Who is Billy Jones?:Some Suggestions toward an Understanding
This is not a review.
This is not an objective, distanced, scholarly examination.
This is, quite blatantly, an enthusiastic appreciation of a book I enjoyed tremendously written by a young man whose work I have enjoyed for years…and who happens to be my son.
Billy: Messenger of Powers is a recent young-adult novel, published through an inventive use of the internet. By accessing its site--http://www.whoisbillyjones.com/--anyone interested may download an audio edition of the novel, read quite professionally by Andy Bowyer. The cost? Whatever the listener thinks is appropriate. The whole project is an intriguing innovation in online publishing that has thus far garnered over 95,000 hits internationally.
But none of that really addresses the central question. It is window dressing, making the book extrinsically more interesting but failing to indicate the richness of the story itself.
As a young-adult novel, Billy provides its readers with an engaging hero--a high-school freshman who, like many of its readers, feels totally out of place. To make matters worse, he is small, all five-foot nothing of him, and subject to frequent forceful insertion into empty hall lockers. He feels helpless…until circumstances introduce him to unknown Powers and give him a thorough education in power, its rightful uses, and its abuses. What follows is a roller-coaster ride of events, characters, landscapes, situations, and emotions, resulting in a Billy who, although still physically small, has grown significantly in all the ways that are important.
It is a delightful novel, fast-moving, energetic, flavored by constant humor, both situational and linguistic. And well worth hearing.
But on other levels, it is even more provocative. For older listeners, it provides a treasure-trove of allusions, structural references, archetypal echoes, and imagistic resonances that create depth and an ever-shifting backdrop of cultural, religious, and social echoes.
At its most fundamental, Billy infuses an archaic trope with new vigor. The underlying structure of Billy's universe--or, more precisely, perhaps, multiverse--relies on the ancient classification of all matter as belonging to one or more elements: Earth, Air, Fire, Water. To the traditional four, the novel adds a fifth and sixth: Death and Life. Key characters represent Elements, at times even the essence of the Elements, exhibiting appropriate knowledge and powers. And, given the often contradictory characteristics of the Elements and the beings who personify them, Billy's worlds stand on the perilous edge of war, exemplified by the unbridgeable gulf between Life and Death.
The novel expands upon this essentially Medieval/Renaissance world-view, including echoes of such crucial beliefs as the Music of the Spheres, an image for the fundamentally harmonic character of the universe when acting in concord to God's will; and the entire panoply of associations implied by humoral psychology, in which the overriding element in one's physical makeup parallels specific mental, emotional, and spiritual characteristics, including associations with colors, personalities, and age. Individual Powers dress, act, and think in accordance with their respective elements. Hence, one character is associated with Fire, wears red; is an active, vigorous young man; and is, appropriately, by profession a 'fireman.' The novel avoids making the identifications too blunt and obvious, but underlying each major character, one may see the Elements moving.
Upon this foundation Billy builds a second archetypal level, this one associated with the mythic history of King Arthur. Arthurian touches occur, apparently randomly, through most of the novel, but the final chapters reveal the close interweaving of myth with world-view, ultimately introducing--in much the same manner as Spenser's Faerie Queene--Arthur, not so much as acting character but as a promised presence in future books. Specific components of the mythos gradually reveal themselves as the novel progresses, until at its conclusion, they emerge directly to participate inexorably and seamlessly with the story. The novel handles the emergences adroitly, almost tantalizingly, until the Arthurian motifs crystallize sufficiently for younger listeners to become aware of them. The whole sub-structure is handled carefully and well, never overwhelming the surface story but supporting and enriching it.
In addition, Billy: Messenger of Power penetrates to the core of both the ancient Elements and the Arthurian mythos to an even more fundamental sequence of echoes. J. R. R. Tolkien once discussed Fantasy-as-genre as leading, in its highest moments, to a sense of Eucatastrophe, that is, a single moment of overwhelming joy that echoes throughout past, present, and future. For him, the best fantasy gives us a glimpse of the 'true' eucatastrophe, the Incarnation of Christ at the central point of human history. Whether overly Christian or not, specifically religious or not, high fantasy leaves readers in an emotional state that parallels that of the most intense religious experience.
Billy attempts--and to a large extent succeeds--in creating the sense that, underlying the surface story, with all of its archetypes and echoes, is a greater story, one dealing ultimately with redemption and regeneration. Scriptural allusions begin with the title itself … Billy: Messenger of Power. A messenger is 'one who is sent out,' an 'apostle' in the earliest Greek and Latin senses of the word. There is a nicely comic sense in the juxtaposition of Billy's commonplace name with a word that mediates between him and "power." The allusions continue with references to a grand Council and an early battle that separated the Powers into forces of light--the Dawnwalkers--and forces of darkness--the Darksiders. The Dawnwalkers are committed to allowing humanity its freedom to act; the Darksiders to ruling and subjugating. There are Christic references throughout. There is an Anti-Christ, one who asserts himself as the true Messenger of the King. There is a revelation scene reminiscent of Christ's temptation on the pinnacles of the Temple or Moses' visions upon a high mountain. There is a sealed book, only one-third of which can be read. There is even a character swallowed by a whale à la Jonah.
Even given all of this, Billy carefully avoids being simply Arthur-warmed-over or Christic-imagery-sprinkled-about. It tells its own story, creates its own memorable characters, defines its own unique landscapes, and arrives at its own inevitable but satisfying conclusion. Yes, the villain gets away. Yes, there are clearly more books to follow, more weapons to discover. No, Arthur does not appear, but as in the early volumes of Susan Cooper's Arthurian sequence, the way has been opened. And no, Billy does not exactly get the girl in the end.
Taken as a whole and as the opening chapter in a much longer story, Billy: Messenger of Power does itself proud, especially for a first novel. It is readable, engaging, and rewarding.
And even if it was written by my son, I recommend it.
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