Book Review: ‘Beneath the Silent Heavens’

by Jess Lederman

Beneath the Silent Heavens, Brian Christopher Moore’s enchanting, beautifully written, and thought-provoking retelling of the story of Noe (Noah) and the Flood, is subtitled A Fantasy. There’s a long history of Christian-themed fantasies (arguably including portions of the Bible itself!), with C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien’s tales of Middle Earth looming large in most readers’ minds. For me, however, Moore’s novel has the darkly mysterious mood and intriguing ambiguities of a different Inkling, Charles Williams, and of the grandfather of modern fantasy, George MacDonald (Phantastes and Lilith in particular).

The antediluvian world that Moore evokes is desperately fallen, yet still retains traces of Edenic glory. Animals can talk; Noe’s family knows the location of the Garden, though only great-grandfather Enoch ever sought it (and was never heard from again); the pelts given to Adam and Eve when they were banished—”the prime bloody coverings for the First Ones”—are close at hand, locked away in a cedar chest.

It’s a world even stranger than that of Scripture, painted at times in the sepia tones of the late Victorian era: cameras have recently been invented; an actor wears a “paisley waist­coat;” and Noe’s mother serves tea and biscuits. The zeitgeist is creepily similar to our own. Intellectuals regard tales of the Ancient of Days with snide skepticism; a visiting professor remarks to Methuselah, “It’s a wonder to me … that in these enlightened days anyone can seriously entertain such fairy tales.” At one point a demonic law firm named Womble & Doubt threatens to sue Noe on the grounds that “the ark was a crime of hate speech … an illicit intrusion of private morality into the public realm.”

Moore takes full advantage of fantasy to create some very funny scenes. This ranges from wordplay—for example, describing a giant panda as “nibbling on a large shoot of bamboo which happened to contain the first volume of The Rise and Fall of the Gibbon Empire“—to passages reminiscent of Monty Python, as when a heron lectures a tiger “on the fine points of etiquette. He spent five minutes explaining the proper way to tie a Windsor knot and another ten on the best way of putting a foreign ambassador at ease. (Not, apparently, bringing in a local choir to sing some popular native tunes, but simply to be kind, yet frank, and free with the food).”

I don’t want to give the impression, however, that this is merely a work of amusing weird­ness; Beneath the Silent Heavens is deeply moving, intensely lyrical, and intriguingly complex, rewarding me every time I dive back into its pages.

The story opens with banter between two vixen, Henrietta and Daphne Fox, and it’s a good example of the bittersweet poignancy even in seemingly whimsical scenes. Their conversa­tion is overheard by young Noe, apparently the only human who can still understand and talk to animals, and Henrietta shyly exchanges a few words with him:

A strange sensation she could hardly explain had come over her. She felt a sort of surge of joy and couldn’t help smiling. “What’s your name, if you don’t mind my asking? The Two Legs usually don’t understand us, you see.” “Yes, I’ve noticed [Noe replied]. Somehow I think we are supposed to.”

This and other passages put me in mind of C.S. Lewis. Hints of Paradise come upon us at times, surprising us with joy, and we know that things are not the way they are supposed to be.

In Genesis, Noe’s wife is a cipher, but in Moore’s imagining she is the lovely Priyanka, daughter of Iradon, “a trader from afar” (the Indian subcontinent, evidently). As a young man, Noe observes Iradon’s unexpected arrival and is startled by the sight of “giant crea­tures unlike anything he had ever seen.” The author’s exquisite descriptive language is one of the consistent delights of this novel:

They were thick, paunchy beasts with leathery skin the color of storm sky. Ivory tusks ploughed the air before them, their enormous wide ears and long, impossible snouts flapping as they marched. Most surprising, men sat upon them, dark-skinned and turbaned; some saddled in small tents.

The steadily deepening love between Noe and Priyanka—over centuries!—while not at the center of the story, provides romantic warmth, as in this passage, describing the couple’s regular horseback rides:

Once a week, they promised themselves this time. Their ardor for one another, its intense need for space, to stretch and speak and be silent, forget­ful of duties and cares was made more precious by the feeling that each idyll of the horses might be their last…. Afterwards, Priyanka lay flat, peering without thinking into the soft sky. Noe reclined upon his side, watching the rise and fall of her bosom, breathing in the light scent of jasmine that drifted from her lambent skin.

Searching for Salvation

Most fantasies involve a quest, and this one is no exception. There are several quests within Beneath the Silent Heavens, but for this reader the overarching quest is the search for the God of our salvation.

