The Circle Trilogy

Review by Ed Sizemore

The Circle Trilogy follows two connected storylines. In the first, Thomas Hunter falls asleep only to find himself in the distant future. At first, he thinks it’s merely a strange dream, but he comes to realize he’s actually temporally transported when he sleeps. While in the future, he learns that shortly in the present a deathly virus is going to be released on Earth. Thomas decides that he will try to stop the man-made plague from happening. This storyline follows Thomas’ adventures in preventing a biological apocalypse.

Volume 1: Black cover
Volume 1: Black
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The second storyline takes place in the distant future, where the biological apocalypse has happened and humanity has recovered to build a new way of life. It’s a world that resembles a Hollywood, idealized version of the Middle Ages, with people living a pre-industrial existence. Good and evil are more physically manifest, and evil has been contained to the dead area called the Black Forest. However, one of the village leaders, Tanis, is obsessed with eradicating evil from the face of the Earth. Tanis enters the Black Forest in order to kill Teeleh, the ruler of all evil beings. Instead, he is seduced by Teeleh and becomes the agent through whom Teeleh and his evil forces are able to leave the Black Forest and conquer the planet. The second storyline follows Thomas’ adventure in the future as he attempts to fight evil.

I haven’t read the contemporary Christian novels these comics are adapted from, so I can’t comment on how faithful an adaptation these three graphic novels are to the original material. I did find the comics to be deeply flawed both in terms of plot and theology. The basic premise of the series is pretty intriguing, but as with any time travel story, you have to be very careful not to run into time paradoxes. Unfortunately, this series becomes entangled in such a quagmire. Also, the series tries to be an allegorical retelling of the Biblical narrative. Again, an author needs to exercise great caution and wisdom in creating an allegory or the story can fall into theological error. The Circle Trilogy lacks such prudence and plunges into actual heresy.

Also, the artwork is disappointing. Occasionally, the characters are drawn off-model, and some panels don’t look right, because either the perspective or the composition is incorrect. The art feels rushed, like they were trying to make a deadline and didn’t have time to correct small but noticeable errors. I also don’t like the coloring. You can tell it’s done by computer, particularly the shading. The shaded colors don’t blend well, and the shapes of the shadows are very angular, giving the art a very unnatural look. The artwork does improve in volume three with the new artist and colorist, but it only moves up to being competent.

Needless to say, I can’t recommend this comic book series on any level. A more detailed explanation of the flaws I’ve found in each book can be read after the break. Beware, spoilers abound.

Volume 1: Black – The Birth of Evil

The allegory here is a combination of the Biblical narrative of the old covenant (see esp. Hosea) and the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2-3). Teeleh’s temptation of Thomas and Tanis is exactly the same as the serpent’s in Genesis 3:4: he promises both knowledge and power to those who eat the fruit and disobey Elyon. Once Tanis eats from the Black Forest, then all humanity is subject to the rule of Teeleh, just as all humanity suffered the consequences of Adam’s and Eve’s disobedience.

C.S. Lewis’ inspiration on Dekker is readily evident in the future storyline. Dekker is especially influenced by the Chronicles of Narnia. The use of allegory to retell the Biblical narrative, having someone from our present being transported to different world where the lines between good and evil are more clearly distinct, and even the lifestyle of humans in the future makes me think of Narnia.

The first problem with this book is how Dekker doesn’t make the moral dimension of the relationship with God clear. A good example of this lack of moral vision is Thomas’ first encounter with Rachelle. Dekker tells us how human love should mirror divine love. Rachelle has literally fallen in love with Thomas at first sight and has decided that he is the one she will marry, while Thomas is advised to pretend that he loves Rachelle until he knows for certain how he feels about her. Wait a minute! God doesn’t pretend to love us, so it isn’t right to pretend to love another. Such deception serves as our first warning that things aren’t right.

Second, the Garden of Eden allegory is deeply flawed. In the original Biblical narrative, there are only two human beings on the planet whose decisions will influence the successive generations. In the Circle Trilogy, there are at least thousands, if not millions, of adult humans on the planet. So why should the choice of one adult affect the lives of everyone else on the planet? When Tanis decides to become the pawn of Teeleh, every other human should have the right to chose if they will follow Tanis or continue to follow Elyon. It’s simply unethical to punish all humanity for Tanis’ choice. This was a poorly constructed plot device to move the story forward so the second volume could portray the next major Biblical allegory.

Third, why isn’t the Bible cited and used by the people in the future? Dekker makes it clear that all knowledge has been storied in the books of the histories. This includes such trivia as the name of every horse that every won the Kentucky Derby. Surely, one of the most published and influential books in human history should preserved also. However, it appears that either the Bible is lost to the passage of time or no one seems to think it relevant. I find either explanation hard to swallow.

