Saturday, September 25, 2010

Casilda of the Rising Moon (Borton, 1967)

Casilda of the Rising Moon is an historical novel about the life of Casilda, an 11th century saint.  The book is authored by California-born Elizabeth Borton de Trevino, a convert to Catholicism. The dust jacket says the book is intended for ages 12 and up.

The book was published first in hard cover in 1967 and a paperback followed. Both are out of print but can be purchased second-hand through the usual outlets.

Borton's tale begins with teenage Casilda, a Moorish princess, living in the palace of her father, the Muslim king of Toledo, whom Borton calls "King Alamun". Borton gives Casilda a half-sister, Princess Zoraida, and a half-brother, Prince Ahmed. Borton makes Casilda's father an Arab while describing her mother as a Berber who died giving birth to Casilda. Other principal characters include Sulema, the nurse to both girls, and Ismael Ben Haddaj, a Muslim prince of Jewish ancestry who falls in love with Casilda while Casilda's sister, Zoraida, falls in love with him.

Borton takes the reader through the familiar incidents of Casilda's life -- her concern for her father's Christian prisoners, her secret visits to the dungeons with food and medicine, her discussions with the prisoners about Christian doctrine, the incident when she is confronted by her father while taking food to the captives and the food miraculously appears to be roses, Casilda's illness that brings about her trip to Christian Castile, her baptism in Burgos, her healing by the miraculous waters of San Vicente near Briviesca, and her life there as an anchoress through whom God performed many miracles.

I think the book should be read by any adult with a serious interest in St. Casilda because it was written after Borton had accessed very old church documents that recorded the known information and traditions about Casilda. In her afterword, Borton tells the reader some of what she learned from these materials. Borton also visited Casilda's shrine near Briviesca and writes of her observations.

It is difficult, however, to give the book a very strong recommendation as a juvenile novel to be read by the teenage children of traditional Catholics.  For one thing, Borton's description of St. Casilda's gifts makes them seem more magical than mystical. More importantly, Borton has pacifist and ecumenist biases that are more than a little Modernist.

It is true that in real life Casilda's father (Al-Mamum, the king of the Taifa of Toledo from 1043 to 1075) had a working relationship of sorts with King Ferdinand I of Leon and Castile. Borton, however, idealizes the relationship in such a way that she neutralizes the cultural and religious differences between the two sovereigns.

Also, Borton has Prince Ahmed renounce his militarism and make a pilgrimage to Mecca, after which he becomes a Muslim holy man. And, she has Ben Haddaj convert to the Judaism of his roots. Borton then tells the reader in the afterword, "There are varying legends about Prince Ahmed, Casilda's brother. Some tell that he became a Christian; others recount that he was cruel and unrelenting to his sister. Sulema, Casilda's nurse, is said to have embraced the cross. There is reason to think that Ben Haddaj existed and was a suitor for Casilda's hand."

Regrettably, Borton continues, "I prefer to think that Ahmed and Sulema remained true to their own religion and that Ben Haddaj died in returning to his own, for this underscores something that was wonderful in eleventh-century Spain -- a kind of primitive ecumenism."

Regrettably too, there is a factual mistake in the novel that must have caused Borton some embarrassment after its publication.  In the novel, the wife of Ferdinand I of Leon and Castile (1017-1065) is called "Leonor" when in fact his wife was named Sancha.  Leonor was the wife of Ferdinand I of Portugal (1345-1383).

In short, while I am grateful to Borton for making St. Casilda more accessible to English speaking readers, I think teenagers would be better off reading historical accounts and being taught the traditional Catholic view of ecumenism.

Borton de Treviño, Elizabeth; Casilda of the Rising Moon (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 1967), p. 185.

Civitas Toletana from the Codex Vigilanes (976).

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