The Fatal Tree by Stephen Lawhead – CSFF Blog Tour, Day 2

Bright Empires posterStephen Lawhead aimed big when he began the Bright Empire series, a five-book epic Christian speculative story which concludes with The Fatal Tree, this month’s CSFF Blog Tour feature. In fact, you might say the series is cosmic in scope, incorporating omniverse theory, philosophy, and theology into his fascinating tale of ley lines travel.

And still, characters rule—the good and the bad. In Day 1 I took a peek at my favorite character, Mina Klug. Today I want to zero in on my least favorite—Archelaeus Burleigh, Earl of Sutherland and story antagonist.

In Book 4, The Shadow Lamp, Burleigh seems at last to reap what he has sown, and I experienced a sense of justice and a bit of relief that now at last the questers could move freely as they sought to set to right the events that threaten the entire cosmos.

How wrong I was, given the nature of ley line travel. Not only do people using ley lines move from place to place, they move from time to time within those places. Hence, Kit and Mina and Cass can come face to face with Burleigh and his gang of thugs at points before their capture.

More interesting to me than this suspenseful twist in the story, is the unexpected thread in The Fatal Tree expanding on Burleigh himself. While he was free, he operated like a selfish, mean-spirited bully, taking what he wanted, manipulating others for his purposes. He was cruel for his own pleasure, impulsive, scheming—a thoroughly evil villain.

But when he lands in the dungeon, when he’s forced into solitary confinement, he suddenly has more time than he wants for contemplation, and his inner life comes alive. His encounter with the character I most admire in the Bright Empires, the baker Engelbert Stiffelbeam, provides the contrast to his life that ignites reflection.

What fascinates me so much is the similarity between Burleigh’s position and that voiced by a number of atheists I’ve encountered in recent online conversations. Here’s an excerpt from The Fatal Tree revealing the character’s thoughts:

[Burleigh] had an epiphany: Engelbert Stiffelbeam was not the problem—it was his Jesus. Why should this be? Burleigh wondered. What difference did it make to Burleigh what the big oaf believed?

The Grand Imperial’s chief baker might also believe in pink-spotted green leprechauns for all he knew; people believed a multitude of ridiculous things up to and including the existence of mermaids, unicorns, and fire-breathing dragons. But those deluded beliefs did not inspire in him the same visceral disgust. And just like the imaginary unicorns that haunted the dells and hidden glades of folklore, Jesus was merely an irrelevant nonsense. The brutal indifference of the world proved that much beyond doubt; and Jesus, God’s insipid Son, was a phantom, a figment, a myth. In actual fact, the whole of religion everywhere, so far as Burleigh could discern, was a rag-tag bundle of superstition and make-believe: wholesale foolishness concocted by lunatics, peddled by charlatans, and swallowed by the ignorant benighted masses.

Burleigh had always held that organized religion amounted to a kind of madness, a collective insanity embraced by the weak and powerless because it allowed them some small degree of comfort, a grain of solace in the face of the harsh reality that their lives were meaningless, existence had no purpose, and there was no good, wise, all-knowing God looking out for them. The naked truth was that existence had no significance beyond the random shuttling of mindless forces that had produced a blob of sentient matter that was here one day and gone the next. (p 147, emphasis added)

Burleigh voices the same attitudes as ones I’ve encountered from contemporary atheists:
* Jesus is a myth
* religion is a form of superstition
* morons came up with the idea of religion
* frauds and deceivers push religion on people
* the masses swallow religion because they’re stupid
* the truth is, life is meaningless
* there is no kind, all-knowing God
* life came about by chance
* a person is here today, and gone tomorrow, the end

I can’t help but wonder if atheists today were to have an encounter with someone like Engelbert Stiffelbeam, who forgave because Jesus had forgiven him, who gave because Jesus had given to him, and if those atheists would reflect on their lives as Burleigh was forced to do, would they re-evaluate their position?

