G.A. Henty Books
Many folks have shown interest over the years for a review on G. A. Henty. We do add reviews as we have time, and apologize that they do not appear sooner. However, this one is finally being added. It was actually written in its original form quite some years ago in one of our magazines. So it has been located and given a bit of “touching up,” and is presented below. We hope that it will be helpful.
G. A. Henty (1832-1902) was an English War correspondent for many years before becoming an author specializing in adventure stories for boys. Because of his occupation, it was only natural that he would write about what he knew best—war and violence. His books are primarily built upon such topics, and, thus, are generally laden with excitement and adventure. As books do have an effect upon the minds of children, and as Mr. Henty wrote enough titles that they can easily become a young reader’s rather steady diet, this seems as if maybe it ought to be a point of warning, and we will return to it again.
There is no doubt that Henty books contain plenty of adventure. His books convey the idea that he felt, much like Hollywood, that the more adventure the better. Another question that comes to mind is whether when the reader becomes enthralled with the story, which he most certainly will, for Mr. Henty was quite talented, will he learn to lust after adventure? Do we really want our young readers to imagine themselves as lusty warriors, and carry around the pride of such imaginations? We cannot forget that reading always develops appetites of some type.
Mr. Henty is touted by some for historical accuracy. This point, in our opinion, is simply inaccurate, that being expressly due to the way he employs history in developing his adventures. Yes, his stories contain elements of history. Every story needs a setting. Adventure stories need exciting settings. There are plenty of violent conflicts recorded in history. Each one can be used as an effective starting point on which to base an adventure story. Mr. Henty knew this all too well and was a master at using such events as excellent interest builders. So, although he uses occurrences in history as backdrops, topics, and actual parts of his stories, by the time that he paints over those backdrops with his fictional characters and their adventures, any accurate understanding of what actually happened is generally distorted in the mind of the reader. The true focus, and actual historic impetus, of these events is lost behind the fictional plot, and thus lost to the consciousness of the reader. After a sampling of Mr. Henty’s books, this is the opinion at which we arrived, however you may want to judge for yourself, so some of the excerpts that will follow we hope will illustrate how we came to feel so.
With the idea of historical accuracy in mind, we wanted to read at least one Henty book that was about a topic with which we had some familiarity. We chose to use as an example for this review, For the Temple, A Tale of the Fall of Jerusalem. Though this review deals primarily with this title, the concepts and ideas noted were found to be common threads of the Henty style, woven into the fabric of other titles.
The protagonist of the story is a fictional young man named John, who, at age seventeen becomes right-hand man to Josephus, the famous Jewish historian, who is preparing Israel for war against Rome at the time. He soon distinguishes himself in hand-to-hand combat, and is involved in considerable fighting. He and a cohort become the only two men to miraculously escape the Romans at the massacre at Jotapata, except for Josephus and one comrade, who according to history surrendered after all other male survivors had been killed or committed suicide.
Shortly afterward John becomes a military leader in command of eight thousand men—a meteoric and unrealistic rise in military ranks, especially for a seventeen-year-old. This may seem like a small point, but as more of the story unfolds we trust it will become apparent that the effect of such ideas on the reader can be weighty. It will be up to you, as parents, to decide whether it is a mentally and spiritually healthy effect. Such instances of the grand stature of youngsters are not only found in Mr. Henty’s works, but in most literature for children, even Christian literature. Young people in their teen years already tend to develop an overstated idea of their wisdom and do not realize that they have not enough experience to support the idea. In other words, they do not know through experience enough to balance the ideas and concepts that they are able to think up. This can become dangerous, and it can be difficult for parents to keep them on track during this period without authors continually reinforcing this attitude in young minds by way of such writing.
Before long, John coincidently, traveling alone, happens upon Titus in the way, who is, also coincidently, traveling alone. This is Titus, the Roman general, the son of Vespasian, soon to be Emperor of Rome. It would be beyond rare circumstance for the ultimate Roman commander to be traveling alone during wartime in the enemy’s land. Anyway, as the story goes, the two just sort of happen upon each other. Hand to hand combat commences. The youth, John, bests this highly accomplished Roman warrior and then spares Titus’ life. He receives a ring from Titus as a pledge of his friendship.
