Monday, February 1, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Lion and the Cross. A Novel of Saint Patrick and Ancient Ireland by Joan Lesley Hamilton

Disclaimer: I received this book free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

First published in 1979, The Lion and the Cross: A Novel of Saint Patrick and Ancient Ireland by Joan Lesley Hamilton has been re-released by Open Road. Generally, I’m a big fan of historical novels written back in those days (how long ago the 70's seem!) and Saint Patrick is an ideal protagonist, so I was happy for the opportunity to review this book.

Patrick (Padraic) is an old man of forty, looking back on his life, as the prologue opens the story. This device allows the older but wiser man to pass judgement on his younger self and thereby mitigates some of the judgement the reader might want to pass upon him. Young Patrick was not a likeable guy. Spoiled, rebellious, too sure of himself, and an avowed atheist (in defiance of his very religious parents), the youth is running amok himself on the day barbarian raiders from Eire sweep through his village, looting and pillaging. He returns just in time to stumble upon the raiders, who cart him back to their homeland to be a slave.

His stubborn defiance serves him well in some ways, but he is slow to see or accept the workings of God in his life. Eventually, he rises to a position of some prominence in the court of a powerful king, a warlord, though it is always understood he is a slave. He wears his Christianity as a symbol of his defiance, and takes a good deal of pride in the superiority of his God and therefore himself. Always, Patrick is certain of what God wants for him and what God surely must not want, and when those expectations don’t correspond with current reality, Patrick’s response is anger or doubt. The miracles God works through him and the visions Patrick is sent, even the voice of God speaking to him directly, each only temporarily convince Patrick that God is, in fact, with him. This is understandable enough as Patrick’s life is extremely challenging. But his vacillation gets a bit wearying and his arrogance makes him an unappealing protagonist. These things make the story more difficult to read, even if this realistic approach is ultimately rewarding.

It takes the remainder of his youth and many bitter adventures before God humbles Patrick to the point where he can be a useful servant. The novel ends before Patrick returns as a missionary to Ireland, but the fact that he will do so is no longer in doubt.

I had a mixed reaction to this book. The story is interesting and a credible representation of a life that is poorly documented. The author does a good job of creating a life story from the few facts and the legends that have sprung up around him. She also does a wonderful job of making Ancient Ireland and Briton vivid and real. The key events in Patrick’s fictional life are compellingly presented. However, there is a lot of wandering in the wilderness for this lost young man, a lot of soul-searching and backsliding. I found myself skimming over parts of it, just enough to get the gist of what was going on, as I got bogged down in the sometimes over-written prose. It was difficult to connect with the other characters, despite finding them convincingly portrayed, because Patrick himself doesn’t connect in lasting or meaningful ways. His friendships are fairly shallow, because he is always angry and superior. His relationships with women are not relationships, but rather he lusts after or condescends to them, worships or hates them. He never really sees them as people.

For historical fiction fans who are interested in this Dark Ages time period and/or those with an interest in great historical religious figures, this re-release is worth a look.