A novel of Celtic quantum time that asks us to consider the ways in which we are all born strangers, seaborne foundlings, living between worlds. A parable for our particularly torn times.
Damian Walford Davies
What if you had no choice but to simplify your way of life?
This is what happens to John Finlay, a London engineer who runs away and becomes: the Seaborne. His headlong flight plunges him into a near-death experience. But when he regains consciousness he finds himself in a very different world from the one he left behind. The Island is somewhere to the west of Scotland, in a time that feels medieval. John travels from disbelief to despair, but finds himself held by people who teach him their Celtic language and the ways of a small community, living sustainably and close to the earth. As John starts to take his place among the Islanders he tries to bring them something from our world. But what he brings splits the community wide open and has him on trial, re-enacting a much deeper, and older, story. The Seaborne: a tale of transformation. The only way out, is through.
The Seaborne, by A.G.Rivett
At least on my side of the Pond, the name of Philip Pullman is as big in literature at the moment as that of Margaret Atwood. He’s recently released two volumes of his trilogy anticipating the work which really raised him to mega-stardom – about Lyra and Will and Lord Azriel and the infamous Mrs Coulter which, quoting from Milton’s Paradise Lost, he entitled His Dark Materials.
Pullman has written about the thinking behind His Dark Materials. ‘I found that my interest was most vividly caught by the meaning of the temptation-and-fall theme. Suppose that the prohibition on the knowledge of good and evil were an expression of jealous cruelty, and that the gaining of such knowledge were an act of virtue? …The true end of human life, I found myself saying, was not redemption by a non-existent Son of God, but the gaining and transmission of wisdom, and if we are to do any good in the world, we have to leave childhood behind.’ (Philip Pullman, Paradise Lost in Dæmon Voices: essays on storytelling.)
The first ideas for the Seaborne came to me about twenty years ago on holiday on the rocky west coast of Ireland, and were no more than, What if someone with modern ideas of our technological society were to find himself in a pre-technical world? How would he be received? What could he do for them? I played with some opening chapters, but there it lay, while my life quietly turned upside down.
More than a dozen years later, I came back to the idea, and I started writing a full first draft. I didn’t know then just how the story would end: I think many authors have the experience that after a while their characters take on their own lives and have their own ideas, and they carry the plot along to the inevitable conclusion that neither they nor their creator could foresee. It was only after my partner Gillian – now my wife – had read the draft, a few others had seen it, and I was getting some feedback on it, that I began to realise that I had written a story of redemption.
Pullman has no time for redemption by a ‘non-existent Son of God,’ writing that there is a way back into Paradise by the back door, as it were, through wisdom. This can only be done by leaving the innocence of childhood behind and experiencing the trials of adult life. About that, he and I are agreed. But the wisdom my character attains is won bit by bit by stripping away the accretions of his old ideas of himself until at last he becomes a ‘Son of God’ himself and, at last, comes to a place in which he can make an authentic choice. The answer is neither parachuted down from Heaven nor physically fought for on earth. It is won only by inner transformation.
And that, I began to realise, was the meaning of the story I had written. Yes, in later drafts I made the theme more explicit, until finally the main character, John (he has become Dhion in the Island speech) is sent on his great ordeal on Good Friday, and it is two days later that he emerges. But I insist it was the story itself that required the theme – not the other way round.
And today, as I sit writing this nearly two months after the Seaborne has been published, I begin to see all kinds of parellels. John appears on the Island, as it were, from nowhere. (We have a glimpse in a brief prologue of his life in our own world and time.) He comes like a small child in an adult body, having to learn all over again his speech, his behaviour, even his toilet-training. He has to try to explain before the chief people of the town where he has come from – and both they and he find what he says very unsatisfactory. He is apprenticed to a craftsman – not a carpenter, but a smith. And finally, he finds himself on trial for his life and the only way out, as he himself realises, is through.
But his transformation is not in isolation. It is enabled by the selfless giving of another life, and it enables the transformation of those around him. Dhion becomes a type of Christ, and those near to him cannot but be changed as well.
It happens that the choice Dhion makes parallels one I believe all of us in the ‘developed’ world are faced with making if we are to avoid irreversible global warming: to accept a society that is simpler and more sustainable, but rich in culture and community. I hope you will enjoy reading the Seaborne every bit as much as I have enjoyed writing it. And perhaps it will change you a little, as it has changed me.
The Seaborne, by A.G.Rivett, 351pp
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