Next, John, now a national figure, raises his own forces and goes to Jerusalem to help defend it in what will be its last battle. Until this point in the book, history and fiction have simply shared the same stage with the fairy tale of young John being played out in front of real names and places from a tragic era. Now, however, for the sake of the story, the facts of what went on inside those walls fully departs from history. The young reader now receives a close-up understanding of the enmities, alliances, negotiations, happenings, and strategies that took place inside the city. Unfortunately, that understanding is wrong—it is a misunderstanding—it does not concur with history.
Historically, in the last days of Jerusalem before the fall, there were two factions defending the city that were, for the most part, violently opposed to each other, and intermittently at war with each other. Each was a potent military force. One faction was led by John of Gischala, and the other by Simon of Gioro. In this story, though, there is a third force. It is led by our fictional hero, John of Gamala. It is our John, the fictional third commander, who brings the other two forces together at the end. It is John, being the superior commander of the three, that instructs the other experienced commanders on how to defend the city. By this point in the book, one wonders how seasoned veterans get on without instruction from young wonders. This is akin to teaching young people a history in which a teenager instructs George Washington to cross the Delaware, and explains to him how to defeat the Hessians when he gets there.
Then, as the city falls, and both the Romans and the Jews are killing anyone who tries to leave the city, John, once again, miraculously finds an unknown escape route. He later is captured, but uses Titus’ ring to be freed, obtain an audience in Rome, and return to Israel as a ruler. This is a pretty active schedule for a lad from age seventeen to twenty, and these are only the high points. Though all of this might be believable to a youngster, it is questionable what good effects all this fictional “valor” and “wisdom beyond one’s years” possessed by John will have on the reader. Consider its effect if he reads ten such books. Much of the story encourages the young reader to identify himself with this John, and think that young people can be, and often are, much braver and wiser than even the bravest and wisest adults. This is pretty dangerous (might I say foolish?) worldly thinking. A young mind, especially one that finds this story content believable, is particularly susceptible to responding wrongly to these kinds of influences.
There are a number of other things commonly found in Henty books that made us uncomfortable. The ideas behind them are not expressed outright, but rather mentioned in passing—almost as innuendos. We will offer some examples of them from this particular story being used in the review. The first example involves having the proper idea of why God put us here. John meets Josephus early on, and Josephus is so impressed with John’s “being brave and cool in danger” that he asks John’s parents if they would let John come to work for him as his personal attendant. Naturally, John is thrilled. The passage says: “It opened the way to the performance of great actions which would bring honor to his father’s name; and although he had been hitherto prepared to settle down to the life of a cultivator of the soil, he had had his yearnings for one or more excitement and adventure, and these were now likely to be gratified to the fullest.” The idea that one comes away with here seems to be that it is boring to be a simple, honest man who raises a family (what man was created for), and, thus, since there are far more important and exciting things to be done with one’s life, is better left for something more exciting. Mr. Henty’s books teem with such subtle suggestions that life is a search for grandeur.
To illustrate by comparison the idea of Christian character and values in reading materials, consider this short passage from a collection of Christian literature:
The Will of God
I wish that we could all get into our minds one vital principle: What is the object or end of life? The object of life is to do the will of God. That makes all life equally great or equally small; because the only great thing in life is what of God’s will there is in it. The greatest achievement of any man’s life, after all is over, is to have done the will of God. No man or woman can have done any more with a life; and a dairymaid or a day laborer can do as much.
Therefore, the great principle upon which we have to run our lives is to adhere, through good report and ill, through temptation and prosperity and adversity, to the will of God, wherever that may lead us. It may take you away to China; or you, who wish to go to Africa, may have to stay where you are. You, who are going to be a missionary, may have to go into business; and you, who are going into business, may have to become a missionary. But there is no happiness or success in any life until that principle is possessed.
How can you build a life on that principle? Let me give you a little Bible outline:
God’s definition of a pattern life: “I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after mine own heart, which shall fulfil all my will.” —Acts 13:22.
The object of life: “Then said he, Lo, I come to do thy will, O God.” —Hebrews 10:9.
The first thing you need after life is food: “My meat is to do the will of him that sent me.” —John 4:34.
The next thing you need after food is society: “For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.” —Matthew 12:50.
You want education: “Teach me to do thy will; for thou art my God.” —Psalm 143:10.
You want pleasure: “I delight to do thy will, O my God:” —Psalm 40:8.
