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Book Review

Tales of the Hermit:
Volume 1-The Castle In The Rain And The Judge

By Oscar Ratti & Adele Westbrook
Publisher: Via Media
Hardcover, 168 pages, 228 illustrations

Reviewed by Christopher Caile

This is the first in a multi-volume series entitled “Tales Of the Hermit”. The book follows the epic adventures of the Western pilgrim and scholar Père Dominic and his adventures in the Island Empire after his arrival from traveling across Central Asia from Europe.

This fictional historic tale is accompanied by dramatic illustrations -- many large, vivid drawings that portray both the action and intrigue of the story. Here Ratti is at his best. Famous for his ability to portray action and technique in martial arts line drawings, for this series Ratti has developed a new, unique image style -- a combination of ink outline and charcoal, along with a background wash that creates dramatic effects with minimal detail-- from facial close-ups to wide-angle portrayals of battle. There is still the action and movement of the old Ratti images, but here there are also nuances of emotion and facial expression.

In total effect the combination of images mixed with narrative is reminiscent of the picture books (e-hons) so popular in Japan through the centuries -- volumes filled with dramatic and colorful woodblock print images used to portray nature, the arts and society as well as samurai action.

Back to the story. Forced by political and military upheavals on the Island Empire, Domimic abandoned his missionary efforts and fled from inhabited areas. He was rescued and sheltered by a secretive group of mountain dwellers who had isolated themselves within a hidden fortress atop a high mountain peak in a remote corner of the Island Empire.

It is here that Dominic is introduced into the unusual society of his refuge, where we are told he will spend the next 20 years. The place is known as the Summit, and it is inhabited by an internationally diverse population of warriors, scholars, healers, agricultural and other specialists known as Residents.

The Summit also contains a huge library. Amongst the many documents are scrolls which relay the personal history and adventures of many of its current and past occupants. Two of these scrolls are the centerpiece of this volume: “The Castle in the Rain,” and “The Judge’ -- which the reader experiences along with Pere Dominic. On their own they are intriguing stories of warrior conflict and mystical experience in a far away place and time.

After finishing the book the tales crept back into my mind. They provoked me again and again to thought and introspection. This is perhaps their real purpose. There are parables designed to provoke question and elicit insight, to enable the reader to embark on his own journey. This method of learning is the cornerstone of Zen and traditional Japanese martial arts, one that emphases experience, intuition and insight over route learning.

The book’s prologue introduces Dominic, his journey and flight as well as the Summit and its mystical and complicated world. Much more remains to be revealed in future volumes. The reader is introduced to many Summit Residents. Revealed too, are some of the secrets of the mountain and four of its nine lower levels – housing, armory and warrior training, aesthetic creations, and mystical and religious doctrines seen in architectural motifs. Does the Summit represent an actual physical place, or does it represent a structure of mind or human motivations – a sort of Maslow hierarchy of human motivation and need on a societal level? Equally it could represent some fanatical image of creation.

On another level the book raises issues of systematic violence, man’s capacity to inflict physical harm based on survival instincts or as result of his intellect constructs, as well as the nature of reality itself. Pere Dominic had never been able to arrive at means or ways to resolve these many conflicts. Is journey allegory for man’s journey itself?

The first tale, “The Castle In The Rain,” begins with a Samurai flight on horseback, but quickly turns into a mystical subconscious adventure and discovery of his own heritage – a story that raises questions of collective karma and inherited social debt. It also exposes how a society built upon force of weapons produces its own instability through a legacy of hate and vengeance.

The second tale, “The Judge,” is a purely individual one – a story of two Samurai fighting a challenge match. But it is equally a story where ego and emotional bondage from the past overcome logic and responsibility – something that calls into question logic versus emotion in daily conduct.

Dominic then discusses these scrolls with other Residents. The questions raised by this book are awesome: the balance between the mechanisms of social order and the dictates of humanity, questions of logical action set against subconscious dictates within human interaction and conflict, and questions about the very premises of morality and action. The central tales also illustrate the frailty of the humanity.

In the book, an emerging Summit Doctrine is also alluded to cryptically – principles by which various forms of violence can be transformed to enhance human existence – innovative and responsible ways to face reality and to contribute to its balanced manifestation. But these are not explained in detail in the first volume.

Dominic seems poised to play a role in the Summit’s evolution. He represents a Western way of thinking and culture. This may prove to be a critical part of the eventual amalgam of social ethos at the Summit. His Western orientation of logic, science and focus on technology and the material are balanced against the Summit’s Eastern orientation -- a reliance on intuition and insight and priority of focus on the social and psychological needs of man and society.

Will a new social/political ethos be slowly revealed by Ratti and Westbrook in upcoming volumes, one that addresses the very root problem of human interaction – how to deal effectively with issues of human conflict that might otherwise revert of violence, and how to construct a stable society rather than one with a inherent instability? These and other questions are all too numerous, but future volumes will undoubtedly clarify the direction and intent of this thought-provoking beginning.

The martial artist will find this volume particularly appealing. Romantic visions of samurai, his society, ethos and motivation are examined and challenged against both Western and humanistic ideals.

The Tales Of The Hermit is produced by the same husband and wife team who also produced two martial arts classics - "The Secrets Of the Samurai," and "Aikido And The Dynamic Sphere." This latest epic series, an "Alice In Wonderland"-like tumble into 17th century Japan, might just be their most successful.

Disclaimer: All book reviews posted on reflect the individual judgment and views of the reviewer and do not in any way represent the views, opinions or judgments of, eCommunities LLC, or their staff, volunteers, or other contributors. Furthermore, although reviewers might also be associated with, eCommunities LLC, or other associated sites, their reviews do not represent those legal entities or their viewpoints or judgments.

This book is available from the FightingArts Estore:

Published by Via Media
(Hardcover, 168 pages, 228 illustrations)
FAS 2030

$29.95 US
(+ Shipping)


To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

martial arts books, book review, Oscar Ratti, Adele Westbrook, Samurai, P?re Dominic, Summit, Residents, Summit Doctrine

Read more articles by Christopher Caile

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