Mika Waltari’s Dark Angel (1952) – A Novel for Our Time

Waltari 01 Dark Angel Cover

Early 1960s Paperback Edition

The name of the Finnish novelist Mika Waltari (1908 – 1979) reached the peak of its currency in the mid-1950s when many of his titles had transcended the isolation of their original language to come into print in English, French, German, Italian, and Swedish.  One of these, The Egyptian (1945), had reached the big screen in 1954 in a lavish Hollywood production directed by Michael Curtiz, with a cast including Edmund Purdom, Victor Mature, and Jean Simmons.  Curtiz’s film adhered closely to Waltari’s story, which concerns the attempted religious reforms of the pharaoh Akenaten, which Waltari, the son of a Lutheran minister and a serious student both of theology and philosophy, regarded as an early instance of ideology.  Basing his fiction on the best information available at the time, Waltari strove to show how, despite the sincere intention of the reformer, the reforms themselves so contradicted Egyptian tradition that they devastated the society.  The novel operates intellectually at a high level.  So does Curtiz’s cinematic version, which likely explains its poor box-office on release.  The Hollywood connection nevertheless boosted Waltari’s foreign-language sales and meant that his books would remain in print into the 1960s.  Today Waltari’s authorship is largely forgotten along with those of his Scandinavian contemporaries such as Lars Gyllensten, Martin A. Hansen, Pär Lagerkvist, Harry Martinson, Tarje Vesaas, and Sigrid Undset.  Anyone who has seen the film Barabbas (1961) with Anthony Quinn in the title role has, however, had contact with Lagerkvist, on whose novel director Richard Fleischer drew.

All of those writers might justly be characterized as Christian Existentialists, heavily influenced by Søren Kierkegaard, who saw their century, the Twentieth, as an era of extreme crisis at its basis spiritual, and who saw the ideologies – the rampant political cults – of their day as heretical false creeds that fomented zealous conflict.  It is unsurprising that such a conviction should have taken hold in Scandinavia.  Two of the Scandinavian nations, Denmark and Norway, had endured conquest and occupation by Germany in World War II.  Sweden avoided that fate, but as Undset wrote in her account of escaping the German invasion of Norway, most Swedes expected disaster to strike at any time from 1940 until the end of hostilities, either from the Germans or from the Russians – or possibly from both, with the nation becoming a battleground.  In Finland, which had only won its independence in 1918, first by rejecting Russian rule and then by defeating a Communist insurrection within its own borders, the sense of acute crisis realized itself in the Soviet attack in the winter of 1939 and 40, during which Waltari worked in Helsinki in the Finnish Government’s Information Bureau, and again in the subsequent Continuation War of 1941 through 1944.  These events are the immediate background to Waltari’s composition of The Egyptian, and they are by no means irrelevant to Dark Angel, published seven years later.

Waltari 02 Waltari

Mika Waltari (1908 – 1979)

I. Dark Angel is somewhat less ambitious philosophically than The Egyptian, but it is perhaps more relevant to the present moment in 2017 than its precursor-novel in Waltari’s oeuvre, concerning as it does the Fall of Constantinople, and with it the remnant of Eastern Christendom, to Sultan Mehmed II’s Ottoman Turkish Jihad in the summer of the year 1453. In Waltari’s novel, incidentally, Mehmed is called Mohammed after the Arabic pattern of his Turkified name. In Dark Angel, as in The Egyptian, Waltari makes use of allegory.  The shrunken, dispirited Greek-speaking Christian empire of the East, as it confronts the seemingly inexorable westward encroachment of militant Islam, stands in for the postwar West, as it confronts a militant, expansionist Communist empire stretching from Moscow to Peking and beyond.  The enemy without – Islam or Communism – fosters enemies within: Fellow travelers who despise their nation and its ways and pessimists who have given up hope to await the end in moods of hedonism and cynicism.  Nevertheless, neither Dark Angel nor The Egyptian can be reduced to allegory solely.  Dark Angel in particular commemorates one of those epochal events in Western history, and particularly in the history of the West’s 1400-year hostile entanglement with militant Islam, that has vanished down the memory hole, and whose re-conjuration political correctness resists.

