Monday, January 7, 2019

Best of 2018

...Oh dear. Has it really been that long since my last post?

2018 fell on me like a ton of bricks. I had so much on my plate last year that some things had to give - and, well, this blog was one of those things. Here's what I've been doing instead:
  • - I re-plotted, re-wrote, edited (4 rounds) and published A Wind from the Wilderness, Book 1 in the Watchers of Outremer series! You can read it now!
  • - I re-plotted and re-wrote The Lady of Kingdoms, Book 2 in the same series, through October-December.
  • - I got roped into helping start the Monstrous Regiment podcast. Still not sure how that happened.
  • - My sister fell dramatically ill and is still bed-ridden, so I've been very busy freaking out, rallying round, and doing the ministering-angel act.
  • - I took over running her Etsy shop in September.
  • - And, I did a lot of study on indie author marketing, and spent a lot of time overhauling my own business!
All this has left me feeling pretty exhausted, so I've been taking it very easy through January. But, one of the highlights of each year comes when I look back at all the books I read this year, and remember which ones I loved most. So, let's do that. That will be fun!

In 2018, despite all the craziness, I read a total of 114 books, which is just 5 short of my previous record of 119 in 2015. So that's encouraging! Each year, I begin with a base goal of 104 books, or two books per year. So far I've had no trouble hitting that, but only because otherwise, I have no life.

Best re-reads of 2018

I re-read 13 books this year, mostly either Dorothy Sayers mysteries, or Tintin and Asterix graphic novels (because Tintin and Asterix are so great). Here are my top 3:

I re-read Rider Haggard's epic historical fantasy of Chaka the Zulu emperor early this year in anticipation of the Black Panther movie, which I thought was the most Rider Haggard-looking film I had ever seen. Both of them were super fun, but this must be my one of my very favourite Haggard books.

Athanasius is my favourite church father, and this must be at least the third or fourth time I've read this small book. It was just as good this time as well. 

I'd been meaning to re-read this ever since turning my nose up at it as a teenager. I finally took the plunge this year...and this book shot to the top of my sparse list of all-time favourites. Absolutely brilliant. (I then went on to re-read a lot more Dorothy Sayers this year, and will now insist that she is the greatest mystery novelist of all time).

Best non-fiction of 2018

I read about 42 non-fiction books this year. Many of these were short books on fashion (to give my brain a break) or indie-author business (to kick it into overdrive) - as well as the usual constant stream of academic crusader-history reads. All of them were great, but I'm going to wrestle them down to my five favourites:

Dorothy Sayers' book on Christian creativity was recommended to me for years and years, but I only got around to reading it this year. I'll admit, I was reading it as fast as possible to meet a podcast deadline, and it chewed up my brain a bit, but I loved what it had to say. Some of it repeated what I'd already figured out on my own, but then Sayers pushed the same reasoning far ahead into places I'd never thought of. Highly recommended.

This history of the "Dark Ages" (approximately AD 312-843) by Judith Herrin is a magisterial book charting the rise of medieval Christendom specifically in terms of religious, doctrinal, and ecclesiastical development. If RJ Rushdoony's The Foundations of Social Order is the landmark book on how creeds lay the foundation for history, this book is the landmark book on how history actually did develop out of those very creeds. I would call this a must read for all Christians.

This one was just a ton of fun. Not only is this book a romp through the love-lives of Gilded Age royalty, it's brilliantly well-written (by Deborah Cadbury) with a sense of impending doom as this oh-so-sparkly, jewel-bedecked train heads straight for the cataclysm of World War I. Absolutely gripping and well-nigh unputdownable.

This book is a history, yes, and it's about medievalism, yes, but it's not a history of the Middle Ages! Instead, Norman F Cantor has written the history of the great medievalists of the 20th century, from Marc Bloch to JRR Tolkien to RW Southern. He shows how 20th century ideology dictated the growth of medievalist studies and charts the foundational names and book titles of 20th century medievalism. This book was not just metatextual medieval-nerd fun - it was also incredibly insightful and helpful.

While I read a lot of non-fiction this year that was helpful, fun or important, this is the one I want to shine a spotlight on. This book, more than any other I've read this year, has changed my thinking and addressed some of the most fraught topics of our day. 

The Problem of Slavery in Christian America is the most important non-fiction I've read all year. As an amateur historian who reads widely in academic history texts, it was convincing. And as a Christian with a thirst for justice, it was absolutely heart-breaking. Read this book if you want to understand the history of racial issues in the US, and the church's complicity in them. (Full review here).

Best Fiction of 2018

I read about 64 fiction books this year. As with my non-fiction reading, much of the fiction I read was market research, historical research, or professional development for my own writing! However, here are my top picks.

First some honourable mentions. Joanna Ruth Meyer's Beneath the Haunting Sea was a YA pastiche of Jane Eyre with The Silmarillion, and was one of the more unique and satisfying YA reads of my year. SA Chakraborty's The City of Brass is an eastern-inspired fantasy that constructs a complex but never heavy fantasy universe atop a delicate mesh of Islamic and Persian myth. Finally, Intisar Khanani's Sunbolt was a short, but intense and breathless YA fantasy that I keep comparing in a good way to my favourite parts of Robin McKinley's Sunshine. And moving on...

Frank Herbert's classic science fiction is a tragic and thought-provoking look at the classic Chosen One trope. A clear inspiration for the Star Wars universe, it also includes space wizards, desert planets, and a combination of feudal-esque politics with an eastern-inspired sci-fi setting that was exactly my cup of tea.

I'd never read any of Lois McMaster Bujold's speculative fiction before this year, and it's The Curse of Chalion, with its Renaissance-Spain-inspired fantasy setting, that has stuck with me. I loved the mature, capable protagonist of this book, as well as the thoughtful way that Bujold writes about faith and religion.

Friends of mine have raved about Naomi Novik for years, and this year I actually dug into her books. Spinning Silver is a fairytale inspired by Rumplestiltskin, in an Eastern-European-inspired fantasy setting, featuring beautiful writing, thematic richness, a likable cast of characters and a complex, enthralling plot.