At the beginning of the story, when Noe sees the trees swaying and hears the heavy footfalls of Iradon’s elephants as they approach, he asks whether this might be the Ancient of Days. Methuselah doubts that He would announce Himself in this matter, and adds, “It has been many years since any have heard Him.”

For most of us, for most of our lives, the heavens are indeed silent. All too often, that silence only becomes an issue in times of distress; then we look for God, and perhaps tremble, seeking to understand His heart, wondering how a good God could possibly allow the pain and evil that afflicts His creation. As Priyanka asks Noe in one of their earliest conversations, “Why does your Ancient of Days look on while men suffer? How can he be good and let men die in agony?” Much later, a satanic voice asks, “Why, if your Ancient of Days is so all-powerful, so benevolent, why did this superior being choose to make just this world? Couldn’t he have thought up a better one?… when he saw all that was going to happen …didn’t he have the decency to just say ‘no’?”

David Bentley Hart has pointed out that this “problem of pain” is nowhere better articulated than by Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, in which Ivan Karamazov “will not acknowledge that there is any justice, any glory, any truth that is worth the suffering of a child.” I was reminded of this early in the novel when the gamboling of Moore’s talking otters and weasels takes a savagely serious turn. They have the misfortune to cross paths with Oglath, which in the tongue of beasts means “The Evil,” a monstrous creature with “scowling eyes the color of marsh gas.” Noe joins the animals to search for the otter mother’s missing children, only to find her pups “strung up and skinned, their skulls shining in the night air.”

The young Noe becomes a legend among the animals by leading them in a bloody quest to destroy the monster. In Noe lives what once was true, but was lost in the Fall, and this passage both looks backward, and, unknown to Noe, though evident to the reader, forward as well:

He knew then that to be a true king was not to be served, but to serve. He remembered the old amities, the story of the Adam who named them all. The secret of that intimate knowledge had been forgotten. Naming had somehow become a mere convention, a tool for utility. Only some of the poets and artists said this was wrong, but few had time for them. A trace of the gifted splendor lived in Noe. It was because of this that the beasts had heeded the call.

The slaying of the monster does not, of course, address the Problem of Pain—but Moore’s tale has just begun.

Long after the defeat of Oglath, a Bengal tiger named Rhumirrah who is “impossibly curious about the Two Legs” sets out on a quest to find Noe, hoping that he is not merely a “story for children.” Her search gains urgency when she hears the prophecy of Orianna the owl:

Doom is coming! Doom! The skies are full of wrath…. The dark waters will crash upon the land. The seas under the earth will break their bounds. Tears will wash the earth and the Heavens will be silent!”

Alarmed, Rhumirrah resolves to warn the animals, but Orianna voices her skepticism in this passage, which is good example of Moore’s wise, sardonic humor:

“They won’t listen, dear.” The tiger snarled her determination. “I will make them,” she said. “That’s just it. You can’t. They aren’t able to tell the difference between a prophet and a lunatic.” “How do you tell?” Orianna assumed the expression of a mild, slightly exasperated governess. “The prophet turns out to be right, of course.” That’s helpful, thought the tiger. Fat lot of good when it’s always after the fact.

Rhumirrah ultimately finds Noe who is, of course, busily building the ark. The tiger and a noble, stalwart bull by the name of Manwise go together to address a vast assembly of the animals and try to convince them to come aboard the ark. The bull’s simple, honest speech is no match for the sophistic eloquence of the Adversary, a satanic serpent, and it seems their quest has been in vain. On their way back to Noe, the tiger is gravely wounded, and Manwise must struggle to bear her body back to Noe, not even knowing if she is still alive. When they finally arrive, the ark-builder brings Rhumirrah back to health, and tales of the “bravery of Manwise and the healing act of Noe” are what sway the beasts and persuade them to come aboard the ark. It’s a touching story that illustrates how the most powerful evangelizing has more to do with Christ-like example than with rational discourse.

The book builds toward a climax aboard the ark with an incident that recalls the missing otter pups who suffered such a savage fate at the hands of The Evil. A cat’s kittens have gone missing, and Noe finds himself looking not only for them but for newborn rabbits and a baby goat who have vanished as well. His quest to find them is one of the novel’s most richly evocative, powerfully profound, and moving episodes. While he begins by searching the ark, he soon finds himself mysteriously transported in both space and time. When Noe explains that he is “looking for the babies,” he’s answered by a Dr. Thorenson, who’s running a nightmarish pediatric clinic:

All the children suffered from some sort of severe malady. There were babies confined to cribs, their heads swollen to the size of large watermelons. “Hydroencephalitis,” informed the doctor in a cool, clinical tone. The nurses had most of the children strapped down in beds or in strollers where their heads lolled to one side like abject ragdolls.