As in The Egyptian, again in Dark Angel, Waltari heightens the immediacy of his story telling through the use of the grammatical first person and through the repletion of the background with carefully researched historical detail.  The Egyptian presents itself as the memoir, written in old age, of the physician Sinuhe, whose profession brings into contact with Akenaten, and who therefore witnesses the events of Akenaten’s regime from close at hand.  Dark Angel purports to be the diary of the mysterious Jean-Ange, Giovanni Angelo, John Angelos, or Ioannis Angelos, an apparent soldier of fortune of Greek ancestry who shows up in Constantinople a few weeks before the onset of the fateful siege.  Like Sinuhe in The Egyptian, Angelos corresponds to the typical protagonist of the mid-Twentieth Century Existentialist novel: He is the deracinated man, part cynic, part skeptic, who has felt the tug of a redemptory Tradition and has resolved to root himself again, to the extent possible, in what he can identify as his ancestral ilk.  His actions are by way of paying off a belatedly recognized debt; and they seek to affirm a patrimony as well as a more general cultural and religious kinship.  Angelos functions additionally as a living Rorschach image for other characters, who, recognizing him as somehow familiar and rather haunting, project on him their own otherwise hidden thoughts and traits.  An angel is a messenger – and in the stranger’s presence people experience the compulsion to deliver up their own messages, as though in confession, whether they mean to or not.

In Angelos, Waltari has conjured a pure fiction, but he draws most of his characters from the historical annals.  One might read John Runciman’s classic study of The Fall of Constantinople (1965) alongside Dark Angel and encounter the same tragic personae.  In Waltari’s novel, for example, Emperor Constantine XI Palaeologus is a character; so too is the Megadux or Admiral of the Fleet Lukas Notaras, with his daughter, the beautiful Anna, and his two sons.  The ex-Keeper-of-the-Seal George Scholarius, now referring to himself as the monk Gennadius, takes a role in the tangled plot.  The Genoese strategist Giovanni Longo Giustiniani, who brings his mercenary army to participate in the city’s defense, befriends Angelos, who becomes his lieutenant.  On the Muslim side Waltari gives his readers Sultan Mohammed, in whose retinue Angelos has previously served, such that both the Greeks and Latins of Constantinople plausibly mistrust him.  A minor character on the Constantinopolitan side, the German engineer John Grant, represents an emergent scientific and technical worldview that sees itself as entirely extra-moral.  Waltari knows the layout of the Fifteenth-Century imperial capitol the way he knows the back of his hand.  Runciman’s Fall with its maps makes itself useful as a Baedeker to the novel.  It helps to know where the Blachernae Palace stands in relation to the Romanos Gate and other topographical details.

Waltari 08 Blachernae Palace

Ruins of the Blachernae Palace

Waltari, establishing an atmosphere of tenseness from the beginning, makes it clear that Western – that is to say, Catholic-Orthodox – doctrinal factionalism contributed mightily to making the Byzantine rump-empire vulnerable to Ottoman aggression despite the city’s formidable walls.  So too did the cowardice of key parties among the Greeks and the Latins.  The Palaeologus dynasty had in fact seen the writing on the wall since the reign of Manuel II, Constantine’s father.  During his imperium, Manuel undertook a grand tour of Europe as far as the court of Henry IV of England seeking European support for Eastern Christendom.  Manuel also sent an ecclesiastical delegation to Ferrara in Italy to negotiate with Rome concerning doctrinal differences; after a few months the so-called Council moved to Florence, but it was disorganized in both places.  As Runciman writes, “the detailed story of the Council makes arid reading,” but the conclusion, pressed for by Manuel’s eldest son John (who would reign as John VIII) against his father’s wishes, was a declaration of union that the ordinary constituents of Orthodoxy regarded as a betrayal.  Nevertheless, in the hope that it would facilitate direct aid from the Catholic West should a crisis come, Constantine, on succeeding John, publicly upheld the declaration and permitted the filioque of the Latin Mass to be uttered during the liturgy in Haghia Sophia.