Tired of predictably edgy rebels in teen fiction? The second part of Rosamund Hodge's Romeo and Juliet retelling starts as a morality tale about an unpredictably edgy loyalist, then morphs into something weird and profound, with echoes of George MacDonald and Dante. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and can't wait to see what Hodge writes next.

Can you believe I hadn't read Chretien de Troyes until this year? I know. (This is becoming rather a theme for this year's fiction). And my Fiction Book of 2018 is...

I read this book this year because it was written in around the 1180s, and I'm writing something set during that time period, and I wanted to get my head into the right place. And all the rumours were true - Chretien is adorable. This is some of the most accessible medieval literature you'll ever read, although when all's said and done, I think I still prefer Malory.


For "this year", read "last year" throughout.

I'm sorry. I'm too tired to go back and change it, and my brain hasn't yet quite caught up to the fact that it's now 2019!

So that was My 2018 In Books! Talk to me. Did you read any of these? What were your best reads of 2018? What are some books you're looking forward to in 2019? I'd love to hear.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy Sayers

So, things have been really busy around here. I will give a brief summary.

1. Watchers of Outremer! I've shared about Outremer several times before on this blog. Well...*drumroll* baby will finally see the light! Book 1, A Wind from the Wilderness, will release on October 29 and the cover, people, the cover is G O R G E O U S.



2. Sadness! One of the reasons I've been kind of busy lately is that there's been some illness in the family and that has taken up a lot of my time and energy, as you can imagine. A sister has been sick for several months, although we now have some good help and hope to see some recovery soon. Meanwhile, I have stepped in to help keep her business running. She sells lovely gemstone and sterling silver jewellery on Etsy, and if you would like to support her during this time you can see the shop here.

3. Podcasting! I'm still not quite sure how I got roped into this, but somehow I was volunteered to join with a bunch of other amazing women to start The Monstrous Regiment, a roundtable of Christian women tackling topics from singleness and calling to human trafficking and #MeToo. 

This is relevant to today's review because one of the first topics I proposed for the podcast was a discussion of the life and works of Dorothy Sayers. I read Gaudy Night earlier this year and found it so inspiring that I wanted to share it with everyone I could (which is really why I started this blog, anyway). I'd never researched Sayers' life and thought in any depth prior to this year, but the more of her books and essays I read, the more excited I became. Eventually, we'd dug up so much gold from her works that we were forced to split the material into two episodes, and you can listen to them here:

One of the books I read to prepare for these podcasts was Busman's Honeymoon, the last complete novel in her Lord Peter Wimsey series. The books are, of course, whodunits - but as I've been re-reading them this year, I've become convinced that they are by a significant margin the very best whodunits to come out of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. The only detection writer who even approaches Sayers would have to be Chesterton, and his works - delightful as they are - never quite approach the subtlety and maturity of Sayers' novels. As for Agatha Christie and Josephine Tey and the rest of them, they simply never approached this class. 

At her best, Sayers wrote marvellously complex plots featuring fully realised characters, often dealing with mature real-life scientific or social problems from campanology or cryptanalysis to the debates over women's education or the predicament of war veterans. Gaudy Night is probably her very best, but Busman's Honeymoon continues and completes many of the the discussions begun in that book.

Lord Peter Wimsey has finally convinced Harriet Vane to marry him, and after evading the attentions of officious family members, to say nothing of the Press, they whisk off to enjoy a quiet honeymoon in the Hertfordshire village where Harriet grew up. Everything goes wrong almost from the start - the previous owner of their newly-acquired farmhouse doesn't show up to let them in, the pantry is empty and the fires won't light. But things really go wrong when a body turns up in the cellar.

Adjusting to married life is already quite a challenge for the eccentric Peter and Harriet, but with their peace and quiet shattered by the intrusion of policemen, suspects, and corroded soot, they'll have to solve the problem of marriage at the same time as the problem of murder.

Sayers subtitled this book "A love story with detective interruptions" and that puts it rather neatly. The murder in this novel is as clever as always, but really takes a back seat to the new marriage and the demands it puts on the characters.

The book is, in tone, very much an epithalamium. If you're not familiar with the term, it's a lyric poetry form written to celebrate a marriage, and the most notable example in the English language is probably Edmund Spenser's wonderful 1595 ode written to his wife Elizabeth at their wedding, although the Song of Songs in the Bible is a much earlier example. Of course, Busman's Honeymoon isn't actually a poem - but it very much borrows from epthalamium not just in the subject matter and tone but also in the long passages in which Harriet and Peter trade songs and endearments. And of course, this was completely intentional on Dorothy Sayers' part.

In Gaudy Night, we saw Harriet coming to terms with the idea of marriage. This is really the book in which Peter must adapt to it. I enjoyed that the conflict in this book didn't involve the pair of them doubting their love for each other (as might happen if it was ever filmed) but figuring out how to live their lives and carry out their callings as equal partners in a whole new undertaking. There's a fine line between helping someone in their work and interfering with them in it, and that's the line Harriet has to walk with Peter. Meanwhile, Peter is bitterly disappointed that the idyllic honeymoon he wanted to provide has been derailed by (yet another) murder investigation. The temptation they both face - and this is deeply connected with Sayers' highly developed theology of work and calling - is to prioritise each other over their own duty. Peter, intoxicated by love, doesn't want his work getting in the way of his honeymoon. Harriet, who has fallen for Peter just as hard as he first fell for her, is eager to leave the village and the murder mystery behind if that's what Peter wants - but she can't help suspecting that that would be the worst thing she could do to him. 

"You married my work and me," Peter admits at the climactic scene of the novel, and the words are highly significant. As we see in Gaudy Night and many, many of her essays (including Are Women Human?) Sayers believed that one's calling was what defined one as a human being. Most people don't think of marriage as being a marriage of work and calling, and even those who might would almost never put work first, as Peter does: "my work and me". I believe this is a great insight. Vocation, calling, or just work - whatever you want to call it, it was part of the dominion/cultural mandate, the very first commandment ever given by God to man, even before the fall. It is pretty much what humans are for, and any time you impair a person's ability to serve in his own calling, you dehumanise him. Or her.

