Let’s start with one of the most devastating satirical moments in Don Quixote. This scene begins in Chapter VIII of the first book. Quixote has already had his adventures with the windmills and the prostitute at the roadside inn, and now he encounters a group of travelers accompanying a lady on her way to meet her husband. Assuming (as he is wont to do) that the woman is being held against her will, Quixote rushes to her defense, starting a fight with a Biscayan gentleman attending her.
Quixote and the Biscayan fight for a while, and the latter gains the advantage. He raises his sword for a killing blow, and just as he does, the narrative stops abruptly–and the narrator tells us that the record doesn’t go any further and that this is everything we now can say about Don Quixote de la Mancha. But the narrator refuses to give up, and, one day he finds an Arabic manuscript in a marketplace that references Dulcinea del Toboso. This turns out to be the work of the famous Arab historian, Cid Hamete Benengeli and, conveniently, it begins at exactly same point in the story that the previous manuscript left off. The narrative problem is solved.
Cervantes is satirizing works that make historical claims and yet include details that could not have come through the historical record: secret conversations between minor characters, deep motivations of mysterious antagonists, things a character said to his horse—that sort of thing. Cervantes’ world was full of historical romances that made these sorts of narrative claims and then violated their own terms by including information that would not have been available to the narrator implied by the text. It was kind of like cheating.
To his credit, Mormon rarely engages in the sort of narrative sleight of hand that Cervantes satirizes. He almost never ascribes unknowable motives to characters who are not themselves narrators, nor does he include conversations between characters outside of the hearing of somebody who could have plausibly written them down. This is consistent with the larger claim of the Book of Mormon that Mormon is a historian abridging records from an earlier time into a single narrative.
But Mormon is not perfect, and there are a few exceptions to his general excellence in this regard–perhaps the most glaring of which occur in his description of Amalickiah in the land of the Lamanties. After failing to become King of the Nephites, Amalickiah flees to the land of the Lamanites, where he uses treachery to rise through the ranks and become king. After being given command of forces loyal to the Lamanite king, Amalickiah pretends to join his forces with those of the rebellious commander Lehonti. But uses a slow poison to kill Lehonti and deliver all of the troops to the King (:18-19)–who he then murders by having a servant stab him in the heart. He then marries the Queen and becomes King of the Lamanites.
All of this is shows us just how evil Amalickiah was, and it proves that the Nephites who supported his earlier bid for the kinship were either evil themselves or sadly deluded. And it demonstrates once and for all that Captain Moroni was right to raise the Title of Liberty, attack the followers of Amalickiah, and force them to recant their beliefs or die. Mormon’s description of Amalickiah’s treachery clearly justifies all of the questionable things that were done during the early stages of the war.
Or does it?
Alma 47 raises exactly the kind of narrative problem that Cervantes satirized in Don Quixote. All of the action occurs well outside of the view of anybody who could plausibly have been a Nephite record keeper. And it describes events that would not have been generally known by either Nephites or Lamanites. Only a very small number of Amalickiah’s closest advisers could have known about them, and his hold on power would have depended on absolute secrecy. If any of these advisers were not completely trustworthy, we can be fairly sure that they would not have lasted long in Amalickiah’s employ.
So how did Mormon know what happened? Or, to put the question a different way, how do we reconcile the details of the story of Amalickiah with the claims of the narrative itself about what it is and how it knows stuff? At the very least, we have here an uncharacteristic lapse in Mormon’s normally conscientious accounting for the origin of the stories that he tells.
There are several ways to answer this question. God could have revealed the information to Mormon, of course. But if God went around revealing things like that we have to wonder why anybody needed to keep records in the first place. A Lamanite prisoner could have spilled the beans. But this strikes me as unlikely, since it was the Lamanites who had to be kept in the dark about Amalickiah for his plans to succeed. This was a secret that the king was keeping from his own people; it had no value to the Nephites as military intelligence.
But it was a story that had tremendous value to the Nephites as propaganda. It would have bolstered the Nephite’s claims about the rightness of their cause and the treachery of their opponent. It made Captain Moroni look heroic, and it immediately delegitimized any internal opposition based on residual support for Amalickiah. And if this story could be passed along to the Lamanites, it would undermine their support for their king and make them easier to defeat. It would be hard to imagine a better piece of war propaganda than this.
But the thing about propaganda is that it doesn’t have to be true; it just has to be repeated a lot. The sorts of speculation about Amalickiah’s rise to power are precisely kinds of rumors that people on one side of a conflict invent about people on the other side. They sound probable enough, account for problematic facts, and completely support the official story of the side doing the propagandizing. And when a war is over, the winning side’s propaganda almost always becomes part of the official record. Five hundred years later, a redactor like Mormon would have had a very hard time distinguishing between that official record and the actual facts of history.