History is full of war, and even David had his mighty men, but Jesus taught His disciples to be meek and lowly in spirit, and to walk in the Spirit (Holy Spirit)—not in the spirit of excitement and adventure. Can we see a difference here? Do Henty books really shine with Christian character and example?—do they abound with examples of character built upon God, Himself?—or are they more of a confusion to our sons? When Jesus said, “Feed My sheep,” would G. A. Henty be what He had in mind? When the reader is inundated with steady suggestions by an author as in the first example, will that yield in the reader a spirit of the type embodied in the second example.
Now, as the Jews were preparing for Roman aggression by walling their cities in defense, we find young John saying, “It is not for me, who am but a boy, to judge the doings of my elders, but it seems to me that this walling of cities is altogether wrong.” Although John is portrayed as a very proper young man, thus the words “not for me to judge,” he is judging, and he continues to judge his elders and his betters throughout the book. Rather, let’s say that he would be judging his elders and his betters if he existed, of course. The author definitely seems to flavor the story so that, to the young mind, this teen seems smarter than all the adults around him. The average young reader will be left with the impression that youth knows more than its elders. John’s strategy was for the Jews to strike the Romans suddenly and retreat to mountains of forests where they would likely not be overcome by superior numbers.
There is a problem with the strategy—but first—the big problem is with the story. That problem is that since the strategy of the Jews did, indeed, fail, the young reader becomes convinced that the strategy of brilliant young John would have succeeded had it been employed. Of course, the reader has completely forgotten that John did not suggest this strategy because he never existed. The reader is left only with an idea of the wisdom of the youth and the obtuseness of his elders. Mr. Henty wrote for youth, and only a youth could believe that national policy should be set by the inexperience of youth. And only a youth could believe that the innumerable legions of Rome, who conquered the entire world, could be repulsed by the Jews, had they elected for open field combat, or tried to wage a guerrilla campaign in that tiny, barren land.
As for the strategy, Mr. Henty wrote fiction, and obviously took what liberties he needed to fill out his story lines, but he was also a student of history and warfare, and in all probability he knew that John’s strategy did not have a prayer of a chance. The Romans were the most advanced warriors and had the most disciplined armies in the world. They knew exactly how to fight, march, camp, and do everything else in the very readiness of repulsing an attack—surprise or otherwise. They also knew how to quickly subdue guerrilla armies by simply slaying the civilian populations left in the cities. They thus eliminated the guerrillas’ base, their support, their wives, their children, and their reason for fighting. So, though in some instances guerrilla warfare does work, in this situation walled cities were not a good option, but they were the only option. The damage to the reader here is treble—he learns a wrong attitude, and he misunderstands one of the lessons of the history of warfare, and he comes away with the idea that a people who made a phenomenal stand against invincible odds had no military judgment.
Being an individual who can weigh and evaluate the thoughts of others for correctness is one thing, but to think that one does not need any input during youth is to be a know-it-all, and that condition should not be glorified, although it certainly seems to be encouraged in this story. At one point we find John saying, “. . . it seems to me that there is no heresy in questioning the plans of our general.” Later, when he decides he knows a better way, he begins raising his own band “to carry out what I have always believed to be the true way of fighting the Romans . . . There were eight of them, and John at once made them take an oath of obedience . . . John could have taken more than eight men in the village, but he would only take quite young men. ‘I want only men who can undergo fatigue and watching, who can climb mountains, and run as fast as the Roman horse can gallop; besides, for work like this it is necessary that there should be one leader, and that he should be promptly obeyed. If I take older men, they will naturally wish to have a voice in the ordering of things.” (Pages 112-114). Is there not reason that older men might, and even should, question the judgment of a teenager in a battle situation? And is that reason to eliminate the wisdom of age and experience from a young man’s plans? Does this passage not seem that it would likely serve to plant seeds of reckless independence in the mind of the reader? Think about that parents. Do young people need this sort of encouragement from books or other sources? Is it not easy enough for them to overvalue their abilities already? Nonetheless, this is an effective stratagem for building a bond with young readers, and Mr. Henty uses it often and effectively. But will it help or hinder us as parents to impart a godly heart to the next generation?
As we said, there is plenty of bloodshed in a Henty story, and this one is no exception. John gets his share of praise from the author for being adept at killing. You may be expecting that to be for killing in battle, but it includes other types of killing at which he excels. In one passage, on page 135 we find,“A sudden idea flashed across John’s brain: he waited till the soldier came out, followed him with silent steps, and then sprang upon him at a bound, hurling him to the ground and burying his knife again and again in his body.” John is also praised by the people in the land for his heroic feats of warfare, but because he is a Jew (or maybe to give him a “Christian” flavor), the author portrays him humbly giving the credit to God.
