The Religion: A Novel
Sarah Crichton Books, 2007
613 pp., 26.00
Tannhauser Rides Again
I couldn't find the book. It was one in a stack, briefly shuffled through some months ago. Encyclopedic and jacketed, it opened to a wood-cut of Muslims torturing Christian slaves. The wood-cut, the book explained, was propaganda to generate Christian support for the Crusades. Elsewhere on the page came something like: "Conflict between Islam and the West began with the Crusades and continued through centuries, not truly ending until successful U.S. action against the Barbary pirates."
The conflict between the West and Islam ended when the first U.S. Marines fought pirates along "the shores of Tripoli"? Not long ago, that would have seemed true. (As for when the conflict began, ask the dust where there used to be thriving Christian communities in North Africa and the Middle East, conquered in the first waves of Islamic expansion centuries before the Crusades.)
The Crusades failed. Expansionist Islam peaked with the great Turkish sultans in a conquered Byzantium, and Christendom, divided by nascent nationalism, weakened by corruption, and torn by the Reformation, was no match for it. But Islam nodded, lulled into complacency, until even North African piracy could be suppressed by a brand new and underpopulated democracy on the other side of the world.
That fateful decline, according to many, began at the siege of Malta in 1565, the bloody setting for Tim Willocks' The Religion. With Islam once again on an international up-swing, with the West at war, and with imaginations primed for the medieval by The Da Vinci Code and assorted knock-offs, Willocks is almost assured of an international bestseller. On top of that, he's working with nothing short of a fantastic setting. The siege of Malta is as unbelievable as it was important. A small Mediterranean rock became a crossroads in history as the struggle between Suleiman the Magnificent and the antiquated Knights of St. John the Baptist decided the Future of Europe (or at least played a role worthy of rescue from the forgettery).
In 1565, Luther had been dead for twenty years and the Reformation had taken root. Queen Elizabeth (heresiarch) ruled England. As the Sultan mustered his forces in Constantinople, Shakespeare turned one. The Spanish Inquisition was nearly one hundred, and the Templars had long ago been wiped out in France.
Willocks has plenty to work with on every level: social, political, and religious. Drawing on all of these, he gives us Matthias Tannhauser. Born a Christian Saxon to a blacksmith father, he is taken by Turks at the age of twelve. The scene, as disturbing as any in the book, is in the prologue. The young Matthias is attempting to forge his first dagger when the mercenaries come. They kill his sisters and he watches them kill his mother to make her easier to rape (Willocks, who is a doctor, does not shy from the anatomical). Matthias attacks them, impressing a Turkish noble, and is taken to be trained in the janissaries—the Sultan's élite corps, made up largely of men taken from Christian families as boys.
We rejoin Matthias Tannhauser as a retired janissary veteran. He is large, tattooed, and as sexually preoccupied as a stud bull. (Like his Wagnerian namesake, he is a worshiper of Venus.) Here, as Willocks develops our protagonist, a sense of historical realism is regularly jarred by hyperbolic virility. Tannhauser's sexuality is practically an additional character as his various stirrings and swellings and shiftings-in-the-saddle-to-make-roomings are related to us. At times, he is thoroughly convincing. At others, he becomes a sort of Hektor of Troy meets James Bond and a tattoo artist—a character from a straight-to-paperback grocery store novel in need of an intervention.
The Knights of St. John are fortifying Malta in preparation for the Turkish assault, and they've heard of Matthias. Knowing his experience, they resolve to recruit him despite the fact that he no longer adheres to the faith of his fathers or his one-time captors.
Two women, Countess Carla La Penautier and her attendant Amparo, have been trying to reach Malta in order to search for the son taken from the Countess at birth. The Knights, who had denied their previous requests for passage, decide to use the women to convince Tannhauser to come. And so the plot really begins. Tannhauser and his English friend Bors arrive on Malta with the two women, just ahead of the enormous Turkish fleet.
