I have an enduring affection for the TV show "Rome", made by HBO. The Romans in "Rome" are real Romans. Many writers lack the imagination to pull off such a feat. Too often distant aliens and ancient tribal chieftains are presented as 21st century Americans disguised in period costume. They may look exotic but their opinions on love, freedom, and democracy would not sound out of place in 2012 New York City.
But "Rome" lets the Roman era speak for itself without interpreting it through a modern lens. We are confronted by the strange minds of the pre-christian ancient world. Life is cheap. Slavery is ubiquitous, normal, and not worth commenting on. Suicide is preferable to the dishonor of defeat. Pragmatism rules in place of morality. The bad guys are obvious, but the good guys are hard to recognize.
When a writer succeeds in capturing the minds of a different time period he offers the gift of perspective. It allows us to escape our modern cultural marinade through the understanding that it is possible to think otherwise than we do today, and in fact people have done so for centuries. There is nothing more healthy for the thinking human than trying on an alien mind for a short time. It inoculates against the overpowering intellectual fashions of the moment.
And it is a delightful pastime.
In "The Name of the Rose", the monks are genuine 14th century monks. They speak like monks and they are concerned by the concerns of monks. They argue fiercely over whether or not Jesus laughed, and whether or not Jesus owned any property. They have earnest faith and they experience ecstatic delight in the beauty of the divine. Like all real faith, their faith is tested by the realities of a brutal world.
The author, Umberto Eco, is trained as a medievalist. He spent years researching the political and intellectual atmosphere of the era and embeds his plot right in the thick of conflicts that tore at the political and religious unity of Europe in those days. The protagonist William has views that correspond closely to the real William of Occam.
Wrapped up in Eco's detailed world is a mystery yarn and a political thriller. As William and Adso investigate strange deaths inside the labyrinthine abbey, they uncover old conflicts lurking behind the facade of the pious fraternity.
It is not a satisfying book, but a provoking one. We see faith too fervent lead to corruption, and faith too tempered lead to doubt. We dwell on permanence and impermanence. Surrounded by a world in turmoil people despair, cling fiercely to the old ways, or adapt.
William and Adso live contemporaneously with the beginnings of modern science. William is a disciple of that other William, of Occam, and Roger Bacon - a Franciscan monk who was an early proponent of empirical inquiry. The birth of science gives people a jubilant hope that man's reason might be able to know nature completely and tame it. At first, the book looks to be a celebration of science, with William as its avatar. His powerful mind is able to hone in on the truth from the tiniest scraps of evidence. But when his rational investigation is frustrated, his faith in the orderliness of the universe is shaken.
Maybe the critics of science are right. The early scientists viewed their work as an act of worship - tracing the orderly mind of God at work in a universe governed by laws. But the opponents of science viewed it as an act of vanity and pride rather than one of piety. The story does not tell us who to believe.
By itself the plot of the book is an entertaining mystery story. But the most delight comes from peering out the windows of the abbey into an alien world. It inflamed my curiosity. I have half a dozen tabs open to Wikipedia on related topics right now. It is a curiously dense book, best enjoyed by savoring its rich taste.