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On Theme (Race, Religion And Science), by Ben Marshall

When I wrote my novel manuscript The Pyrate’s Sonne, I didn’t set out to have racism as a theme.  Nor did I have any intention of weaving in an earnest strand that patronises my reader by banging on about it.  It’s just that when I signed aboard with the rest of my 17th century crew for a chase across the Atlantic everyone I met was racist.  Some characters believe that Jews sacrifice babies or that slavery isn’t such a bad thing, and so on.  Racism was normal in the seventeenth century.

That said, I was told by a senior editor at a major publishing house that racist dialogue was a problem in a YA novel because parents, teachers and librarians may feel a character espousing a point of view might reflect those of the author.  Go figure.

Anyway, because I found no evidence that racism wasn’t widespread back then, I kept it that way in my manuscript… and remain unpublished.  So, because I have an English hero, Red, who is quite matter-of-fact about his views on race, and his friends and crew from all over Britain, Europe and Africa also have views on race that affects their behaviour, does this mean racism is a theme in my novel?

Exploring the time when the medieval met the burgeoning Age of Reason, another context and driver of action is religious belief.

For example, Red’s certain that Anglo-Saxon men, especially Englishmen, are the pinnacle of God’s creation.  The others have a variety of views, up to and including atheism.  Heartfelt belief always affects individual, and therefore collective, action.  Do I now also have religion as a theme?

My young pirate captain is intrigued by the new practice of Natural Philosophy, which some are calling ‘science’, and by the processes of deduction that are replacing Aristotelian induction.  Red appreciates the idea of observation, the accumulation of data, and the weight of evidence overturning old thinking.  The point here is, Red’s interest affects his behaviour and the action in the story.  The Scientific Method gets him and his crew out of some difficult situations.   With all this fancy new ‘deductive reasoning’ going on, the process of holding the view that other races are inferior becomes less tenable for Red.  The evidence all around him falsifies Red’s assumptions.  In my novel, racism isn’t proved ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’, it’s simply discarded because it doesn’t work.  Does that make science another unintended theme?

In any event, all three (race, religion and science) push along a plot that hinges on the hero redressing a great injustice.  But in a violent era of global colonisation, when ‘might makes right’, ‘justice’ is a term that has little currency.  In seventeenth century thinking, if you are born into privilege, or work your way there by fair means or foul, God has supposedly willed it to happen.  Therefore success belongs to the worthy and failure belongs to the unworthy.  The idea of governments being voted into existence by ordinary people occurs almost nowhere in this world, except the one place where you’d least expect concepts of fairness and justice to emerge – a pirate ship.  So, is this another theme?

A pirate ship’s ‘articles’ is a document which codifies crime and punishment, the division of labour, and rewards for captain and crew.   It is voted on.  Voting is thought of as a just way of ensuring the maximum good for the greatest number.  This democratic behaviour, while not given the name by my scurvy crew, occurs whenever they’re confronted by a sticky situation.

So decision-making amongst a group of people with disparate backgrounds and goals – democracy – becomes another theme, again one that was unintended by me.  I just signed aboard to watch, learn and write the story, like a dispassionate reporter telling it as it happens.  But, of course, I’m doing nothing of the kind; I’m crafting a story.  I leave out things and include things according to the craft of storytelling, which is also what one of my crewmates, Huffington, is doing.

Embedded onto the ship, Huffington is a London writer of popular stories about pirates.  He cheerfully twists facts and events into a tale more palatable to his London patrons and readers.  His metanarrative pops up as an amusing counterpoint to the real action.  Only when it really counts, when his credibility is in tatters and all is lost, does he tell the true truth – the story of The Pyrate’s Sonne.  So, that’s another theme – truth in journalism.

In fact, I did have one theme in mind when I started this manuscript: honour.

I wanted to put someone in a position of great dishonour and oblige them to behave honourably.  Making honourable decisions while in situations of intolerable stress and fear produces entertaining conflict.

Themes emerge as pointers to the value system of the writer.  Assuming I’d planned my manuscript with Asperger’s-like precision and had my themes lined up ready to base the story around, I’d be writing a polemic, not a novel.  Real themes emerge only after the fact.

For me, they aren’t even a thing.


Ben Marshall’s author website:

Ben Marshall’s bio page


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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Interesting theme to be explored and I love it when authors look a big themes through a historical lens

    I believe so many people have been taken in by the received wisdom of ‘Enlightenment: Good, Religious People: Prejudiced, Superstitious and Bad’ they they fail to delve into any real historical scholarship.

    For example, the myth that medieval people thought the earth was flat is still utterly pervasive thanks to Washington Irving’s fictionalised Christopher Columbus biography.

    The Early 18th century Enlightenment crowd were very pragmatic about issues of race and that was one of the reasons why slavery took so long to be addressed – slavery had always existed and it was considered an organic part of the economic systems of the world.

    To quote from one of France’s greatest Enlightenment philosophers, Voltaire: ‘the race of the Negroes is a species of men different from ours… we can say that if their intelligence is not from another species of our understanding, she is much lower…’

    It wasn’t until the religious William Wilberforce embarked on his 15 year campaign to end Britain’s slave trade that did the idea that slavery was bad enter the public consciousness at large.

    Also the popular myth that the scientific method was adopted and developed by enlightenment thinkers also enters the realm of mythmaking.

    Medieval and Renaissance scientists were largely mostly religious scholars who started with the premise that a rational God developed the world in a rational way and the rational way the world operated could be understood by observation and experimentation.

    Too often, the lens of history gets distorted by the prism of modern sensibilities.

    June 24, 2013
  2. Thanks, Elizabeth. I concur with your observations. The fact is we still live with, and accept, slavery. We just have to open our wardrobes and check the labels to see that’s a simple fact. Related to that, recent surveys amongst Australian young adults of varying parental ethnicities shows a wary, qualified approval of democracy, but there are many who are so disenfranchised and disillusioned that they, not unreasonably, feel that democracy is just one amongst a range of corrupt governmental regimes. So my point becomes that the debates engendered by the collision of the medieval and the Enlightenment are still current. My hypothesis is that, given destabilisation of any human social system, the default system is medieval. These are all discussions contemporary literature is unwilling, I feel, to take on.

    June 24, 2013
  3. ‘Real themes emerge only after the fact.’….so true! Even if you HAD planned with precision, I would suggest it would still be true. Interesting post – thank you.

    June 24, 2013

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