The siege of Malta began in the third week of May with the arrival of one of the largest armadas assembled in that age. It wouldn't end until the ninth of September. The Knights of St. John were commanded by Jean La Vallette, a military mind tactically well ahead of his time. More than seventy years old and white-bearded, both feared and respected, he was said to match the most rabid Muslims in fanaticism. The knights called themselves "The Religion" (one of those resonant details that get under a novelist's skin, becoming the germ of a book). They originated as hospitallers in Jerusalem and had so distinguished themselves in the First Crusade that they received their own military charter from the Church. Eventually driven out of Jerusalem, they took possession of Rhodes. There they became sea-faring knights, pirates to every Muslim, who called them "the Hounds of Hell." Provoked, Suleiman sacked Rhodes in 1522. La Vallette was present and learned much from the defeat.
The Knights struggled to find a new home. They were sovereign unto themselves, wealthy nobles accountable to no government. This made them of questionable value in the early modern world. Why would anyone endow them with land without certain allegiance in return? But eventually they acquired Malta and immediately began fortification. It wasn't long before their galleys were once again strangling Turkish trade, and La Vallette knew what they were provoking.
The size of the sultan's force varies from account to account. But in every version, it is enormous: hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of trained fighting men. The Knights held multiple fortifications with a total of nine thousand men, primarily Maltese commoners.
Willocks truly and meticulously captures the progression and feel of such a horrific siege. Before taking up The Religion, I decided to read a small—and excellent—military history (The Great Siege: Malta 1565, by Ernle Bradford), from which it's clear that Willocks has managed to seamlessly weave his plot through the timeline of actual events, vividly enfleshing what such action must have looked and felt like to a defender in this strange conflict: a war with castles, galleys, armor, long-rifle snipers, trenches, cavalry, heavy artillery, and early flame-throwers. He also effectively humanizes both sides of the conflict, sending Tannhauser out into the Turkish ranks, putting faces and fears on the attackers as well as the attacked.
While The Religion is extremely effective historical fiction, Willocks needlessly overspices his tension. The siege of Malta is tangled and riveting all on its own: a climactic battle between two great religions, a finale to the Crusades, action that functionally prevented the Med from becoming a "Turkish lake." Add to this a protagonist who was Christian as a boy, Muslim as a man, and is now lost somewhere in the middle. Tannhauser has loyalties and loves both inside and outside the walls, and Willocks plays on such tensions effortlessly as we watch the character attempt simple egoism in order to stay both sane and alive. Thus far the trials are focused and gripping. Add the motive for his presence on the island—the search for the Countess' son—and a political struggle with the boy's father, and an existential struggle (Tannhauser finds himself praying easily to Allah and/or the Christian God and moved to spiritual love by music), and still Willocks manages to keep his action and narrative focused.
He loses his balance, alas, with the love-triangle at the center of his story. Tannhauser the Strapping loves both women, the Countess and Amparo, and his urges are not to be denied. The Countess agrees to marry Matthias but remains untouched. Amparo loves deeply, impulsively, and very much in the now. When she and Matthias are together, the story shifts away from Malta, faith, or loyalty, and we simply watch two people with the inclination and endurance of rabbits. Even after days on end of standing in the breach and on the walls of the crumbling fort of St. Elmo, fighting hand-to-hand, and then firing up a forge to work on his own armor, Tannhauser has the energy and ability to make like Lionel Ritchie on the smithy floor before rising to another day of endless life-or-death exertion.
The Religion is unquestionably an impressive accomplishment, but Willocks overworks things to the point where he undermines his strengths. Tannhauser's religious struggle (and eventual arrival) becomes little more than the fickle twisting of a man unable to choose between two women (or be faithful to one). The love-triangle was workable, and could have even been thematically potent. Instead, it devolves into play-by-play bumping and grinding, with heavy moaning on the soundtrack. And Willocks' prose, while generally vivid and effective, occasionally slackens ("he counted himself lucky to have seen it" is used in reference to everything from the Turkish forces spread out over the hills to a woman having an orgasm in a barrel of salt-water).
But this big book is just the first installment of a projected trilogy, and Willocks is a writer to watch. Sometimes, he may yet discover, less is more.
N. D. Wilson is a fellow of literature at New Saint Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho, where he teaches classical rhetoric to freshmen. He is also the managing editor for Credenda/ Agenda magazine, a small Trinitarian cultural journal. His book Leepike Ridge, a novel for young readers, has just been published by Random House.
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.