A saga writ large on the stage of 17th Century Central Europe, Hope of Ages Past portrays the deeply personal impacts of religious faith and love amidst the brutality of war.
Peter Erhart and Hans Mannheim are teenagers when they first meet in the Bohemian capital city of Prague at the outbreak of the Thirty Years War in 1618. These are two of the three central, fictional, characters in Bruce Gardner’s noteworthy interweaving of fact and reasoned conjecture set during the first half of the war. The boys represent the two religious factions in that conflict: Peter is Protestant; Hans, Catholic. The meeting in Prague, based on a real event including actual historical participants, provides the backdrop for a fictional drama that is set in motion when Peter reaches beyond the sectarian divide to help Hans at a moment of deep disgrace. Hans will never forget that kindness.
As rebellion and conquest fire up across Europe, Peter, in his twenties, becomes a contentedly married Lutheran pastor in Magdeburg, Germany. Opposed by powerful rivals and threatened by the Catholic imperial army now approaching the city, he encounters Anna Ritter – a country peasant girl of uncommon beauty and inner strength who has secretly admired him for years and who is destined to share his trials. Each must fight bravely for the survival of their families and friends when local villains invade countryside cottages and the army, led by an awe-inspiring Black Knight, besieges the city. At the pinnacle of their trial, unthinkable tragedy brings Peter and Anna together and links their fates with Hans, now a grown man with a reputation to prove. Events eventually bring the three together in the siege’s aftermath, and a strange and unexpected reconciliation occurs — one that is put to the ultimate test in a final, horror-filled ordeal.
Gardner, delving deeply into the philosophical issues at the core of the Thirty Years War, very deftly maintains an over-arching theme of religious differences – and similarities – in the midst of a thrilling, continually evolving panorama of warfare, intrigue, and romance. Interlocking the two storylines – interpersonal and international – is the repeated possibility for human compassion to emerge despite deep religious disagreements. Gardner’s skillfully drawn characters, both Catholic and Protestant, are confronted with choices – to kill, to help, or to ignore their fellow human beings in times of terrible suffering. Gardner fairly and intelligently presents the positions of both groups.
Love conquers hate and uplifts two great faiths in Bruce Gardner’s Hope of Ages Past, contrasting romance, religion and family cohesion with the upheaval of battle and blood, all balanced by a thought-provoking, well-considered overview of the western world’s Christian heritage.
Ultimately, Gardner has gifted us with an epic novel of enduring faith and love set amidst the brutality of the Thirty Years War in Europe. A very good read.