CHRISTIAN VIEWPOINT: Journey that involves making many moves
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‘I give thanks for God’s gift of the “journey”, Kylan tells us. The 12-year-old had been seized from his native Lewis by Norse raiders and enslaved to Gunnar’s team of craftsmen in Trondheim, Norway, writes John Dempster.
But now he’s on board ship, heading back towards Lewis where he hopes to be reunited with his mother. Also on board? Archbishop Jon Birgersson, visiting churches in the northern and southern islands. And some very special chess sets.
The Chessmen Thief, Inverness author Barbara Henderson’s latest children’s novel is as exciting as its predecessors: the jeopardy-packed story unfolds at breakneck speed (raiders, warships, the terrors of the deep) along with some reflective moments. It supplies an imaginary origin story for the hoard of meticulously carved chessmen found near Uig Bay on Lewis in 1831.
Norway had been Christianised by the mid- 12th century when The Chessmen Thief takes place, although the stories of the old religion were still relished.
The novel is realistic about the shortcomings of the Christianity of that era: in some characters Christian faith does not run deep – raiding and murder are interspersed with prayer; slaves are forbidden to worship in church; cruelty is widely seen as a sign of strength, a virtue.
But to people like Kylan, and the craftsman Old Erik, and the conflicted Jarl Magnus, the Almighty is a living presence, symbolised by the barn owl which appears to the boy periodically. Magnus talks of the “hunches” which “have kept me alive” and which are “the prods of the Almighty”. Kylan prays frequently – seeking help, giving thanks, entrusting himself to the Almighty.
But for all his courage, resilience and faith, Kylan is no saint, and in the novel’s later chapters we wonder: will he find peace, redemption; will he come home to himself and to the Almighty?
The Chessmen Thief is a rich, deeply considered tapestry. It raises issues of slavery and liberty – who is truly free? Chess is central to the story, which climaxes in a thrilling match with life-or-death consequences.
We are prompted to ask: does the Almighty fashion our lives to his own pleasure as Gunnar carved the chessmen? Does the Almighty move us – whether queen, bishop or pawn – from square to square in the chess game of life? Or are we in truth called to cooperate in our own formation with the “great craftsperson”, the “grand Master?”
Children will love The Chessmen Thief. Many may see the Christian element as no more than historical – a reference to the old religion, the old stories we have left behind in our enlightened times. But some, prompted by God-given hunches may investigate further, and unearth a hidden treasure and come to say of their lives “I give thanks for God’s gift of the journey”.