Moore has set the problem of pain right back before us, and the doctor, a cold-blooded, modern-day materialist, demonstrates how a rationalist could improve on God’s handiwork:

“Nature is profligate, but she makes mistakes,” said Dr. Thorenson, stopping before a girl with a cleft palate. “Think of all the unmerited pain,” he uttered almost in a moan of anguish. “With genetic screening and therapeutic selectivity, none of these children need ever have suffered.”

We turn in horror from the suggestion of eugenics, but the horror of “natural evil” remains, and Noe wonders, “should these children never have been born?”

At this point, he meets a new character, Father Peguy, whom the clinic staff regard as a sort of harmless fool. Though at first he appears a babbling “exile from the geriatric floor,” the priest turns out to be an otherworldly, loving figure, one of the novel’s great voices of wisdom. Referring to one of the ugly, afflicted children whom the clinic has given up on, Father Peguy says “I called to him, and when he came, I saw such brightness in his eyes.” The priest gets to the nut of the matter with these words:

“You know what has happened?… We have stopped loving life. We no longer believe it is a good thing. That is why the men in the city scold their loins and mothers apologize to their children for having borne them into such a place. And my children! We have no use for them. What a word—’use’—as if a man’s worth was in what he can do and not in the great and mighty mystery that he exists at all…. We have grown monstrously tired. Even our children are born old and leering, enticed by the serpent.”

This reprises a theme Moore introduces earlier in the story. When Noe first began to build the ark, children came from near and far

… to ask if they might ride in his great machine…. But now those children were grown, busy people. They no longer came to Noe with their joy and wonder … [and] the children of those children were weaned on sour milk…. Before they had a chance to live in innocence, to entertain marvelous dreams, their pure eyes were darkened.

Surely being “reborn from above” implies rediscovering our child-nature! Men and women have lost their delight in the fantastic, lost the child-heart they must regain to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 18:3)—to see, in fact, that the Kingdom is already all about us, however much we live in the not yet. Contrast the obedient child-nature with the secular ethos that Moore portrays in describing the Kai, a people of Noe’s time who are all about us in the world today:

The precise nature of the Kai was deliberately ambiguous so there was no distinct belief to anchor the rites of the people…. True freedom cannot be had in obedience. How can the spirit not grieve and prick against the goad?

Each Kai thought that rights must be respected, that freedom and self-determination were the essence of morality…. Every trace of individuality and nobility had been drained from their visages.

To be reborn as a child of the Kingdom is also to discover who we are meant to be, the life we are meant to lead, indescribably better than anything we could invent for ourselves. The words below, which Father Peguy speaks to Noe, remind me of George MacDonald’s medi­tation on the white rock of Rev. 2:17 (“The New Name,” from Unspoken Sermons) and C.S. Lewis’ musings in The Weight of Glory:

Into each of us is spoken a name. I don’t mean the name your parents gave you!… The name I intend is buried deep in our hearts…. We confuse our true identity with what we think of as our individuality…. Every man lies to himself. You have to cut away the fake, but to do that you must desire joy—and we are too weak for that. We confuse the gift with our chosen pleasures.”

Before Noe and Father Peguy part, the priest relates the following about one of the afflicted children:

“‘Aren’t you longing for your Lord?’ I asked, and he shook his head as if he really understood. There was such a look of excitement in his eyes and I said to him, ‘You are a child waiting for the snow.’ It came to me like a glimpse of his true name…. So, I brought him the Sacrament.” Father Peguy smiled. “And I have gone on doing so. All the children, I have been feeding.”

Noe, of course, knows nothing of Christ. And yet, the Lord is the true object of Noe’s quest, just as He is the object of all our longings, whether we understand that or not. (Near the beginning of Moore’s saga, Priyanka, while yet a pagan, relates a dream in which an imaginary grandfather with a “long, white beard” whispers “Fear not, dear one. The Deliverer will come,” and her heart leaps at the news.)

Immediately after this scene, the missing kittens and rabbits and kid goat are found; the promise of the future Kingdom comes into the present as a moment of deliverance and joy. Noe sees a radiant vision which promises “rest that was also adventure, plenitude rich in desire without the anguish of lack.” Surely that is what awaits us in Paradise!

A bit later on, the baffled Noe, time-travelling once again, encounters the Magi who have followed the star to Bethlehem, one of whom asks him

“[W]hat is it you seek?” “I seek the Deliverer,” spoke Noe in candor.