There’s no formula for a person changing their belief system, certainly. God has used far less than the acts of kindness Engelbert Stiffelbeam performed for his enemy, and such acts do not insure a positive change of heart, as Burleigh proves.

But what if? Isn’t it the Christian’s place to be Engelbert Stiffelbeam to the Burleigh in our lives?

And now, see what others on the CSFF Blog Tour are saying about The Fatal Tree by clicking on the links provided in the Day 1 post.

You might especially be interested in seeing Julie Bihn sporting Skin Map-like tats as the Illustrated Woman, or in reading a review by Audrey Sauble or Rachel Starr Thomson or Rebekah Loper. Then there is the always thoughtful Calvinist perspective offered by Thomas Clayton Booher.


  1. Even as a Christian who believes strongly in forgiveness, I thought dear Etzel was sweet to care for Burleigh in prison but absolutely insane to attempt to get him freed. Yet, if Etzel hadn’t tried and succeeded, then our heroes never would have reached the Spirit Well, and Etzel’s world, and ALL worlds, would have been undone and destroyed.

    I’m not sure I could ever be as good as Etzel, but I reckon we could all learn some lessons from him.


    • Julie, I think of what Etzel did as a Corrie ten Boom response—something God actually does when He gives us love and forgiveness for our enemies that is supernatural. I thought Mr. Lawhead did such a good job showing Burleigh’s reaction to such kindness—the kind he couldn’t understand or explain. That might have been the best of the series for me.



  2. I loved the way Etzel’s kindness totally confounded Burleigh as to his motives and how Burleigh just couldn’t accept Etzel’s reason. We need more Etzels in the world!


    • Meagan, that’s what I’m thinking, too. What if those who don’t know Christ saw His followers living our lives in such forgiveness? It’s such a contradiction to the normal way people react in our society. It’s kind of like when someone finds a wallet with ten thousand dollars in it and turns it over to the cops—always makes the news because such honesty goes against the grain of our secular mindset.

      It’s one thing to feed the homeless once or twice a year, but to make that trip to the prison regularly and to the magistrates to beg for his enemy’s release—those were truly “loving your enemy” actions. Could we do that?

      I don’t think I have personal enemies like that, so it’s hard to picture.



  3. I too found Burleigh’s conversion intriguing, and Lawhead added a convincing touch when Burleigh retreated to his old ways when he saw the Spirit Well within reach. Did it bother you that most of the series appears to be about finding the skin map and contending with Burleigh? With the last book, the focus changes to saving the universe and the skin map is dropped.


    • Jeff, I wasn’t prepared to call Burleigh’s change a “conversion” in the sense that he sought God to save him. I know, though, that Mr. Lawhead used that terminology, and it was his story, so . . .

      I wasn’t bothered by the change of focus because in The Spirit Well I thought the transition was made. It wasn’t really the Skin Map that was the special thing and it wasn’t a treasure in the usual way we think of it. I thought the Spirit Well became the new focus, so this book seemed to fit perfectly with the new goal with the greater stakes.



      • My thought was with certain events that took place in this book that there would no longer be a Skin Map – though certain characters wouldn’t have been aware of this change.


  4. When you say he was your least favorite character, do you mean you enjoyed him the least? Because, as a villain, I always enjoyed Burleigh. He reminds me of what G.K. Chesterton said about another character: “For ourselves, Prince Florizel is almost our favorite character in fiction; but we willingly add the proviso that if we met him in real life we should kill him.”


  5. Etzel is quite the challenge to any Christian! I know I felt a good bit of conviction on my part as I read about his actions and compassion in The Fatal Tree. I can, of course, only imagine the depth of Burleigh’s conviction.


  6. I agree that the spiritual content is greatest in this book. It was what I was looking for all along in the other 4 books. I was pleasantly surprised that God as Creator and Sustainer was so overtly portrayed. I also loved how he portrayed the consequences of actions. My sins might not make bulls appear on a soccer pitch, but they may have even more devastating effects in the life of my family and friends. I posted my review late last night — was reading as fast as I could. Whew! No review deadlines until after the New Year!


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