This is the intellectual underpinning beneath Busman's Honeymoon, and I loved seeing Sayers' vision for what must have been to her a near-ideal marriage unfold. For Dorothy Sayers, marriage was something that should be entered into only when it benefited one's calling. Marriage was a means to serving God, not an end in itself (Peter and Harriet are not convinced believers, but I think Sayers would argue that any good service is service rendered to God). And because God gives calling individually to every man and woman, there can be no debate over which of them is more important. Busman's Honeymoon paints a picture of marriage as a purposeful meeting of equals - and what better epithalamium could there be?

At the same time I was reading this "love story with detective interruptions", I was reading another more recently-written novel which turned out to be a romance novel thinly disguised as something else - I don't want to point fingers, but I'll say I was reading it for a specific market research purpose. Anyway, it was very much a genre romance novel, and I couldn't help comparing the two. In the second novel, although far more up-to-date and outspokenly feminist, the romance was characterised by coercion and encroachment on personal boundaries. It was kind of horrible, and all the more obvious when read side-by-side with Dorothy Sayers. Busman's Honeymoon was a refreshing shot of sanity in a world that has been insane from the beginning. I thoroughly recommend it.

Find Busman's Honeymoon on Amazon, the Book Depository, or in the public domain in Canada.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Death on Cyprus by MM Kaye

Hello, folks! First, I want to assure you all that the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated, as Mark Twain observed. Vintage Novels has not been abandoned; it just had a brief hiatus while I took August to focus on preparing my upcoming novel A Wind from the Wilderness for publication, to say nothing of trying to take some well-deserved rest.

There has, however, been a change in my reading schedule lately - between trying to binge some more recent novels for market research, and gulping my way through double the amount of non-fiction as I normally read, the time I've had to devote to vintage/classic literature has been somewhat curtailed of late. This is sad, but unavoidable for a busy author of historical fantasy fiction.

One vintage novel I did have the opportunity to read lately was MM Kaye's whodunit Death on Cyprus. I've read a couple of Kaye's books previously - when I was small I remember being enchanted by The Ordinary Princess, and I read Death in the Andamans a few years back.

Written and set in the 1950s, Death in Cyprus follows Amanda Derington on a holiday in (astonishingly enough) Cyprus. The trip is marred by the sudden death of a travelling companion - apparently suicide. But as Amanda learns more about the deceased, and the tensions seething among the small community of English expats on the island, the more she suspects foul play.

Then more lives are lost, one of them very nearly her own...

If I was to describe this novel in a few words, I'd probably call it "Mary Stewart, but not quite so good." Some people are just the peerless masters of their specific genre. Death in Cyprus is very much the same kind of romantic suspense story (in exotic locations) that Mary Stewart did so very well. Kaye's description of the island is beautifully vivid, although her historical comments are a little uninformed (I'm fairly certain Berengaria was never left waiting in Cyprus for very long, for instance) and her characters aren't as smart and formidable as Stewart's. Then, while both Stewart and Kaye employed similar romantic tropes (especially with their mysterious, take-charge heroes), Stewart's heroines tend to hold their ground better - no Stewart hero would get away with calling the heroine an "infuriated kitten".

Still, although they are writing very similar books, it might not be fair to compare the two authors too closely. Death in Cyprus was an evocative, sun-drenched mystery of the kind that you read in order to feel as if you've been on holiday in the same sort of place, with a lot of larger-than-life characters - Miss Moon, the old English lady living in a shabby old villa in a succession of eccentric colour-coded jewel collections, one for each day of the week, was particularly fun. Unravelling the mystery involves unravelling the secret past connections between all the different characters, which gives the book a lot of soap-opera appeal as what we know constantly shifts.

Death in Cyprus is an enjoyably fluffy whodunit for anyone who enjoys Agatha Christie or Mary Stewart - intentionally set in the halcyon days before civil war broke out between the Greeks and Turks. Have you read any of Kaye's books?

Find Death in Cyprus on Amazon or The Book Depository.

Friday, July 13, 2018

The Road to Waterloo by Ronald Welch

The other week, a surprise parcel turned up in the mail for me. Inside was a beautiful, clothbound new edition of a never-before-published Ronald Welch book, The Road to Waterloo.

For those just joining us, Ronald Welch was an English schoolteacher and historian whose Carey Family Series of novels for boys follow the thrilling adventures of the members of a noble family through English history. With their rigorous focus on military history, the Carey series is a lot like GA Henty, but quicker and easier to read.

Welch's books have been out of print for years, but have recently been reissued in beautiful limited collectors' editions by Slightly Foxed. Now, Slightly Foxed have done us one better with The Road to Waterloo, a previously unpublished novella.

Our hero in this short book is James Carey, a 17-year-old cornet in the Light Dragoons, who will go on to become the benevolent uncle in Nicholas Carey. One of the things that struck me in that book was how different the grown James Carey was from most of the other Carey men. While most of the Careys in this series have brilliant military careers, James is different: he left the army in order to become an explorer and philanthropist. I found him extremely refreshing as a standard of exemplary manhood that was peacable rather than violent.

So when I realised that this novella was about James's early military career, I was immediately intrigued.

Set in the week leading up to the great battle of Waterloo, The Road to Waterloo follows James Carey as he sees war for the first time. It's a tale of spies, skirmishes, and maneuvers as Napoleon marches north at the head of his army and Welch writes with the assurance of an author who's done his research and knows the landscape.

Oddly, the book closes on the eve of the battle itself. Possibly Welch thought this was too well-known to retell (me, I actually skipped the Waterloo segment of Les Miserables, so I still know nothing). But he makes it work, because this is above anything else the story of how James Carey comes to rethink his life in the army. Despite his interest in military history, Welch never glorified war, possibly because he'd been in it himself. Though they never become depressing, his books are honest about the boredom, violence, and waste.

