Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Such was the doom of avenging justice, such was the pleasure of Heaven - Galt's Calvinist masterpiece

I seem to remember that yesterday I compared Ringan Gilhaize to a Mel Gibson movie.  As I think about it, I realize that I've never actually seen a Mel Gibson movie like this novel.  I've just heard that such things exist.  So I'll switch actors.  Ringan Gilhaize - the last half, at least - is like "Gladiator."  Yes, the 2000 Russell Crowe movie.  A man loses everything at the hands of an oppressive ruler and lives only for REVENGE!

Many a time yet, when I remember that night, do I think with wonder and reverence of our condition.  An infirm grey-haired man, with a deranged head and a broken heart, going forth amidst the winter's wind, with  a little boy, not passing thirteen years of age, to pull down from his throne the guarded King of three mighty kingdoms, - and we did it, - such was the doom of avenging justice, and such the pleasure of Heaven.  But let me proceed to rehearse the trials I was required to undergo before the accomplishments of that high predestination. (272)

A "deranged head" - few modern readers will disagree, whatever else their sympathies might be.  When Ringan says that he plans to overthrow the King of England, he means it.  When he says "and we did it," he means it.  He means "I did it."

All of his losses are part of the preordained plan for Ringan to save Scotland from its enemies.  All of his grandfather's successes (his exploits, his large family, his long life) are also part of this plan.  Why is it Ringan that must suffer?  Who knows.  That's the plan.  Providence, that's the word Ringan always uses.

Almost always.  When his family is killed, and worse, all but that last son, the Calvinist language drops away.  Can this horror be the work of Providence?  Ringan refuses to say so.  Actually, he refuses to say almost anything about the loss of his family - "all is phantasma that I recollect of the day of my return home" (263).  Even years later, writing his book, Ringan cannot face what happened to him.  Maybe we're used to this kind of writing now, this kind of psychology.  I'm having trouble thinking of another 19th century example.  Galt was way ahead of his time, again.

Note that Ringan has not, in that first passage, lost quite everything.  In the the same chapter (XVIII-XIX), Ringan is asked to let his last son join the Covenanters, to become an open rebel against the crown.  He consults the Bible, three times, and each time is told to sacrifice his son.  It's a powerful scene of faith and despair.  We already know - Ringan the author knows - that the sacrifice will be real, that God will not provide a ram to replace Isaac on the altar.

Unlike every other Galt novel I tried, Ringan Gilhaize is not remotely comic.  No, it's bleak and obsessive, a fanatic's attempt to find meaning in the horrible things that happened to him.  Most readers (the author, too) will only be able to follow him so far.  That gulf is the heart of the meaning of the novel.  I wish that Galt had relaxed his conceptual grip a bit and moved us to Ringan's own story more quickly.  The last third of this book is a troubling masterpiece.  Few readers will want to fight their way to it, and I don't blame them.

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