He then enters the stable and looks in wonder at figures that are clearly Joseph and Mary and the infant Jesus. So too is the afflicted child from the clinic, and countless more:

… children peeked out from every nook and corner. The young of every creature filled the hollows of the spaces, invested with innocence and a lush and elemental joy that seemed to flourish just here, in her presence…. Noe seemed to see himself and Priyank as they had been in the dawn of their love.”

Though Moore doesn’t make it explicit, this reader could not help but imagine that the otter pups slain by The Evil are there, too. In Christ all things are made new! Philosophers struggle to fashion convincing theodicies; I think they’re best crafted through poetry, instead. For my money, this is as good as it gets.

In an interview about his brief but brilliant meditation on the Problem of Pain, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami, David Bentley Hart mentions a photo of a little girl living in “unimaginable squalor,” and comments:

To me that was a heartbreaking picture, of course, but it was also an image of something amazing and glorious: the sheer ecstasy of innocence, the happiness of a child who can dance amid despair and desolation because her joy came with her into the world and prompts her to dance as if she were in the midst of paradise. She became for me the perfect image of the deep indwelling truth of creation, the divine Wisdom or Sophia who resides in the very heart of the world, the stainless image of God, the unfallen.

Perhaps Moore is tipping his hat to the Eastern Orthodox philosopher when, close to the end, he has one of Noe’s sons (speaking with the full knowledge of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection) reflect that

Sometimes, you will see a child dancing amidst indescribable poverty. Sometimes, in a little broken down rural shanty, there will be a radiance of existence denied to the pleasure palaces of the rich…. The transcendence of the God is the mystery of divine nearness. Some people say that God cannot be moved and isn’t this monstrous of him? They do not reckon the astonishing innocence of the God that endures every betrayal, for love that alters in the heart is not love.

Concluding Thoughts

Charles Dodgson read the draft of Alice in Wonderland to George MacDonald’s small army of children, who pronounced it a great success. I suspect that their father would find Moore’s fantasy similarly delightful. Its characters plunge into numerous rabbit holes, and readers with any curiosity will be tempted to take intriguing side excursions as well. The author presents an engraved invitation to one such journey by giving the priest whom Noe encounters the unusual name, “Peguy.” A little googling will lead you to the wonderful writings of the French philosopher-poet, Charles Peguy, who died on the front lines of the First World War. Encountering his poetry, even in translation, is a revelation.

In a review of Hart’s latest opus, That All Shall be Saved, Moore wrote: “to participate in Christ is to be given an eternal revelatory task, to unlock divine treasures for the joy of all that only you are summoned to release.” I’ll turn those words back onto their author, for this reader experienced great delight from the treasures Moore unlocked in Beneath the Silent Heavens. Is it a perfect book? Well, it’s certainly not for everyone. Those who prefer straight­forward storylines may feel that Moore can be idiosyncratic to the point of self-indulgence. There are sections where the narrative seems to explode into fragments; but the fact is, reality sometimes comes at us in shards, and the transcendent is glimpsed as through a kaleidoscope.

For me, it all worked.

* * *

Jess Lederman is author of the novel Hearts Set Free and founder of a website dedicated to George MacDonald: The Works of George MacDonald. He blogs now and then on jesslederman.com.

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2 Responses to Book Review: ‘Beneath the Silent Heavens’

  1. brian says:

    Thank you, Jess, for such an attentive reading of Beneath the Silent Heavens and for your kind and insightful review. In the first long series I wrote for Father’s blog, Searching for Our Human Face, there is a section entitled Animals in the Eschaton? I have repeated at times the same sentiment. I certainly believe the Otter’s pups are included in apokatastasis. The shards of time in the Absinthe chapter owe something to literary high modernism. Some of them are recaptitulated in a longer work not yet finished (I’ve been working on it — and mostly not working on it because of lack of leisure — for thirty years.) So, some of what appears indulgence is a seed for a later work, but mainly they are there to suggest the expansion out to include all of history, time, and space. You are correct, btw, regarding the allusion to Hart’s interview on The Doors of the Sea and also to the not-so-hidden acknowledgement of a debt to Peguy. Thanks again for such a lovely reading. It is encouraging to discover readers with congenial hearts and minds. And yes, Williams and MacDonald, along with Lewis, are influences and comrades in spirit from the early years when childhood first began to peer into the mystery discerned in grace through a mirror darkly.

    Like

    • jesslederman17 says:

      You’re very welcome! I edited out some of my zanier speculations, such as the connection between your story and Noh theater–Mugen Noh often featuring supernatural tales in which time passes in a distinctly non-linear fashion. That’s taking plays on words a bit too far…but hey, once you start going down rabbit holes, it’s hard to stop…

      Liked by 1 person

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