“A Sparrow Falls” by Wilbur Smith (and also “When the Lion Feeds” and “The Sound of Thunder”) – and a look at the narrow perspectives often held in conflicts

10 Nov

These three novels form the original Courtney trilogy, an epic saga that has subsequently grown to more than twice that number of novels including both sequels and prequels to these original three.

This trilogy focuses mostly on the life of Sean Courtney (born c 1862 and not to be confused with his great-grandson, the later Sean Courtney) and covers several historical events.  The time span is approx 1875 to 1920s and Sean’s life includes involvement in such historical events as the Zulu War (1879); the gold rush in Transvaal of the 1880s; the Boer War (1899-1902); the formation of the Union of South Africa (1910); the First World War (1914-1918); and the beginnings of the wildlife conservation movement in the early 20th Century.

SPOILER ALERT: please note that this post does reveal some details of the story (although there is also  a considerable amount of the story that is not revealed here).  

For me, “A Sparrow Falls”, the third novel, is particularly memorable.  I read it years and years ago but often re-read sections as it left such an impression on me.  Having read through the previous two, I felt that I knew the characters personally and even became emotionally involved in the events of their lives.  I realise this may sound like sentimental claptrap but it is an indication of the ability of the stories to draw in the reader, to enter a parallel world created entirely from ink on paper (or pixels on a screen).  I have found that I felt nostalgia when Sean returns to his original home of Ladyburg (as by this time he has around three separate homes throughout South Africa); and I felt a slight sense of loss that Ada Courtney (Sean’s stepmother) was not in this book, as she was very likely dead by this time.

Overall “A Sparrow Falls” felt very bleak compared to the previous two. There are several bleak aspects to the story but in particular his relationship with his son Dirk – who by now is in his thirties – is probably the darkest story thread of all.  Dirk was born in the wilderness of the Limpopo River region during the first novel “When the Lion Feeds” to Sean’s first wife Katrina who committed suicide a few years later.  Dirk developed a very close bond to his father and felt rejected by him when he didn’t provide the degree of physical affection that he craved.  Perceiving that he was being denied the level of affection he felt he was owed, Dirk gradually changed and became more and more sinister and even cruel.

In “A Sparrow Falls”, Dirk has several crimes under his belt: arson, manslaughter and then deliberate mass murder.  He has become far wealthier than his father, his riches gained from an elaborate and murderous heist. Sean has by now genuinely rejected him, on the grounds that while most people are a combination of good and evil, Dirk – he considers – is just pure evil.  Sean feels that he has been forced to turn his back on the son he raised.

This is not to say that Sean feels nothing for his son – he is reduced to tears by the failed relationship.  But he cannot accept him. And Dirk – for all his apparent absence of compassion and feeling – strives to make amends with his father.  But having exhausted all attempts to do so, Dirk vows to kill him – and does so.  And then kisses his dead father moments after his death – right up to the end, Dirk’s longing for love and acceptance is still there.

In his last attempt to make amends with his father, Dirk forces Sean to face the deeply uncomfortable possibility that it is he who has made Dirk the way he is – a thought that had previously crossed Sean’s mind independently of Dirk’s emotional manipulation.

And so this particular thread of story raises the question: who is actually to blame?  I doubt anyone could totally free Dirk from blame for his money-driven murders, but does Sean have some degree of blame?  Could he have known the effect he would have on his son? Should he have known?  In cases like this, the true answers (insofar as we can know the truth) would be different in each case but there is one thing that often occurs in very emotive conflicts (whether personal, political, military or whatever): and that is the portrayal of one side in as negative or evil a light as possible.  Sean stands his ground and rejects Dirk telling him that he is pure evil, rather than a mix of good and evil.  Does he say this in order to avoid facing up to his own part of the blame, his own failed parenting? Probably.

This is an extreme case: Sean could scarcely be blamed for the murders his son commits. But perhaps he could be blamed (in part only) for the more minor acts of cruelty Dirk commits when growing up.  Should he have tried to understand Dirk more, before his cruelty turned into mass murder?  And as he did not, is his total rejection – in the face of Dirk’s pleas for reconciliation – a way of avoiding his part of the blame?

We hear of soldiers describing conflicts in which they’re engaged as “the forces of good against the forces of evil”.  Opposing sides in a political / societal debate on a particularly emotive issue can resort to extremely narrow views and aggressive confrontational language, pushing aside any evidence that creates grey areas and thus hinders their claim to the moral high ground.

Would some wars be prevented if there were more understanding of what drives our supposed ‘enemies’ to armed conflict in the first place?  And this discussion could go on to other political / societal issues besides war too…….

I would just like to use this post to mention my own debut novel that is now over half-way through and should be due for release late 2014 or early 2015.  It is on the subject of mind-control and brainwashing and also deals with the issue of radical viewpoints.  Further updates to follow – WATCH THIS SPACE!


8 Responses to ““A Sparrow Falls” by Wilbur Smith (and also “When the Lion Feeds” and “The Sound of Thunder”) – and a look at the narrow perspectives often held in conflicts”

  1. Cristian Mihai August 7, 2014 at 7:19 pm #

    Reblogged this on Cristian Mihai.

  2. mranish August 7, 2014 at 8:23 pm #

    Reblogged this on AnishWebmaster.

  3. nicciattfield August 7, 2014 at 10:20 pm #

    I read these books a few years ago, and the third book, with Dirk and Sean, was my favourite. I have to say, even earlier on, I felt very sorry for Dirk Courtney, because as a child, Sean did meet Dirk’s cruelty with a great deal of his own cruelty in response. Sean was a hunter, and yet he was terribly harsh when Dirk hurt the puppies (explaining their own feeling and the value of living creatures could have helped, perhaps). I also thought the more or less adoption of Mark as a substitute son must have hurt Dirk.

    That said, Sean did reject Storm, his beloved daughter, in a different way, because she didn’t live up to his ideals for her. He seemed to be a great man, but the subtleties, when it came to his children seemed to elude him.

    We read about the people who give a massive amount to society and yet their own children struggle. Purple Hibiscus discusses such a father. Alice Miller has spoken about this too.

    Dirk Courtney’s cruelty did go beyond doubt into the dark side of hatred, but a mother who killed herself, and the father who despised his son, must have hurt.

    • Jenkins1974 August 8, 2014 at 12:46 pm #

      What happened in the situation with the puppies that you mention? I can’t remember that scene.

      What I remember is that Sean was certainly flawed in his relationship with Dirk but that this was more out of bumbling awkwardness and not knowing the best ways to handle situations with him; whereas his rejection of Storm seemed more cruel, as all she did was marry the ‘wrong’ man and get divorced (though she was also a spolied brat, but no-one’s perfect). Yet he did regret his rejection of her and sought to make amends when he believed her to be in hospital following the fake phone call at the end.

      Dirk went to his own grave totally unloved: no priest would recite the burial rites, there were plenty to watch but no-one to weep. Wilbur Smith knows how to write a tragic story, that’s for sure!

  4. theowllady August 8, 2014 at 9:54 am #

    Reblogged this on theowlladyblog.

  5. vianamartin August 8, 2014 at 4:32 pm #

    Ah, Wilbur Smith’s world…such a pleasure to dive into it once in a while!

  6. Anannya Deb August 8, 2014 at 6:58 pm #

    Reblogged this on The AD Zone and commented:
    After a long time, came across a piece on Wilbur Smith whose books I once used to devour. Very nice read here.

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