(Story Warren Books: 2015) Reviewed by Lee Duigon
My first reaction, once I’d finished reading this book, was to say, “Oh! Now we’re getting somewhere!”
To some it may seem a trivial pursuit to try to reclaim territory for Christ’s Kingdom in the realm of fantasy literature. “The world’s on fire—and you’re twiddling around with children’s books?” But there are two things they haven’t considered.
First, children and teenagers consume a prodigious amount of fantasy. I can’t even guess the number of new titles published every year. Add to that the collective input of self-publishing, fantasy fan sites on the Internet, and the vast number of works already published and still in print, and you’ll see that this is no small enterprise. Far from being a trickling backwater, fantasy is a mighty tributary flowing into the mainstream of our popular culture.
Secondly, because it’s a significant part of our culture, fantasy helps shape our opinions, our attitudes, and the way we live our lives. That it’s not generally considered important doesn’t mean it’s not important.
Young readers like stories of adventure, marvels, action, and passion. Try reading aloud Henry James’ The Ambassadors to any twelve-year-old, and he’ll run screaming to the sidewalk, bored beyond endurance. But fantasy is more like poetry, in that it interacts so intimately with the reader’s own imagination and brings his emotions into play. This is why fairy tales endure. We hear them at a very early age and remember them forever.
“My place beside you, my blood for yours. Till the green ember rises, or the end of the world.”
With these words the bravest and truest of the rabbits’ knights and vassals pledge loyalty to their king.
Rabbits? Yes—S.D. Smith’s fantasy world focuses on talking rabbits who have lost their glorious, beloved king to treason and to his merciless enemies (birds of prey, and wolves), and now, as a defeated, hunted people, must struggle to survive in a ruined world.
But it’s not just survival that drives them. These rabbits have a vision. The Great Wood, their former home, has been ravaged and polluted; but they have a vision of a Mended Wood—with all the harm undone, the shadows hurled back, and peace and innocence and industry restored.
Speaking of the rabbits’ current secret refuge in the mountains, one of the characters explains:
“Here we anticipate the Mended Wood, the Great Wood healed. Those painters are seeing what is not yet but we hope will be. They are really seeing, but it’s a different kind of sight. They anticipate the Mended Wood. So do all in this community in our various ways.
“We sing about it. We paint it. We make crutches and soups and have gardens and weddings and babies. This is a place out of time. A window into the past and the future world. We are heralds … saying what will surely come. And we prepare with all our might, to be ready when once again we are free.” (p. 220)
The Bible puts it another way:
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1).
This vision, this faith, is at the core of The Green Ember and lifts it high above the other fantasies I’ve been reviewing. It’s an exciting story, but it’s more than a story—even as C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia are more than just exciting stories.
One gets so desperately tired of invincible female warriors, know-it-all elves, kids with super-powers, and all the rest of fantasy’s rusty old impedimenta. How refreshing to find a book built around something solid, something that really, truly matters!
Is It a “Christian Fantasy”?
S. D. Smith is a Christian, as you will shortly discover if you visit his Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/SDSmithAuthor ). But you will notice that God is never mentioned in this novel, nor Jesus Christ. The rabbits don’t have a church, nor do we see them performing any religious rituals. Nevertheless, the story seems to breathe forth Christianity.
How do you write a “Christian fantasy” without invoking the name of Christ? Indeed, the fantasy writer is usually presenting another world, an imaginary world very different from our own.
C.S. Lewis did it in The Chronicles of Narnia by creating the great Lion, Aslan, as an allegorical figure representing Christ. By contrast, J.R.R. Tolkien—a devout Catholic who converted Lewis to Christianity—purposely removed all religious ritual and symbolism from The Lord of the Rings because he wanted the whole work, as a whole, to be imbued with the spirit of Christ.1
S.D. Smith’s approach is similar to Tolkien’s. In his story, Christian themes predominate—faith and hope, self-sacrifice—and redemption. The Green Ember is very big on redemption.
