Naomi Mitchison, The Blood of the Martyrs (1939)
Naomi Mitchison, who died in 1999 at the age of 101, was a prolific writer who dipped into quite an astonishing number of genres. She wrote historical fiction based in both prehistoric and historic times, contemporary fiction, fantasy, science fiction, travelogue, essays, memoirs, biography, plays … is there anything left? If she’s not a household name today, maybe it’s because she refused to be pigeonholed and especially to follow the “rules” of writing and publishing. One of her early novels, We Have Been Warned, was repeatedly turned down on the basis of its treatment of sexuality and heavily revised before publication. It still caused a furor when it came out.
I haven’t read that book (not considered one of her best), but I have read the stunning historical novel The Corn King and the Spring Queen and the charming fantasy Travel Light, which both evoke a mythological past with beautiful language and powerful, vivid imagery. I’ve been wanting to read more of Mitchison’s books, but they’re not so easy to find these days.
One that is readily available, recently republished in paperback by Canongate, is The Blood of the Martyrs, another historical novel that takes as its subject the first persecution of the Christians in Rome under Nero. Written in the 1930s, it has clear parallels to the rise of Mussolini and Hitler, with Nero’s cult of bloodlust and violence sustaining a leader drunk on the vision of himself as a god. Contrasted with this state-sanctioned insanity is a small cell of Christians, who look forward to the coming of a “Kingdom” of brotherhood, equality, and freedom. In the meantime they attempt to practice the radical non-violence of Jesus’s teaching, loving one another and forgiving their enemies. The climax of the book shows how they try to do this even in the Arena as they’re being burnt and thrown to wild animals.
It’s hard to describe the book without making it sound like a pious treatise of some kind, but it isn’t. It’s not pious in any cheap sentimental way, and the person and deeds of Jesus Christ operate more as a kind of distant rumor than as an active presence. These Christians base their religion not on a numinous experience of the Godhead but on the bonds of kindness and mutual support that they experience with one another. Many of them are slaves, and the book offers, among other things, a pondering of what makes us slave or free. Is it the outer circumstances of our lives? Or is it a choice that we make in our attitude?
The experience of several of these Roman slaves and freedmen is movingly depicted in the vignettes of the opening chapters, which describe the varying paths they take toward Christianity. These make it clear that the repression of the new religion was not based on its addition of a new god to the pantheon — Rome had no problem embracing all kinds of deities, from Isis to Mithras — but on the danger its values presented to the state. If people can strive for an individual, free relationship to truth, if they make love their highest ideal and motivating force, then they cannot be controlled by punishment or fear. That makes them anathema in a regime founded on the empty-hearted, unquenchable drive for power.
Most of the characters share the naive view that the Kingdom of which Jesus spoke is an imminent physical reality which will somehow suddenly overturn the world of their rulers. This does not happen, of course, nor has it come to pass in the intervening centuries — nor ever will, in such a crude, materialistic form. But the lives and beliefs of these early Christians still hold a mysterious power, showing how the Kingdom may come into being within the hearts of people who dare to live as though it were already here.
As Rudolf Steiner put it, we all as human beings bear the spirit within us, but we can decide to ignore and suppress and even imprison this spirit, or set it free. Which will we choose? Whether in the time of the martyrs, during the rise of Fascism, or in our own day, there is no more vital, more urgent question to be asked. I’m grateful to this brilliant, overlooked writer for bringing it up for me once more.