The Sword Bearer (Author: John White) – Book Review.
“I am the Changer, the Unchangeable Changer. I am the Beginner-Who-Never-Began.” – 42.
As a child my father read to me the entire Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis. I undertook (and succeeded) in reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy, but fumbled when trying to make it through The Silmarillion. In general, I’m not a huge fantasy guy. I really enjoyed Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit was good, but Lord of the Rings I found too dense and detailed (remember, I was a child at the time).
Every once in a while I try to pick up some fantasy and give it a read – but I find most of it does not interest me. I am particularly fond of allegories and extended metaphors – such as Narnia and, now, John White’s The Archives of Anthropos.
“No one can make you drink the wine of free pardon. You must want to drink it yourself. And until you do, John the Sword Bearer, your sword will prove useless to the cause. Indeed, if before drinking the wine you should ever try to kill the Goblin Prince with it, your sword will surely fail you.” – Mab, 87-88.
White’s Archives of Anthropos begins with The Sword Bearer, the only book which I have read thus far, which tells the story of a young man (John) who is taken to another world where he must slay a dark goblin lord who terrorizes the country. The book has more in common with Narnia than Tolkien. The story – while somewhat lengthy (294 pages) is more detailed than Narnia in its portrayals but less detailed than Tolkien.
“And when the ruler of darkness reigns,
the days shall be painted with gloom.
And the light of the stars shall slowly increase
as a shadow crosses the moon.
For then shall the tower of Mystery wax great
and an odor of death shall blow
“Til the sword shall be free in the bearer’s hand
and the tower shall sink below.” – Mab, 135.
Yet it does not exceed Narnia in quality, in fact, I think it fails to reach the same level of literature as Lewis or Tolkien. While it is allegorically powerful, it lacks the sort of literary richness found in Lewis and Tolkien’s constant integration of other mythological strains into their works. At least, no such strains stuck out to me as I read the work. The book makes constant connections with principles and passages of Scripture (Adam and Eve, the Christ, Satan, sin, salvation, and so on) but it does not seem to reference other works besides Scripture (which Lewis does with some profundity).
“Mab waited so long before replying that John felt uncomfortable. When at last he spoke, his voice was heavy. ‘Sometimes, Sword Bearer, I wish I understood the ways of the Changer. But my mind has yet to penetrate them. Often he does things that make little sense to me, and his silences wound me. I suppose he owes none of us an explanation of his ways. I serve him, and I will serve none other for he has been gracious to me. But I find him hard to understand.'” – 170.
Still, the book, if enjoyed on its own merits is a worthy and interesting read. I don’t really read not only fantasy but fiction. It takes a special book to catch and maintain my attention. I find there are so many non-fiction books, where am I to find time to read fiction? But this book grabbed my attention and held it throughout.
“Yes, I confess I have used my staff in ways he never instructed me to. Sorcerers and magicians do so all the time. To them the power itself is important. Yet for nearly seven hundred years whenever I have used the Changer’s power wrongly, however great the demonstration of power may have been, it brought no lasting good. I once breached a castle wall with it, but the castle was never taken. I dried an unfordable river with it, but the army was defeated after crossing it. My staff was given me to accomplish the Changer’s purposes, and only when it is so used does lasting good come.” – Mab, 198.
Granted, there may have been contributing factors. John White was a Christian psychiatrist who wrote The Masks of Melancholy, an important book in my understanding of my own mental struggles (especially with depression). He also wrote Eros Defiled, which is still referenced frequently, and discusses Christians and sexuality in a frank, concise way that seeks to bring together Scripture and psychiatry.
I am fascinated by John White as an individual because of his movement from more academic/intellectual circles into a more charismatic environment (third wave more precisely) and the resulting alienation he experienced. I read somewhere that White was bipolar himself and I am interested to know how this influenced his spirituality throughout his life. Unfortunately there is very little that I have found written about White, even though he was a prolific author and influential leader within the Vineyard movement, and so I am left searching through his books to understand him.
“Beware that you speak not ill of the Changer! The Changer cares. He cares greatly. But our little minds cannot conceive the greatness of his plans. Have any of you thought to ask him what they are? Or do you think he has gone on a journey, leaving you all to do his thinking for him?” – Mab, 201-202.
Some of his works – like Eros Redeemed – I have found extremely disjointed and confusing. Whereas others such as The Masks of Melancholy and Eros Defiled (mentioned above) I have found to be highly insightful. The Sword Bearer falls more along the insightful lines.
“You see my fire? I know not whether it drives away the darkness from the marshes or the darker fears from my heart. But come and sit beside me. If darkness and cold crawl round your heart as they crawl round mine, sit on my footstool and let heat and light singe your skin!” – Bjorn, 206.
Another reason I began reading this series was because in an interview White remarked that his most controversial books where not any of his non-fiction – even though his Eros Defiled was quite edgy in some senses in its direct, practical, no-beating-around-the-bush approach to sexuality and his Masks of Melancholy was released in a day when many Christians believed that mental illness was an illusion and psychiatry an over-blown and completely anti-Christian practice. Instead White indicated that it was his fiction series (The Archives of Anthropos) which raised the most controversy – some Christians being outraged that he would write fantasy, believing fantasy cannot be Christian. Others who found the books to be extremely cathartic and healing to various wounds in their own lives.
“‘My staff may help. But the Sword Bearer has an infallible way. He simply walks into his own pain.’ Mab reminded them about the meaning of the pain in John’s shoulder.
John began to feel his heart beat. What adventure awaited him now? He did not like the thought of going in whatever direction increased his pain in order to find the goblins. Yet interest quickened as everyone realized the possibilities John’s painful shoulder had.” – 223.
As far as content goes, the books do include mythical creatures (such as goblins), magic, and violence. The books appear to be written with an older child/teen audience in mind – perhaps similar to Narnia – while at the same time being entertaining and thought provoking to older readers as well.
If you read fantasy – I’d recommend this series. If you don’t read fantasy – I’d recommend the series as well. It is an enjoyable and easy read, with some great thoughts/quotes – a few of which I’ve included in this article.
“The emptiness inside him was larger than himself. It was larger than the universe.” – 236.
“‘They call me John-of-the-Swift-Sword because this,’ John touched his scabbard, ‘cut off the hand of Old Nick, the Goblin Prince.’
‘I see,’ the lady murmured mischievously. ‘You yourself did not cut the hand off. The sword cut it off. Was the sword in your hand at the time by any chance?'” – 268-269.
“He is the Unmade Maker, the Beginner without Beginning, the Change who cannot be changed.” – Male Regent, 271.
“He knew the power of Old Nick was the power of an evil still inside himself, a proud and rebellious evil, an evil he must now destroy.” – 282.