Saturday, June 27

Deryni Checkmate (1972, Rev. Ed. 2005) and High Deryni (1973, Rev. Ed. 2007)

By Katherine Kurtz

I previously wrote [LINK] of my history with this series and what brought me back, thirty-odd years after the last time I read it, to the opening trilogy which is collectively called The Chronicles of the Deryni (although that title would now, I think, better serve as a title for the series as a whole). I won’t retread that ground here but rather dive straight off into a few thoughts about the second and third books, which will be intermingled with my thoughts both on the trilogy as a whole and the series as a whole.

The Science Fiction Book Club
Compendium Edition I had from
the mid 1980s
My first observation is that these follow-ups to the introduction of the quasi-medieval world of the Deryni and the Eleven Kingdoms are not as outstandingly better than Deryni Rising as I remember – but markedly better they are indeed. The writing is more polished with less of a juvenile feel, as well as a more balanced mixture of action and dialogue-driven characterization. Kurtz’s skill at constructing characters whom the reader can empathise with and come to care deeply for is sometimes pointed out as what really sets her writing, and this series in particular, apart from the myriad other fantasy authors out there, and that can be seen developing as she matured as a writer. After rereading the trilogy as a whole, however, I would have to say she really had not hit the stride that she would with the second trilogy that she would commence next, what I have always considered to be the high point of her writing, The Legends of Camber of Culdi. Whether that latter assessment would hold up today I cannot say, although as later books came out over the years I never found them as engrossing as the Camber trilogy, especially the latest of the latter-day series, the Childe Morgan Trilogy whose recently-published concluding volume is next in my list of things to read. But they have always been enjoyable, with the comfortable feel of visiting old friends after sometimes years apart, and I have little doubt that The King’s Deryni will be the same.

Other impressions from long ago have needed similar modification. The magic afoot in this world still seems a bit more than the basically ritual-driven parapsychology that I remember. Thankfully, though, there are no more magical creatures (with one exception that could well, in context, have been simply an illusion) nor – Thank God! – the rhymed off-the-cuff spells. Rhymed spells are not completely absent, mind you, but when they appear in the setting-up of the death-challenge Duel Arcane at the climax of the story, it makes perfect sense as part of an explicitly ancient and highly ritualized ceremony.

Likewise, I find here far less liturgical stuff here than I remembered, although, come to think of it, that was perhaps more in evidence in the Camber books anyway. I will say that here the established Church does not come off in a good light, which brings me to a maybe-related further realization. The world Kurtz has constructed is usually characterized, even by myself, as fundamentally “medieval,” a sort-of alternate history version of our own northwestern European Middle Ages mainly set in some analogue of the British Isles. Part of that comes from the dates that she assigns to the events, which mainly occur in the early 1100s (this trilogy and all having to do with King Kelson Haldane of Gwynedd) and the early 900s (the Camber novels and what follows). Also there is the fact that the basic technology is that of the late pre-gunpowder age. The veneer is very much that of a stereotypical Arthurian world of high feudalism and chivalry as viewed through the lens of the Society for Creative Anachronism. This holds in both putative periods of her stories, 10th and 12th centuries, which even in my earliest reading, before I had anything more than a layman’s conception of the Middle Ages, I knew really didn’t account for some necessary degree of social and technological change. Perhaps I mentioned this in my previous post, but I remember discussing with a fellow medievalist graduate student who also read the series how the dates didn’t jive with what “looked” much more like the late 12th, 13th, 14th, even 15th centuries, the age of the Arthurian Romances building through Chaucer and culminating in Malory. Well, I would now push the basic “feel” of the world later than that, into the late 15th or better yet 16th century, and point to several reasons – most of them fairly small and probably noticeable only to a medieval historian such as myself. Passing over the absence of gunpowder, I would simply call attention to the use of surnames at every social level when they were absent in the “real” early 10th century and just really developing in the early 12th-century; they were, on the other hand, common in the 16th century; likewise, the literacy that is evident, seemingly at every level of society, which was definitely not the case in the earlier period when a literate king such as Alfred the Great in England (who died on the eve of the 10th century) was unusual and the lower-classes were largely illiterate even in the 11th and 12th centuries. That was changing after that period, but the explosion of literacy would not really come until the advent of the printing press in the mid 15th century. Like gunpowder, however, the printing press is absent here despite (my impression at least) a fairly widespread literacy. Again, those are points that are on balance minor.

