Criticism: Michael Collings’ The Nephiad, part II

I’ll need some time to absorb Michael Collings’ The Nephiad , a twelve book verse epic based on the story of Nephi obtaining the brass plates, before I can begin to discuss its literary value and (more interestingly) how it fits into the world of Mormon letters; however, I found the following excerpt interesting and thought A Motley Vision readers might enjoy a taste of the work.

If you haven’t already, you might want to read Collings’ description of the work first.

In the first part of Book V, Laman recounts his attempt at persuading Laban to give him the plates:

“In fear and deep astonishment, four shapes
With ceaseless care and silent step retraced
Their paths toward ancestral lands, until
As ghost-white planes, those walls appeared that formed
The outer bulwark of great Lehi’s own.
The eldest son passed speechless through broad gates,
Through doors, to disappear into dark rooms
That soon resplendently reflected light
Of oil lamps, with food and drink brought out
From Lehi’s vast and rich-appointed stores.
With shaking hand and visage pale, Laman
Worried blood-red wines and honey-cakes,
Eating yet not tasting, drinking without
Savor, fear retreating slowly from
His unmanned heart. At last he spake unto
The others sitting near, words hurling sharp
And low: ‘Behold, as fell the causal lot to me,
I went to Laban’s house within the walls,
Along those streets that often I had trod
As I, in heedless youth, with Laban’s son
Great deed conceived that we as men should do;
His doors were yet unfastened against night’s dark
And easily did I approach unto
The Chamber of his Presence, there to wait
Amid rich-gilded ornaments and woods
Deep-carven, fragrant with exotic scents;
And yet methought that Laban’s treasured stores
Less sumptuous and fine than Lehi’s wealth
Appeared, his hangings coarser, gold less pure.
Into his chamber richly robed he came,
With broidered vestments, Tyrian purple dyed,
His bulky grossness dignified by waves
Of precious, liquid, flowing silky garb;
Honored Laban, Elder of the Tribe,
Keeper of the Brazen Plates of Lore
And Family-Lines. Long years had lightly touched
His massive frame since last I spoke with him;
Wordlessly he stood before me, angered,
Glowering at this intrusion bold
Into his evening’s sanctuary-still.
Undaunted strode I up to him, demanded
All that Lehi’s visionary mind
Required; with voice and mien imperious —
Before which onslaught Laban ashen paled
And shrank affrighted beneath my piercing gaze —
I forced my will upon his eld, until
So near dear culmination of my goal,
So near accomplishment of my pursuit,
He raised a sound of anger and of fear
And summoned to his person servitors,
Who, hearing me a Thief and Murderer
Decried (for truly did you fear that he
In great injustice and deceit me for
The untimely passing of his heir and son
Accountable would hold, for reasons that
In honesty and truth I cannot form
Nor understand): yet nonetheless he cried
Me ‘Murderer’ to his open door and to
The sleepless world without his door; yea, thus
He summoned those who with thick staves of wood
Fire-hardened and strong me from his sight
Expelled with threats of force and deadly pain;
Through David’s city’s streets as one accurst
I fled, until at last with mindless motion passed
I buttressed walls and breathed free desert winds;
For then, as on command, the servants paused,
Laban’s fatal-minded servants paused,
Returned within the city’s depths, and I,
With rushing pulse and breath progressed unto
Our meeting-place. And so it is, I say,
That we shall never now these Plates attain,
Since Laban in his hatred grows severe,
Implacable to our desires, and warned
Of our high hopes he never will consent
That they — the Plates of Brass — shall come within
Our grasp. I counsel now that we return
Unto our Father’s tents and with smooth words
Persuade him of fond, foolish paths he sees
Deep-clouded in his misty Vision’s scope;
He cannot longer hope to sojourn in
Thirsty wastes if we, the four of whom
He is most proud, in single mind oppose
His senile wish and him compel again
Toward these homely walls and high-beamed rooms.
Thus counsel I, the eldest, and the one
Who of us four alone the ire of Laban
Felt and knows — return without delay.'”

I have not yet made my mind up about the language — which is, indeed, rather Miltonic — but this passage does show how well narratives from the Book of Mormon can work in epic form. Laman’s speech seems perfectly in character with the Laman we know from the Book of Mormon — fearful, arrogant, untrusting in the Lord, scornful towards his father’s visions and concerned with riches and the comforts of home. Notice how he compares his father’s stuff with Laban’s and finds Laban’s lacking (“coarser”¦less pure”), like a upper crust young man speaking of the nouveau riche. Notice how he casts the episode in superlative terms. He makes this bold intrusion into Laban’s home, takes a commanding (“imperious”) tone with Laban and demands the plates, and then, once Laban calls for his servants, and is forced to flee for his life. His reasoning is so, well, reasonable. He, the eldest, gave the best shot anyone of them could give. It didn’t work. Meanwhile, the trip home is a great reminder of all the wealth they’ve left behind. How about they all get together and convince their father that the family should return home? Very reasonable.

What’s so chilling and amazing and puzzling, yes, even spiritual about this story (and it’ll be interesting to see how Collings approaches this part ) is that it doesn’t end with either the family taking off into the desert without the plates or returning home to the (short-term) safety of their Jerusalem home. No, it ends with Nephi killing Laban and taking the brass plates by force and trickery. It is one of the most difficult narratives in all of scripture, I think, perhaps, second only to God commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Great stuff for an epic. I look forward to further reading.

My thanks to Michael Collings for permission to run the excerpt on A Motley Vision. Copies of The Nephiad are available. E-mail Collings for details.

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