Brother War: A Modern Myth for Those of European Descent
Independently published, 2019
More of Donaldson’s work is available through the White Art Collective.
Ash Donaldson’s latest novel Brother War: A Modern Myth for Those of European Descent combines the best of history, myth, and fantasy to spin an unforgettable story about World War I. Not only is it his best novel to date, but Brother War is also the first in his Mythology Series designed for an adult audience. It’s incredibly expansive in its scope and vision — converging universes of men, elves, giants, and other super-worldly creatures apply levels of meaning to the unspeakable carnage of the First World War. Through a concentering plot and archetypal characters, Donaldson demonstrates how the war’s participants, these ostensible enemies, had more in common than they understood. This commonality takes on spiritual dimensions in Brother War as Donaldson inspires us to contemplate the waste and tragedy of that century-old fratricidal conflict.
As with Blut and Boden and A Race for the North, Donaldson’s two previous novels in his Mythology Series, Brother War starts in the unfathomable past in which elves and dwarves are pitted in a constant struggle against elemental giants. These giants symbolize aspects of cataclysmic climatic forces (such as the glaciers that caused the Ice Age), but they also symbolize what is destructive in the hearts of men. The elves and dwarves eventually turn on each other as well. As it turns out, the Sons of Arius (as men are known) inherit some of the discord left by these struggles which continue in other worlds to this day, and this ultimately manifests in World War I. Emerging from this is Volund, the evil flying elf and his Sword of Vengeance, against which no weapon or warrior can claim victory.
Donaldson places particular emphasis on plot as a way to disclose the thematic elements of his story. Mostly, he embodies the classical elements (Earth, Air, Fire, and Water) in four characters — two historical and two imaginary. Center among them is Manfred von Richthofen, also known as the Red Baron. Donaldson offers us striking details of both his home and fighting life and, with a deft balance of exposition and action, rescues this real-life character from legend. Manfred represents Air, of course, and is central to the story: It will be he who must battle Volund and hopefully end the carnage engulfing Europe.
His journey begins as he mysteriously disappears into a storm cloud, through which he is transported into another world. Did the Red Baron really disappear into storm clouds during the war? Yes, he did, in May 1916. But only briefly.
In order to fight Volund, Manfred needs the right weapon and the right armor, items made of the elemental materials mentioned above. Anything the Sons of Arius can devise will be insufficient — same with the elves and dwarves. So, Donaldson takes us to Italy and introduces us to Gelasio Caetani, a master miner and iron-worker. The real-life Caetani came from a prominent Italian family, which has quite the pedigree, according to Donaldson in his appendix:
The Caetani family played a prominent role in Italian history for a thousand years. Their ranks include Pope Boniface VIII; Onorato IV Caetani, captain-general of the papal infantry at the Battle of Lepanto; and Roffredo, Gelasio’s brother, a noted composer. Michaelangelo Caetani, Gelasio’s grandfather, was a scholar, archaeologist, and later governor of Rome. He participated in excavations of pre-Roman Etruscan sites and drew maps to illustrate Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Gelasio is employed by the Italian armed forces to design an intricate network of tunnels beneath the Alps, through which men and supplies could travel without fear of attack from the enemy, or detonate bombs beneath enemy positions. One day, Gelasio discovers a strange tunnel etched with runes. This was no human-made tunnel — it was too smooth, too symmetrical. Filled with fascination, he swiftly disappears into it, wondering about the strange singing he could hear at the other end.
Similar discoveries await Donaldson’s avatars for Water and Fire. In what is now Romania, a young man named Fenix (as in Phoenix) rescues a young woman from her burning home and suffers severe burns himself. He learns that although he cannot control fire entirely, he can somehow communicate with it. He was sixteen when war was declared, and very soon things became quite complicated for the young Romanian:
One year later, his father and older brother were drafted and sent to the Russian front. Instead of fighting for their kin and nation, they were fighting for the glory of Austria-Hungary, but they did so without complaint. After all, they were subjects of the emperor, were they not?
Everything changed, however, in the summer of 1916, when Romania declared war on Austria-Hungary. Now the Front extended right across their homeland, and they might find themselves facing their fellow Romanians, only a dozen miles across the border. Fighting for Austria also meant that they were allied with the ancient enemy of their people, the Turks.
Faced with such a dilemma, Fenix decides to fight for his own people, the Romanians, and quickly enough finds himself ensconced in the Carpathian Mountains, fending off the Germans with fire in a multitude of ways. It is in one such conflagration that the flames seem to talk to him and take him into another world.
My favorite, however, was the character representing Water. In this case, we have a young man from the Shetland Islands in Scotland who lied about his age and name to join the British Navy. He remains unnamed, and strikes the reader as both tragic and mysterious, partially because Donaldson presents his story — and only his story — in italicized first-person. This young man identifies more as a Shetlander than as an Englishman and feels as if he has the ocean in his blood. He also harbors romantic longings for his Viking heritage and a sense of brotherhood with his Germanic enemies:
Once I heard a man say that the English and the Germans are brothers, just like us Shetlanders and the Norwegians. Long ago, he said, some Germans, the Saxons it was, came across the water and settled in England. English and German, he said, come from the same language, and he knew all these words that were the same, or nearly so, in both. That kind of talk during the war got men angry, and they beat him frightfully. But I, being no Englishman but a Shetland man born and bred, could look at the matter without getting hot under the collar. Much later, when I saw the German sailors who looked just like me and my mates, I thought to myself, Yes, that’s just what this is, a war between brothers.
