The Burning Times (Jeanne Kalogridis)

The Burning Times: A Novel of Medieval France by Jeanne Kalogridis
The Burning Times : A Novel of Medieval France
Jeanne Kalogridis
Simon & Schuster, 2002
ISBN: 0684869241

A few weeks back, I checked this book out of the library for a re-read, having initially read “The Burning Times” nearly a year ago.

I hadn’t expected to get hooked when I first picked up “The Burning Times,” but let’s just say that I didn’t get much accomplished that particular weekend other than reading this novel straight through. I had thought I would be reading a fairly mundane story about the inquisition and medieval witch burnings, and I was happily caught off-guard by Kalogridis’ more trascendent tale. This is no stereotypical tale of the good old days of magickal arts being driven underground by the mad inquisitors, or of religious intolerance gone awry.

“The Burning Times” is a story that can be understood on a number of levels (which is why I wanted to read it again so soon), and the message about the unfortunate consequences of love tainted with fear — even with the best intentions — is a quite relevant and timely one just now. Not surprisingly, the main obstacle that the two main characters must face is the darkness within themselves: an evil that the vast majority of us do not even have the courage to acknowledge, much less to stare it down and accept it as a part of ourselves.

We are none of us perfect beings, and in many cases, this “darker self” is nothing more than the fearful self. The more we lock away and fear our own fear, the more powerful that fear becomes…. Until we become that which we fear most. Indeed, in “The Burning Times,” the most powerful inquisitors are those who are blessed with “The Sight” but who are so fearful of their own gift that they seek out and destroy all others who are similarly blessed, instead of recognizing the gift for what it is and using it as a powerful tool for light and healing.

Obviously this speaks volumes to any kind of active intolerance — such as racial prejudice and homophobia — but I can’t help seeing the parallel between this story and the current “war on terrorism.” To put it bluntly, Americans have become so afraid of being the targets of a violent holy war that we have essentially instigated a violent holy war, full of prejudice, intolerance, arrogance, and of course fear.

More personally, so many of us live within the bonds of fear, not even realizing that we are our own jailers, and that we can release ourselves at any moment we choose. We choose security instead of “living out loud,” and choose the “safer” option when making life’s decisions. But if we were to give up fear, would we be so concerned about safety and security? In my own life, I have found that “playing it safe” is far more costly than embracing the risks. I simply don’t want to get to the end of my life wondering “what if” over all of the safe choices I made.

As an “empathic reader,” I could feel the author’s own struggle with the material and her fear about what others might think — though Kalogridis likely didn’t intend for this to come across, it’s a demon I’ve struggled with in my own writing. The dance of Kalogridis’ devil was quite subtle, and it was encouraging to watch her confidence grow with each successive page of the story.

These “Burning Times” characters wrestle with being true to themselves — and trying to live “authentic lives” — in a world that doesn’t understand them, and that chooses to fear and to hate them as a result. Those looking to this narrative for basic information on Wicca or witchcraft will be disappointed, though there are references to ritual elements and medicinal healing arts. Instead, I found this tale to be a study in the alchemy that we work on our own hearts and minds as we try to make peace simultaneously with our souls and with the world around us.

This is a tug-of-war that I face every day. Not only is it an external struggle between who I am and what the world tells me I’m supposed to be, but there is a very personal, internal battle of my heart and soul against my mind — more specifically, railing against the expectations and restrictions that were drilled into me at such a young age. Once those rules become an ingrained part of who you are and how you interact with the world, it doesn’t matter if they are constructive or not, healthy or not, or even true or not, because they are already part of your core programming. Just as one of the main characters in “Burning Times” is more or less brainwashed — bewitched, more accurately — into forgetting who he truly is and into living a life in darkness, we pull this same number on ourselves each and every day, often not even realizing how we are participating in and even orchestrating our own “dark ages.”

Are we that afraid to know the truth about ourselves? Reading “The Burning Times” gives a clue to some of the wonderful possibilities that may be awaiting us, should we merely find the courage to open our hearts and minds.

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