My only complaint about The Road to Waterloo is that it's not longer. It would be fun to read more about James Carey's adventures as an explorer after he left the army. But, it's also a valuable addition to anyone's Ronald Welch library, an absorbing adventure yarn with plenty of good historical detail and a hero who's a little different.

You can find The Road to Waterloo at Slightly Foxed - at least, until the limited edition sells out!

Friday, June 29, 2018

Have His Carcase by Dorothy Sayers

Over the last few weeks, I nibbled my way through Have His Carcase by Dorothy Sayers. Since re-reading (and falling in love with) Gaudy Night a couple of months back, I wanted to re-read this preceding book in the series in the hope of picking up some early appearances of the themes that crop up in Gaudy Night. Ultimately, I have to say that this book felt a lot less substantial so far as the themes go. But it was still a wonderfully clever and entertaining story.

Harriet Vane, the detective novelist last seen in Strong Poison trying to get clear of a charge of murder while fending off the goggle-eyed attentions of upper-class sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, is on a walking holiday on the south coast of England when she stumbles across a corpse atop a rock on the beach. With his throat slashed from ear to ear and a razor lying below his hand, the young bearded man lying there seems almost certainly a suicide - if it wasn't for the fact that he's wearing gloves.

Knowing that the tide will come in and carry the body away before she can make it to the nearest police station, Harriet does the best she can to investigate and photograph the body. Sure enough, by the time she finds help, the tide has come in and the body is gone. Now only Harriet's evidence remains to solve the question: did Paul Alexis, a young dancer of Russian extraction, really kill himself to avoid marrying the elderly Mrs Weldon? Or was he murdered - but if so, how?

Have His Carcase is another of the Dorothy Sayers novels I didn't properly appreciate when I first read it as a teenager (what a philistine). It's actually quite lengthy and complicated for a detective story - our sleuths discover so many complications among the various suspects and witnesses that the book must be about twice the length of your usual Agatha Christie mystery. By the end of the story, I had to wonder how much of the complicated plot really seemed credible. But that's beside the point, really. The intricacy of the plots and counter-plots is the whole delight of this novel: the central mystery is like one of those pictures that is two (or even three or four) different things at once, depending on how you look at them. When the final piece of the puzzle falls into place in the very last chapter, it's a wonderfully satisfying moment. I was actually quite surprised: I usually forget the final twists to detective stories, remembering instead the character interactions. But for me, the final twist was one of the most memorable things in this whole book. I remembered it quite clearly even more than ten years later.

Which is not to say that the character interactions aren't wonderful in this book. Not all the Peter Wimsey stories feature his emotionally scarred and prickly love interest Harriet, but their courtship makes up a sort of trilogy within the larger series, beginning with Strong Poison and continuing with this one before culminating with Gaudy Night (a fourth, Busman's Honeymoon, would deal with Peter and Harriet's first days of married life). Have His Carcase features Harriet prominently as a viewpoint character, and she and Peter banter and argue their way through the story in an entertaining fashion. 

One of my favourite things in Gaudy Night was its picture-perfect references to what it's like to be a novelist, and Have His Carcase had plenty of these moments as well. Harriet, a mystery novelist, now finds herself having to investigate a mystery of her own, and if Have His Carcase has a central theme, it would have to be about the relationship of fiction and life. In some ways, Harriet's work as a novelist equips her to investigate the mystery; in others, it fails her. As a novelist, she knows how she would arrange matters; but is this what has actually happened? The point is driven further home when we discover that the corpse, during life, was a voracious reader of Ruritanian-style romances. Sayers has fun satirising these implausible melodramas, but her touch is light enough that it takes a bit of thinking-over after the end of the story to realise that Have His Carcase is, among other things, rather a thoughtful discussion of the power of fiction. Paul Alexis's uncritical intake of literary trash makes him vulnerable. Harriet's stories, meanwhile, aren't necessarily a lot more substantial. They are entertaining popular fiction - but Harriet brings to them a clear-eyed acknowledgement that they only go so far as a guide to life. I think that's actually appropriate for a book that, like this one, strains belief with its sheer over-the-top complexity and cunning. Have His Carcase is a book about fiction that never forgets that it is fiction itself. 

Have His Carcase was a lot of fun, but like Gaudy Night and so many of Sayers' other novels, with its wonderfully real and believable characters, and its audaciously complicated plot, it stands head and shoulders above pretty much every other classic detective story you will ever read. Perfect for that time when you want to read a whodunit that can't be guessed within the first ten chapters.

Find Have His Carcase at Amazon, the Book Depository, or online as an ebook at The Faded Page.

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Arthurian Romances of Chretien de Troyes

It finally happened.

I finally got around to reading Chretien de Troyes' Arthurian romances.

Everyone has been telling me how delightful Chretien is, and I've always believed them. Getting my hands on a copy of the book took me a while, and by the time I did, I was struggling deeply with Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur and trying to figure out what I thought of it. My first novel, Pendragon's Heir, was the result of that struggle. Looking back, I think I have to conclude that Pendragon's Heir had to be about Malory: it didn't have space for anything else. So Chretien was postponed until I began preparing to write a novel set in the 1180s.

The four Arthurian romances of Chretien de Troyes are Erec et Enide, Cliges, Yvain, and Lancelot.

Erec et Enide seems to be an expansion of the Welsh story of Gereint and Enid. Erec meets and wins Enide during a quest on which he seeks to avenge an insult to Queen Guinevere. They happily marry and retire to Erec's father's kingdom, where Erec spends all his time relaxing in his wife's bower. Tongues wag, saying that Erec has gone soft, and when he overhears Enide complaining about this, he gets up in high dudgeon and rides out in search of adventures, taking his wife with him but threatening her not to speak to him. Though distressed by Erec's treatment, Enide remains loyal to him throughout all the adventures that follow, eventually proving that she loves him.

Cliges roams across Europe from Britain to Constantinople, telling the story of how Alexander, the son of the Greek emperor, travels to Britain where he falls in love with a sister of Sir Gawain's and wins her hand while helping Arthur put down a baron's rebellion. Their son, Cliges, is done out of the imperial throne by his uncle, who eventually travels to Germany to marry the daughter of the German emperor. The lady and Cliges fall for each other, though, and she comes up with a zany Romeo-and-Juliet scheme to switch husbands, which works only slightly better than it did in Shakespeare.

