Michael Flynn: “Eifelheim” (c) 2006.

Michael Flynn: “Eifelheim” (c) 2006.

Michael Flynn is a science fiction writer whose stories are often about space-faring. He  won the Prometheus Award, for his novel “In the Country of the Blind”, and also for the novel “Fallen Angels”, co-written with Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. He won the Theodore Sturgeon Award in 1998 for the story “House of Dreams”.   He has also been awarded the Robert A. Heinlein Medal, for his sci fi writings.
His novellas and novels have been nominated for the Hugo Award multiple times.

The 2006 novel “Eifelheim” is based on the 1986 novella “Eifelheim”.

Eifelheim is a fictitious medieval village in the Black Forest region of Germany. The village is abandoned in 1349, when the Black Plague spreads to it. But it is not resettled again, and the area around it, Hollenthal (Hell’s Valley) is avoided by all travelers.

Using nonfictional historic figures, events, places, and scientific theories, Michael Flynn has created a very imaginative and compelling fictional story that has the elements of historical fiction and science fiction.

I found the story fascinating from a number of perspectives — the historical facts; the fictional characters — the contemporary ones, the medieval ones, and the aliens, the Krenken, from another star system; the different world views — those of the medieval times and those of the Krenken; and there is also the advanced science technology the Krenkens have developed, including space travel in “one great leap” across star systems.

So, here is how I’ve organized my write-up:

  • A summary of the overall story.

  • Quotations from Flynn’s introduction, and from the history and physics notes at the end of the novel: about the historical facts –people, times, and places — that provide the framework for the novel. I’ve added brief notes about the connections to the story.

  • The characters. I’ve added more details about the story here. It will make for a rather convoluted summary of the story, rather than a chronological one.

  • The conclusion of the story in the “NOW”: to the medieval graveyard of the Krenken whom the last Pastor of Eifelheim, Dietrich, had called “Johann von Sterne” or Johann of the Stars.

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Summary:

Tom Schwoerin is a contemporary historian whose curiosity, research and intuition lead him to an extraordinary conclusion about the abandoned village Eifelheim:

In 1348, aliens from another star system crash-landed in the Great Woods of Oberhochwald, the original name of Eifelheim. Pastor Dietrich of the village reaches out to them, to help them survive, until the Krenken can repair their starship, and return home. Some of the Krenken eventually leave for their home star. And some remain in the village.

By the time the plague reaches the village in 1349, the presence of the Krenken has become known in the surrounding region, and they are viewed as demons. Pastor Dietrich sends away those villagers who are still well enough, to live in the Black Forest, until the plague has passed. Dietrich and the Krenkens remain in the village to tend to the sick and dying.

The village dies away. With time, the extraordinary events become folktales of demons and “flying Krenkl”. Oberhochwald is renamed Teufelheim or “Devil’s home”, and later  Eifelheim. People avoid the region entirely.

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From Flynn’s great introduction & notes to the history of those times:

On a front page:
Dedication to “Jean Buridan de Bethune, the Paris Master”.

Jean Buridan (c. 1295 – 1363) was a priest and philosopher who studied and later taught at the University of Paris. He studied and taught logic, natural philosophy, and theology.

In the novel, Pastor Dietrich of Eifelheim is a former student of Buridan. His knowledge of natural phenomena, of algebra, of astronomy, of medieval mechanical inventions, and of philosophy and theology will be key to his understanding of the Krenken, the aliens from another world.

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The Black Death:

From about 1347 to 1351, Europe was devastated by the Black Plague.
The impact was felt on all aspects of life — religious, social, and economic.

Flynn quotes lines from a 14th century epic allegorical poem, “Piers Ploughman”, with complex religious themes:

“For God is deaf nowadays and will not hear us,
And for our guilt he grinds good men to dust.”

by William Langland, 14th century Englishman, who is the presumed author of “Piers Plowman”. (see reference at the end).