Less minor, and for me a bit of a clincher in reassigning the analogue-era to the 16th century overall (ignoring the lack of apparent change across two centuries for which there is ultimately no resolution) is just how Tudor the whole world feels. Both of the above qualities – names and literacy – are a better fit here. As far as names go, the mix (mishmash?) of English, French, Welsh and other Celtic elements seems very much like that of the period when a Welsh family (Twdyr) had married into the throne of England and there was something of an Anglo-Welsh cultural revival afoot. To wit: Alaric Morgan, Duncan McLain, Richard FitzWilliam, Gwydion ap Plenneth, Edmund Loris, and so forth. But far more telling is the cynical political culture of much of the anti-Deryni church hierarchy. Kurtz has long (and in the introduction to the revised edition of Deryni Rising) identified the Church of Gwynedd as far more High Church Anglican than Roman Catholic despite the very medieval ecclesiastical language being Latin, the priests being celibate, and the strong presence of religious orders – with a strong dash of early medieval Celtic Church thrown in (I’m mainly thinking of the itinerant Bishops, i.e., Bishops-at-large with no territorial See). The non-Roman Catholic structure is plain in that there is a high premium on collegiality and conciliarism among the episcopate while recognizing a primus inter pares authority residing in the Primate of Gwynedd. There is no mention whatsoever of a Pope, nor of Rome, although, contra the Codex Derynianus (an encyclopedic work initially published in a limited hardcover but then reissued as a paperback a decade ago and including a great deal of world-building information beyond that to be found in the books themselves) the evidence of scriptures used as chapter introits implicitly being from the Bible in-universe being the same as our own – as well as mention of various saints such as St. Hilary of Poitiers – would further imply the geography of the Mediterranean and 1st century history of the Church being pretty much identical to our own. I would be greatly fascinated by some elucidation of just when, where, and how history and geography parted ways from our own world, although I suspect like the problem of multiple Robins across the imposed five-year time-line of the “New 52 DC Comics” history of Batman there would be no way to really make the history work out – there’s just not enough time for a world comparable to even 15th-century England to develop by the 10th century.

As usual, I stray from my point. To reiterate and launch off in another direction, “far more telling is the cynical political culture of much of the anti-Deryni church hierarchy.” In past comments by Kurtz she has compared the Deryni to Jews as a persecuted minority in medieval society (never absent, but again something that was heightened in the later Middle Ages), as explanation for why Jews are virtually absent from the stories (as I recall, there is only one identifiably Jewish character, and that in a short story). Viewing the world now through Catholic eyes I now see the Deryni in much more the precarious position that Catholics were in Reformation England. Drawing mainly from the third book of the Camber trilogy, Camber the Heretic, there are stark parallels especially in the advent. Consider the penalties as imposed by the 917 Council of Ramos: “bars Deryni from holding high office, inheriting lands without direct Crown approval, from entering priesthood” (High Deryni, p. 440) – and that simply opened two centuries of brutal persecution that verged on genocide. The descriptions of the destruction of Deryni monasteries in Gwynedd – St. Neot’s in particular – recall Henry VIII’s suppression of the monasteries in England; rereading Alaric and Duncan’s exploration of the empty shell of St. Neot’s put me in mind of the ruins of once great Catholic religious houses that I have visited all across England – Glastonbury, Lindisfarne, and so many more. Moreover, characters' frequent proclamations of doubt regarding the possibility of latter-day miracles and visitations (at least in this first trilogy) – implicitly consigning these to a more superstitious religiosity – reflect very much a collapse of belief and the advent of skepticism and “reason” that proceeded more closely from the Protestant Reformation than most modern Protestants admit. There is, moreover, a far more mystical character to Deryni Christianity evident (again, more in the Camber novels which begin with the Deryni firmly in the ascendant), which draws the “humans’” suspicion, disdain – and jealousy – much as Protestants denounced Catholics’ “superstitions.” The effect is certainly not early 12th-century, not even the 14th-15th-centuries I once characterized it as. It seems firmly 16th-century Tudor England to me – heightened by the cynical political culture of such Reformation ecclesiastical lords as Wolsey, Cromwell, and Cranmer reflected very much in Kurtz’s portrayal of Archbishops Loris and Corrigan.

