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Macbears of Bearloch
Macbears of Bearloch
Richard Bauckham
Aultbea Publishing Company, 2005
96 pp., 21.02

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Stephen N. Williams

Finding Your MacBearings

Excuse me, which way to the well at the world's end? If you are like C.S. Lewis, the question—;even when sprung at you in such prosaic fashion—;will send a pleasant shiver down your spine. But never mind that: what is the answer? North—;surely we can allow nothing else—;north. Both Lewis and William Morris, author of The Well at the World's End, were captivated by the romance and the myths of the North. (It may be less well known that Morris took a step beyond the world's end with a novella, The Wood Beyond the World, which describes some southward trekking that appears nonetheless to be going on out there somewhere in the north or northwest.) And what do you find there? Bears. Not only bears, but certainly bears. Morris told us about them in the 19th century. Now The MacBears of Bearloch have been discovered up north too. Not the least interesting aspect of this discovery—;and one reason why we draw it to readers' attention—;is that they have been discovered by one of the finest biblical and theological scholars around, usually on the trail of such things as apocalypses and pseudepigrapha, in a more easterly than northerly direction from where I'm standing. The front cover will not, but the spine will tell you that the person in question is Richard Bauckham.

The blurb says it adequately. These bears "live beside a secret loch in the forgotten lands of the north." What are they up to? Not enough, according to Grampa MacBear. It is bad enough, of course, to think, let alone say, that; indeed, fatal in a children's story. Consequently things start happening. While land masses move mysteriously and sea creatures transmute amazingly, a kidnapping takes place. This, we might suppose, is the heart of the tale; but not quite. Set the scene; create an expectation; take the reader off on another trail while he or she is already in a state of low alert; keep him or her subconsciously waiting, perhaps forgetting, while you convert low alert to a distracting worry about the much bigger issue of kidnapping; resolve that one happily (I know—;this reminds of you of a bit of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony); return the reader, relieved and ready to celebrate, to the original preoccupation. Which is? The haiku contest, and who will win. The outcome of the haiku contest concludes the book.

The book is not described when some of the story-line is described; the telling and the everyday bits and the characters are the thing in this merryish world of animals (not just bears) and even three humans (conservationists, it should be noted). There is convergence and unity—;animals, environment, humans—;that faintly replicates the kind you get in fairy-tales, whose secret (if I remember my Tolkien aright) is the desire of humans to hold converse with beasts. If Kant, in words which I wrench out of context, said that the beautiful is the symbol of the good, then I suppose that unity is the symbol of the moral. Does Richard Bauckham moralize? It depends on what you mean; the word is rather pejorative. But in this book something good certainly befalls character or at least the expression of character. And religion? Well, read the first paragraph of page 62. What do you think? Now read it again through the eyes of the child, as though it were dedicated to you when you were a child (again, if I remember my Antoine St. Exupery aright, though his point, in the dedication of The Little Prince, is subtler).

This book begins a series, and I am very glad that we have discovered its little world; we shall profit and enjoy, not least from the humor. Look out for it. As for whether it has faults, ask the children; they are the authorities here. Still, and with a heavy heart, I must point out one particularly egregious error: the haiku that won the contest, whatever its merits and the merits of those of runners-up announced and read out before the tense finale, was not the best. The deserving haiku, not even recorded by the author, reads as follows:

Digwyddodd ger y dwr
y lli yn llonydd
gwialen griseldaidd

One fears that it was overlooked by the author because he did not have the humility to admit that it was written in a language that he has not remotely mastered. One hopes that he does not conduct his New Testament scholarship along those lines. One rejoices that such ignorance is not a blemish that will be attributed to any reader of Books & Culture.

Stephen N. Williams is professor of systematic theology at Union Theological College in Belfast. He is the author most recently of The Shadow of the Antichrist: Nietzsche's Critique of Christianity (BakerAcademic).

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