This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
There is another thing I ought to say about pirates. Last night I saw a movie on TV about us, and it got a lot wrong…
More known for his multi-volume series than for his stand-alone books, Gene Wolfe hasn’t written a non-series novel in 16 years. Pirate Freedom bears the proud distinction of being a Sci-Fi channel “essential read”, as far as I can tell because it happens to have come out in the wake of Pirates of the Caribbean. The publishers are happily going along with this and have made sure that the guy on the cover bears a vague resemblence to Jack Sparrow. To be fair, as a response to the increasingly irritating Pirates franchise, Pirate Freedom does a good; it manages to be historically accurate and avoids whitewashing the subject, but at the same time avoids going too far the other way; Wolfe understands that a good pirate story should be fun and exciting, not po-faced and grim.
However, Pirate Freedom isn’t just a response/tribute to Johnny Depp; it’s also Wolfe’s meditation on his own religious beliefs. The main character (and narrator) is Father Christopher a kid from the near future who moves to Cuba with his mafioso father after the fall of the Communist regime. While his dad opens up a casino, Christopher is shunted off to a monastery that doubles as a private boarding school, and eventually becomes a novice there. At some unspecified age – I’d guess 16 or 18 – he decides to leave, but when he does so he isn’t in the mid-21st Century but the late 17th, when the monastery was built.
Stranded in the past, with no family, friends, or connections, Christopher doesn’t have many options, and ends up taking a job on the crew of a merchant ship. A series of misadventures leaves him in the hands of Captain Abraham Burt, an English pirate, and despite his best intentions Chris finds himself becoming a pirate. We know from the beginning that Christopher will return to his own time period – or at least reasonably close to it – because when he narrates it he’s in a time close to our own, working as a parish priest. How he gets back and how he reconciles the mild differences between his 21st and 17th century careers is a central question of the book, but all is explained by the end; this is a more straightforward novel, Wolfe perhaps having got his fix of obscurity when writing the incredibly oblique Soldier of Sidon.
Wolfe’s politics don’t come into this book as much as in some of his other stand-alone novels – he expresses his opinion about child abuse in the Church (it’s horrible and wrong, but if the Church wants to tackle it what it really needs to do is teach children not to be victims, and to tell them it’s OK to say “no” to a priest – or even to punch one in the face – if they’re crossing the line), and he sneaks in a clever attack on the Bush administration; at one point, Christopher explains the pirates’ use of torture (although there’s no explicit torture scenes) by pointing out that the Spanish sailors and soldiers that his crew tortures for gold would torture him and his crew for fun if they were captured. That, of course, is the excuse that Bush administration apologists frequently wheel out to justify all sorts of nastiness in the name of the War On Terror and the Iraq War.
Suddenly, though, Wolfe turns it around by talking about how the Spanish cities are messing up their defences against pirate attacks by ostentatiously focusing on defences against particular types of attack, and failing to realise that the pirates will take those defences into account and adapt their plans, and not trusting or training their (actually quite heavily armed) citizenry to help fight pirate attacks, so that the citizens cut and run as opposed to fighting when the pirates come a-looting. Suddenly his earlier point is clear: he’s not casting the pirates as the brave American forces and the Spaniards as the terrorists, but precisely the reverse (which would make France and Britain represent Saudi Arabia and Iran, I suppose: religiously differing nations with a stake in the region and proxies fighting on their behalf, but who aren’t up to facing Spain directly). The parallel doesn’t hold for the rest of the novel, but as a brief slap in the face for people who think that interrogation methods which fell out of fashion with the Inquisition should be a cornerstone of the War on Terror it’s pretty fun.
However, this novel is more about religion than politics. The lowly churchmen Christopher encounters in the past pretty much always espouse what is right (or at least what Wolfe considers right), as opposed to what the Church actually taught in those days; we don’t see any priests saying “yeah, the status quo in this time period is totally fine with Jesus, so work harder, slaves!” Then again, the clergy we meet are all monks and parish priests – the front line troops of Catholicism, who for the sake of verisimilitude we can assume tend to have more time for the poor and oppressed than, say, a rich old bishop might. Wolfe’s is a grassroots Catholicism which has more sympathy with the lower orders of the Church than with the higher (in the modern day Father Chris has a number of clashes with his Bishop). Christopher seems to feel more in tune with the simple monastic life than he does with the Vatican’s ideas or with Church politics, and at one point opines (through Chris) that:
…the world outside the monastery ought to be about the same, only with falling in love and maybe having kids, a place where people liked each other and helped each other, and everybody got to do what he was good at.