Grace and Action
Redemption is a major theme of the story. Through no fault of their own, the young rabbit protagonists, brother and sister Picket and Heather, have inherited an evil reputation. Their whole family lives under a cloud. But then the entire rabbit nation is in a low estate from which it needs to be redeemed.
The Bible teaches that we are redeemed by God’s sovereign grace, through belief in Jesus Christ. It’s not something we can go out and nail down by our own efforts. But inThe Green Emberredemption seems to come by the characters’ own efforts. If so, that would be a teaching at odds with Christian doctrine.
I’m sensitive about this because a reader once criticized my own Bell Mountain fantasy novels for not explicitly referring to Jesus Christ. In my case, I was telling a story set in an imaginary world in a time before that world met its Savior—Old Testament times, if you will. I don’t think the reader understood that.
As for The Green Ember, the book ends on a note that strongly implies a sequel. The story would be incomplete without it. It seems best to suspend judgment until the whole story is told.
Meanwhile, we know from the Bible that, as Paul received grace from God, it set him free to act. It spurred him to act courageously, and to achieve great things in Christ’s service.
As far as we know from Mr. Smith’s story so far, the rabbits have no holy books, no clergy, no place set aside for worship, no god who has a name. If we protest that no human society ever looked like that, the answer would be, “But these are rabbits!”
Why make them rabbits in the first place? They talk. They wear clothes, and can manufacture items as sophisticated as swords and reading glasses. They practice the arts and have a political hierarchy. So why not make them people? I mean, they’re not like the rabbits in Watership Down, who, although they talk, live as rabbits and do rabbity things.
The Green Ember started out as stories Mr. Smith told his children when they were very young, and the little ones liked stories about bunnies. So it’s as simple as that.
But why invent a fantasy at all?
Well, why not? People enjoy fantasy; and the writer who spins fantasies is in an excellent position to turn them into parables. I thinkThe Green Ember may turn out to be a parable.
So why not rabbits with swords? As in all parables, and even as in Aesop’s fables, the substitution of imaginary people, or talking animals, for real people in real situations, with all the complications reality entails, enables the writer (and the reader) to simplify the situation and more easily focus on whatever moral lesson is being taught.
It also puts a kind of safe distance between the story and the reader. Rabbits fighting a war of self-defense against wolves and hawks is a lot safer for children to read about than real-life carnage.
Affirming the Family
Another thing that lifts The Green Ember above most other Young Adults fantasies is its emphasis on family.
As brother and sister, Picket and Heather are very closely bonded to one another, and they love their little baby brother, Jacks. They love and respect their mother and father; and when circumstances separate them from their parents, their Uncle Wilfred protects them at the risk of his life.
In a culture in which public schooling weakens family bonds and teaches children that their age-group peers at school are the most important people in their lives, this is extraordinary. Again Mr. Smith is on the right track, diverging from his fellow authors.
One of the great obstacles to the re-Christianizing of the Western world is the erosion of the family. This is accomplished by a combination of public school, an anti-family popular culture, and an economy that seems to require both parents to be away from home, at work, every workday. If this need not be the case, that is something which few parents seem able to imagine—or do.
Smith also stands apart from the current fad of writing down to young readers. He never writes “ya” for “you,” and his dialogue never reads like a collection of text messages. His prose would be even better if he abandoned the use of the word “okay,” an Americanism that has no place in a fantasy world inhabited by talking rabbits who have not invented television. Still, compared to the others, Smith’s prose is a breath of fresh air.
I’m happy to be able to recommend this book whole-heartedly to Christian readers who care what happens to the culture that they live in and want to make a difference. It’s written for kids, but readers of all ages can enjoy it.
And I’m looking forward to the sequel.
1. Stratford Caldecott, Secret Fire: The Spiritual Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien(London: Darton, Longman, and Todd Ltd., 2003), p. 50.