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This may seem a violent and unholy revenge upon them. And I (who led the heart of it) have in these my latter years doubted how I shall be judged, not of men – for God only knows the errors of man’s judgments – but by the great God Himself, the front of whose forehead is mercy. – Lorna Doone

Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. Romans 12:19

[Plot details revealed.]

In his highly successful novel Lorna Doone (1869), the “gentle Victorian Christian” R.D. Blackmore has sketched a character seemingly opposite to his own: an exceedingly broad-shouldered and muscular, hyper-masculine, Hercules of a man. John Ridd turns sideways to fit through doors, hurls men through windows like haystacks and proves his strength unmatchable in the region through wrestling victories. In addition to his strength, John is the poster boy for masculine hero in other ways: he carries a gun, shoots with mastery, tames wild horses, earns his keep by hard physical labour, and possesses a hot-blooded temperament. Somebody tell John Eldredge and co. about this novel already.

Or maybe not. John’s outer appearance can be deceiving. John actually dislikes bloodshed and violence, and sees his strength as something often requiring taming and tempering, a force he must keep under control. When he feels his anger rising, he often leaves the room to regain composure; failing to do so leads to him regretting his resultant outbursts.

John also declines to fight in the rebellion (a decidedly man-filled enterprise) and looks upon its bloody carnage with a feeling of moral and religious horror: “Surely all this smell of wounds is not incense men should pay to the God who made them.” He also tells the reader, as he walks among the dead bodies of his countrymen strewn among the forest after the battle, “I saw nothing to fight about; but rather in every poor doubled corpse, a good reason for not fighting.” And he feels glad, after the first ambush on the Doones, that he did not kill anyone, “For to have the life of a fellow-man laid upon one’s conscience – deserved he his death, or deserved it not – is to my sense of right and wrong the heaviest of all burdens; and the one that wears most deeply inwards, with the dwelling of the mind on this view and on that of it.”

Even meditating on violence does not sit right with John: “Upon fighting I can never dwell; it breeds such savage delight in me; of which I would fain have less.” Additionally, he is not interested in punishing the man who killed his father: “‘Not strike a blow,’ cried Jeremy, ‘against thy father’s murderers, John!’ ‘Not a single blow, Jeremy; unless I knew the man who did it, and he gloried in his sin. It was a foul and dastard deed, yet not done in cold blood; neither in cold blood will I take the Lord’s task of avenging it.'” John is also mocked for his willingness to vote, but not fight, for the powers in authority.

But Lorna Doone is not a criticism of masculine strength — far from it. John Ridd’s strength and power is a source of great pride and joy for him. He acknowledges with satisfaction the respect and even fame his great stature garners him. He revels in the sport of wrestling, traveling far to maintain his reputation as undefeated champion. John takes joy in working the fields, pulling a sled as though he were a horse, carrying a flock of sheep through waist-high snow, practicing target shooting and accomplishing other manly feats of strength and prowess. The other characters in the book greatly admire John’s strength and the reader can’t help but join in. No, Lorna Doone is not a criticism of masculinity, but a celebration of it. Masculinity at play is beautiful. However, the novel promotes a particular kind of masculinity, as I will continue to explain, and one that is much at odds with the “glorious” violence in action movies, and even, I argue, one that hits the mark of godly manliness more accurately than does the once-popular (and hopefully now-dying) Wild At Heart movement.

You may have noticed that in fact John Ridd does commit some violent acts, such as throwing men through windows, burning down houses, punching a horse to blindness and fighting a man almost to the death. What makes John’s acts of violence different is that John’s are always in the protection of the innocent and vulnerable: women, children and animals — and even men. Violence is always a last resort for John, he never uses it to serve himself and he always tempers his violence with mercy. He does not attempt to avenge the death of his father, though it hurts him sorely, but is only driven to attack the Doone village when the Doones cruelly murder an infant, and John orchestrates the ambush with reluctance and misgiving. He only engages his nemesis Carver Doone in a fight after he believes Carver has murdered his new wife at their marriage altar in cold blood. In all of these cases, however, John acts with mercy – he ensures the Doone houses are empty before burning them and he does not murder Carver but rather shows him mercy in the end, leaving Carver’s death penalty to God (which God does not hesitate to immediately administer by sinking Carver into the swamp). Even after all John’s acts of mercy he still doubts the rightness of his violence: “I dealt him such a blow, that he never spake again. For this thing I have often grieved; but the provocation was very sore to the pride of a young man; and I trust that God has forgiven me” and “This may seem a violent and unholy revenge upon them. And I (who led the heart of it) have in these my latter years doubted how I shall be judged, not of men – for God only knows the errors of man’s judgments – but by the great God Himself, the front of whose forehead is mercy.” Furthermore, John’s final command to Carver after he lets him go reminds the reader of Jesus’ merciful command to the adulterous woman in the temple courts: “I will not harm thee any more…Carver Doone, thou are beaten: own it, and thank God for it; and go thy way, and repent thyself.”

John’s perspective on violence and death is a Christian one. John lives out the creed “vengeance is the Lord’s” as well as the command of the New Testament to protect the poor, widowed and fatherless, the latter especially seen when he takes Carver’s orphaned son under his care. For Blackmore, true manhood is humility, to deny the “savage delight” of the flesh, as John puts it, to humble one’s self, even when one is the greatest of all, to lay down one’s life for another, and to show mercy where it is not merited.

The more closely we examine these “manly” traits of John, however, the more difficulty we have in seeing them as distinctly “masculine” and more as “godly.” For these are values for all Christians to live by, both men and women, in whatever ways their abilities enable them to do so. Even women can wrongly desire violent revenge, as the reader observes in John’s youngest sister. And although the novel celebrates John’s excessive strength, I am inclined to question — is his Sampson-like strength an ideal or an aberration? Certainly no other men in the novel compare to John, except perhaps the Doones, and they are evil – they are masculinity “unchecked.” Strength in and of itself does not godly manhood make. True manhood is utilizing one’s gifts for the kingdom. In John’s case, his gift is his strength. If masculine strength were the ladder to godliness, how could women strive to be like Christ?

Let’s be clear – Lorna Doone is not a feminist text, in the radical understanding of the term; Blackmore does not espouse an anti-gender agenda (which would be out of character for the period and his religious beliefs, however feminist scholars might attempt to construct such a cringe-worthy reading). Rather, the book celebrates gender as a gift from God at the same time that it points to an identity beyond it, thereby simultaneously affirming gender and revealing its source a mystery. When we use our gifts for the kingdom, the light of the kingdom shines so brightly that our distinctions disappear in the dazzling brilliance of the Son, so that “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” For now, we live with the mystery of gender and can only wonder as to why God gives us the various strengths and weaknesses that he does. One thing we can be certain of, however, and that is we are called to use our strengths tempered with and submissive to the Word of God, which delights in hearts that are pure and full of meditations pleasing to God.