Yvain is another of the stories that also crops up in the Welsh Mabinogion, though like Erec et Enide, it's expanded. Yvain travels to a magical fountain where throwing a bowlful of water against a stone will cause a destructive storm in the surrounding countryside. The local count turns up to joust with him, and Yvain mortally wounds the man and then pursues him to his castle, where he is trapped and witnesses the death of the count and falls in love at first sight with the countess.

Lancelot tells how Queen Guinevere is kidnapped by a lovestruck knight and taken to a magical kingdom which nobody can ever leave, accessible only by two bridges, one of which is deep underwater and the other of which is a sword. ("There never was such a bad bridge"). Along the way, Lancelot finds himself obliged to incur significant knightly disgrace in order to prove his love for the Queen.

Did I mention that these stories are every bit as delightful as I had been told? To open Chretien is to step into a world of courtesy, adventure, love, and generosity. "Love would have it, and so would I, that I should be sensible and modest and kind and approachable to all for the sake of one I love..." A king reflects that "he ought rather to desire and long for his son's honour" than keep him at home. A knight refuses to ask for his beloved's hand in marriage because he "prefers to suffer without her rather than to win her against her will". And Our Lord is "the very honey and sweet savour of pity". If you know medieval literature at all, you know the kind of thing I mean; and if you don't, you've missed the most sweet and sensitive literature in the world.

The four stories were written between 1170 and 1180, probably commissioned by his employer Marie of France, the Countess of Champagne (the daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine). Eleanor, Marie, and several others are central figures in the creation of the courtly love tradition of the high-to-late Middle Ages. According to Andreas Capellanus, these women set up a "Court of Love" in Poitiers, designed to adjudicate lovers' quarrels and make rulings on questions of romantic love. Whether Capellanus was correct or not, it definitely seems that the courtly love tradition came to prominence in twelfth century courts under the patronage of powerful and wealthy women. This is an obvious influence on Chretien's work, which I'll speak about in a bit. But according to the great medieval historian Richard Southern, there's another, less evident influence shown in the Arthurian romances.

The Personal Quest

In The Making of Europe, his great work on intellectual and cultural development through the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Southern ends with a fascinating chapter on epic poetry, the literature that characterised the start of his period, as contrasted with romance, the literary form that characterised the end of it. According to Southern, the two or three centuries leading up to Chretien's romances saw a definite change in several areas: it saw increased roles for individualism, sentiment and emotions, and logic. He contrasts this with the communality, practicality, and fatalism of pagan-influenced epic:
Briefly, we find less talk of life as an exercise in endurance, and of death in a hopeless cause; and we hear more of life as a seeking and a journeying. Men begin to order their experience more consciously in accordance with a plan: they think of themselves less as stationary objects of attack by spiritual foes, and more as pilgrims and seekers.
Southern believes that the primary influence in this development was Christian spirituality of the Benedictine and Cistercian tradition.
...the monastic life - or for that matter the Christian life in any form - could never be merely 'heroic' in its quality. That fatal struggle of man against superior forces, that meaninglessness of fate, and the purely resigned, defensive and heroic attitude of man in the face of fate could not, on a Christian view, be the whole story. As Europe became Christianised the epic was bound to decline, for it left out the personal and secret tie between man and God.
Epics in the pagan tradition, not just Homer and Virgil but also, even yet, Beowulf and The Song of Roland, were based on an understanding of man as ultimately passive in the face of an impersonal, transcendent fate. But Christianity gave both man and God a new role. God was personal, had reached into history, and could be understood and known. He acted according to his own laws, and his laws could be understood and applied through revelation and logic. Since God was intelligible, personal, and immanent, then man could respond in an intelligent, individual, and personal way to him.

St Anselm, himself a Benedictine monk, developed a concept of eager and active internal searching for God. Southern explains: "We enter here into an inner world of movement and struggle, in which attack has taken the place of resistance as the predominant method. The same attitude is apparent in St Anselm's famous programme of enquiry: Fides quaerens intellectum, 'Faith seeking understanding'."

As this attitude toward the spiritual life circulated in the monasteries, it percolated into the rest of the world as well. The Cistercians applied themselves to the intellectual pursuit of divine Love, and in the secular romantic literature, legendary knights applied themselves in much the same way to the pursuit of romantic love.

Logic and Emotion

As the personal, intelligible, and immanent concept of the Christian God became more ingrained in society, the result was a twofold flowering of the faculties of logic and emotion. In Reformed churches at least, logic and emotion are often pitted against each other like enemies, with logic seen as being good and emotion as dangerous at best and evil at worst. In truth, both logic and emotion are presented in Scripture as good gifts of God, both to be submitted to the revelation of Scripture.

Both logic and emotion are necessitated by Christian theology. If God is personal, intelligible, and immanent, then individual people can have personal relationships with him. They can both understand him and feel loyalty to him. They can both adore him and dispute with him. You cannot have one without the other. If God loses his personality, he loses his intelligibility as well.

Certainly, Southern notes that with the development of faith as a passionate quest for God, there appeared simultaneously with "a systematic and impersonal body of law and theological teaching": "It seems as if legalism was most pervasive when law was most difficult to come by." Further:
It was indeed one of the characteristics of our period that the connexion between thought and feeling, between emotional intensity and the formal structure of thought, was close: it was only in the later Middle Ages that the intellectual structure seems too weak for the feelings which produced the somewhat hectic piety of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
My own theory as to the reason for the intellectual weakness of the later Middle Ages is that Scripture was less accessible to the church, causing both logic and emotion to become untethered from their guiding principle. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, however, Scripture seems to have had a far greater influence on the culture, and as theology better embraced the true incarnation of Christ into a feeble human body, it caused a greater feeling of compassionate tenderness.