Regarding of John’s visit to Rome, we find on page 332, “John, before he left (Rome), explained to the emperor the teaching of his Master, (his Master is supposed to be Jesus, Who he recognizes as a learned man, but he never calls Him Saviour) and it may be that the wisdom, humanity, and mildness which Titus displayed in the course of his reign was in no small degree the result of the lessons which he learned from John.” Well, so much for historical accuracy being a strong point of the author. Here we have him convincing young readers that, during a certain period, the ruling of the world was influenced in no small degree by our fictional John of Gamala, who, we must keep reminding ourselves, never existed! This would not normally matter in a story that is fiction anyway, but since the inception of Henty reproductions, not being Christian books, they have been advocated to the Christian market on their exceptional historical accuracy. (Unfortunately, this has been done for so long that some are even calling them Christian reading now.) Our point here is that, if this is a book that you are hesitant about giving to your children because it contains influences that are not of your preference, then you need not feel compelled to reverse that decision on the basis of gaining historical value. This book is simply not historically relevant.
Mr. Henty makes no pretense of being a Christian or promoting Christianity. He uses God in his novels simply to justify his heroes and build the reader’s trust in them, and to lend credence to the idea that God somehow smiles upon the blood shed by these heroes. Perhaps Mr. Henty wants us to believe that God is the reason that his heroes always uncannily escape death when no one else does. In the process he does an excellent job of helping young readers immunize themselves from the idea that the tragedies of life can affect them as easily and as suddenly as they can anyone else.
Some folks think that the idea that women should dislike a biblical family structure is something unique to the twentieth century, but there are plenty of old books out there that espouse it, and Mr. Henty adds his to the pile. On page 173 John’s heretofore independent-minded betrothed tells him that if he lives to return from Jerusalem, she will honor and obey him. His response is, “If God brings me back safe to you and you become my wife there will be plenty of time to settle exactly how much deference you shall pay me, but I shall expect that when the novelty of affecting the wifely obedience which is enjoined upon the females of our race is past you will be quite ready to take up that equality which is, after all, the rule in practice.” Authors were influencing females (and males) already in the previous century in an effort to chip away at God’s designs. With our hero making statements like this, what is our reader to think, but that this was the attitude of the day even two thousand years ago, and that the best and bravest men around adhered to it.
Well, that’s the story, or enough of it to get the drift, anyway. As we said, Mr. Henty’s books are all quite similar. They contain plenty of adventure. The question is whether the adventure justifies the whole package. They contain nothing to edify the Christian because that was not Mr. Henty’s intent. As far as history, they can give a flavor of the times, but do not expect historical accuracy, and even that flavor is sometimes lost to suit the story. There is an issue of his subtle effects on the attitudes of the reader. The majority of those effects will, in our estimation, harm a relationship with the Savior. The reader will likely take away an inflated ego, an independent spirit, the idea that youths are smarter than adults, the idea that true manhood is bound up in violence, and a veritable host of other philosophies that you, as parents, can read the books and find for yourselves if you wish.
On the issue of violence, though violence, understandably, is a very effective tool with which to build excitement and interest in a reader, it is in many ways contraindicative to building Christian character, which is made up, primarily, of the fruit of the Spirit. Henty readers will certainly become repeatedly intimate with the grisly vicissitudes and iniquities of war, though not in a realistic way. Mr. Henty’s writing talent will most certainly keep the rapt reader identified with the dashing young protagonist, who, at every turn, coincidently, luckily, or miraculously escapes death, or the agonies of war that are often far worse. As the reader unites mentally with the main character, all is adventure, thrilling escape, and victory, at least personally for the charmed hero. The talk and the text is all of bravery and dashing adventures. The underlying true realities of armed conflict—the horrors and the triage—never really float to the top of the exciting foam. Everything in this category happens to “the other guy.” The flow of the story is not such that the reader is encouraged to pause and think about what it is to lie on a battle field with a shredded body and die, or to go through life without one or more limbs, or to watch a disemboweled comrade gasp through his last moments, or what it is to look a person in the eye while you take his life.
