2008 Essay Contest 1st Place Winner: The Foundation of Virtue
By Matthew Wells — August 05, 2008
In the vast library of historical fiction for young men and women, there are very few authors who strive to encourage young men to duty, courage, and honor, beyond simply exploiting stories for entertainment. Among the greatest of these is R.M. Ballantyne. This great man lived in Scotland during the mid-to-late 19th century. He had an uncanny ability to create a story with Christian characters and demonstrate Biblical virtues through them. But why is he important? Of what value are his stories young men and women? Simply stated, his novels are essential to young men and women of the 21st century because they provide the key basis of duty, courage, and honor when others neglect to even mention such a foundation. For this reason, he is perhaps one of the greatest novelists for Christian young people of today.
Part of Ballantyne's greatness originates in his call to men to be dutiful, courageous, and honorable, not only for themselves and others, but for the glory of God. But how does today's worldly culture define these important virtues? Every definition given for these virtues in the dictionaries of the 21st century lacks a purpose and a foundation, leaving a very malnourished understanding of the words. These modern and worldly dictionaries attempt to provide a simple, straightforward definition of each. Yet without a purpose, the definitions of these virtues have no value.
Noah Webster's 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, on the other hand, gives basis and a true purpose for these virtues in its definitions. Duty, in the 1828 Dictionary, is defined as:
That which a person owes to another; that which a person is bound, by any natural, moral or legal obligation, to pay, do or perform. Obedience to princes, magistrates and the laws is the duty of every citizen and subject; obedience, respect and kindness to parents are duties of children; fidelity to friends is a duty; reverence, obedience and prayer to God are indispensable duties; the government and religious instruction of children are duties of parents which they cannot neglect without guilt.' (Emphasis added).
The basis of this whole definition is the Word of God. There can be no meaning to duty, courage, and honor unless God's Word is their solid foundation.
Even though Ballantyne was Scottish, and most likely never read his contemporary's 1828 American Dictionary, his characters seem to live by the very same, rich principles contained in the definitions of Noah Webster. It is this like-mindedness that helps us to understand the foundation Ballantyne built his characters upon.
Throughout the novels Ballantyne published, characters that demonstrate Biblical reason and faith abound. A small few of these examples include: Mariano Rimini of The Pirate City, Will Wallace of Hunted and Harried, and Jack Martin of Ballantyne's most well-known novels, The Coral Island and The Gorilla Hunters. As main characters, their virtues and actions are often examined and demonstrated by Ballantyne throughout the story. Mariano, for example, tends to be very temerarious and courageous even to the point of being overzealous. Jack Martin is perhaps the most pugnacious character of these three, being somewhat physically large and muscular and very determined to fulfill his duty whenever he has the chance. Finally, Will Wallace is the calm and honorable one, being a newly converted Covenanter, and zealous for the faith.
What can these three characters teach young men and women about duty, courage, and honor? First, it sets in stone the quality of chivalry among men, who ought to be willing always to protect women and children who are in need or in danger, or even to simply provide what they need. Second, it instructs young women to place themselves under the care and protection of a man who truly desires to protect and provide for her.
The reason these virtues are stressed in Ballantyne's novels is because Ballantyne was devoted to the truth of the Word of God. For example, at the beginning of Hunted and Harried, Will Wallace is hunting covenanters, but he and his captain run across two young girls. Being very reluctant to harm anyone, Will, despite having never met the girls, steps in and fights his captain without hesitation to protect them. The Word of God teaches men to put women and children first by sacrificially loving their wives and to caring for the fatherless and widow. His duty was founded on a Biblical principle and not his own imagination or some humanistic cause.
Duty, courage, and honor are rarely exclusive of one another. For instance, Mariano Rimini, in The Pirate City, is asked to take on a very serious and exceedingly difficult mission: to steal outside of the city during the night and warn the English consul of a plan to overthrow the Dey, or the ruler, of Algiers. Yet strangely enough, it was his master, a Jew, who gave this trying duty to him. Obeying him without hesitation, Mariano, a Christian, perfectly executed his duty, because the Word of God demanded that he obey all who are in authority over him. He had courage to press on, a duty to fulfill, and honor given to God in doing so.
Although indirectly exhorting the reader to a quality that a character possesses is Ballantyne's normal route, direct exhortation appears frequently, sometimes in the personal reflections of the characters. For example, in Chapter Four of The Gorilla Hunters, the main character Ralph Rover is contemplating boyhood and adventure, and his thoughts become the means of Ballantyne's exhortation to courage in young men:
I also reflected, and not without a feeling of shame, on my want of nerve, and was deeply impressed with the importance of boys being inured from childhood to trifling risks and slight dangers of every possible description, such as tumbling into ponds and off of trees, etc., in order to strengthen their nervous system... They ought to practice leaping off heights into deep water. They ought never to hesitate to cross a stream over a narrow unsafe plank for fear of a dunking. They ought never to decline to climb up a tree, to pull fruit merely because there is a possibility of their falling off and breaking their necks. (57-58; Ch. IV)
In the novels of the modern world, encouragements to the reader to be dutiful and courageous as in this example are scarce. Having a Christian novelist, on the other hand, who exhorts in this manner, is certainly a wonderful blessing that should be well-used and well-appreciated.
Dramatically set forth in Ballantyne's literature, the most significant objective of duty, courage, and honor are taught in these great novels. That objective is to give God the glory in all we do; this cannot be accomplished unless the Word of God is our solid foundation. Young men and women who read one book by R.M.Ballantyne will learn more about true virtue than from any number of modern-day novels. Undoubtedly, Ballantyne is unmatched in this quality: God's Word is foundational, "for in Him and through Him and to Him are all things." (Rom. 11:36) This is what young men and women living in the 21st century can learn from Ballantyne.
Matthew WellsMatthew Wells is currently a senior home school student. He has been playing piano for ten years and has been a participant of numerous piano competitions. He is also currently an accompanist for his church. He enjoys playing volleyball and soccer. He runs his own lawn and driveway service and referees soccer in the fall and spring. In his leisure time, he enjoys reading Henty, Ballantyne, and other Puritan books and playing video games on the weekend. He still spends most of his time examining, listening to, practicing, and eventually performing music.
— Matthew Wells