Finally, God comes across as either impotent or arbitrary in this series. Having God as an active agent in a work of fiction is always tricky. Once God steps onto the stage, you have to be consistent with your portrayal of both the character of God and His participation in the events of the story. Lewis is the perfect model for how to handle God as a character in your fiction. In the Narnia books, once Lewis establishes Aslan’s character he’s careful to make sure that Aslan behaves constantly throughout the book. But Dekker’s Elyon has no pattern or reasons to his actions. Elyon doesn’t even offer to aid the humans in fighting the armies of Teeleh. Instead, he sits back watching the enslavement of the human race and then walks off stage crying. This doesn’t present us with a picture of an all-knowing God who commands the universe. Instead, we have a god that’s making it up as he goes along, changing the rules to fit his whims. The increased activity of Elyon in the third volume appears to be another storytelling shortcut that Dekker uses to increase dramatic tension.

Volume 2: Red – The Heroic Rescue

Volume 2: Red cover
Volume 2: Red
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Simply put, volume two is heresy. Remember, the events in both storylines take place on Earth, the very same planet you and I inhabit. Jesus Christ is a historical reality for Thomas in both timelines. This makes the character of Justin heretical.

For Justin to be the savior of humanity, he must be a new incarnation. This is a violation of the fundamental Biblical teachings about the person and nature of Jesus Christ. Since Jesus was the true incarnation of the Son of God, there can be no other incarnations. To put forward Justin as another occurrence of God taking on our flesh is to suggest some flaw in the original incarnation. This is a rejection of Christianity at its core dogma.

Again, look at Lewis’ example. Aslan can be an incarnation of the Son of God because Narnia is not Earth. It’s not even in the same dimension of reality as Earth. Lewis understood that you can’t have two messiahs in the same reality and explicitly says this in his Space Trilogy. I know that Dekker is simply trying to create an allegorical retelling of the Gospel narrative. However, this reveals perhaps the fundamental thematic/theological flaw in Dekker’s work. Just because you place events in the far future and imagine a new lifestyle for humanity doesn’t negate the past events already accomplished on this planet. If you want to have a new telling of the Gospel, then it’s not sufficient to simply place your story on another planet than the one Jesus walked on. Your story must happen in a whole different dimension than the actual incarnation. That way the people of your narrative aren’t humans. With their own unique nature, they can have their own messiah.

Volume 3: White – The Great Pursuit

Volume 3: White cover
Volume 3: White
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Dekker further complicates things in the third volume. Initially, only Thomas could travel between the two timelines. However, in this last book, it’s suggested that maybe everyone has a counterpart in the past. When Thomas was the only one able to move through time, then you could accept this as a unique gift or ability given to him alone. When everyone can do this, then this becomes a natural feature of the world you’ve created. It’s obvious that Dekker expanded the time traveling ability to other characters because he had written himself into a few dead ends. The fact that future characters can access their past selves allows Thomas to get information he normally wouldn’t have access to and lets him communicate information to people that are isolated from others. Thomas is also able to coordinate the movement of people much more efficiently.

Finally, the last page of this book commits an unforgivable sin against the laws of science fiction and time travel. At the end of the series, servants of Elyon are sitting in a library and reviewing the books of history. They have a brief conversation about how Thomas was able to actually change the past. What? No, no, no. People can’t know that the past has been changed. Past events are writ in stone. Unless you’re God, you can’t have access to multiple past timelines. The only past you know is the one that resulted in the present that you’re currently living in. Either you live in a world where the virus was released and devastated the human population or you live in a world where Thomas prevented such a catastrophe. But you can’t live in a world where Monday the virus happened and Tuesday it didn’t.

This raises the problem of temporal paradox. If Thomas successfully changed the past, then the future he visited never happened. If the future he visited never comes to exist, then he doesn’t have access to the information needed to change the past. Also, why would he need to change the past, if the virus never happened? These kinds of self-contradictory events are the main reason that time travel stories are very rare in science fiction. Any change in the timeline ends up creating more problems than it solves.

I think most of the theological problems in this series come from poor storytelling choices. Dekker should have mapped out the plotlines of the story better before he began writing the series. Also, it’s clear that Dekker didn’t think through all the implications of his allegory. What appears at the beginning to be an intriguing book premise turns out to be an unnavigable minefield. The only way to save the series is drop the present storyline and place the future events in another dimension. This would get rid of all the theological problems and avoid the time travel paradox. I wish Dekker’s editor had pointed this out to him. (Complimentary copies of these books were provided by the publisher for this review.)

