The Heaven Tree

“’I am your man. I swear, on this living heart, that I will remain with you and seek no other service until your church is finished. And if I play you false, you may have this same heart living out of my body.’

There was a long moment of silence, then Isambard walked slowly to the table and drained his own goblet and set it gently beside its fellow. ‘So be it!’ he said.”

With these words, Harry Talvace and Ralf Isambard conclude their agreement. To have free reign in the creation of a church is an irresistible offer for Harry. As he says to Isambard, “’If you were the devil himself I would abide by you for such a prize as this.”

Harry will discover, however, that while his master may not be the devil, he is a hard and passionate man for whom the only evil is the breaking of his word.

Were Harry as compassionless as Isambard, this might not pose any problems, but Harry is more than impetuous and impudent, more than a proud Talvace and an extraordinary craftsman: he is also driven to protect the weak, and unshakeable in the conviction that his own conception of justice is correct, even if it flies in the face of what is accepted as justice in the brutal Middle Ages. This protective instinct is one he cannot resist, no matter what harm may come to him as a result:

“Somewhere at the bottom of his heart he had always known that the last choice he made in the teeth of power and privilege and law must be mortal, and that nonetheless he neither could not would turn aside from making it.”

The Heaven Tree, the first in Edith Pargeter’s trilogy of the same name, is a brilliant novel. Its characters come to life as vividly as the statues Harry carves in stone. Pargeter’s writing is also a work of art. She writes of Harry’s church, for example, “Suddenly the very vault was full of reflected light that trembled over the slender, braced ribs like fingers among harp-strings, and all the round-cheeked cherubim in the bosses glowed golden and shouted for joy.”

The Heaven Tree does not always make for pleasant reading, reflecting as it does the brutality of the times in which it is set. Yet in the midst of cruelty, jealousy, and revenge, it also shows, powerfully and poignantly, what it means to sacrifice oneself for another, and what it means to love.

Pen-Pals

Almost exactly twenty years ago, when I was eight years old, my father put an advertisement in a Christian newspaper requesting pen-pals for me and my brother. We received a couple of replies, including one from a girl with blonde hair and glasses, who had the same name as me and was only four days apart in age. Sarah’s family didn’t subscribe to this particular magazine, but for some reason they received this copy at their red-brick house in Michigan, and the ad caught someone’s eye. So a letter winged its way over the Atlantic, and twenty years later we’re still writing letters.

I owe her a letter, I thought last week, as I caught up on some correspondence. And then I realised that this letter I needed to write would be the last I would ever send her under her current name, because Sarah is on the brink of getting married, and I’ll have the privilege of standing in the bridal party with her as she makes her vows.

And I wonder, who’d have thought, all those years ago, that we’d still be friends now? So many childhood friendships are outgrown or simply fade away. Ours could easily have done so: perhaps we would discover, as we grew older, that we had little in common other than our name and our age. Or we might realise, when we met in person, that the flesh-and-blood versions of each other were less appealing than the paper ones.

But in God’s kindness, neither of those things happened. Sarah and I share a love for the Lord, a love of literature, a love of beauty. We’ve visited each other over half a dozen times in the last two decades, and have become friends in “real life” too. She’s taken me to the sand dunes of Michigan, the windy city of Chicago, and through the streets of Paris and Dresden. I’ve shown her English gems like Oxford and Bath. We’ve prayed for each other in the hard times, and rejoiced with each other in the good times. And we’ve written lots of letters.

Hers are all there in the pine chest in the corner of my room, as mine are tucked away somewhere on her side of the pond. On one of her visits, she brought some of my old letters, and I dug out some of hers, and we had a fine time laughing at our old selves. Twenty years is a long time, after all, and the little girls we were then seem very different from the women we are now.

But through all the changes we both underwent, through all the hard times and the good times we’ve both experienced, through all the times we moved house (and between the two of us, we’ve moved house a lot), we never failed to take time to sit down, pen in hand, and write to each other, however slow our replies might sometimes be in coming. And in the age of Twitter and Snapchat, I think it’s rather nice that we’ve never entirely given up on a more tangible, treasure-able method of communication.

Here’s to another twenty years!