In the novel, when the plague reaches Eifelheim in 1349, it causes immense grief, questions and doubts in the minds of the villagers. More so because of the presence of the strange beings in their village. Are these strange beings demons? And why has Pastor Dietrich baptized some of them, accepted them as Christians?

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The location:

Eifelheim is part of the the Black Forest region near Freiburg. The road between Eifelheim and Freiburg passes through Hollenthal or Hell’s Valley. It is a perilous journey because the gorge is deep and narrow, with steep ravines and cliffs. In the medieval ages, travelers, merchants, and pilgrims, risked being attacked by the lord of Falkenstein Castle. The Castle was built high up on a pass, with a commanding view of the valley.

In the 18th century, Marshal Villars, a general of Louis XIV of France, refused to take his army through “le Val d’Enfer” as he referred to Hollenthal:
“C’est le chemin quon appelle le Val d’Enfer. Que votre Altesse me pardonne l’expression; je ne suis pas diable pour y passer.”

Marshal Villars, regarding the Hollenthal , 1702.

Freiburg was founded in 1120, and the University of Freiburg was founded in 1457.

In the novel, Freiburg is a thriving medieval city, providing goods and services to surrounding towns and villages like Eifelheim.

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From the Physics notes at the end of the novel:

As best as I see it:
In the novel, contemporary physicist and cosmologist Sharon Nagy researches variable light speed theories. Her concept of the fictional “chronon”, a “quantum of time” , provides a plausible explanation for how the Krenkens travelled through space. It is the equivalent of jumping across enormous distances in one great leap, from one star to another, or one universe to another.

Something went wrong with the Krenkens’ starship, and they ended up traveling in hypospace, between star systems, and crash landed on Earth.

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The Characters

Characters in the contemporary times (“Now”):

Tom Schwoerin is a cliologist, or a mathematical historian, who uses various models and theories based on patterns, to research and find places and civilizations of the past. He is puzzled why the models do not show a resettlement of Eifelheim, after its demise in the 14th century.

Sharon Nagy is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist, researching universe models of the cosmos, and quantum red shifts.

Tom and Sharon are longtime life partners. They live together and frequently talk of their different research areas, to clarify their own thinking and ideas. It is one such exchange that leads Tom to extend his research to archived medieval manuscripts. And the same conversation gets Sharon thinking about variable light speeds.

Their ideas and research area cross paths again, when Judy Cao, a librarian and a narrative historian, discovers a medieval manuscript of a drawing that looks very similar to Sharon’s drawing of an electrical circuit related to her theories of the “chronon” and hypospace travel.

Judy Cao’s ability to research and read through medieval manuscripts becomes the key for Tom’s research into Eifelheim. It is from Judy that Tom first learns that the original name of Eifelheim was Oberhochwald, later renamed to Teufelheim, or Devil’s home.

Anton Zaengle is a historian at the University in Freiburg. He and Tom are friends and research colleagues. They exchange information and ideas about Eifelheim’s history. Judy Cao does historical research for both of them.

Monsignor Heinrich Lurm is an official of the Diocese of Freiburg; an extraordinary amateur archeologist and field expert.

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14th century Eifelheim :

Dietrich is the Pastor of St Catherine’s Church in Oberhochwald.
His assistant is Brother Joachim von Herbholzheim, a Franciscan, from the Strassburg Friary.

The Krenken have spindly figures with long torsos, and big golden globular eyes. They look like grass-hoppers when seated, with their long limbs over the top of their heads. They dress in vests and loose pants. As Dietrich comes to know individual Krenkens, he gives them particular names.

There are three particular Krenkens that Pastor Dietrich comes to know quite well:
Johann von Sterne, from whom Dietrich learns a great deal of the Krenken society and culture; Kratzer, who is a philosopher; and the captain of the ship, Gschert.

The starship is an exploration ship, and there are three different groups of Krenken on board:
The ship’s crew members. Their original captain died in the crash. The new captain Gschert is an arrogant man, quick to anger. (in German Gschert means “stupidly rude”).
A second group consists of philosophers who study new lands and they are headed by Kratzer.
A third group consists of pilgrims, traveling to see strange and distant lands. They are headed by a Krenkerin, a woman, whom Dietrich calls Shepherd. There are also children traveling with the group.
The Krenken know that such journeys are a risk and they may never return home.

