By Christopher Zehnder

What follows is the Foreword (or “what gentlemen call a Preface,” in the words of Hilaire Belloc) to my trilogy of novels, A Song for Else, set in the opening years of the Reformation in Germany, explaining some of the influences that inspired me to write the work. The first two of the volumes (The Vow and The Overthrow) are available from Arouca Press. The third will hopefully soon be available.

This novel, A Song for Else, has in a sense been some 38 years in the making. The first germs of it were planted in my mind when I was 19 years old, soon after my conversion to the Catholic Church. Coming from a family that has been Lutheran since Martin Luther and had, moreover, helped found the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, I had as a child and a young adult a keen sense of the religious heritage in which I first learned the name of Christ. One does not inherit such a tradition without it deeply affecting him. Indeed, the Jesuit priest who brought me into the Church said of me in those far-off days, “You can take the boy out of the Missouri Synod, but you cannot take the Missouri Synod out of the boy.” Looking back on those days, I think he was right.

I trust that I am far less culturally Lutheran than I was 38 years ago; yet, as Dorothy Day once said (and I paraphrase), “the bottle never stops smelling of the liquor it held.” Perhaps it was to understand myself, what made me who I am, that the thought never left me of writing a novel – in this case, a trilogy – set in the period of the German Reformation. There is much that is personal in it. The action of the plot centers around the storied city of Nürnberg, from whose environs my family came. The name of the main character, Lorenz List, has personal references. I was born on the feast of St. Lawrence (Lorenz) the Martyr, and List is taken from my greatgreatgrandfather, Johann List, who came from MittelFranken in Bavaria to America in 1845.


This novel, however, is not an exercise in self-awareness therapy. It is not about the author. It tells the story of Lorenz List, an intellectual and sensitive young man who, through fortuitous circumstances, finds himself cast into a society very unlike the peasant culture in which he was born and raised. It is a story of love, both love for God and love of a woman, and how these loves influenced and shaped the protagonist. It is a story of a society, fundamentally Christian and Catholic, but shot through with religious and philosophical confusion and seething with revolutionary feeling. It is a tale of a young man coming of age in a time where old certainties are probed and questioned, faith is challenged, and men’s minds are troubled by apocalyptic foreboding. It is, in short, a story of an age not entirely unlike our own, for in it the seeds of our time were planted.

This, the first volume of A Song for Else, called The Vow, begins shortly after the turn of the 16th century and ends in 1513, four years before the inception of Martin Luther’s revolution. The young Lorenz List’s story in these years is set against the backdrop of events and ideas that are preparing the ground for the Lutheran revolt. History is the stage upon which Lorenz’s own personal drama unfolds; history weaves itself through the pattern of that drama, influencing it in barely perceptible but decisive ways – as wider events do in the life of every man. We are colored and shaped by the world in which we live and move.

The second volume takes up the story’s thread and pulls it through the epoch that is sometimes called the “heroic period” of the Reformation. In this volume we see the beginnings of a revolt that seemed to many a genuine reform of Church and society. We behold the age through the perspective of one who lived in and through it, who felt its promise only to discover in the end a disillusionment that is both personal and societal. In this volume, plague, theological controversy, personal and political ambition, the pride born of self-regard, war, lust, love, and glimpses of holiness form the warp and woof of the drama. The volume ends with the tragic events of the brutal Peasants Revolt of 1525.

The third and last volume carries the story through the aging of the reform into middle age, its institutionalization, and its contention with the newer and more radical revolutions that are its spawn. The heroism that marked the Reformation’s earlier period has been gentled. Luther’s once radical doctrine has been subordinated to the politics and passions of princes. Its old fervor, taken up by the new sects, is easily agitated into fanaticism. Through this world Lorenz and his Else move in their own private quest for a joy that is almost in their grasp but ever elusive.

In writing this story, I have striven for verisimilitude. I have tried to make my characters three-dimensional, real human beings, with imperfections and faults and well as virtues. This goes both for the characters with whom I sympathize as well as those I find reprehensible. To understand an epoch like the German Reformation, one must feel the allure that men felt for a man such as Martin Luther (one of my characters) – which means that one must comprehend the complexity of his character. A theologian can affirm or condemn ideas abstracted from flesh and blood. The storyteller, however, may not ignore the enfleshed particular and must wrestle with the complexity and self-contradictions that exist in the human soul. These novels are my attempt to explore that complexity, both in the characters and the historical period that they, by their actions both great and small, helped to create. and by which they were in turn influenced.

Though it falls under the genre “historical fiction,” A Song for Else is not a work of history. History seeks to relate past events just as they happened. The task of a storyteller is different. He must construct an engaging plot, propelled by interesting characters, and expressed in alluring and arresting prose. A fictional story has a logic and compulsion all its own; and, though I have striven to preserve historical accuracy in the main lines, I have taken liberties with certain particulars. The text for Else’s song, for instance, is a genuine, old German poem; it was set to music by the 16th century composer, Ludwig Senfl. It was probably not first conceived by an enamored youth in the manner my story relates. As for the real historical characters that figure in the plot—these, though drawn with an eye to historical consistency, nevertheless say and do things that no history records of them. I can, however, claim for my inventions and delineations that they are, by my judgment, consonant with historical fact.

It is my conviction that truth, with goodness and beauty, must inform and guide any work of art. One should receive from an experience of art—from seeing a picture, playing or listening to music, reading a story or poem—a deeper apprehension of the transcendentals through which God reveals himself to us. Though a novel is not a work of metaphysics, spiritual devotion, or theology, it still has a transcendent object. Truth, goodness, and beauty are the ground of art and its goal, even when its subject is suffering and sin—or the absurd. My hope, dear reader, is that you will find in A Song for Else, first, a compelling and enjoyable story. Beyond that, I pray that this tale will draw you to a contemplation of, and deepen your sense of wonder at, the workings of him who is truth, goodness itself, and consummate beauty.