He survives the Battle of Jutland and later joins the Zebrina, a British Q-ship. Q-ships were designed to appear like innocent fishing schooners so they could lure U-boats to the surface and then fire upon them. Our sailor witnesses such a war crime and then takes the captain to task for it:
I resolved to leave the Zebrina and told the captain so in private. He must have guessed my reason, because he asked me how I felt about the incident. I told him that I did not think it right to shoot unarmed men who were in no way a danger to us. And I said that if the Germans found about this, they would stop obeying the rules of the sea themselves.
“They would at that, would they not,” he said with a sly voice, as if he had never considered this.
“And then,” I said, “they’ll attack any merchant ship on sight.”
“I suppose so,” he replied, as if the thousands of innocent lives that would be lost amounted to nothing.
“But that’ll bring the Americans into the war,” I pointed out.
“So tell me,” he said, “why that would be such a bad idea?”
He had an evil grin when he said that, with his eyes all agleam. It reminded me of the glow in the eyes of a stoker, when he shovels coal into the ship’s boiler, and he shovels more and more, but it’s never enough, and the fires gleam in his eyes. And it was as if the captain were shoveling bodies into the fire, and there would never be enough to satisfy the appetite of war.
In a book filled with unsettling passages, this one sealed the deal for me. Great art, in my opinion, will offer great ideas. And how do we know if an idea is great? If the idea is true, and, just as importantly, if its opposite is equally true — as opposed to a truism, whose opposite is merely false. I cribbed this notion from Neils Bohr (and wrote about it here), and I believe it applies perfectly to this passage of Brother War.
Our sympathies are with the unnamed sailor, of course. What the British sailors did was appalling, dishonorable, and — for what it’s worth — illegal. Our protagonist was right to fret, not only over the ethics of such an atrocity but also its consequences. Yet, the captain’s logic remains consistent and quite frighteningly correct. He reminded me of the British military leader in the film Braveheart who was willing to shoot arrows into his own soldiers when they were in close contact with the Scottish — anything to win. Cold-blooded, yes. But not wrong within the horrid calculus of war.
This passage especially made me question the nature of war. In the case of a war between brothers, our unnamed sailor certainly has the superior argument. But what if this were the Battle of Lepanto — no brother war, that — and the sailor and his captain were having the same conversation (replacing the Americans with another European power)? Who would be right then?
Philosophical issues aside, since there really was a British vessel named Zebrina, you can bet something weird happened to it during the war. In October 1917, the Zebrina was found afloat with its entire crew missing. That no one knows the reason is no obstacle for Donaldson to offer one: Sure enough, our unnamed sailor is taken to another world in the arms of a beautiful sea nymph.
Although it may seem as if this were the bulk of the plot of Brother War, it’s only the starting point. The real fun begins when these four characters meet and break down their language differences etymologically to determine that they have more in common than they had thought. They then prepare to do battle with Volund, which ends up being a breathtaking spectacle itself.
Of course, we should expect masterful control of history from Donaldson. His fiction has always been rife with meticulous scholarship. But the expanse of Brother War, which links Europeans from Western, Central, Southern, and Eastern Europe, takes this to a new level. As with the best historical fiction, history truly lives in Brother War. His appendix offers a wealth of background information, almost to the point of taking the plot of his story into real life. And when Donaldson takes license, he clearly says so. Bolstering this is the generous use of artwork, imagery, photographs, and maps to flesh out his narrative and characters. (He has a preference for the great Alfons Mucha, which I, and I am sure many others, share.)
There’s also his use of verse, much of which are his own and some he translated himself. They add a new dimension to the story, such as when Donaldson describes Manfred in his enchanted armor before his battle with Volund. Donaldson gives him a look which is pure steampunk:
Mortal flesh and machine mesh
Arms in armor, chest tight-pressed,
Hammered helmet guarding head,
Machine become Death, man become Dread.
Runes radiated in currents calculated
To project power every second, every hour,
Molded without misstep, etched without error,
Behold the Man, look upon Terror.
Beneath it all, however, is myth. With regard to this, Brother War is no different than his previous stories. The personification of Nature, the presence of gods and ancient beings, the allegorical characters, the apocalyptic warfare — it’s all there. Myth is the backbone of these stories, but now with a forceful and dynamic emphasis on World War I, which is just now fading out of living memory. Very soon it will enter the legendary realms Ash Donaldson conjures up for us. Hopefully, however, this transition will never be complete; and great works like Brother War will help ensure that Europeans will never forget the awful price their ancestors had to pay in that war — the price they themselves are still paying today.
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