Knight Death and Devil by Albrecht Durer (1472-1528AD)
This is one of the most fascinating and enjoyable books I’ve
read in a while. It was written in the
early 19th century and the story is placed a century earlier than that.
The story takes place in Scotland where a family of Colwan
live on the lordly estate of Dalcastle. George Colwan, the Lord of the Manor
marries a woman, Rabine, as different from himself as if he were trying to create a
marriage out of chiaroscuro counterpoint.
George is one for gaiety and frivolity while his wife, a staunch
Calvinist, rejects any practice that might be even remotely light hearted. Their
differing views cause such a breach in their relationship that at first Lady
Dalcastle returns to the home of her father.
Therein follows a pretty funny episode.
Rabine's father wants to know why she has left her
husband and returned to his estate. His
daughter rants for a while describing her husband’s moral and religious
failings. Her father professes to be so
upset and offended by his son-in-law’s unchristian behavior towards his
daughter that he proceeds to beat his daughter claiming that since his
son-in-law is not present to receive his due flagellation, his wife is the appropriate
“What do you mean, sir?” said the astonished damsel.
“I meant to be revenged on that villain Dalcastle,” said he,
“for what he has done to my daughter.
Come hither, Mrs. Colwan, you shall pay for this.”
So saying, the baillie began to inflict corporal punishment
on the runaway wife. His strokes were
not indeed very deadly, but he made a mighty flourish in the infliction,
pretending to be in a great rage only at the ‘Laird of Dalcastle’. “Villain that he is!” exclaimed he, “I shall
teach him to behave in such a manner to a child of mine...Take you that and
that, Mrs. Colwan, for your husband’s impertinence!”
Rabine may be
narrow minded but she’s not completely stupid.
She understands that this is her father’s not so subtle way of saying,
“you made your bed etc...” So she
returns to her husband at Dalcastle.
They lead separate lives and stay in separate parts of the castle. Lady Dalcastle develops a close relationship
with the local Presbyterian minister while Mr. Colwan blatantly takes on a mistress.
It’s not clear
whether Mrs. Colwan and the minister have anything other than a relationship
based on common religious principles, but she produces two sons, the oldest, George, who belongs to Lord Colwan and a younger, Robert, who may or may not be the Reverend's son.
It’s these two sons from which the real story begins. George is raised by his father and the
other by the mother. It is the son, Robert, raised by Lady Dalcastle around whom the
George is found murdered. As the facts come to light, it reveals that
it is his Robert, brother (or half brother) that murdered him.
The story is narrated in an interesting way. It’s not many
writers that should attempt switching person narratives in a story but Hogg
does it brilliantly. First the
circumstances surrounding George is described through an editor who briefly uses first person but for the most part writes in third person. As the culprit is
eventually found to be Robert, the narrator changes to first person narrative with Robert as the narrator. The final chapter of the book uses a
different first person narrator and concludes with a final statement of the
This book reflects James Hogg’s fascination with the
religious beliefs and country lore of the Gaelic people of Scotland. It is rich in colloquial dialect and idiomatic
use of the language as well as a sophisticated eloquence in expression that no
longer exists in our modern usage of the language.
The story is deeply psychological in nature. After he is arrested for his brother’s
murder, while in prison, the Robert writes down his
confession. It is titled, “The Private
memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner: written by Himself.”
In his narrative, Robert explains his religious
upbringing at the hands of his simple minded mother and the religiously narrow
Reverend Wringhim. It is imprinted on him from an
early age that those who are chosen cannot lose their salvation therefore, they
cannot do anything-be it ever so heinous- that would send them to hell.
From the first section of the book through the eyes of the editor, we get a picture of Robert as an arrogant,
anti-social person. This enables the
reader to understand how such a person could become led into a false
understanding of what it means to be chosen or the assurance of salvation.
I believe some people might read into Hogg’s book an
anti-reformed theology attitude, but this underestimates the level of
sophistication of Hogg’s writing.
People’s beliefs are so much more complicated than simply black and
white. It is possible to hold onto a
vestige of the truth and through one’s own pride and self-will distort that
truth until what the person believes is no longer truth but falsehood. This is the case with Rabine. Her intention was never to cultivate a close
relationship with God or glorify Him through sincere worship, but to
inflate her own vanity in believing she was superior to her husband.
She nurtures this same pride into her son who develops it to
a degree that she never anticipated. In
the end she dimly begins to understand the Frankenstein she has unwittingly
And that is what happens.
In his own words, Robert meets with a man, Gil-Martin, who
wields a powerful influence over his life.
As Robert expands on his relationship with this other man it becomes
apparent to the reader that this other person is not human but in fact
something evil. As the story progresses
we become aware that Robert is under the complete sway of a demon.
The demon persuades Robert that he must “purge” the earth of
all of those who are not chosen. That it
was not murder to do so, but, in fact, was work commissioned to him by
God. He quotes all sorts of scripture to
justify this point. Robert wavers at
first, but doesn’t have the strength or knowledge of Scripture to counter
him. Apparently, for all his mother and
the Reverend’s teachings, endowing her son with a grounded knowledge in
Scriptures wasn’t included.
The Last Judgement by Luca Signorelli 1500AD
The discussions back and forth between the demon and Robert
remind me of Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the desert. The difference was that Jesus did know his
Bible and was able to point out how Satan twisted Scripture in an attempt to
tempt Jesus into committing wicked acts.
Gil-Martin uses the same tactics on Robert but, unlike Jesus,
he has no defense. Consequently, he
commits various acts of murder and other wicked deeds, even some to his own
horror. It’s a great illustration of someone who becomes a slave to his own
The story ends a hundred years later when a grave is found
at a crossroads. It is the burial of a
suicide. The grave is dug up and
Robert’s manuscript is discovered in the grave site.
I've read some reviews on this book that suggest that Gil-Martin could be a figment of Robert's imagination but the reason I don't think so is because after Robert's death, third party witnesses claim to see two people preparing to hang themselves but the grave reveals only one.
James Hogg came from farmer stock. He over came the British class caste by
educating himself and becoming a nationally renowned writer. His stories often target the upper class and
portray the common man as the hero.
Indeed, it is in the servants that we hear the truth of
God’s word spoken.
The servant John tells Lord Dalcastle exactly the sort of
man he is:
“Well, John, and what sort of general character do you
suppose mine to be?”
“Yours is a Scripture character, sir, an’ I’ll prove it.”
“I hope so, John.
Well, which of the Scripture characters do you think approximates
nearest to my own?”
“...Ye are the just Pharisee, sir, that gaed up wi’ the poor
publican to pray in the Temple;
an’ ye’re acting the very same pairt at this time, an’ saying i’ your heart,
‘God I thaink thee that I am not as other men...”
A debate ensues between the servant John and Dalcastle where
as the latter thinks it is a good thing to be a self-righteous Pharisee while
John correctly points out that Jesus' parable was a warning
against religious hypocrisy.
It is a clever method on Hogg’s part to have true wisdom
disguised in heavy Gaelic dialect while the aristocrats, with their cultivated
speech, are blind to the truth and are full of self-satisfaction.
The book should be a matter of interest, I think, to all
Christians, simply because the topic of predestination and assurance of
salvation are hotly debated subjects between denominations.
Below I’ve included the links to other blogs that have also
reviewed this book from a different viewpoint than mine.
Thanks to Brian at Babbling Books for calling this great book to my
attention. I have since downloaded all
of James Hogg’s books onto my Kindle (they’re free!)
$1.99 on Kindle