The Kingdom on the Edge of Reality
By Gahan Hanmer
354 pp. Two Harbors Press – Apr. 2012. $14.95.
Self-reliant, “intentional” communities, as they’re often now called, have been around for centuries. They have come in a myriad of forms, including monasteries, secular communes, co-ops, cohousing communities and many others. However, their emphasis has changed in recent times. Since the beginning of the modern environmental movement, increasing numbers of them have been devoted to the ideals of environmental sustainability and local resilience. Such communities are grounded on the awareness that our civilization is running into hard resource limits and that the planet is struggling to absorb our wastes. But more than that, there’s also a growing recognition that intentional communities simply offer a good way to live.
Author Gahan Hanmer has come up with an interesting new variation on the theme. In his novel The Kingdom on the Edge of Reality, he tells the tale of an isolated community that has been meticulously designed to resemble a medieval kingdom. Tucked somewhere amidst the wilds of northern Canada, it’s meant as a permanent haven from the alienating, mass-consuming, self-destroying trap of modern civilization. Nothing in this kingdom comes from the present-day world. Farmers, weavers, blacksmiths and other skilled tradespeople provide it with all that it needs. People truly do have a sense of living in an earlier age.
Membership into this sanctuary is only by personal invitation. That is how Jack Darcey, a charismatic wanderer and the reluctant hero of this tale, comes to be there. Jack is an old friend of the kingdom’s founder, wealthy ideologue Albert Keane. Albert looks Jack up in the small town of Marysville, New York and invites him to join him at his estate in the Canadian wilderness. Albert is none too forthcoming about the details; “I would like you to be a part of something that is happening” is all he writes, in a note delivered by messenger. At first Jack is uninterested, but he reconsiders after reflecting on his uncertain prospects as a down-and-out-drifter in Marysville. And so it is that he accepts Albert’s mysterious invitation.
The helicopter that transports Jack is the last trace of modern technology he ever sees. As he gains his bearings in this strange new land, he slowly discovers its true nature and his purpose in it. He learns that Albert is the ruler of a grand kingdom that he fashioned over many years using his own fortune. “King Albert” resides in a great stone castle overlooking a constituency of commoners who work the land. In his spare time he practices fencing with a distinguished company of soldiers and courtiers.
Jack also soon learns that King Albert needs protection from a tyrannical duke named Guy Hawke, who knew both Jack and Albert as boys and bullied them relentlessly. Lord Hawke hasn’t given up his bullying ways, and he secretly covets the throne. Why was he allowed to join Albert’s community in the first place? Because setting it up was stupendously expensive, and Hawke had a vast amount of money to contribute. Albert brings Jack to the kingdom because he can’t stand up to Hawke himself and he knows that Jack can, having won a decisive schoolyard fight with him when they were young. What cemented Albert’s decision was a premonition by the kingdom’s resident mage, who saw Jack’s initiation into their community in her tarot cards. Lo and behold, here Jack is–and soon after his arrival he earns a reputation as a warrior, as well as the title of Lord himself.
In addition to the divide between followers of King Albert and those of Lord Hawke, there’s another rift within the kingdom’s populace. The public at large harbors great xenophobic sentiment toward a race of beings known as the Picts. (We never learn whether there’s a direct connection between these fictitious Picts and the real-life Pict people of late antiquity.) The Picts’ bodies have a distinctly humanoid form, and indeed they are said to be former humans who passed into some mystical realm to become Picts. Yet they appear out of the woods as if by magic. They don’t speak at all and they wear ornate masks made of leaves, twigs and other forest materials. However, in spite of their enigmatic qualities, they seem to be benign, wise creatures.
The novel spends its first two acts setting up the characters, the situation, Jack’s amazing but quite accidental rise to nobility and some romance and satirical wit for good measure. Then the real action starts. Lord Hawke strikes swiftly and silently. Using stealth assassination and military force, he seizes the throne and casts out the incumbent leadership. When Jack, badly outnumbered, rushes the usurper with his sword, he suffers a beating, a maiming, a long solitary confinement in a dungeon cell and demotion to the status of a peasant.
From this point on, the story becomes an emotionally satisfying retelling of an age-old myth: what the late mythologist Joseph Campbell identified as the hero’s death, rebirth and emergence from the abyss. Much like Amsterdam Vallon in Martin Scorsese’s film epic The Gangs of New York, or Edmond Dantès in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, Jack has been publicly assailed, debased and banished by a cruel, false leader. But, as in those other tales, he slowly picks himself back up, mends his body, cultivates his soul and sets about exacting vengeance. He learns of a group of other deposed figures from King Albert’s regime known as “the band,” whose aim is to oust Hawke and restore the previous order. Jack joins these rebels in their hideout in the woods and leads them in their effort.
Kingdom’s medieval milieu is solidly developed, Jack’s character likeable and relatable. And the novel’s commentary on the intractability of human greed and shortsightedness is supremely pointed. There’s a clear awareness in Hanmer of the inevitability of societal mayhem and collapse at this late point in our path as a civilization. In what may be the novel’s most eloquent, heartfelt line, Jack dismisses the modern world he once knew as “just an ancient and rather obvious parable about how not to live.” In the world of this book, there’s no salvation for industrial society; the most that one can do is to remove oneself from it.
Admittedly, it does require some suspension of disbelief to accept that the people of this kingdom could have forgotten so thoroughly about the present-day world. I once found myself wondering, Haven’t planes ever been spotted flying overhead, and if so, how do people account for them? For the most part, though, these implausibilities weren’t an issue for me. And certainly there’s no faulting the characters’ desire to, as one of them puts it, “[l]et go of the whole silly pointless poisonous modern era.”
This story is a bit reminiscent of Jack Finney’s Time and Again (Simon & Schuster, 1970), in that both make use of the same peculiar twist on time travel. Rather than being a conventional journey through space-time, their time traveling takes the form of going to a physical setting made to look so similar to one from the past that its inhabitants effectively do live in the past. Like Jack in Kingdom, the main character in Finney’s novel comes to embrace the more virtuous way of life that he discovers in the past and to denounce modernity. However, Hanmer’s rendering of this transformation is more intricate and less black and white than is Finney’s. Even as we see the ills of modern industrialism, we’re also shown in equally sharp focus the downsides of a feudal system in which monarchs dictate the law of the land.
With its fantastical elements, Kingdom also echoes James Howard Kunstler’s World Made by Hand series. In Kunstler’s vision of a post-industrial future, people have similarly returned to a simpler, more austere, more localized way of life, and magic and the paranormal have come to assume a more prominent place in everyday experience. One character says that this is because there are no longer sensory distractions like TV or the Internet to drown out magical phenomena. Hanmer offers no such explanation for his mages, Picts and other mystical beings, and this lack of explanation is a virtue. For to be magical is to be not entirely knowable. Explain a magical thing too fully and it becomes unmagical.
I happen to know Mr. Hanmer personally. He’s a really interesting guy with Irish roots and a background in the theater. He earned an MFA at Columbia’s prestigious School of the Arts and enjoyed a long career on the New York stage, playing a notable Macbeth as well as Poseidon in Euripides’ Trojan Women. He befriended and mentored me years back when we were both kicking around on a construction crew, of all places. Even then he was working on this novel, at the time titled Lord Jack. I’m delighted that it’s finally seen print, and I heartily recommend it for its absorbing story, relevance to today’s issues and genre-bending deftness. However, I think its title should have stayed Lord Jack. I prefer the elegance and the air of mystery about that title, as well as its sense of Jack being at the heart of the tale. But that’s just me.