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A skewed view of Byzantium for children
on March 19, 2007
This story by Ms. Barrett is a good, but seriously flawed fictional account of the life of Anna Comnenus, a Byzantine princess during the medieval era. For those who like fiction with no connection to reality, (and the plethora of fantasy titles, sci-fi and other `historical fiction' tampering with the past on the market today, is a pretty good indication of such!) this is a noble effort, that comes very close to the real thing, but fails at the very point at which it could have made a good novel, a great one. The author's very good pacing of her storyline, her evocation of some of the elements of a Greco-Roman society, are all well executed- it is clear she is a respected writer (the American Library Association gave it awards, as did Booklist and Bulletin).
But the reality of an [Greek] Orthodox culture and the suffusing of that faith in an overtly Christian realm that endured for over 1000 years, are completely missing in Barrett's novel- as are the realities of how deeply intertwined the Christianity of the Apostles and the Greek culture's dependence on them would have more than deeply influenced not only a royal such as Princess Comnena, but the entire court, far more than Barrett envisioned.
The plot strikes me more as a `junior Lucretia Borgia' than a Byzantine monarch's first-born heir. What I mean is this: the intricacies of plotting, revenge, murder, poisoning and all the rest that were a hallmark of the Borgias- and Italian, Papal culture (including some Popes whose offices were bought and paid for by Borgia money!) are in far shorter supply in the Byzantine records, and are by and large totally foreign to an Orthodox phronema [mindset]. Not that they did not exist, mind you! But Barrett's confusion of Roman Catholic and Orthodox prayers, sacramentals, liturgy, and Weltanschauung are apparent to an informed reader, and all of this is tacitly glossed over, downplayed, or clearly absent [by omission rather than commission in the book?] which confuses an Orthodox reader seeking material for his children to have them learn their own history, and points out how such organizations such as the ALA and Booklist are woefully ignorant of world cultures, even though they preach `multiculturalism.' Such obfuscation is made even more obfuscated because of the cover art on the paperback edition, which alludes to some `inner sanctity' of the Princess, showing her with an iconic nimbus of sainthood, that NEVER appears in her actions, or in the pages of the book, nor can be gleaned from the history of the real ruler!
Not once that I recall, is anyone found praying before an iconostasis, a foundational element of ANY truly Orthodox culture, nor are icons even mentioned! Nor is there any mention, allusion, or talk of one of the most astounding events of this era, namely the actions of the Roman schismatics, when Cardinal Humbert, acting as the Pope's henchman, came to Byzantium (Constantinople) with the `anathema' for the Orthodox, over their non-use of the `filioque' [`and the son'] clause in the Nicene Creed - an addition which the West inserted without canonical authority, and then accused the Byzantines of `omitting'- and it is this ONE event, which started the entire break between East and West Rome, which has yet to be healed, over one thousand years later!!! This is not a minor point in dealing with a fictionalized account of Byzance in the year 1100- it would be as if one were to write a fictional story of Lincoln, and not mention the fact that, under his rule, the Civil War took place! This is an example of pure Western hubris, and wilfull ignorance of another, equally valid culture!
Modern writers are all seemingly afflicted with a skewed, adolescent, egotistical temperocentric view of history, [one that is stuck in only THIS century, and THIS era, as `normative' for all of history] and this is increasingly apparent in children's fiction- see my reviews of other historical fiction. Barrett's book is a good look into ego, pride, lack of Christian charity, and the machinations of power, but as a historical novel of either an Orthodox princess, land, or culture, it is severely lacking. Orthodox parents would especially need to do some `caveat emptor' before giving this novel to their children as a `good look' at their own culture.