Morality, Martyrdom, & Murderous Marauders (Yup, for Kids)
January 26, 2017 § 1 Comment
If the greatest teaching tools delight the heart as they instruct the mind, then Adam Gidwitz has just given us 337 of the most bizarre, funny, and awesomely epic pages for talking to our children about Western Civilization’s history with prejudice and persecution.
Let me back up.
Had you told me I would relish reading to my son a novel set in the Middle Ages—not to mention one steeped in some of the oldest, most complicated debates in religion—I would have said you didn’t know me in college, when I nearly destroyed my GPA in a class on The Canterbury Tales. In all of English literature, there is little I have found less enticing than the Middle Ages. Knights roaming the countryside, exploited surfs, and drunks passed out in the doorways of inns? Not my thing.
Enter Adam Gidwitz, formerly known for his deliciously dark (and darkly humorous) retelling of traditional fairy tales in his bestselling middle-grade trilogy A Tale Dark and Grimm (Ages 8-12). Ever since I first read his essay “In Defense of Real Fairy Tales,” I have known Gidwitz to be someone dedicated to giving kids, not only what their hearts desire, but what their psyches need.
Now, Gidwitz has taken his unique talent for combining blood and gore with the deeply personal and morally inquisitive and turned it on the Middle Ages in The Inquisitor’s Tale (Or, the Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog) (Ages 11-16).
Let me just say that THIS IS THE MOST DARING WORK OF CHILDREN’S FICTION I HAVE EVER ENCOUNTERED. Never mind that Gidwitz fashions his story in the style of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, where oral narratives are delivered over pints of ale by an innkeeper, a chronicler, a librarian, a troubadour, a jongleur, a nun and, ultimately, the Inquisitor himself—each picking up where the other leaves off. Never mind that the book is gorgeously illustrated in the style of an illuminated manuscript by the Egyptian-born Hatem Aly. Those things are just icing on the cake. It’s what Gidwitz does inside the story that’s utterly mind-blowing.
The Inquisitor’s Tale reveals so many twists and turns, takes so many thematic and narrative risks, that it would feel like whiplash if it wasn’t so riveting. Did a young monk just yank off his donkey’s leg, use it to club to death a band of murderous bandits, and then magically reattach it? Did three children just watch their guardian throw himself in protest onto a pyre of Jewish books being burned on the whim of a Christian king? Did a boy just cure a lactose-intolerant dragon of his deadly farts by feeding him rotted sheep flesh so he would puke up a “long, goopy train of yellow liquid”?
Are three children and a troubadour actually sitting around in a children’s book debating the question, “Why would God make bad things happen?” And actually coming up with answers both profound and humorous?
Cut to my JP, gaping at me over the pages with unblinking eyes.
Gidwitz’s book may be a suspenseful, swashbuckling tale of epic proportions, but it is also an intimate window into the souls of the three French children who star in it. Given the clashes in class and religion which permeate every aspect of thirteenth-century society, these children should by all accounts have no reason even to meet, much less form an alliance.
Jeanne is a lowly peasant girl, desperate to hide her prophetic fits lest she be accused of sorcery and burned at the stake. She is trailed by her loyal white greyhound, Gwenforte, who has died and come back to life (yup). Jacob is a Jewish boy, possessed with magical healing powers from the night he narrowly escapes his village after it is set on fire by Christian peasant boys. William is an orphaned and oddly large oblate (monk-in-training), recently expelled from the monastery where he grew up ridiculed for his supernatural strength and his part-African-Muslim heritage.
Where their class and religion should divide them, the children instead come together over something they have in common: they are all outcasts. Their births would put them in one place, but their abilities prevent them from staying there. A great debate runs through the story: Are the children saints? Should they martyr themselves? And what do these two things even mean?
Ironically, more than their powers, it is the children’s vulnerability which shapes them. As they share their pasts and discuss their belief systems with one another, as they watch strangers react differently to each of them, they begin to question the entrenched divisions of their society. They begin to analyze and critique their own faiths, to ask some of the most difficult and universal of questions about the meaning of life and our role in it. What does doing the right thing look like? And is it worth the expense?