In earlier centuries, for example, Christ's suffering on the Cross was depicted in more heroic terms, as in The Dream of the Rood, in which Christ is depicted as a young warrior full of power. Southern goes into great theological detail as to why this was so, but I'll just skip to the part where theological developments resulted in greater pity and compassion for the sufferings of Christ. Similarly, where earlier art had depicted the Virgin and Christ as ageless and detached celestial beings, a more theologically rigorous understanding of Christ's incarnation into feeble human flesh resulted in art that more often depicted a young human mother playing with or feeding her helpless little baby, a subject for tenderness and pity. And this led in turn to a new tenderness and respect for all women and children.

Right doctrine resulted in right feeling. Orthodox logic prompted orthodox emotion. And the result was felt not just inside but also outside the cloister. Chretien's romances revel in the strong emotions of their characters. He goes on about them for paragraphs, reasoning, explaining, and feeling. His stories dig deep into psychological realism, inviting you to empathise with the characters' emotions in a way that previous literature didn't. Like the best fantasists, Chretien uses fantastical events to emphasise reality. His knights may be in love out of all reason, but they cannot be late for their twelve o'clock trial by combat.

Women and the Feminine Perspective

Last year, I reviewed the late chanson de geste The Song of the Cid and spent some time discussing its treatment of women, which shows a significant development from earlier literature. That development is even more evident in Chretien.

In the twelfth century we find noble women occupying a very high status in society. While parents often exploited their children for matrimonial and dynastic purposes, and while the nobility definitely exploited lower social strata, noble women often acted as legal and social equals with their men. As in all civilised Christian societies, they were not expected to fight (although occasionally they both could and did), but in the crusader states in the twelfth century, this apparently didn't hold them back. Military capacity was very important, putting pressure on heiresses to marry capable warriors for the good of their people, but the constant fighting meant the men had a low life expectancy. Women like Melisende of Jerusalem and her sisters, or Maria Comnena, Eschiva of Bures, or Stephanie of Milly outlived multiple husbands and provided stability and continuity to their society. They inherited and ruled fiefs and kingdoms, engaged in politics, and ran successful coups against their husbands or vassals. One Muslim historian expressed his surprise and disgust that a Frankish woman, walking in the street, might stop to converse with a man who was not her husband; that the husband would stop and wait quietly for her to finish talking; and that he might even go off and do his own business, leaving his wife to chat.

So much for the historical record. When it comes to Chretien, it's more difficult to say whether the image of women promoted in the romances reflects ideal or reality. It's pretty safe to say, however, that he must have been influenced by the wishes of the powerful women who patronised him and commissioned his work. And it's fascinating to watch him describe and develop his female characters. Chretien's ladies are all "fair and charming," of course, but they are also intelligent:
Fair, indeed, she is; but yet greater far than her beauty, is her intelligence. God never created any one so discreet and of such open heart.
Women are valued not just for their looks, but also for their character and conversation:
Then she took me to sit down in the prettiest little field, shut in by a wall all round about. There I found her so elegant, so fair of speech and so well informed, of such pleasing manners and character, that it was a delight to be there, and I could have wished never to be compelled to move.
But this is only the beginning. Chretien uses Enide and his other heroines as viewpoint characters, delving into their thoughts, worries, and motivations. They have friendships with each other, giving gifts or undertaking quests on behalf of each other. They rule over cities and pass judgement on those who offend them. Knights offer them service and meekly submit both to their whims and to their wisdom. And oh, they retain the right to mingle freely and sociably with men without being accused of leading them on:
Such persons may properly be rated as fools for thinking that a lady is in love with them just because she is courteous and speaks to some unfortunate fellow, and makes him happy and caresses him.
Chretien's romances are full of the feminine perspective. For instance, in Cliges he spends much time describing the pangs of unrequited love felt by the damsel Soredamors. Western lit is, of course, full of men complaining about women who don't return their feelings. The feminine perspective is not entirely absent, but it is kind of rare. It's almost entirely missing in the heroic tradition of earlier epic. The Song of Roland is marvellous and I love it, but it depicts a world in which masculine relationships are by far the most important thing: the one or two female characters barely appear. The Song of the Cid shows a wonderful development of Christian respect towards women, but it doesn't make them living characters like Chretien does.

Why Malory Is Still Better

The Arthurian romances of Chretien de Troyes were affected by theological developments and demonstrated an unusually high view of women, but the picture isn't all rosy.

In Chretien, the knights are focused on love. This had an analogue in the religious life: it was divine love for which the Benedictine and Cistercian monks were seeking. Like monks, Chretien's heroes must get away from even the good society of court for the character-building hardship and suffering of the quest. They are focused on high transcendent ideals, which they pursue as individuals. In Roland, "pagans are wrong and Christians are right," but in Chretien, there is no such collective morality. Just as in individual spiritual experience, the enemy may be anywhere.

Yet, as Southern points out, Chretien's stories about the heart's monastic journeying, seeking, and suffering in pursuit of love are not about the love of God, but romantic love: "The real internal religion of the heart was untouched by Christianity." Love is Chretien's deity, the sins his characters commit are sins against romantic love, and in Cliges one character is said to be "martyred" for love. The Christian religious observances don't go very deep, and indeed at one point Gawain is very cynical about it:
"But a man may give another counsel, which he would not take himself, just as the preachers, who are deceitful rascals, and preach and proclaim the right but who do not follow it themselves."
The knights and ladies of Chretien's world have a strong ethic of courtesy and service, but the deity at its heart is secular, not divine love, and there is no awareness that divine love may require some alteration in the carrying on of one's romantic affairs. The result is some of the worst aspects of Chretien's stories. Enide puts up with her husband's outrageous ill-treatment and enables his selfish behaviour because she makes her romantic love for him her highest ideal. Fenice in Cliges gives a truly hopeless exposition of Paul's teachings on purity which must be seen to be believed. Guinevere and Lancelot have their affair, but Chretien seems oblivious to the possibility that they have both betrayed Arthur - the important thing is that they have been true to love.

