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Showing posts with label Mark Van Steenwyk. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mark Van Steenwyk. Show all posts

5.20.2016

A Wolf at the Gate (2015)


Illustrated by Joel Hedstrom

Mennonite Worker Press

I first met Mark Van Steenwyk during the 2014 Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, NC. He and his family were a part of our makeshift encampment, and though the festival was in a state of near-constant downpour, our children nonetheless delighted in all the glorious mud.

He was there to talk about his recently published book, TheUnkingdom of God: Embracing the Subversive Power of Repentance (2013, InterVarsity Press). I am unsure if A Wolf at the Gate was gestating at that time, though its themes are certainly very much in line with the rest of Mark's social-justice-oriented work and writings.

The story is based on the legend of Saint Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio, originally written in the Fioretti di San Francesco in 1390. In that tale, good ol' Saint Francis fearlessly approaches the cave of a fierce and bloodthirsty wolf which had been terrorizing a small mountain town in the far northeastern part of the Italian province of Perugia.

"Brother wolf," says Saint Francis, "Thou hast done much evil in this land, destroying and killing the creatures of God without his permission; yea, not animals only hast thou destroyed, but thou hast even dared to devour men, made after the image of God; for which thing thou art worthy of being hanged like a robber and a murderer. All men cry out against thee, the dogs pursue thee, and all the inhabitants of this city are thy enemies; but I will make peace between them and thee, O brother wolf, if so be thou no more offend them, and they shall forgive thee all thy past offences, and neither men nor dogs shall pursue thee any more."

"I've always wondered what the story would be like from the wolf's point of view," Mark writes, and in so wondering, he fills in the whole of wolf culture, a culture in which oral storytelling is just as important as learning to hunt.

"It is better to be hungry with neighbors than it is to be well-fed alone," is one of the lessons passed down from elder wolf, but the central story? Simply thus:

"We were the Lords of the Forest.

Then the humans came."


"Humans don't just kill to survive. Sometimes they kill out of rage. And they don't just eat to survive; sometimes they eat when their belly is already full. They are violent and greedy. They aren't like any of the other beasts in the forest; they want to own it all.That is why we hide deep in the shadows and high in the mountains. We wait and watch. We live in fear."

I was surprised at this books's length - 78 pages, which includes several beautiful full-page illustrations by Minnesotan artist Joel Hedstrom. It is a volume with some heft, but not due to any excess verbage on the part of the author. To the contrary, I found Mark's prose clean and direct. The heft comes from the burst of storytelling. This is no mere re-telling, but rather The Wolf of Gubbio is a canvas upon which to paint several thematically connected stories, all informed by Mark's commitment to social justice and child-like sense of wonder.

The central wolf character was born all red, and is referred to as "Blood Wolf" throughout. The only explanation given is that she was born under the red glow of the Hunter's Moon. Narratively, it makes for a nice distinguishing characteristic and a kick-ass moniker, but it really affords Joel some awesome graphic opportunities. The stark contrast between the red wolf and the black eponymous gate works so well, it makes me wonder if Joel came up with it first, and Mark only then incorporated it into the story. Everything feels big and mythic and full of purpose.


In the story, Saint Francis is referred to as "The Beggar King." He is wise and saintly, and now that Blood Wolf has forsaken the teachings of her parents and terrorizes the small village, it is he who must make peace... not through any supernatural means - he has no mystical powers - but only wisdom. But even he falters when considering Blood Wolf's many questions about the inequity and injustice that she witnesses.

"Beggar King, why do some families live in big houses while others live in small houses? Some even make houses for chickens and dogs. Yet many beg and have no homes at all?"

This is a fable with no easy answers. We are confronted with the greed and selfishness which seems inherent in all living creatures, yet must believe that they can be overcome. The story follows the life of Blood Wolf as she helps the denizens of Stonebriar in more ways than one, and even charts the years following her death and memorialization. She "tried to rule through fear, but learned to serve with love."





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