An Issue of Faith: A Critical Perspective on Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s The First Heretic

First published in 2010, The First Heretic is Book 14 in the Horus Heresy Series. One of the best selling series’ published by Black Library, the Horus Heresy is a science fiction epic of galactic scale, dealing with a civil war that tears apart the human Imperium. This war provides the backdrop for stories exploring the notion of loyalty, betrayal, brotherhood and duty.

The First Heretic deals with such issues in a much more contained way than other books in the series. The main plot of the novel follows the experiences of the Word Bearers Legion of the Adeptus Astartes – an army of superhuman warriors bioengineered by the Emperor of Mankind with the goal of conquering the galaxy. Yet they are more than mere tools of war, and this is exemplified in the characters Argel Tal and Lorgar, Primarch of the Legion, “the one soul in twenty who’d never wished to be a soldier.”

The novel primarily deals with the core notion of faith and it’s importance in society, even opening with a quote from Niccolò Machiavelli – that “There is no surer sign of decay in a country than to see the rites of religion held in contempt.” In the setting of the book, where religion is outlawed as superstition and science is viewed as infallible, this quote seems somewhat apt in it’s surface meaning, with the Imperium of Man being a xenophobic organization that does not even attempt diplomacy with other species, immediately moving to genocide and slaughter. Almost a definitive fascist regime, and one full of hypocrisy – the Emperor of Mankind is viewed by many as a god, being an ageless being, a powerful warlord and sorcerer. Yet he continually refuses to adopt the mantle of godhood, to become an icon or beacon for his people. Throughout the novels, religion is derided as the tool of despots and those seeking to subvert meaning, and not once are any positive aspects mentioned in character (such as unity and a sense of belonging).

This is portrayed in Lorgar, an openly religious servant and son of the Emperor, who is reprimanded by his father for his beliefs and left “looking for something else to worship.”4 The search for meaning and purpose, to reaffirm their faith, is what leads Lorgar and his soldiers to fall, much in the way of Lucifer in Paradise Lost. Both are eminent in the eyes of their father figures, and both feel slighted by the reprimand they receive. This is what drives them to rebel, and accept the ideology of “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.” Yet whilst Lorgar is quite Luciferian in his quest for meaning, treading a road to damnation in a pilgrimage to what essentially passes for Hell in the setting, his faith is never twisted wholly beyond recognition. His need to be loyal to a greater cause is fulfilled by dark beings which revel in his attentions, and proceed to show him another perspective of the galaxy as opposed to the one he grew up with.

Though Lorgar is the grand architect in his fall from grace, it is Argel Tal who provides a more personal insight into the struggles of faith. Having been chosen from war at a young age (through flashbacks we learn that he underwent the extensive bio-surgery to become a supersoldier as “a boy still shy of his eleventh birthday”) he has followed the teachings of Lorgar, taking comfort in being something greater than himself, a holy crusade to elevate humanity to a dominant position in the galaxy. But when he and his brothers in arms are forced to question their beliefs after being humiliated by the Emperor, “you see them make mistake after mistake in an attempt to belong to something”, a feeling that many people can relate to.

That the Emperor subverts their own beliefs is merely the final straw that makes Lorgar Legion turn away from the supposed enlightenment of the Imperium. As part of their chastisement, he forces them to kneel with his sorcery – “This was not fealty, not worship, not service. This was slavery” reveals Argel Tal as the truth of the Imperium is revealed to him – obedience to the Emperor’s decrees regardless of will or idea, or even interpretation. This casting aside of their beliefs makes Lorgar and his warriors question their fealty and faith – why worship a god who does not reward their loyalty to him? Such a questioning of their core beliefs mirrors the ideas put forward by Percy Bysshe Shelley in The Necessity of Atheism:

“If he is infinitely good, what reason should we have to fear him?
If he is infinitely wise, why should we have doubts concerning our future?
If he knows all, why warn him of our needs and fatigue him with our prayers?
If he is everywhere, why erect temples to him?
If he is just, why fear that he will punish the creatures that he has filled with weaknesses?”

Of course, it is often argued how there are many other things one can place their faith in, not just some spiritual being – like an ideal. The First Heretic pre-empts these points by pointing out how divided Lorgar’s family is, and how different each of the brothers are from one another. Whereas one could normally seek solace and support from such relations, Lorgar and his kin are meant to be above such things, the children of an embodied god. Being more a scholar than soldier, to exist beyond his nature, is what results in Lorgar being something of an outcast among his kin, who are all tacticians, warrior-kings and conquerors. His approach to his position in life is almost Machiavellian, following the tenants outlined in The Prince surprisingly closely.

Departing on a great pilgrimage, he finds an alternate truth to that offered by the Emperor, but does not immediately reveal it – after all, “all armed prophets succeed whereas unarmed ones fail.” The character of Argel Tal sets up Lorgar as an armed prophet when he says “…we are a populous Legion, and our conquests are many, with many more to come. Much of the Imperium’s border worlds will answer to the warriors of Aurelian first, and the Emperor second.” This shows the recognition that faith alone is not enough – simply showing someone a truth will not make them accept it. Again, such reasoning is an echo of Machiavelli’s writings:

“it should be realized that taking the initiative in introducing a new form of government is very difficult and dangerous, and unlikely to succeed. The reason is that all those who profit from the old order will be opposed to the innovator, whereas all those who might benefit from the new order are, at best, tepid supporters of him.”