For all his gentility and sensitivity, Chretien doesn't dig deep. Not like Thomas Malory did later, in Le Morte D'Arthur. At the beginning of this review, I mentioned struggling deeply with Malory when I first read him. It's hard to say whether I would have been as scandalised at fifteen by Chretien as I was by Malory. Chretien wraps up his adulterous romances in a wispy sense of purity, while Malory is more blunt and satirical about sex. Where Chretien seems idealistic, Malory often seems jaded. Where Chretien constructs shiny, delicate confections of emotion to inhabit a faux religion of courtly love, Malory shows the bankruptcy of courtly love in the lust to which it gives birth, and the death and destruction that follows. By comparison to Chretien, Malory is blunt and rude. He shocked me as a teen, and it took much thinking and wrestling to come to grips with his message. But as much more palatable and pleasant as Chretien is by comparison, he also cuts less deep.

To quote Southern one last time:
There is in Chretien none of the melancholy, none of the sense of the sinfulness of the heart, which we sometimes find in Malory. Chretien probes the heart, but it is the enamelled heart of the twelfth-century secular world, not yet made tender by the penetration of strong religious feeling.
Chretien de Troyes' Arthurian Romances are wonderful reading. I ought to have read them long ago - but I'm not sorry that I took the time to understand Malory first. Looking back, I think the Morte has far more to say.

I read the Arthurian Romances in an old translation by W Wistar Comfort, available at Project Gutenberg and Librivox. You can also find newer translations on Amazon and the Book Depository.

Have you read Chretien's Arthurian romances? Which translation do you recommend?

Friday, May 18, 2018

King John by William Shakespeare

It's been nearly a year since I started my journey through Shakespeare's history plays, and today I have the pleasure of completing this journey with a review of King John. To recap, the history plays (which I affectionately refer to as the English History Theatrical Universe) come as two linked quadrilogies with two standalones. King John is one of the standalones, taking place six generations before Richard II.

Today, the reign of John Plantagenet is famous for two things: Robin Hood and the Magna Carta. You will not hear a whisper of either thing in this play. Historically, "the greatest knight" William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, fought on John's behalf and ultimately conquered the rebel barons. You will not see much of him either, and he does not appear in anything that resembles his historical role.

The plot revolves around Arthur Plantagenet, John's nephew via his elder brother Geoffrey. As the son of an older brother, the eight-year-old Arthur is a prior heir to the English crown, and his mother Constance has forged an alliance with the French king to put him on the throne which his uncle has claimed. When John manages to shake Arthur's French support and captures the boy himself, he decides to have the young prince murdered. But rumours of Arthur's death horrify the English nobles into abandoning John and supporting Prince Louis of France's claim on the throne instead.

Like many of Shakespeare's less-known plays, King John has some real shortcomings. Many of these characters are very bad at decision-making. Prince Arthur is not only too stupid to live, but he's also insufferably precious. In hindsight, I realise that everything I know about this play comes from Victorian popular culture, and it's no surprise to learn that the play was incredibly popular in the nineteenth century. The Victorians loved a good medieval pageant, especially one with a touching and angelic mother character, and the scene in which Arthur pleads with his jailer not to put out his eyes was a huge hit for them. Reader, I had trouble keeping a straight face.
ARTHUR. Must you with hot irons burn out both mine eyes?
HUBERT. Young boy, I must.
ARTHUR. And will you?
HUBERT. And I will.
ARTHUR. Have you the heart? When your head did but ache,
    I knit my handkerchief about your brows-
    The best I had, a princess wrought it me-
    And I did never ask it you again;
    And with my hand at midnight held your head;
    And, like the watchful minutes to the hour,
    Still and anon cheer'd up the heavy time,
    Saying 'What lack you?' and 'Where lies your grief?'
    Or 'What good love may I perform for you?'
    Many a poor man's son would have lyen still,
    And ne'er have spoke a loving word to you;
    But you at your sick service had a prince.
    Nay, you may think my love was crafty love,
    And call it cunning. Do, an if you will.
    If heaven be pleas'd that you must use me ill,
    Why, then you must. Will you put out mine eyes,
    These eyes that never did nor never shall
    So much as frown on you?
Arthur is only the worst of this play's shortcomings. Granted, I was listening to a cast recording in which he was obviously played by a teenager with a broken voice, and his screams made him sound like Bluebottle from the Goon Show, so that probably had a deleterious effect as well. Let's just say he's a rich vein of unintended black comedy.

On the other hand, there are some genuinely good things about this play. I'll let no less a person than George Orwell explain it:
Recently I saw Shakespeare's King John acted — the first time I had seen it, because it is a play which isn't acted very often. When I had read it as a boy it seemed to me archaic, something dug out of a history book and not having anything to do with our own time. Well, when I saw it acted, what with its intrigues and doublecrossings, non-aggression pacts, quislings, people changing sides in the middle of a battle, and what-not, it seemed to me extraordinarily up to date.
Despite its painfully sentimental take on Arthur, King John is actually a fairly cynical play. In Act One, two brothers come before the king in a dispute over the inheritance. The elder brother has got the property, but the younger brother alleges him to be a bastard son of Richard Coeur-de-Lion. Cheerfully, the elder brother admits that this may be so, but he's still going to keep the property. He only gives it up once the king and his mother offer him a prime place at the English court, a knighthood, and recognition as the late king's bastard. Almost everyone involved in this transaction acts purely based on power and self-interest. As the play continues, it becomes clear that all the political snarls and conundrums are being solved not based on ethical issues like right and wrong, but power and self-interest. The French, for instance, emerge onto the stage vowing left and right to restore justice by supporting Arthur's claim to the throne. However, the instant John puts a politically advantageous marriage on the table, they drop Arthur like a hot scone. Later, Louis the Dauphin abandons his principled stance for peace the minute he realises that his marriage has given him a potential claim on the English throne. Over and again in this play, powerful characters cheerfully betray and exploit the cause of justice, the widow and the orphan, for the sake of gain.

