The Sleeping Princess of Nulland by Aaron Jagt
(Cave Junction, OR: Robinson Books, 2016)
Here is a book that has the makings of a wonderful Christian-oriented fantasy. I would go so far as to say it has the potential to become a classic. It has an original, creative story based on exciting ideas and insights into Biblical Christian theology, especially as discussed by R.J. Rushdoony and Cornelius van Til. Indeed, it’s the theology that breathes life into the story, without the author clubbing you over the head with it.
By now you’ve sensed a “but” coming, and here it is.
Aaron Jagt has what can’t be bought and can’t be taught: a cracking good story, and a vision to go with it.
But what he doesn’t have is a mastery of prose.
Little Things Add Up
I will harshly assess its flaws because I believe in the potential of this book, and the things that hold it back are things that can be fixed: some quite easily, but others requiring much labor.
Some of these might strike you as trivial. Does it really matter where the writer puts, or fails to put, quotation marks? Yes, if you’re trying to keep track of who’s speaking. Is it so bad, if a talking bird living in another world—a fantasy world, with no connection to our own—blurts out “You da man”? Is it that big a problem that the expression “all right” is not only overused, but also misspelled, again and again, as “alright”? Can we tolerate stiff, wooden dialogue peppered with lapses into anachronisms?
These little flaws add up to a very big flaw: a prose style that gets between the reader and the story and undermines the illusion that the writer is trying to create.
Much of this should have been corrected by the editors. I can’t imagine why it wasn’t.
For the rest, Mr. Jagt must work harder to develop a smooth and readable prose. He must learn how to make his sentences flow unobtrusively through the reader’s mind. And he must learn to write dialogue that’s more in tune to what people actually sound like when they talk. It takes a great deal of practice, and much reading, to learn these tricks of the trade, and a degree of humility on the writer’s part.
But can’t the book just remain as is, warts and all? After all, it’s already been published; and maybe the story, and the wisdom—not a word I use lightly—embedded in it can carry the reader along despite the many small bumps in the road.
Maybe—but then the book will never become all that it could be.
A Very Cool Idea
Let’s look at the story now.
What would happen if a bright but troubled girl were to be transported into another world where she could play at being God? That is a tremendously cool idea! I can hardly praise it enough. You can’t be taught to come up with an idea like that. You either have it or you don’t, and Aaron Jagt has it.
Priscilla is the girl who becomes the Princess, virtually the all-powerful goddess of the world of Nulland. (You’ll have to read the book to see how she carries out her role; it’s a most original concept.) For a time it seems—to her, at least—that all of this is going rather well. But being only human, she is blind to a lot of little problems that are piling up into bigger and bigger problems that must eventually lead to a catastrophe—for the simple reason that none of us is capable of being any kind of god. She’s better at it than Caligula, but in the long run, the outcome is the same—minus the assassination.
What Priscilla has forgotten is that there really is a God, even in Nulland, and that no one is fit to take His place. Her apparent omnipotence is only an illusion.
Priscilla’s friends, Samantha and Cynthia first, and then their brother, John, also get mysteriously whisked into Nulland, seemingly by means of an inscrutable book found in Priscilla’s room. This gets complicated, but Jagt makes it work, never losing the thread of the story. That’s no small achievement. Their arrival causes the flow of events to speed up, culminating in a war that no one wants and in which many people die.
Samantha is the first to perceive that Priscilla’s management of Nulland has begun to fray around the edges. “That’s all we need,” she says, “a world run by children with lives at stake,” quite a frightening thought. This grows into a conviction that Priscilla, not her enemies, is the problem.
“If you think everything is John’s fault,” Samantha challenges the Princess, “how do you explain all the trouble you’ve had … Why are you so set on having what you want all the time?”
But Priscilla’s only answer is, “Because I am the Princess! … This is my world, it belongs to me.”
As disaster looms, John and his sisters, having fled from Priscilla’s increasingly ungovernable wrath, meet a man named Hilkiah, who seems able to explain it all.
God, says Hilkiah, has never ceased to be sovereign over the worlds He has created; and even Priscilla, despite her blindness to the truth, must serve His purposes whether she knows it or not: “All things must serve the story of the Author [God], and all wills must bow before His … There is no escape from the Author who made you; there is no place to hide from the one who decrees your every footstep.”
Hilkiah ought to know. It was his sin, long ago, his attempt to chart a course, to write a story independently from God, that set all these events in motion.
The Sovereignty of God
I can’t give you any more of the story without the risk of spoiling it. Reading it, I was eager to find out what would happen next, and why. It would have been easy for Jagt just to use Hilkiah as a talking head, answering all our questions, but he has resisted that temptation. Instead, he keeps the story moving to the end.
It was ambitious of him, and worthy of our admiration, to tell a story founded on the sovereignty of God—a concept that not many writers would dare to approach, even if they understood it. Jagt’s long study of Reformed theology is evident here, at least to those who know it well enough to see it. Those unfamiliar with the concept will here be introduced to it, and may be able to recognize it when they meet it again elsewhere. As C.S. Lewis did for his young readers in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Jagt has here laid the groundwork for a more mature understanding later, and fertilized the young reader’s mind so that the seeds sown by Christ will land on friendly soil.
Not that God’s sovereignty is an easy concept; it tends to be at odds with most of what our culture has taught us to believe. Hilkiah says, “The act of a creature, in a created world, in created time, can only be a created act.”
“If that were true,” Samantha says, “no one would be responsible for anything.”
The answer to that objection, the Christian theological answer, will challenge many readers, moving them to do some hard thinking about ideas which have likely never occurred to them before. But it’s not the reviewer’s place to tell you what that answer is. You ought to read it.
How can we, as created beings, truly have free will? If you’re writing a novel populated by characters that you’ve created, whose whole world is only the story as you’ve written it, do those characters have free will? They may think they do, but do they? Those of us who write novels may think there’s a similarity between what we do and what God has done, in His creation: but there’s also a profound difference. What can we learn by exploring the similarity; and what more can we learn by pondering the difference?
In his Acknowledgments, Jagt cites John 5:19, 30: “Then Jesus answered unto them and said: verily, verily I say unto you, the Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise … I can of my own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me.” And also Romans 8:28, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose.”
For God’s Word itself is the foundation of this story, and we applaud Aaron Jagt for building on it.
Please Try Again!
This is a handsomely produced hardcover book, with a wonderful frontispiece painted by Aaron’s sister, Leah, who also provided black-and-white illustrations.
It cries out for a second edition, a new one in which the problems with the prose have been corrected. It would be difficult, but I believe it would be worth the trouble.
Why? Because readers of all ages would profit from it. The story itself will captivate young readers—as it captivated me, an old one—and the theological issues will engage the minds of older ones.
Fantasy is too important a genre to be conceded to an unbelieving, secular worldview. Children especially consume a vast amount of fantasy literature, and it helps to shape their thinking for many years to come. Do we really want their thinking to be shaped by Harry Potter and Scholastic Books, when we might have this instead?
Fantasy matters because, like poetry, it penetrates to regions of the mind not easily accessible to other kinds of fiction. It’s spiritual and intellectual ground waiting to be taken for Christ’s Kingdom. But with the great exceptions of classic fantasies by C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and a few others, it has been left to worldly writers whose work is not only unfruitful, but also, in all too many cases, downright unwholesome.
We must not concede the ground to unbelief—nor let correctible faults deprive us of a classic.