Dark Angel begins just as one such liturgy ends.  In the characteristic Byzantine manner, participants in the Mass leave the church in strict hierarchical order.  Standing outside Haghia Sophia, Angelos sees Constantine and his retinue emerge.  He remarks of Notaras that “his glance was keen and scornful, but in his features I read the melancholy common to all members of ancient Greek families.”  Angelos knows Notaras to be an opponent of union.  He supposes that the Megadux although obliged to attend the service was “agitated and wrathful, as if unable to endure the deadly shame that had fallen on his Church and his people.”  As the palace guard brings forward the retinue’s horses, Angelos hears shouts from the crowd: “Down with unlawful interpolations” and “down with papal rule.”  Breaking away from the emperor, Notaras addresses the crowd.  “Better the Turkish turban,” he shouts, “than the Papal miter!”  The crowd repeats the slogan.  Angelos compares the sentiment to the one voiced by another crowd centuries before: “Release unto us Barabbas!”  Later, the crowd shouts after Constantine, “Apostata, Apostata!” Angelos, who attended the discussions in Florence fourteen years earlier, senses the spreading dementia in the city and knows that it spells doom.

II. Readers learn of Angelos’ biography bit by bit throughout the story. Raised in Avignon by a Greek-speaking father who at one time had been blinded (he said, by thieves), he was, when just attaining his majority, accused of having murdered his father in order to come into a patrimony that turned out not to exist. He suffered arrest and torture, but was released through the intervention of Cardinal Giulio Cesarini, whose secretary he became in Ferrara and Florence.  He went with Cesarini in the Papal campaign against the Turks in the Balkans, during which, at the Battle of Varna, in Bulgaria, the Hungarian contingent turned on the Papal troops and assassinated Cesarini.  After Varna, Angelos “took the Cross.”  The phrase has a peculiar implication.  It refers to Angelos’ affiliation with “The Brotherhood of the Free Spirit,” an actual medieval heresy that sought to hasten the Kingdom of God.  Angelos tells Anna about the Brotherhood.  Acknowledging “only the four Gospels,” Angelos says, the brethren “reject Baptism” and “recognize one another by secret signs.”  Later, as his story goes, “I dissociated myself from them, for their fanaticism and hatred were worse than any other bigotry.”  Angelos became a wanderer – like almost every other Waltarian protagonist – and, speaking French, Italian, Latin, and Greek – ended up a mercenary soldier and adviser both to Murad, Mohammed’s Sultan-father, and to Mohammed himself.  With Murad, whom he describes as a non-fanatic, he became friendly, but with the son his relation was entirely contractual.  Fleeing Mohammed, he came to Constantinople to vindicate his Greek origin.

Waltari 05 Constantine Palaeologos

Constantine XI Palaiologos

Secret societies, cabals, and conspiracies belong, as Angelos sees things, to the increasingly corrupt and morally relativistic world, of which decrepit Byzantium stands as symbol.  The promise of justice typically conceals the lust for power.  Angelos’ own story goes much deeper.  Toward the end of Dark Angel, just before the catastrophe, Angelos confesses what other characters and the reader himself have already half-guessed.  “My father was half-brother to old Emperor Manuel,” he tells Anna; and “Emperor John” – he means John V Palaeologus, not John VIII – “was my grandfather.”  Before he claimed the crown, the elder John “went to Rome and Avignon, forsook his own religion and acknowledged the Pope although without compromising either his people or his church.”  Returning to Constantinople, John assumed the Imperium with promises of support from the Pope and the Doge, but the treachery of his son Andronikos and the inaction of the West forced him to make a compromising treaty with the Turks and to name his son Manuel as his heir, who would become Manuel II.  As Angelos affirms to Anna, however, his father, the fictitious half-brother, was “the only lawful successor.”  Manuel then sent the agents to blind his rival and make trouble for the rival’s son, Angelos.  Thus, not Constantine, but Angelos, himself, is the legitimate monarch: “I am the Basileus, but I desire no power.”  Angelos wishes only “to perish on the walls of my city,” as he says.  In The Egyptian, Waltari uses a similar plot-device.  Sinuhe discovers to his consternation that he is a natural son of the previous Pharaoh and by that virtue more rightly the monarch than Akenaten, but he wants nothing to do with the station.

