The Scrolls of Nef, or the Fascism of Piety
The Scrolls of Nef, by Gary Glickman, Hand to Hand Publishing
There are more than enough story levels in The Scrolls of Nef to satisfy what I imagine will be many years of masters' theses and dissertations. Describing the novel by any one theme above the others means to risk casting the others into shadow, and overlooking the impressive multi-vision. But I suspect one of the themes most talked-about in this third novel by Gary Glickman, (half of the music-writing duo, The DreamBrothers) will be the theme of monotheist fundamentalism's murderous rigidity: any group that claims a monopoly on Truth ensures becoming what it claims to hate. Hate in the name of love; violence in the name of peace; distortion and lies in the name of purity. Like the string in a necklace, that theme of fundamentalist decadence organizes the novel through all its many narrative levels.
At the most concrete plot level, the peaceable kingdom of Ruhal is invaded by an Imperialistic Empire spreading its fundamentalist monotheist Religion, throughout what might be Medieval Europe. The Godlians, as the invaders call themselves, see themselves as liberators of the natives from the darkness and wickedness of their more pacifist, tolerant, polytheistic, Gaia-honoring traditions. If such a theme sounds familiar and timely for the beginning of the 21st century, it surely is—although as Tolkien reminded us, archetypal resonance is not allegory. However the 21st century will eventually unfold, the novel unfolds and resolves according to the archetypal story of how a peaceable kingdom responds to Imperial invasion.
We readers experience the Godlians mostly through the double viewpoint of two royal brothers, the exiled princes of the invaded kingdom. It is the split vision of the two oppositional brothers that defines the structure of the story. Looked at simply, the two brothers hold opposite and incomplete masculine energies, and must eventually integrate their different strengths to overcome their oppressors. Though separated on two continents by a vast ocean, the brothers have parallel and convergent educations: each brother finds a mentor; each must learn to see through his different princely arrogance; each finds his missing soul-pieces, and by doing so, becomes a hero.
Soul searching, or "soul-reading" is in fact another unifying theme. The macho older brother, gently pressing his beloved's chest, sees images of her future, and though he is alarmed, she tells him he is simply "soul-reading." The younger, intellectual brother apprentices himself to his scholarly great-uncle, royal translator of the ancient scrolls of Nef, in order to "wake up" his soul. Soul-reading, according to great uncle Mordec, means "aligning with the living soul of the planet, and becoming fluent, therefore, in reading people."
And so, toward soul-reading, the brothers follow their seemingly-disparate destinies that we readers can see are really mirrors of each other. Talland, the crown prince, is at first easily seduced by the story of marrying the Godlian Questioner's daughter. That choice is narrowly and disastrously avoided; gravely wounded, Talland is brought to recover at the mountain-top abbey of a rag-tag bunch of eccentric healers that the villagers understandably think of as witches. Orland, the younger prince, hides out with his great-uncle, or with the refugees of the Old City, from whom he learns authenticity, sex, empathy. But he must eventually flee the decadent city of his mother's birth with the ancient scrolls of his uncle's translations, carriers of the old wisdom, which the Godlians wish to destroy. Talland's ten year task is to unite his country's rustic partisans. Orland must voyage through the heart of the Godlian empire, to find a haven for the scrolls, and for his crew of refugees.
So what kind of story is this, that constantly flirts with everyday magic but asks no structural indulgence from fantasy; that flirts with gender-reversals and illusions ("Orland" sounds suspiciously like Virginia Woolf's gender-transforming "Orlando") but recognizes the rigidities of real gender-polarized human culture? There is an epic sweep that pays homage to Tolkien (what modern epic does not?) but also a play of domestic manners, interior psychology and the artificial limitations of gender that owe to Jane Austen, Ursula LeGuin or indeed Virginia Woolf. Doesn't that spectrum from Tolkien to Woolf sound double-gendered, the heroic masculine and the containing, interior feminine?
The vision of the world revealed by The Scrolls of Nef does seem double-gendered, which is one level of the characters' struggles. The resolution of the epic sweep is an integration of warrior and teacher, priest and singer, masculine and feminine, political and personal—an old fashioned comedy resolution (the lovers marry; the brothers share the rule; the kingdom is liberated; the wisdom is saved) in the larger context of whole lifetimes passing, and all of our small personal stories folding together, mostly unnoticed, into what the victorious call history.