Whilst faith empowers us, it is recognised more as a motivator than actual power, a far cry from the means to an end that many wish it to be. It still takes Lorgar decades to set in motion events to allow him to begin bringing the truth of the universe to the populace of the Imperium. The truth that there are actual gods, and an afterlife, unlike the Emperor claims – in fact, the Emperor himself made pacts with such forces to create his sons. When confronted by this revelation in a vision, Argel Tal cannot help but laugh at the irony:

“The Emperor that denies all forms of divinity shaped his own sons with the blessings of forgotten gods. Prayers and sorcery are written upon their gestation pods. This is the most glorious madness.”

However it is still important to note that whilst gods do exist in this setting, they are the sentient, coalesced forms of emotions – rage, hope, despair and pleasure at their most basic. This is an interesting play on the usual role of religion in society, to restrain our base desires rather than encourage us to indulge in them. Throughout the novel, the pantheon and their message are referred to as the “Primordial Truth”, reaffirming their ties with the baser natures of man than any actual enlightenment. Progression is regression could be considered their creed.

In addition to this, the theme of sacrifice is also continually raised in the book – the sacrifice of Lorgar’s faith in his father, his dreams of being something more than a warrior, as well as the very nature of his Legion – young children trained from a pre-pubescent age to be fearless killers, with extra organs and rewritten genetic code to make them capable of things far beyond a normal human. When confronted near the end of the novel by the Emperor’s loyalists, pointing out the monstrosity he has become by communing with elder gods and allowing daemons to possess him, Argel Tal only has this retort:

We. Were. Never. Human. We were taken from our families to fight the Forever War in the name of a thousand lies. Do you believe this truth is easy to bear? Look at us. Look at us! Humanity will embrace the gods, or humanity will embrace oblivion.”

A clear declaration of his beliefs, though it also portrays the misgivings Argel Tal has about his duty. His body is twisted and malformed by the entity sharing his body, and he knows he and his brothers are now monsters in every sense of the word. Still, he accepts his role, viewing himself akin to a martyr, suffering for the benefit of others. He knows that it is an unfortunate truth to teach, but he stays loyal to his ideals, those of revealing the truth no matter how inconvenient or difficult it may prove. However, Argel Tal believes in the vision of Lorgar for humanity, ascension and eminence in the galaxy, a prize worth the hardships they shall endure. Again, this is a reference to Paradise Lost, specifically the lines “Long is the way/ And hard, that out of Hell leads up to Light.”

Which leads to the crux of the issue at the heart of The False Heretic – not only the question regarding the necessity of faith and enlightenment, but the costs associated with it. The faith that the sons of Lorgar embrace, the truth at the end of the universe, is one which demands sacrifice – literal sacrifice of lives, made more potent by suffering. Even Argel Tal, a possessed, feels violated, and yet is told numerous times that he is enlightened, and special for being the first to accept the truth the gods have shown. Strangely, The First Heretic deals with religion in a rather roundabout way – the Imperium without it is ignorant and united by hate of anything alien, whilst those with faith in the Primordial Truth act on their base instincts, sowing chaos and destruction in their wake. There is no attempt to make religion seem like a force for good.

However, faith is not restricted to religion – it is, after all, reliant upon an idea. The fall of Lorgar, with it’s Luciferian undertones, is continually portrayed as a tragedy, his focus on finding greater meaning blinding him to the strength of having faith in himself and others. The novel portrays the strength one can have from faith through the character of Aquillon, one of the Emperor’s own bodyguard, his Custodians, tasked with keeping an eye on Lorgar and his Legion, to ensue that they do not slip into religious practice one more. Whilst openly hostile to religion, he draws strength from his friendship with his other Custodians and Argel Tal, placing his faith in them every time he enters combat. Whilst the militaristic setting limits the author from playing too much with the notion of faith, he makes it work within the confines of the setting. Indeed, a small detail that could easily be overlooked is the novel’s way of portraying how religion can unify – the relationship between Argel Tal, a captain in a Legion of bio-engineered killers, and Cyrene Valantion, a normal human who takes on the role of his confessor.

Faith is a complicated issue, and The First Heretic exemplifies this. Not only are great things done in it’s name, but it is used to damn those with the noblest intentions. Ultimately, it is a balanced approach that is arguably the best, as both extremes (the lack of faith shown by the Imperium, and the active search for something to believe in on the part of Lorgar, Argel and the Word Bearers Legion) are shown to result in ruin, whereas the simple faith in others (the bonds of brotherhood and trust) is shown as the noblest.

Bibliography

Dembski-Bowden, Aaron, The First Heretic. Black Library 2010.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Cambridge Universtiy Press, 1988.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. http://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/pl/book_2/index.shtml

Rudden, David. Horus Heresy: The First Heretic by Aaron Dembski-Bowden. Book Review. http://www.britishfantasysociety.co.uk/reviews/horus-heresy-the-first-heretic-by-aaron-dembski-bowden-book-review

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. The Necessary of Atheism. 1811. http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/percy_shelley/necessity_of_atheism.html

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