The Bastard has a long, snarky speech pointing this out:
Mad world! mad kings! mad composition!
John, to stop Arthur's tide in the whole,
Hath willingly departed with a part;
And France, whose armour conscience buckled on,
Whom zeal and charity brought to the field
As God's own soldier, rounded in the ear
With that same purpose-changer, that sly devil,
That broker that still breaks the pate of faith,
That daily break-vow, he that wins of all,
Of kings, of beggars, old men, young men, maids,
Who having no external thing to lose
But the word 'maid,' cheats the poor maid of that;
That smooth-fac'd gentleman, tickling commodity,
Commodity, the bias of the world-
The world, who of itself is peised well,
Made to run even upon even ground,
Till this advantage, this vile-drawing bias,
This sway of motion, this commodity,
Makes it take head from all indifferency,
From all direction, purpose, course, intent-
And this same bias, this commodity,
This bawd, this broker, this all-changing word,
Clapp'd on the outward eye of fickle France,
Hath drawn him from his own determin'd aid,
From a resolv'd and honourable war,
To a most base and vile-concluded peace.
And why rail I on this commodity?
But for because he hath not woo'd me yet;
Not that I have the power to clutch my hand
When his fair angels would salute my palm,
But for my hand, as unattempted yet,
Like a poor beggar raileth on the rich.
Well, whiles I am a beggar, I will rail
And say there is no sin but to be rich;
And being rich, my virtue then shall be
To say there is no vice but beggary.
Since kings break faith upon commodity,
Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee.
Obviously, the Bastard has no more moral authority than the powerful ones he serves. Indeed, he warns on a couple of occasions that ordinary people will look to the powerful for an example of behaviour. Indeed, at one low point, he uses this to argue John into a more confident and kingly frame of mind.

The Bastard is a fascinating character, perhaps the kind that could only occur in a weak play: in a better play, he would be less dominant because he would appear against a stronger backdrop. As it is, he is almost an entire cast in himself. He is the Greek Chorus who comments on everything that happens at the close of each act. He is the comic relief who keeps the audience laughing. As a man of low status who looks to the powerful for indications how to behave, he's an emblem of everything that is rotten in England. As the son and living image of the dead Coeur-de-Lion, he becomes Richard I's voice from beyond the grave - John's canniest general and his boldest advisor. In a better play, he might not have to wear so many different hats. I'm not sure it works well to give so many meaningful roles to him, but you can't help admiring his character for pulling it off with such flair.

Sadly, although I do think the theme of moral compromise for the sake of gain is the play's major theme, it gets forgotten about by the end of the play, and the Bastard delivers a closing platitude to the effect that England will stand strong against external invasion so long as there's domestic strength and unity. The problem is that that strength and unity is only achieved when John's rebellious barons learn that Louis plans to betray them once he wins the war. In other words, the unity and strength that is gained comes about only when John's barons ignore his usurpation and murder for the sake of their own necks.

I do believe that one of the factors at play here is the Renaissance Tudor and Stuart concept of the divine right of kings. This is apparent in the fact that the Magna Carta is not important to Shakespeare's account of events at all. John's barons, instead of being major players in the story, act simply as supporters to one claimant king or another when historically they were powerbrokers and conquerors with significant authority and agency of their own: William Marshal, for instance, is here just a rather faceless member of the baronage rather than the highly-respected potentate who put down the rebel barons after John's death. Louis' invasion of England is shown as his own unilateral act, something that spurs the barons' rebellion, rather than a result of it. For the Elizabethans, the kings are the ones with agency in history on account of their divine right. Anyone lesser is just a follower.

While the divine right doctrine did have deep roots in the medieval period, in 1215 or so, true feudalism as characterised by powerful autonomous barons had not yet broken down into the centralised monarchy of the later middle ages. Even so, the divine right of kings never really got going until the influence and power of the church was broken in the Reformation and Henry VIII used his headship of the church to destroy any influence it might have had to oppose and balance monarchical power. (It's interesting that Shakespeare has a little Protestant moment showing the momentarily heroic John standing up against papal authority).

Shakespeare always had a complex relationship to the divine right of kings. He seems to have been most critical of it in Richard II, but in King John, I think the concept underlies one of the play's most curious inconsistencies. While alive, Prince Arthur is treated as the vessel of divine right. And in the aftermath of his death, this becomes more obvious:
PEMBROKE. O death, made proud with pure and princely beauty!
    The earth had not a hole to hide this deed.
SALISBURY. Murder, as hating what himself hath done,
    Doth lay it open to urge on revenge.
BIGOT. Or, when he doom'd this beauty to a grave,
    Found it too precious-princely for a grave.
SALISBURY. Sir Richard, what think you? Have you beheld,
    Or have you read or heard, or could you think?
    Or do you almost think, although you see,
    That you do see? Could thought, without this object,
    Form such another? This is the very top,
    The height, the crest, or crest unto the crest,
    Of murder's arms; this is the bloodiest shame,
    The wildest savagery, the vilest stroke,
    That ever wall-ey'd wrath or staring rage
    Presented to the tears of soft remorse.
PEMBROKE. All murders past do stand excus'd in this;
    And this, so sole and so unmatchable,
    Shall give a holiness, a purity,
    To the yet unbegotten sin of times,
    And prove a deadly bloodshed but a jest,
    Exampled by this heinous spectacle.

Note that the nobles don't remark on Arthur's young age: they do remark on the fact that he is "princely". That is what makes his death so much worse than anyone else's. That is what makes his wicked uncle a villain. And yet, his death also legitimises John's reign. If kingship is based on blood rather than merit, then even the Wickedest of Uncles can gain a true and honest claim to the throne simply by ordering a hit on his nephew. And indeed, following Arthur's death, it's as if John's wickedness disappears. Now, suddenly, he's the legitimate king and the nobles will rally around him and his son against those wicked Frenchmen.

King John is a deeply divided play, therefore, and at least part of this might be because of a cognitive dissonance in Shakespeare himself. On the one hand, he condemns those who debase ethics, merit, and justice for the sake of personal and political gain. But, on the other hand, his treatment of John suggests that the divine right of royal blood can and indeed should overcome those same questions of ethics, merit, and justice: gain does not make right, might does not make right...but blood, somehow, does.

You can find King John on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg, or as a cast recording on Youtube.


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