The fact that many other people have recognized Angelos and know him as rightful heir to the throne (John VIII left no issue, so the crown passed to his cousin, Constantine) helps to explain his anomalous status in Constantinople.  He might well be the Sultan’s spy.  Notaras, for example, assumes him to be a spy and sees him therefore as a possible ally and a convenient messenger between himself and Mohammed.  The reigning Constantine might well harbor a sentiment similar to Angelos’ own, that “when I reverted to the Church of my fathers it was also the apostate John who in me won back his part in the holy mysteries.”  If he knew of Angelos’ legitimacy, he would have a humbling sense of his own fortuitous position.  Constantine too has made it clear that he will never surrender the city to the Sultan but that he intends to die in its defense.  Waltari quotes Constantine’s actual letter to the Sultan.  In Waltari’s novel Constantine appears to have issued writs guaranteeing Angelos’ safety.  Constantine treats Angelos like fellow royalty.  Previously, Sultan Murad had treated him in the same way, and Murad’s son Mohammed, knowing who Angelos was, presumably kept him in service as leverage in negotiations with the Greeks.  It is truly Byzantine, in the pejorative sense of that term, and forecasts the dynastic complications of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels or George Martin’s Game of Thrones, except that in Dark Angel Waltari is writing something like a documentary fiction.

Waltari likes to let his protagonist converse with historical personages.  These passages of the story have considerable interest and read rather like Platonic dialogues on politics and theology.  Early in his Constantinopolitan residence, Angelos seeks out the monk Gennadius who like Notaras reviles the union and prefers the Sultan to a theologically compromised Basileus.  Much irony attends Gennadius’ conviction.  As George Scholarius he had been a key figure in the Florentine conciliation “who signed the union with the rest.”  Gennadius has recently, Martin-Luther style, posted a screed on the gate of the Pantokrator monastery denouncing the union and all who comply with it.  He spits out the words “anathema” and “apostata” as soon as he sees Angelos.  When Angelos reminds him that they once had friendly relations in Florence, Gennadius replies that it was George Scholarius whom his visitor knew and Scholarius is dead.  Angelos detects in Gennadius the same psychic distortion that he had detected in Notaras: “His fever and spiritual agony were not feigned; truly he suffered and the death sweat of his people and his city stood on his forehead.”  The monk’s ordeal has not, however, yielded up clairvoyance, but on the contrary his wild resentment has left him deluded.  In the critical moment, when the city’s defense must be integral, he has sown dissension.  Gennadius tells Angelos that “through my tongue and my pen God will scourge [the people] for their grievous betrayal.”  Like Notaras, Gennadius has convinced himself that “our Church will live on and flourish even in the Turkish Empire, under the protection of the Sultan,” who “makes war not on our faith but on our Emperor.”  Constantine is, according to Gennadius, “a worse enemy to our religion than Sultan Mohammed.”

Waltari 07 Siege

Orban’s Cannon at the Siege

George Phrantzes, Constantine’s Chancellor of the Exchequer and close adviser, summons Angelos to the Blachernae Palace for interrogation.  Phrantzes accuses Angelos of being Mohammed’s spy.  A dossier details Angelos’ personal relation to the Sultan.  Angelos refuses to deny it even affirming that, “Indeed, I loved Mohammed,” but he qualifies the statement by saying, “as one may love a splendid wild beast, while aware of its treachery.”  Mohammed comes on stage, so to speak, only at the end of Dark Angel, although the Byzantines see him in the distance as soon as the siege begins, but he is the topic of discussion throughout.  It is through Angelos’ characterology of Mohammed that Waltari makes his critique of Islam, a word that appears only sporadically in the novel’s pages.  That critique runs oblique to a number of current, journalistic notions concerning the desert cult and might come as a surprise to no few contemporary critics of the Koranic dispensation.  It is quite usual, for example, among critics of Islam to refer to it as an anachronism: A Seventh-Century tribal cult, totally out of place in hence implacably hostile to modernity.  Waltari – supposing Angelos to articulate Waltari’s insight – sees the matter in a different light.

