“A martyr, cried Jane, atop the coffin of her brother…Did Jane truly think Billy was a martyr, or did she say it just to mollify her grief? Morgan wasn’t sure what martyrs were.” (124)
This passage caught my attention in light of today’s class discussion about the general workings and dynamic(s) of power in the world of The Avian Gospels. I felt as if each section of this quote in particular could be taken in a number of different ways. As a reader, I find it difficult to define Billy as a martyr; he died an unjust death at the hands of a social group whose principles he opposed (so much so that he had difficulty allowing himself to use their own methods to increase his wealth/improve his lifestyle, e.g. stealing and selling goods at outrageous prices), but he did not do so in protest or to support a specific cause. Jane’s referral to him as such strikes me as a means to rally the support of other gypsies, allies whom she values once she begins exacting revenge. What puzzled me was the phrase “Morgan wasn’t sure what martyrs were”; as it had been mentioned in class that the society in The Avian Gospels is one riddled with incorrect knowledge, I was at first under the impression that the phrase ought to be taken literally – that the word “martyrs” is unfamiliar to Morgan (though the concept certainly isn’t) because his education steered him away from knowing much about rebellion.
However, a later phrase, first mentioned in the inner sentiments of Mike’s tutor, put things into a different perspective: “Should he tell [Katherine] that punishment guaranteed obedience? That force, and force alone, made people coexist in peace, that peace could only flourish under threat? That peace could fail?” (184) Albeit infused with irony and contradiction, the idea of peace being held together by force and threats is echoed in Morgan’s thoughts, after he has been seen with Katherine and attacked by RedBlacks: “[He] understood why the RedBlacks beat people: how else could crime be discouraged?” (191)
Perhaps, then, martyrdom is a foreign concept to the society in this novel, not because it is a censored subject, but because the sheer amount of martyrs that can be said to exist within it renders such a term too convoluted to be of any use. There are no martyrs; there are only people who die, and people who look upon the dying. Whether or not the dead have died in vain is up to the perspective of those looking upon them, as is true of all societies and cultures. Billy did not die a martyr’s death by dictionary definition, but his morality is worth noting in the gypsy community; in the same way, the work of the RedBlacks is executed with good intentions – to keep the city safe from threats to society at large. The real problem, it seems, is defining what exactly a threat is. Unfortunately, it would appear that “threats” in this context refers to forces which cannot be understood.