During all of this it is not likely that there will be room in the reader’s mind either during, or a good while after, reading Mr. Henty for thoughts of godly things. This seems so strange since Henty’s titles are often billed as good for building Christian character. It would seem that Christian character would be built on the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, faith, meekness, temperance. Galatians 5:25 says, “If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.” It is little surprise that Mr. Henty’s books make no inroads in this direction. We know of no record that he ever made claim on a relationship with Jesus Christ. He simply wrote adventure stories, and wrote them well.
We are able to find only two reasons that people might assume some cause to relate Mr. Henty’s work to Christianity. First, he wrote about several conflicts that occurred as a result of the Reformation. This is natural since he was born in 1832 during the aftermath of the Reformation in which much of the struggle against the oppression of the Catholic church was either very recent, or even current, history. An adventure writer will nearly always choose his heroes as being on the side of the underdog. Bravery is always more exciting against overwhelming odds. However, this association is not what makes a book Christian or fit for Christian reading.
The second assumption of Christian content possibly comes from a quote by Mr. Henty, himself. It reads as follows: “To be a true hero you must be a true Christian. To sum up then, heroism is largely based on two qualities—truthfulness and unselfishness, a readiness to put one’s own pleasures aside for that of others, to be courteous to all, kind to those younger than yourself, helpful to your parents, even if helpfulness demands some slight sacrifice of your own pleasure . . . you must remember that these two qualities are the signs of Christian heroism.”
But there are more than two qualities possessed by the true Christian. The qualities mentioned here do not define one as a Christian. Every army trains its inductees to act unselfishly for the corps. They do not train it as obedience to Jesus Christ. They teach that if one has it he can be proud of being a good soldier. Every army teaches the importance of truthfulness—truthfulness to one’s superiors—not necessarily to anyone else. When expedient, lying can be quite acceptable. This condition can be found in Mr. Henty’s books. Again, this is not the truthfulness to everyone—especially God—that is practiced by the Christian. We would not judge anyone’s behavior in dire circumstances, but we do question the effects of even presenting a young reader with the idea of truth bowing to expediency. It may be argued that it is sometimes of necessity, but it is always a means of gaining one’s goal. How will such influence affect a young reader? Will his goal be to always be truthful? Or how will he decide for himself which situation needs a lie and which does not? Will he see himself as a heroic Henty-trained liar?
There are many other aspects of Christian character, even beyond the fruit of the spirit. We are reminded as Christians: “Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; and to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity.” —2 Peter 1:4-7.
There are two kinds of wisdom—the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God. Each is diametrically opposed to the other. There are two kinds of valor. On that last night in the garden, Peter had the courage to fight, but Jesus had the courage to stand. Peter used his sword. Jesus could have called twelve legions of angels. Peter fled. Jesus set His face like a flint toward Calvary. When Peter said that he would never let such a thing happen to Jesus, Jesus answered, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” In God’s eyes, swashbuckling does not equate to godly heroism.
Mr. Henty’s books do not address these issues. In fact, these kinds of ideas will simply be displaced by the excitement and “heroism” of the story. In fairness, this is as it should be. Mr. Henty was an adventure writer who made no claims to be producing literature to train up young people in the ways of God. His stories are based on history—but loosely. His heroes are always young men who are very moral. This makes for more likable heroes and more riveting adventure stories. Moral, however, does not equal Christian, and pluck does not equal godly courage. So, the Henty series is not a Christian series. It is an adventure series, the closest example of which, by comparison, would probably be the Hardy Boys series, which had tremendous popularity without all the gore and bloodshed.
An added caution attached to any series of books that evokes serious interest and excitement is the fact that, especially for the avid reader, with each finished adventure, there is always the lust for the next one. And as the diet becomes more steady, the danger of addiction does become possible. Is such an addiction dangerous? It might not be to the body, but it can have unseen but far-reaching effects on the psyche and the soul. Having a God-given responsibility as parents, these are things to pray about.
It is interesting to note that one day we received a call from a customer in which G. A. Henty and this review came up. Some parents reading this may find the conversation intriguing and and the experience familiar. The lady said that the boys in their church were constantly playing war—at home—at church—everywhere. This occurred to the point that the boys cared for no other activity. The parents found this rather strange, but were unaware of the cause. Then someone read this review, and the source of the behavior became easily apparent. Most of the boys were avid Henty readers. When they finished one title, they could not wait to get to the next. How deeply had the author entrenched his worldly values in their minds, and how easy will it be to root out the damage done?