In a conversation with Giustiniani, the Genoese condottiero, Angelos narrates a horrific tale about Mohammed, the spelling of whose name lends it useful ambiguity, after telling which he proffers his thesis.  Angelos affirms to Giustiniani that, “Mohammed is not human,” a proposition that he repeats when Giustiniani at first laughs off the proposition.  “Perhaps he is the angel of darkness,” Angelos says; or “perhaps he is the One who shall come,” a reference to Joachim of Fiore’s messianic Thirteenth-Century theory of the Three Ages, whose chiliastic view of history informed the beliefs of the Brotherhood of the Free Spirit and had echoes in Byzantium.  Angelos continues: “But don’t misunderstand me… if he is a man, then he is the new man – the first of his kind.  With him begins a new era… which will bring forth men very different from the race we know.”  Such men will be “rulers of earth, rulers of night, who in their defiance and arrogance reject heaven and choose the world.”  According to Angelos, these men “will bring the heat and cold of hell to the earth’s surface,” and “when they have subjugated land and sea they will build themselves wings in their demented lust for knowledge, that they may fly to the stars and subjugate even them.”  Elsewhere in Dark Angel, Waltari emphasizes the technically up-to-date quality of Mohammed’s siege.  He has hired Europe’s foremost cannon-builder, a Hungarian by the name of Orban, and deploys sophisticated siege-engines.

III. What is the horrific tale that gives rise to Angelos’ conclusion that the Sultan is not human?  Mohammed acceded twice to the throne.  The first time in 1444, when he was barely twelve, he had his crown snatched away by his father.  The second time in 1451 he was barely in his majority, but his father had died.  The shock-troops of the Sultan’s standing army, the Janissaries, regarded their new command-in-chief as a mere boy whose military virtues were not apparent.  That much is fact.  In Angelos’ story, Mohammed manipulates the scornful soldiery by receiving a veiled girl, who has been taken in slavery, and disappearing with her into his tent for three days.  On emerging, the troops mock the Sultan; they toss clods of earth in his direction.  Mohammed addresses them, saying that if they could see the girl naked, as he has, they would understand his passion.  He then drags the girl out, stripped to the skin, saying, “Look, and confess that she is worthy of your Sultan’s love!”  Angelos continues: “Then his face darkened with rage, he… commanded, ‘Bring me my sword!’”; whereupon, pushing the victim to her knees, “he seized her by her hair and at one stroke severed the head from her shoulders, so that the blood spurted onto the nearest janissaries.”  The demonstration quelled the mutiny.

Is the story historical or fictitious?  It is likely fictitious but at the same time it is perfectly consonant with what the biographers record about Mehmed.  Both Runciman in his Fall and Franz Babinger in his Mehmed the Conqueror and his Time (German 1953 – English 1978) tell the same story about Mehmed’s second accession.  The young widow of Murad – that is, Mehmed’s stepmother – had come to the throne-room to express to the new Sultan her grief over the death of her husband who was Mehmed’s father.  During the meeting, as Babinger recounts it, “Mehmed dispatched Ali Bey… to the women’s quarters to drown Küçük (Little) Ahmed Çelebi, Murad’s youngest ‘porphyrogenite’ son, in his bath.”  The very same stepmother was the child’s birth-mother; and as the child’s father was Murad, the child was also Mehmed’s half-brother.  Ahmed’s mother was a Serbian-Christian woman.  Babinger also records how Mehmed had “since childhood… hated everything connected with Christianity and had repeatedly declared that once he mounted the throne he meant to destroy the Eastern Empire and all Christianity, root and branch.”  From Babinger again comes the story how “often at night [Mehmed] strolled the city [of Edirne] incognito, accompanied only by two intimates, to inform himself of the state-of-mind among the population and in the army.”  If the masquerade struck anyone as Henry-the-Fourth-like, Babinger’s next sentence would disabuse him: “When recognized and greeted… Mehmed would stab the interloper with his own hands.”  Phrantzes is alleged to have remarked to the effect that Mehmed enjoyed killing men the way most men enjoy killing fleas.