Cut to JP, gaping at me over the pages with unblinking eyes.
By luck or by fate, the three children come up against the central conflict of the story: the planned burning at the order of King Louis IX of all the Talmuds in France, the sacred Hebrew text at the heart of Judaism. During the high Middle Ages, these reproductions were vehemently guarded by Jewish leaders—book printing a painstaking labor of love whereby each page is hand copied—and there were many documented attempts by Christian rulers to obtain and destroy them for the threat to Christianity they believed they possessed. (Never mind that the children discover the central message of the Talmud—“What you would hate to have done to you—do not do to other people”—ironically aligns with the Golden Rule of Christianity—“Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” Go think on that, kids and grown people.)
With the help of “a mountain of flesh, with red hair and bristling whiskers and reddish eyes” named Michelangelo di Bologna, the children stage a plot to save the Talmuds and preserve the Jewish teachings. In doing so, they end up in a climactic showdown with royalty and knights on a battleground of quicksand, against the backdrop of the reverent Mont-Saint-Michel on the outskirts of Paris.
Cut to JP, gaping at me over the pages with unblinking eyes.
Had I been exposed as a child to anything approximating Gidwitz’s The Inquisitor’s Tale, would I have grown up with a different appreciation for the Middle Ages? HECK YES! I might have even gone on to study religion and philosophy with fervid passion.
As Gidwitz explains in his equally fascinating fourteen-page Author’s Note, his story is meticulously researched, the product of a year spent in Europe with his wife, herself a professor of the Middle Ages. Many of the figures and events in the book are real (King Louis IX; Talmuds burning in Paris; even Gwenforte is based on a real Holy Greyhound, to my son’s delight), and many others are based on legends of the Middle Ages. All of these parallels are so enticingly explained that I actually exclaimed, “God’s wounds! If only I could go back to school and study this!” (We’re well-versed in medieval swearing now—I highly recommend it.) To which JP replied: “No, Mommy, we need you here. But, don’t worry, I’ll learn it and tell you everything.” Looks like I’ll have to make do with the extensive annotated bibliography at the book’s end.
Again and again, Gidwitz shows us that things are not what they seem, that people cannot be dismissed by the circumstances of their birth, and that actions speak louder than words. (Also: “A hug from a child! Perhaps God’s greatest invention!”) At the book’s conclusion, the children broach the subject of martyrdom with their mentor, Michelangelo, worried that he foresees sacrificial death in their future. Instead, Michelangelo asks William for the Latin definition of “martyr.” The boy replies, “witness,” and Michelangelo responds:
Correct. And have you not already witnessed on behalf of goodness and beauty and justice and God? To Louis and Blanche and dozens of others? Whether you go your separate ways or stay together, you will continue to witness—against ignorance, against cruelty, and on behalf of all that is beautiful about this strange and crooked world. Yes, children, you will be martyrs. Just as you have always been.
Children may save us all in the end.
In fact, it has always been children—their innocence, their purity, their innate goodness—who offer the most hope, who possess the greatest power to reach across the divides, to stop the destructive cycle of prejudice and persecution, and to open their hearts to love and acceptance.
I only hope we adults will start watching them a little more closely.
GREAT NEWS: Blessedly, The Inquisitor’s Tale will be with us for the long haul, as earlier this week it was awarded the prestigious Newberry Honor by the American Library Association! The other award recipients are similarly mature and daring, with the Newberry Medal going to Kelly Barnhill’s spellbinding dark fantasy, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, and another Honor going to Lauren Wolk’s haunting and deeply resonant Wolf Hollow (my favorite book of 2016—read my post from last summer here). Do our children have any idea how lucky they are to be growing up at a time when children’s authors are taking off the handcuffs, expanding the literary landscape, and breaking rules all over the place? (Probably not, but that’s a conversation for another time.)
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Book published by Dutton Children’s Books. Review copy provided by Penguin. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!