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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 776

Freddy’s Book is a dual fiction, a contemporary story that includes a historical novel with fantastic elements. The book probes the relationships of art to life and of human beings to one another. The first section, “Freddy,” takes up roughly a quarter of the entire work and serves as an introduction to the longer second half, “Freddy’s Book,” which is subtitled “King Gustav and the Devil.” “Freddy” not only sets up the longer section but also places it in context by introducing the themes that flow throughout the entire work. As the book begins, Jack Winesap, a psychohistorian and popular figure on the academic lecture circuit, has just finished speaking at a college in Madison, Wisconsin, when he meets Sven Agaard, an old-line traditionalist historian who believes that Winesap’s methods are dubious and their results harmful to true historical and human understanding. Winesap agrees to be Agaard’s guest at the older man’s home during his visit, and while he is there, the debate between the two men continues, introducing many of the themes that are developed in the second half of the book. In particular, the two historians confront such basic issues as what constitutes truth in human experience and what role language plays in relaying that truth. During their conversation, Agaard reveals that his son, Freddy, is a “monster.” At first, Winesap dismisses this as exaggeration, but he later learns that it is in some ways true. Freddy Agaard is an eight-foot-tall recluse given to intense inner reflections. He is also an artist in his own right, and later, when Winesap is alone in the bedroom Sven Agaard has provided him, Freddy slips into the room and shyly deposits a manuscript. It is entitled “King Gustav and the Devil,” and it is the second half of the novel. “Freddy’s Book,” as Gardner entitles the section, recounts how Gustav Eriksson Vasa, a Swedish nobleman and patriot, leads a revolt against the ruling Danes in the sixteenth century to secure independence for his country. The struggle is a violent one, marked with vicious fighting and massacres, and Gustav triumphs only because he is aided by the Devil himself. Once in power, however, Gustav is obsessed with creating what he terms a “masterpiece,” a government that will prove itself worthy of the Swedish people and provide for their lasting good. To accomplish this, Gustav realizes that he must cast his ally, the Devil, out of the Swedish kingdom. This task Gustav assigns to two very different men, his cousin and closest friend, Lars-Goren Bergquist, and Hans Brask, the elderly, disillusioned Bishop of Linkoping. Bergquist, who, like Freddy Agaard, is an eight-foot giant of a man, believes in the power and goodness of the human spirit, but he has begun to question its effectiveness in the wider world. The brilliant cleric Brask, on the other hand, has felt his own spirit become dry and hard, a victim of the power of his intellect and his ability to manipulate rhetorical language to prove any point, however little he might believe it in spirit. Together, Lars-Goren and Bishop Brask ride north to Lapland, where the Devil has established the seat of his power. Along the way, they engage in a continual series of philosophical discussions, the sort of dialogues that are common in Gardner’s writings; the disputes between Grendel and the Dragon in Grendel (1971) and between the Sunlight Man and Police Chief Clumly in The Sunlight Dialogues (1972) are further examples of these intellectual exchanges. In these debates, the participants discuss key points that concerned Gardner throughout his career, especially the role of “moral” art in society, and how such art can not only comment upon the human condition but also actually improve it. The moment for discussion ends when Lars-Goren and Bishop Brask pierce the white, snowy vastness of Lapland to confront the Devil in his lair. Although the narrative raises the possibility that this creature is only a devil, and not the Devil of Scripture, it is a monster of immense power and cunning, able for a while to hold both men at bay. Then Bishop Brask, breaking through his own world-weariness to a fresh hope in the triumph of good over evil, distracts the beast long enough for Lars-Goren to slash the Devil’s throat with a knife made of Lapp reindeer horn. The Bishop, however, dies with his adversary in the struggle, and Lars-Goren and King Gustav are left to live in a world that has paradoxically lost both primeval evil and original innocence. “History,” in the modern sense of the word, has begun, and human beings are on their own.

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