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12 Responses to “The Circle Trilogy”

  1. Johanna Says:

    What an interesting analysis, Ed. The Narnia books are lifelong favorites, but I’ve never seen another allegorist do anything near as good.

  2. Michael May Says:

    Really thoughtful stuff, Ed. Thanks for that.

    I’m reading the Narnia stuff for the first time right now and reading about this example of allegory done poorly makes me appreciate Lewis even more.

  3. Ed Sizemore Says:

    Mike,

    I was thinking the same thing. Lewis makes it all look so effortless. It’s easy to forget how meticulously he worked out his books. My impression is that he worked out most things in his head and so we see little of the revision process he went through. Tolkien, on the other hand, seems to work out everything on paper and keep all his old drafts. Thus, we can literally see his thought processes as he writing his books.

  4. Michael May Says:

    I hadn’t thought of it before, but I wonder if that’s not why seeing the Jackson films has killed my desire to read Tolkien’s novels again. I’d rather just rewatch the movies. Is it possible that that’s because Jackson took the story through the revision process that Tolkien skipped?

    Or maybe I’m just lazy and watching the films is faster. That’s entirely possible too. :)

  5. Ed Sizemore Says:

    I love both the novels and movies for different reasons. There is so much that Jackson left out, I’ll never tire of the novels. Come on, Tom Bombadil is awesome!

  6. Michael May Says:

    Ha! You’re right. I’m lazy. :D

    Tom Bombadil is cool in a goofy way, but even if I could live without him, I’d hate to give up Old Man Willow and the Barrow Downs.

    And Beorn in The Hobbit. I hope Jackson includes him, but I’m not counting on it.

  7. Drew Thomas Says:

    It’s true,

    Tom Bombadil=the man!

  8. josh Says:

    I loved these books (graphic novels and the novels themselves). Ed–if you can bring yourself, you should really read wthe books. As I’m sure you know, diluting full-length books into graphic novels is a daunting task. While your time travel paradox observation is an issue, there are many plausible solutions…and I think Dekker is clear, or at least implies, that God is behind all events, including the time-travel and apparent world-changing. And the “other Earth” may be a different world/dimension/future, etc. (who knows?) Dekker may reveal more about this in his upcoming prequel “Green,” which is said to bring the series “full circle.” Also, Thomas is the only character that can travel through worlds as himself–the future others enter past others’ minds when in contact with Thomas’ blood.
    I think these books blow away Lewis’ overly boring writing style! (with all due respect!)

  9. Ed Sizemore Says:

    Josh,

    Thanks for your thoughts. Sorry to hear you don’t like Lewis. I consider him one of the greastest wordsmiths of the English language. The Space Triology isn’t his best writing, but it’s still written well.

    I don’t see myself reading Dekker’s orginial novels. I’ll have to read a few reviews when Green is published to see if he solves the time paradox and other issues.

  10. stephen Says:

    “HERESAY”?!!
    Couldn’t be farther from the truth.

    *trilogy is great read and also has CHRISTIAN morals. That’s rare these days

    Nothing Heretical about ANY OTHE “THREE”(SIC) BOOKS

  11. Max Says:

    Nice. Good observations. They also changed completely the rules for how injuries were healed, and how time passes when he dreams. And how did he stop Carlos at the beginning of the second book? Also his wife arbitrarily dies and he immediately begins hitting on another woman >_<

  12. Jason Says:

    I agree, the Graphic Novels are nothing to go crazy over. I wasn’t too impressed with them.

    But I’ve read the books and found them captivating, if not inspiring.

    I’m not sure how much the real story comes through in the Graphic Novels, since I didn’t really get through them. I put them down after they magnificently failed to meet up the standards that my imagination had set to the characters and settings since reading the books.

    I would disagree that the story hits on heresy – though “Other Earth” is set in the future, it really should be thought of and dealt with as another dimension. Other Earth is more of a new incarnation of history rather than a continuation. It’s a re-creation.

    Remember, though it is an allegory, it’s not meant to be a literal play-by-play. If you’re gonna call The Circle Trilogy heresy, you might as well call The Lord of the Rings heresy as well. Tolkien filled his story with Biblical allegory, but there are TWO Christ figures in his story. It’s meant to be a picture, and example, a parable even, rather than a direct allegory.

    And I would say that the character of Elyon, the portrayal of God, is highly consistent in Dekker’s books.

    I can’t say much for the Graphic Novels, but the books are spectacular, and I highly recommend picking them up.

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