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Showing posts with label Saint Francis. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Saint Francis. Show all posts


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."


Saint Francis and the Christmas Donkey (2000)

Retold and Illustrated by Robert Byrd

Dutton Children's Books

"...Francis was not simply a charming, eccentric lover of nature," writes Robert Byrd. "To see him only in that dimension trivializes his outlook on life."

I think Robert Byrd is an interesting illustrator. He really prefers to illustrate characters either head-on or in full profile, which gives the pages a simplistic tone, but at the same time he fills his backgrounds with so much wonderful detail it is almost overwhelming.

The opening page is of a verdant landscape, in which several types of trees are captured, receding into the distance, rocks and hills and distant birds, a thousand and one blades of grass, and there stands the saint, looking out at us with equanimity, a wolf to one side, a bunny to the other.

It reads to me as though Saint Francis is a stand-in for Adam, the first Man. We learn in Sunday School that Adam gave all of the animals their names, of course, but it is Saint Francis, we learn in this story, who called them his "little brothers" and reminded them of how precious they are, "from the tiniest mouse to the powerful great gray wolf."

It is while Francis ponders in his 'eden,' that he hears the loud, sad braying of the donkey, and asks why he should be so unhappy.

"You would cry out yourself, if your work was as hard as mine. Ever since the beginning of time, we donkeys have carried heavy loads on our small backs, and people and animals have made fun of the way we sound."

And so Saint Francis begins his tale, which begins at the dawn of creation...

It has the form of one of Kipling's Just-So stories, as we discover that the Donkey was at first an extremely proud animal, with short ears and a small tail, who spent these early days of Creation waltzing about and mocking the elephant, ridiculing the giraffe, for their extreme and comical features. Then a band of monkeys get together and decide to teach that Donkey a lesson, by pulling out his ears and tugging on his tail, and them finally - if that weren't bad enough - his is cursed by God Himself:

"...you shall always laugh, but your laugh will be an ugly sound. And when my creatures hear your loud, ridiculous 'Hee-haw! Hee-haw!' they all will laugh at you. You will always do the hardest work, carrying heavy loads for the rest of your days, wherever you go."

This does not cheer the Donkey up, to know of this long ago curse on he and his kin. But Saint Francis assures him, that is only the beginning of the story. There is redemption to be had, of a kind, and it is wrapped up in the Christmas story, as the donkey is called upon to carry a very important traveler through the desert.

Several times the donkey stumbled,
but he did not fall.
I love desert wildernesses, and Byrd does an exquisite job of rendering it is as much detail as he paid to those verdant pastures at the offset. The sands and the rocks of the desert are done with so many shapes and shades, it feels like a living place.

The quest is an epic one, pushing the beast of burden to the absolute limits of his abilities, but finally bringing Mary safely to Bethlehem, and is witness to the birth, to angelic encounters, to shepherds and wise men bearing gifts.

And in his own heart, in his very own way,
the donkey knew what he had done,
and he was happy.
"But the little donkey in the stable had no gift to give," said the Donkey sadly.

"Well," said Francis, "surely you can see that by carrying Mary and the baby Jesus, the Christmas donkey had truly given the most wonderful gift of all."


Androcles and the Lion (1989)

Androcles and the Lion: An Aesop FableRetold and Illustrated by Janet Stevens

Holiday House

In this version of the classic tale, Androcles seems much more saintly.  His run-in with the lion is not just a random occurrence, but seems just in keeping with his view of nature.  In an image which reminds me of Saint Francis, Stevens draws the young lad sitting cross-legged - albeit shackled - while a bevy of cats and kittens and a few dogs flock about him, crawling on him, licking him.

"Androcles was gentle and kindhearted," she writes.  "After his hard work was done and his cruel master was fast asleep, the stray animals of the city came to visit."

Even after the young slave has escaped and fled to the woods, we find him again kneeling in the grass, surrounded by a bear, a ram, a porcupine, some rabbits and... one ferocious man-eating lion who is roaring so loudly that the rest of the animals run and scatter!!!  The ostrich especially looks like its about to die of a heart attack.

But does Androcles run?

"Easy boy.  There's a big, nasty thorn stuck in your paw.  Will you let me pull it out?  Now be still and don't bite me."

And thus the friendship is struck.  However, it is not much later that the Roman soldiers surprise and capture Androcles, whilst at the same time a different group of soldiers capture the lion.

Androcles is then sent to the Colosseum - there to be devoured in front of cheering attenders - whooping and hollering and whistling.  But it is the very same lion released onto the Colosseum grounds!  And instead of attacking, it becomes a docile pussy cat! The cheering attenders now find themselves whooping and hollering and whistling.  Is there any result which would have not made their day?

Regardless, "Androcles had learned an important lesson," Steven tells us.  "A noble soul never forgets a kindness.

And while Androcles was off learning that important lesson, another less fortunate chap was presumably fed to a different, less sensitive lion, and the Colosseum crowd again cheered, whooped and hollered.

Click here for more versions of Androcles and the Lion!
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