a Christian, from martyrdom. As priestess, Sabra has the power to pardon any condemned criminal, but as she attempts to do so, she is largely ignored by a growing mob. The dialogue between her and the crowd is deliberately reminiscent of that of Pilate attempted to save Jesus. Toward the end of the novel, Sabra takes on the aspect of a slave and goes willingly to her death to save her city, becoming a Christ figure herself.
The scene with the slave involves some well known elements of the persecution, including the placing of hot coals and incense in the hands of accused Christians in an effort to force them to drop the incense into the brazier and thus fulfill the requirement to offer incense. However, this martyrdom and a number of other’s throughout the novel, indicate an almost lynching like quality to the beginning of the persecutions. While it is possible that there have been such incidents at the start of the persecution, before the Tetrarchy published official edicts, they would have been isolated incidents. This sort of phenomenon was mostly confined to earlier persecutions. Christianity had become much more accepted during the “Little Peace of the Church” following the persecution under Decius in 250 A.D. and the people no longer believed accusations against the Christians such as human sacrifice and cannibalism which fueled earlier persecutions, and which Marshall presents as still commonplace in the late-third century. The persecution was largely legislative, and while Diocletian and his colleagues purged the Imperial Army of Christians in 299 A.D., the edict of universal sacrifice that Marshall presents as for the entire empire, was most relegated to the army. As a result of his way of presenting the persecutions, there is no trial scene like those so pivotal to the Actae of many martyrs of the Diocletianic persecution. The true horror of the persecution comes not in the attack of a mob, but that everything that happened was completely legal.
The two most prominent supporting characters are Nikolaus and Menas, who are versions of St. Nicholas and St. Christopher respectively. The St. Christopher is also rife with anachronism, and Marhsall again successfully places the story in the appropriate historical context, making it believing. Nikolaus is a very interesting character, and Marshall even includes aspects in the character which are very, very reminiscent of Santa Claus, even giving gifts on Christmas (which is also Jurian’s birthday). Nikolaus also has the gift of bilocation, which no known acts of the saint include, but which many saintly men and women have demonstrated throughout the centuries. Unfortunately, while this is hinted at in the beginning of the story, it becomes more and more blatant throughout the novel.
The first two-thirds of the novel are excellent, but unfortunately the last third is weaker. Marshall is in a hurry to get to the climatic showdown with the dragon, that he stuffs the novel full of characters and events in Rome, that the plot suffers a little. Included among these is the introduction of an Arthurian element, with Pope Marcellinus presenting Jurian with the mythical sword Excalibur. Marshall’s explanation of the name as a Latin abbreviation for meaning to “be drawn out of the sword by the bear” (Arthur comes from artos the Celtic word for “bear”) is the best part. I am a huge fan of the Arthurian legend, and I love that Marshall has taken a tale that originally had strong Christian themes, but has recently by appropriated by neopagans, and given it a thoroughly Christian origin story. I do think, however, that it might have been better for the story had Marshall waited for the inevitable sequel to have Jurian travel to Rome and receive the sword, but I suppose he really wanted Jurian to use Excalibur to fight the dragon.
My biggest problem with the novel is the villain, Casca. He shows up early in the story, destroys Jurian’s life in Anatolia, than disappears for about 200 pages. He appears out of nowhere, with virtually no explanation, when Jurian is in Rome and brings his life crashing down once again. Casca brings about what is supposed to be the most emotionally impacting death of the novel, at least from Jurian’s point of view, but it feels strangely hollow. This is depressing considering that it is the death of one of the most important and significant characters, and while it allows Jurian to visit the catacombs, it seems like a pointless dispatching of a character that could have been better developed. It is emotionally wrenching, especially for me, but such wrenching feels undeserved.
Casca himself is a problem for me. Had he been an otherwise noble Roman or at least had some redeeming qualities, I think it would have been better. Instead Casca is a caricature, cowardly and sycophantic and very effeminate; where Jurian is brave, strong and masculine. Casca is presented as utter despicable, which I feel is a little lazy. Sexuality is virtually non-existent in the story, but Marshall hints at it. For example, the slave Hanno, who is very close to Sabra is a eunuch and as such is the only man allowed near her. Jurian constantly warns his sister Mariam against the intentions of legionaries. Furthermore, sparks fly between Sabra and Jurian, and marriage is even offered. What is more problematic, at least for me, is once again, Casca. The way Marshall describes his mannerisms gives little doubt that he intends Casca to be a closeted homosexual. This is affirmed more than once, first when Jurian angrily taunts Casca by threatening to reveal the circumstances of their first meeting and again when Jurian is explaining to fellow Christians why Casca hates him so much. The Christian matron asks him if Mariam ever “disappointed” Casca, a clear reference to the well known motif in Actae of virgin martyrs, where a spurned pagan suitor accuses the martyr for her Christianity. Jurian rejects this explanation and explains that Jurian knows “secrets” about Casca which he wishes to not be revealed.
It simply seems odd that Casca would want this hidden because, while homosexuality was not widely accepted in the late Roman Empire, it was much more so than it is even today. As much as some Christians who favor Roman history might wish to believe in virtuous pagans who share our morals and virtues if not our faith, the truth of the matter is that Roman culture, especially Hellenized Roman culture, had room for homosexual behavior. Additionally, it simply seems that was simply an effort to make Casca even more despicable and paints with a rather broad brush. Additionally, while Christians must witness to the truth of traditional marriage, I am not sure if the best way to do it is make the most despicable character in a novel about a saint into a homosexual.
Overall, these are minor gripes from a history graduate student whose specialty is early Christianity in the Western Roman Empire. The novel is an excellent read and is very well researched. I look forward to the inevitable sequel and heartily recommend it.