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.


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