Waltari 06 Mehmet II

Mehmet (Mohammed) II

Following Mehmed beyond the conquest of Constantinople, it becomes evident that he brought atrocity in his train whether in Greece, Albania, Wallachia, or as far as Otranto in Italy, which he besieged in the winter-spring of 1480 – 81.  Again, the behavior of Mehmed, who for Waltari is Mohammed, finds its model in the tradition of jihad going back to the campaigns of the Turk’s namesake.  Waltari appears to be arguing that terror, like the latest in artillery or siege engines, is a technique in service of power and that Islam, perfectly embodied in the Sultan, is the first of the monstrous power-cults or ideologies.  There is thus no contradiction when Angelos explains to his numerous interlocutors on numerous occasions that faith is entirely irrelevant to Mohammed, who acts on an anti-faith that seeks universal dominance and requires for the realization thereof the erasure – the total erasure – of every opposing tradition.  All of the subsequent power-cults, including those of the Twentieth Century, would be the progeny, at however many removes, but nevertheless the progeny of the original power-cult.  “Mohammed believes in power,” Angelos tells Anna; “for him there is neither right nor wrong, neither truth nor lies [and] he is ready to wade through blood if it suits his schemes.”

Grant, the German engineer in Constantine’s service, resembles Mohammed in having no relation to anything transcendent while being entirely concentrated on his praxis.  Grant has made improvements in the antique military equipment of the defense, but he can increase its efficiency only so far and he openly admires the technical innovations being deployed by the other side.  Grant has sought access to ancient documents by Pythagoras and Archimedes said to be held in the Imperial Library, but the librarian has rebuffed him.  Grant explains his curiosity to Angelos: “Archimedes and Pythagoras could have built engines to change the world.  Those old fellows knew the art of making water and steam do the work of men; but no one wanted such things in their day, and they never troubled to develop them.”  Grant cannot fathom why the philosophers “deemed the supernatural world more worthy than the tangible.”  As he sees it, “knowledge of heavenly things has no practical value.”  Angelos believes that Grant has committed himself to the wrong side and says as much, but Grant remains unperturbed.  The sultan hardly needs Grant of course as he already has Orban and his great guns.  Praxis for its own sake is another kind of anti-faith, as dehumanizing in its trend as the Sultan’s power cult.

What opposes itself to these dehumanizing forces?  A mere two-millennium tradition is the answer, from which as the shadow of conquest looms, those who should honor it defect.  Angelos learns from Anna that her father and thirty others – who also prefer the turban to the miter – have stealthily made it known to Mohammed that, on his word to spare them, and with the emperor dead or deposed, they shall step forward as a vassal government to rule in the Sultan’s name.  Anna, speaking for the Megadux, says: “We are not delivering ourselves into [the Sultan’s] hands; on the contrary, his political sense will tell him that this solution is the best one for himself.”  When the Turks at last take the city, the folly of the treacherous scheme sees itself played out.  Here Waltari adheres closely to what is known from the accounts of Phrantzes and Ducas.  After three days of rapine and plunder, Mohammed decreed a return to discipline.  He commanded that Notaras come to him.  Notaras indeed came.  Mohammed asked him for the names of those other parties to his conspiracy and gave the appearance of favoring it.  The next day, the conqueror summoned Notaras and his confederates to appear in public.  Waltari narrates the sequel this way:

Mohammed nodded haughtily and said, “Let your own people then be your witnesses.  Do you promise and swear by your God and all your saints, and are you ready to kiss your cross in token of your submission and in confirmation of your oath, that you are willing to serve me faithfully unto death, however high the position to which you rise?”
The prisoners shouted and made the sign of the cross, plainly showing their willingness to confirm their oath.  Only a few stood silent, regarding the Sultan attentively.
“So be it,” said Mohammed.  “You have chosen.  Kneel in turn, and stretch forth your necks, so that executioner may behead you all.  In that way you will serve me best and most faithfully, and your heads I will raise up on a pillar beside those of your brave compatriots.  And in this I am not dealing unfairly with you, since you have just sworn to obey my commands, whatever they may be.”

IV. Dark Angel commemorates the Fall of Constantinople as a tragic enormity insufficiently honored by the present and as an event, in its author’s assessment, that forms the epoch between the Classical World in its medieval extenuation, and the modern world. Angelos’ descriptions of Constantinople convey the sad dilapidation of what had once been the largest and most brilliant city in the world; but these same descriptions also insist on the genuine continuity linking Constantine’s polis with the foundations of Rome in Seventh-Century BC Italy. Constantinople was in the Fifteenth Century a hybrid culture, partly Christian and partly Pagan – in other words, inhuman Islam’s humane antithesis.  Byzantium had preserved Classical civilization more integrally than any other agency, including the western monasteries.  Greek refugees from the conquest, arriving in Venice and Florence, contributed mightily to the Renaissance, but it should be kept in mind that the famous Rebirth of Greco-Roman art and literature nourished itself on a bloody death in the East.  Insofar as the West today still refreshes itself on the Classical heritage, it owes a debt to the Eastern Roman Empire, whose last important redoubt fell to the jihad some six hundred and sixty-four years ago.

The cases of Waltari and those other writers whom I mentioned at the beginning of this essay also serve to remind us that a few decades ago, in the aftermath of World War II and in the onset of the Cold War, major writers and leading intellectuals of the West earnestly upheld an explicitly European civilization with ancient and medieval roots; many of those, like Waltari himself, leaned politically to the right, defending Christianity on the one hand while criticizing Communism and totalitarianism on the other.  Most of Waltari’s novels appeared in English translation.  Second-hand copies are still to be had, often cheaply, through the Internet.  I strongly recommend Dark Angel and The Egyptian, but every Waltari novel in my experience is a good read.  I also recommend the novels of Lagerkvist, a Swede, and Hansen, a Dane.

I know these writers because in the 1970s when I was an undergraduate studying Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish at UCLA, their books figured prominently in the curriculum.  The professors presented them as serious and important.  I learned some time ago that the Scandinavian Section of the Department of Germanic Languages at UCLA had been dissolved.  Western institutions are purging themselves of historical memory while they fill themselves with resentment and hatred against the civilized soil in which they grew.  A people conscious of itself must learn how to act – and especially how to educate itself – outside the institutions.

8 thoughts on “Mika Waltari’s Dark Angel (1952) – A Novel for Our Time

  1. Pingback: Mika Waltari’s Dark Angel (1952) – A Novel for Our Time | @the_arv

  2. Pingback: Mika Waltari’s Dark Angel (1952) – A Novel for Our Time | Reaction Times

  3. I was unaware of this title by Mika Waltari – so thank you. I have a couple of his books and have read Par Lagerkvist. Both great authors. Was put on to them by a Finnish woman living in Denmark in the 90s. These books are now being pulled from library shelves and end up at the thrift store I work at for 25 cents.

    • Lagerkvist and Waltari have a good deal in common: Both took subject-matter from antiquity and the medieval period, often with a view to critiquing the modern crisis; both men took Christianity seriously, exploring its early phases. They were both analysts of the Twentieth Century’s ideological movements and their work remains illuminating. Thank you for taking the time to read my little essay.

  4. ‘John Runciman’s classic study of The Fall of Constantinople’
    Steven Runciman I think.
    Still, I enjoyed the essay and will look for Waltari.
    Thank you.


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