It’s more correct, of course, to say that Wolfe supports the idea of monasticism as opposed to the actual practice, as it stands; one of the reasons that Christopher chooses to leave Our Lady of Bethlehem at the beginning is that he realises that a lot of the monasteries’ rules (supervised bathing, no doors on the rooms, etc.) is designed to prevent gay novices from having sex with each other, and while Christopher isn’t gay he resents the fact that he’s treated as he might be, simply because the monastery (and perhaps the Church as a whole) is so neurotic about homosexuality. It is obvious that Wolfe considers it the job of the Church to help the poor and the needy (thus helping them attain the level of wealth and freedom required for them to make an honest search for God), and to teach those who will listen how to live virtuous lives, and that people’s sexual behaviour really isn’t that closely connected with their virtue (so long as they treat their partners right), and that the Church has lost sight of all that in recent centuries. Thus, Wolfe is nostalgic without being conservative; he is convinced that Catholicism can be a force for great good in the world, but does not seem to believe that the Church’s leaders are using it effectively at this time.
It’s interesting, of course, that Christopher – despite being a priest, and a devout Catholic – is one of Wolfe’s nastier protagonists. Oh, he does all the stuff that Wolfe protagonists usually do – get into fights, solve a mysterious murder, and sleep with beautiful women – but there’s no getting away from the fact that he ends up becoming a bloodthirsty pirate (his rise to power helped partially by his literacy and numeracy and partially by the advice of his Mafia boss father), despite initially resisting the idea. Granted, he does present a compelling argument that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with someone resorting to crime, or even violence, in preservation of their life and freedom, but there comes a tipping point where it’s no longer about the survival but about the gold; at points, in fact, I wondered whether the pirate story was meant to be an allegorical account of Christopher’s Mafia career. The pirate ship is an alternate monastery for Christopher; the pirates are a band of brothers, led by a captain they can vote out if necessary, and sharing the rewards of their labour fairly according to an agreed method. (An aside: according to Wolfe, it’s the merchant ships of the time where the really awful treatment happened – in his reckoning, both pirate captains and naval officers realised that they needed to be able to trust their men not to shoot them in the back in a fight. The worst treatment that Chris receives when he isn’t actually somebody’s prisoner is when he’s on a merchant crew.)
Throughout Pirate Freedom, more than any other of his novels, Wolfe explores his personal religious beliefs without apology, and in doing so presents a Christianity more appealing even than that of Chesterton or C.S. Lewis, entirely lacking in the occasional blotches that mar the vision of the others. Wolfe is not as terrified of sex or women as Lewis was; nor does he have the willingness of Chesterton to accept the centrally-approved doctrine unquestioned. Most importantly, he is able to assert a Christianity divorced from fundamentalism or evangelicalism, and a Catholicism which isn’t about sidelining women, opposing gay rights, and condemning birth control. Gene Wolfe is a much better spokesman for Catholicism than the current Pope, and is about as old. Granted, he’s married and he isn’t a priest of any sort, but come on, College of Cardinals, can’t we cut a deal?
Ferretbrain Fantasy Rape Watch
Fantasy authors are often raked over the coals for badly-handled rape scenes. So, why not cover that treatment in the reviews (along with the bad sex scenes, bad torture scenes, poorly-handled violence, ridiculous battles, and the occasional massacre of peace protesters)?
No rapes are described in detail in Pirate Freedom. As a teenage boy on a ship full of merchant sailors, naturally Christopher is rape bait in the early chapters; each time, it’s mentioned in passing as a thing that happened (wow, it’s almost as if it was a horribly traumatic event he doesn’t want to go into detail about). The first time, he’s traumatised. The second time, he fights back sufficiently hard that there is no third time. That is the end of the matter (although it’s clear it’s affected his attitudes to the value of violence along the way).
There’s a bit where a female character falls into the hands of bad pirates and escapes. She tells Chris about it, and assures him that she wasn’t raped, and he believes her. It’s up to us as readers whether we concur.
Oh, and the pirates invade, loot, and burn down a town at one point. Chris acknowledge that there is rape and murder which he tried to stop but couldn’t. Similarly, there are allusions to the pirates torturing people, but there are no explicit torture scenes and Chris suspects that God will judge them harshly for it.
I hereby propose a new unit for the measurement of inappropriately-handled rape, torture, and violence in fantasy novels: the Goodkind. If a book rates 1 Goodkind, it means that the author was precisely as insensitive as Terry Goodkind in his or her handling of “mature” (read: edgy) subject matter. A book rating 0 Goodkinds doesn’t even mention such topics.
Pirate Freedom rates 1 milliGoodkinds: there’s rape, torture, and massacres, but they aren’t described in any detail at all; it can be argued that there are important reasons for including all of them (not least the fact that Wolfe is going for a reasonably historically accurate depiction of piracy here).