This book takes as its historical setting the so-called Dark Ages, and this is introduced in the novel's Foreword as a time of a "great black gulf" in human history where evil could rule. As a result, the normal behaviours of this period are characterised by the evil of some of the central characters: Otto's father, for example, enriches himself through the robbery of others; and Baron Frederick and Baron Conrad seem to live in a world where casual everyday acts of violence are perpetrated without challenge. However, as the Foreward seems to suggest, although this historical period was marked with such blackness, at the same time, there were exceptions to this rule, and genuine goodness was something that was deeply respected by people at this time:
Yet, though the world's life then was so wicked and black, there yet remained a few good men and women here and there (mostly in peaceful and quiet monasteries, far from the thunder and the glare of the worlds bloody battle), who knew the right and the truth and lived according to what they knew; who preserved and tenderly cared for the truths that the dear Christ taught, and lived and died for in Palestine so long ago.
In terms of behaviours that were important, therefore, knowing "the right and the truth" and living according to those precepts were tremendously important, and Otto's journey to becoming such an individual in this world of darkness is the major theme of this book. Otto is of course a character that critics have argued is too good to be true, as he is able to demonstrate and exemplify a Christian level of forgiveness and grace that almost seems to defy humanity, yet nonetheless fits the description perfectly of those qualities that were esteemed by people in the Dark Ages provided by the author in his Foreword.