Johann is a member of the ship’s crew and in charge of various electronic devices on board. The devices include computers, “the talking head” which is a portable electronic communicator and translator; and tiny audio/visual recording devices or “bugs”. Johann becomes the Krenkens’ main link with Dietrich as he is the translator.

The translation, meaning, and interpretation of words is a challenge, but Dietrich and Johann are both keen to learn about their different worlds. They talk about the Krenken and German differences in the understanding of matter, energy, time, spirit, and soul. They talk of Jesus (“Lord-of -the-sky”), of obedience and loyalty, and of authority.

The Krenken  society is hierarchical and structured. They believe that what they are — Herr, philosopher, explorer, etc is written into the “atoms of the flesh” . One cannot be other than what one is .  Nevertheless, when there is a crisis point, a critical decision point, when the Krenken are pressured into challenging their superiors, they speak up, take action, take sides, and are willing to fight and defend themselves.

There are individual differences in character among the Krenken and they have a strong sense of community.  They care for each other, and will sacrifice their own lives to save others.  And this altruism also extends to the humans as circumstances make life increasingly difficult, both for the humans and Krenkens.

Dietrich  reflects:  The Krenken have intellect.  Can such beings have a Soul?

The need for the Krenken to repair the ship and return home becomes urgent. For their survival, the Krenken require a particular amino acid which does not occur on Earth. They are able to tolerate human food, but the Krenkens’ own food supply is dwindling.

Gottfried, the main Krenken electronics technician, repairs and rewires the damaged circuits of the starship. Many of of the Krenken leave, taking their chances on the repaired ship to return to their star system.

Gottfried and Johann choose to stay on Earth and become Christians.
When the plague reaches Eifelheim, Pastor Dietrich sends away those who are still well, to live in the Black Forest until the plague is gone. Fra Joachim, Dietrich’s assistant, will be their pastor, to start a new life. Dietrich remains behind to tend to the sick, and he is helped considerably by the Krenken who are immune to the disease.

The village ceases to exist in 1349.

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Modern day:
Conclusion of the story:

Tom organizes all the information he has about Eifelheim. He comes to an extraordinary conclusion: In 1348, a starship crash-landed in the Great Woods of Eifelheim. Pastor Dietrich of the village reaches out to help the aliens, the Krenken. When the starship is repaired, some of the Krenken return to their star system. Some chose to remain on Earth.

Tom reads a story in a German newspaper of an obscure medieval tombstone, in the area of Eifelheim. The tombstone has a carved demon’s face. Could this be a graveyard of a Krenken?

Tom emails the information and his plausible explanation to his friend Anton in Freiburg. And he asks Sharon for her opinion. Sharon is his life partner, and her theory of variable light speeds and interstellar travel had given Tom the clue he needed to identify the Krenken as alien star travelers. Sharon and Anton both encourage Tom to follow up on his intuition.

Tom, and Judy Cao, fly to Freiburg to meet with Anton. Judy, the librarian and narrative historian, has come to know in great detail the story of the Eifelheim villagers and Krenken.

Tom,  Anton, and Judy travel with Monsignor Heinrich Lurm, from the diocese of Freiburg, and a field expert in archeology, to the abandoned site of Eifelheim. It is Judy who finds a partially hidden broken tombstone. There is a carved demon-like face on the stone, and the barely discernible letters “hannes Ste” . It is the grave of
the Krenken Johannes von Sterne.

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Quotation at the end of the novel:

“Oh happy posterity who will not experience such abysmal woe and will look upon our testimony as a fable.”   — Petrarch.

Petrarch (1304 – 1374) — eminent Italian scholar and poet, in the 14th-century Italian Renaissance.

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References:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Buridan

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/william-langland

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47350/piers-plowman-the-prologue

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/petrarch

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