I recently finished reading the Sword and Serpent trilogy by Dr. Taylor Marshall. I met the author while he was working on his PhD at University of Dallas and I was working on my MTh. We sat next to each in a very good Thomas Aquinas seminar class, and as we talked before class, we realized he had entered the Catholic Church a week before my wife and I had. One difference was that he had been an Episcopal priest when he became Catholic, so he was moving into a new career, which included teaching and writing about philosophy and theology.
I kept up with news about Taylor as he progressed in his new career, and I heard about books he was publishing, including a fiction trilogy. However, I always have a long list of books to read, so I didn’t try them until I heard a recommendations by Fr. Dwight Longenecker, and I saw that the Kindle version of the first book was on sale.
The books are historical novels set during the time of the Roman emperor Diocletian, around the year 300. During this time, the Roman Empire was clearly having problems, and many were blaming the growing “cult of the Nazarene”, which is what they called the Catholic Church. They either suspected the Christians were disloyal because they placed the kingship of Jesus above that of the emperor, or they thought that Christian worship had provoked the displeasure of the pagan Roman gods.
Dr. Marshall says these books arose out of stories he made up for his children to teach them about the Catholic saints. His scholarship allows him to make this time period come alive with detailed historical references, descriptions of many cultures and places across the Roman Empire, and interesting portrayals of characters out of secular and Christian history. One clever technique that he employs is to refer to many of these characters using their Greek or Latin names, which are different from the anglicized forms that we know them as. This allows us to see them as ordinary people first before we realize they are saints or famous figures. What emerges are stories of real people trying to find their way through life in very challenging circumstances. We see Christians who are proud of their Roman heritage struggling with the problem of conflicting loyalties, and we see pagans encountering the amazing love and strange beliefs of the Christians, drawing them to a new life.
I found all three books to be full of delightful surprises and inspiring examples. There are aspects of these stories that remind me of my favorites, The Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia. Time will tell if I go back to Dr. Marshall’s books like I have those of Tolkien and Lewis. My only negative is that there were slow sections, especially the depictions of life in Diocletian’s court, but slow sections don’t necessarily mean a bad book. (Tolkien’s books have many slow sections.) In fact, the impatience I felt at those times mirrored the impatience some of the characters felt as they were waiting for the right time to act, so I think those sections are a necessary part of the story.
I highly recommend the Sword and Serpent trilogy for young adult and adult readers. I think they will be inspirational for Catholics who love the saints, but I also think they will give non-Catholics a new perspective on this time in history, maybe even causing them to reevaluate some misconceptions about the origins of Catholic Christianity.