Stephen P. Lawhead’s Byzantium

I bought Byzantium, a novel by Stephen R. Lawhead, when Justin Taylor blogged on it. I love to read fiction, but when I do, good plots tend to dominate my free time and steal some hours when I should be sleeping. Being robbed of shut-eye, however, pays me back with more vacuum capacity for sucking the marrow out of life. Reading great literature is as stretching and strengthening as it is taxing and exhausting. Often I need a little extra push to plunge back into this fiction vortex, the push that pulls me away from something I “should” be reading and forces me to read something I’ve been wanting to jump into.

In this case, the push came from Andrew Peterson, who made an offhand remark in a book review that he had named his first-born son after the main character in Lawhead’s Byzantium. That’s a pretty strong shove!

So I commend to you this novel: set in the middle ages, about the journey of an Irish monk (a man not unlike Saint Patrick), who is a scribe involved in the production of a famous manuscript, is made the slave of Vikings, stands before the Emperor in Constantinople, is enslaved by wicked Saracens only to be befriended by noble Muslims, and through these many adventures sees a Beowulf like figure, King of Skania, converted to Christianity.

Need some more motivation? The Irish Monks practice believer’s baptism by immersion!

This is a fascinating trip to another time and place, combining history and fiction. Lawhead explains:

As for Aidan mac Cainnech, he is a fictitious amalgamation of several Irish saints who were active at the time. No one person did all the things my Aidan did in the book, but the events described in Byzantium were based on the kinds of actual adventures pilgrim saints of Aidan’s day endured.

In another Q&A, Lawhead writes:

Many of the events mentioned in the book – the political upheaval, the intrigue within the Islam court, and others – are genuine. I wanted to make the book as historical as possible without sacrificing the story – after all, it is not a history textbook, but a novel. With me, story wins every time.

Byzantium is a story that waters seeds of hope, fertilizes soils of perseverance, and puts the sun’s life giving rays to unfolding leaves of virtue. Go ahead, travel from Ireland to Arabia through Byzantium and back at the end of the 9th Century. Cross the seas on Viking ships and the deserts on Arabian horses. Tread the paths of an Irish Monk on a journey through the death of vanity to the resurrection of faith.

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  1. Harold Hardrada, who was King of Norway and died fighting against Harold the last Saxon King of England just days before the battle of Hastings, had been a slave at the court in Constantinople (the Emperor’s Varangian guards were de facto slaves) so maybe he got the idea of that monk being a slave from that. In any case it’s easy to fictionalize history but hard to fictionalize history well. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to check it out. If you’re further interested in that era Sir Walter Scott wrote a novel called Count Robert of Paris that deals with those times although I don’t think it was one of his better efforts.

  2. This book is awesome. I read it in school about 10 years ago and it is still my second favorite fiction book (behind LOTR of course). Now that I know so much more about theology, I often wonder if I would agree with much of what Lawhead presents.

    He is still my favorite living fiction author, even if his latest works don’t hold a candle to his previous ones. Lawhead’s Pendragon And Song of Albion series will steal many hours from your life, but they are worth it.

  3. Jim,
    You should read “The Last Disciple” by Hank Hanegraff. Bit cheesey, but not a bad read.

  4. April 2023
    I am currently re-reading this wonderful book, which I first read around 1999. Not disappointed!

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