As an aside: This is not to say that Kurtz deploys the all-too-prevalent stereotype of organised religion in the form of an oppressive and persecuting Church. As was the case in the real-world Middle Ages, and despite what I said above, the Christian Faith is the ultimate bedrock upon which rests the world-view held by the inhabitants of the Eleven Kingdoms. But within that Faith there are sinners as well as saints, and Kurtz plays that human reality masterfully. As counterpoint to the aforementioned archiepiscopal antagonists she places intensely holy protagonists such as Bishops Arilan and Cardiel, as well as portraying the deep turmoil within the soul of Duncan McLain, who is as far as he knows (at least in the beginning) the first Deryni priest ordained in Gwynedd for over two centuries. As I said in the post on Deryni Rising, the overall positive view of what I took at the time to be a Catholic medieval Church had a deep, and positive, effect on me.

Of course, despite the irony that further reflection and this current rereading has convinced me that the Deryni world is neither Catholic nor medieval, these realisations have not in any way detracted from my enjoyment, nor do I expect it to be any different as I loop back to the final “prequel” novel, The King’s Deryni, which sets up the beginning of Deryni Rising. (So I’ll end up where I began a few weeks ago!) More worrisome, however, is the fact that as I alluded to above, some of the later novels, including the Childe Morgan trilogy that concludes with The King’s Deryni, I found less and less compelling however enjoyable – both less inspiring and less inspired. The latter is, I believe, due to the very nature of this trilogy as simply being background material that is ultimately not necessary – how could it be, being given decades after what happens next? Whatever merits the story might have, it ultimately doesn’t really break new ground or do more than flesh out a story the basics of which are already known. Nonetheless, I above likened reading the Deryni novels through the years to occasional visits with old friends, and reminiscing about and reliving old times is part of that experience, in which new depths and perspectives are always possible. I’m sure it will be the same this time.

Having absolutely nothing to do with any of the foregoing, I would like to comment on one other aspect I picked up on this rereading of The Chronicles of the Deryni. Perhaps it is that Kurtz’s new introduction to the revised edition of Deryni Rising acknowledging the inspiration of the Deryni Transfer Portals in the Transporters of Star Trek (the original series, of course), “though it took [her] several novels to nail down a consistent rationale for the magic behind the Deryni constructs, as [she] made the transition from technology to magic” (p. xii), put me in such a mind, but I did find a couple of concepts and a number of lines evoking the classic series. Besides the Transfer Portal as a concept, I would liken the Deryni mental rapport to the Vulcan Mind Meld – and could practically hear Spock’s voice intoning, “My mind to your mind,” etc. in the scene in High Deryni between Alaric Morgan and Warin de Grey. Among lines seemingly lifted from Star Trek, Sean Lord Derry’s desperate exclamation, “They say there’s no Devil, but they’re wrong! I saw him!” (High Deryni, p. 348) is, in my memory at least, identical to Commodore Wesley’s anguished outburst after James Kirk found him alone on his ruined starship Constellation in The Doomsday Machine. I’m not in any way saying she consciously recycled this line; rather, I would say that Star Trek obviously left a deep impression on young Katherine Kurtz!

Cheers! and Thanks for reading!

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