As the summer hangs hazily on the horizon before us, parents know that young minds and hearts must needs be awakened, and awakened well. Good stories have always allowed the readers to escape the perils of routine and lethargy that can quickly set in during the summer months. Marguerite de Angeli’s The Black Fox of Lorne offers all that one could wish for: shipwrecks, kidnappings, disguise, escape, and heroism—all set in the dramatic landscape of medieval Scotland. And yet there is substance here besides the thrill of a good yarn. A ten-year old may not be able to grasp the wisdom of a St. Therese, but wisdom written into an adventure novel such as this begins tilling the soil of an uncultivated soul. Love for the Good comes from loving well what is well worth loving. The heroes of this story, twin brothers Bruce and Jan must themselves come to love that which is worth loving, and must do so amidst hardship and struggle, amidst what they initially fear to be a foreign and hostile people.
At the outset of the story, twin brothers Bruce and Jan journey from Norway toward the Danish settlements in Britain. Storms and tragedy deposit them forlorn on Scotland’s mainland, where, before they have passed a single day, one of the boys will be taken captive. The two brothers, so alike that their own father often mistook one for the other, not enter into a series of dangerous encounters that depend on their common appearance. Rather than reveal to strangers this literal duplicity, they recall their father’s advice, “Oft have you made fools of your mother and of me, with one of you taking the place of the other because you are like as two herring drawn from the fiord. It can be an advantage to you. Always, when in strange place or circumstance, let you keep apart. If foes be near and one be captured, one may still be free and able to lose the other, so not all be lost.” Until escape can be managed successfully, the brothers contrive regularly to change places with one another, so that one always is free while the other an unwilling thrall to an evil master. In this way, readers gain different perspectives on the medieval Scots, while eagerly following the brothers’ clever escapades. As the story movers along, it is clear the chief objective of the boys will be a struggle to undo their captor—the Black Fox of Lorne.
Raised in virtue according their Norwegian traditions and worship, Bruce and Jan discover with surprise a natural resonance with the Christianity that surrounds in Scotland. Through her main characters, de Angeli provides readers an insight similar to that offered by St. Basil the Great: “One who has been instructed in the pagan examples will no longer hold the Christian precepts impracticable.” For example, the boys are very familiar with a kind of xenia, the pagan virtue of hospitality. In Scotland, however, the twins discover hospitality taken to a supernatural plane. Despite mistreatment they suffer at the hands of a few, the brothers are warmed by charity found amongst the many good people they will meet on their journeys. The good Christians of Scotland give them welcome for the sake of Jesus Christ. Thus, while certain elements of Christianity baffle the brothers, their noble upbringing in a virtuous pagan home resonates with basic elements of the New Faith.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Just as with their morals, the boys find that Christianity also envelops elements of their native myths. Jan and Bruce treasure their Norse heritage, and easily recall the traditional tales of their homeland. Thanks to the power of their tale-filled imaginations, though they find themselves lost in a strange land, not everything is unfamiliar. The stories of their youth seemed to have prepared them for their strange encounter. Everyone they meet in Scotland is Christian—the Christian Faith has advanced and transformed the culture several centuries in advance of that in Norway. Again, the new culture seems a kind of mirror of their homeland, but the reasoning for actions is quite different. When Jan receives hospitality at the sheepfold of Old Donald, the shepherd, though wary at first, ultimately shows great kindness. With the words, “Our Lord says, ‘Be not forgetful to entertain strangers,’” the old man welcomes the foreign boy to his family’s table, and shelters him for the night. There is something familiar and yet different about the twin of pagan culture. Such hospitality emboldens Jan to question, “‘Is this Lord, then, like one of our gods? Is he like Odin or Thor?’” But Donald answers, ‘There is but one God, lad, and Jesus Christ is His Son. Listen, while I tell ye’ …Then Donald spoke of that first Christ Mass when Mary, the gentle Maid, the mother of our Lord, and Joseph, her husband, could find no room in the inn, when they had gone to Bethlehem to be taxed.” Thinking back on the legends of his own culture, Jan finds some details familiar—thee angels are reminiscent of the Nornir Maidens, “those wise minded ones who, the elders said … helped those in need, especially mothers of children”; and the cross of Christ seems very like to Thor’s hammer, a token of which the boy carries in his pocket.
Similarly, Bruce finds familiar traces within the Christian narrative, though his adventure differs from Jan’s. His Norse Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life, whose branches support the heavens, finds a counterpart in the Great Tree in whose branches grows mistletoe—both at one time sacred to the Druids, now gathered to beautify homes for the birth of Christ. And Christmas coming at the dark of the year as a time of joy, feasting, and generosity sounds to him like Yule, when offerings must be made to the gods in order to recall light to the land.
Great truth lies hidden here—hidden in story that seems like our reality, in a tale about two twin culture, similar in certain patterns and appearances, and yet unique in their soul. Wise authoress that she is, de Angeli implicitly affirms what many other greats have explicitly argued: Myths have an important place in man’s quest for Truth. Indeed, there are some men who might only find God because they have first believed myths. C.S. Lewis goes so far as to say that “the story of Christ is simply a true myth. One must be content to accept it in the same way remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths, i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there.” Hence, while God prepared the Israelites by means of the Old Covenant directly, He prepared much of the world indirectly through pagan myths. Or, as G.K. Chesterton writes, “Mythology … sought God though the imagination; or sought truth by means of beauty.” De Angeli’s heroes confront Christianity as alien, and find it familiar.
There is much to recommend this narrative. An accomplished illustrator, Mrs. de Angeli incorporates many of her own sketches, bringing the story and the characters into lively detail. She incorporates with ease a great deal of historical content—the skills, habits, and crafts typical to the era, which fill out the story, giving the reader a sense of realism. The Scottish flair will attract at least a few; likely that was how it fell into these hands. The author’s ability to weave a captivating adventure, while at the same time merging history, myth, and mystery makes this novel a marvelous read for all ages, but especially for the young and their wise twins—the young at heart.