Friday, October 30, 2015

Anne of Geierstein by Sir Walter Scott

A few months back, I was reading Rolf Boldrewood's Australian classic Robbery Under Arms to my sisters, when one of the characters made a comment which caught my attention at once:
"What the dickens," says Clifford, "can you want, going away with this familiar of yours at this hour of the night? You're like the fellow in Scott's novel (Anne of Geierstein) that I was reading over again yesterday - the mysterious stranger that's called for at midnight by the Avenger of Blood, departs with him and is never seen more."
Well, of course that sounded promising, so I went off and added Anne of Geierstein on Goodreads. Lo and behold, Lady Bibliphile at once contributed a comment to the effect that it was one of her favourite Scott novels, and that she had stumbled across it herself in a different Victorian novel wherein all the characters were reading (and revelling in it) in secret.

That bumped it pretty quickly to the top of my to-read list.

The Plot

The time: the 1400s, shortly after the Wars of the Roses have settled Edward IV on the throne of England. The place: the mountains of Switzerland. The principal actors: a couple of travelling English merchants, father and son. The scene: during a storm, in a rugged mountain ravine presided over by the ancient fortress of Geierstein!

Lost in the storm, Arthur Philipson and his father are rescued and taken to safety by an enchanting mountain maiden, Anne of Geierstein, whose noble family have either fallen on hard times or voluntarily given up their title in preference for a life of liberty and equality among the hardy Swiss peasantry. As war threatens between the impoverished but proud Swiss cantons, and the powerful and autocratic Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, Philipson the elder warns his young son that their secret mission must claim their full obedience: there can be no time for writing love-poetry to young Anne of Geierstein, nor for duelling her haughty cousin Rudolf.

The Philipsons join Anne, her noble uncle the Landamman of Unterwalden, and a retinue of bold Swiss youths as they set out on a diplomatic mission to Charles's court. But war threatens and mysteries pile upon mysteries. Not all the young Swiss are determined to keep peace with the Duke of Burgundy. Villainous robber barons attempt to bar their way. Who is the mysterious and sinister Black Priest of St Paul's? Does Anne of Geierstein's ghost really wander the forest while she sleeps? And what is the secret mission entrusted to the English merchants?

Romance and History

As you can tell, if you've ever read a Walter Scott novel before, this book was typical in so many ways. In a Scott novel, the mysterious and beautiful heroine always pops up just at the right moment to give the hero directions or assistance, whether it's in a wayside castle, a midnight forest, or even a noisome dungeon--to an extent which would seem ridiculously coincidental in any other author's hands but in Scott's bears the romantic magic of fairytale. This is one of those books in which every. last. person. is someone terribly important in disguise. In which a traveller might settle down for a night's sleep in a wayside inn and find himself suddenly in the middle of the meeting of a dangerous secret society. In which yes, an Avenger of Blood might call at midnight for a mysterious stranger.

In other words, the book bears the unmistakeable print of Romance, according to John Buchan's definition--"strangeness flowering from the commonplace". Modern readers might be tempted to scoff at the sheer tallness of the tale--the coincidences and improbabilities that rule the plot--but it would be a shame to be that kind of person. The improbabilities are the whole point. The whole appeal of the thing lies in the fact that these things so rarely happen--but could. We are treading close to fairytale here, where only the improbable can be permitted.

But for all the appeal of its romantic plot and setting, I found Anne of Geierstein a little dissatisfactory. Both John Buchan and Andrew Lang mention that Anne of Geierstein was written toward the end of Scott's life when he was struggling to write enough novels to pay off his debts. He seems to have found it difficult to get inspired to write Anne: progress was slow and painful, and he forced himself through it. The result is certainly an entertaining story and a genuine Scott, but comes across somewhat flat and forced compared to Scott's best tales--Ivanhoe, Quentin Durward, The Fortunes of Nigel. This time around, I found myself particularly noticing Scott's rolling, overwrought, polysyllabic prose--eg, "So saying, he betook himself to the place appointed, which was an apartment in the large tower that protected the eastern gateway, in which were deposited the rack, with various other instruments of torture, which the cruel and rapacious Governor was in the habit of applying to such prisoners from whom he was desirous of extorting either booty or information"--I know this is the kind of thing Scott wrote, but in this book it seemed particularly laborious to me.

This is doubly sad because the book is somewhat of a sequel to Quentin Durward, one of my very favourite Scott novels. That book focused on the historical rivalry between Charles the Bold and Louis XI of France, painting utterly wonderful, hilarious, and unforgettable portraits of both. My biggest disappointment in Anne of Geierstein was the fact that Louis XI never appears onstage at all. But perhaps it's for the best: Louis XI was so good in Quentin Durward that it would have been sad to see him sung off-key, so to speak.

All the same, Scott still does some amazing stuff with the history in this novel. He works closely from eyewitness accounts in describing the final months of Charles of Burgundy's life. He weaves fascinating tidbits of Germanic legend about the secret Vehmic courts into the plot. He draws subtle and convincing portraits of historical figures you might never have heard of before, but who you can't help understanding and sympathising with at once.

I was particularly impressed with the characterisation of perhaps the book's most central historical figure, Charles, Duke of Burgundy. Scott does a brilliant job of depicting the irascible, pig-headed and ambitious duke. Somehow, he acknowledges his cruelty and violence at the same time that he shows us his charisma and even nobility. Even in a creative slump, Walter Scott excelled at creating subtle, complex, three-dimensional portraits of real historical figures.

Find Anne of Geierstein at Amazon, The Book Depository, or Project Gutenberg.

Monday, October 26, 2015

More behind-the-scenes on OUTREMER

NaNoWriMo is coming soon, and I'm excited! This is the first time I've participated in National Novel Writing Month since way back in 2009. It hasn't fit into my writing schedule for a while, but this year, as I chew through the first draft of OUTREMER, I decided to jump in. If you're joining too, feel free to friend me on the site!

And in the meanwhile, I've been tagged for Curious Wren's Behind the Scenes writing tag. And Cait of Paper Fury is sharing a linkup for authors wanting to share about their NaNo projects.


Beautiful Books

Or, More Behind-the-Scenes on OUTREMER

How did you come up with the idea for your novel, and how long have you had the idea?

One day I'll have to tell this story in fall. For now, I'll just say that the first seed for Outremer came way back in January 2012—so nearly four years ago, when I read Ronald Welch’s Knight Crusader. I knew then that someone ought to write a novel about the Crusader States, but I was still hopeful that someone else would do it, not me. It took me two years and a mental image that dropped into my mind when I heard Greg Wilbur's setting of Psalm 102 off My Cry Ascends to convince me that I needed to do it myself.

Why are you excited to write this novel?

So many reasons! One is that the history behind it is stunningly epic. Another is that while Crusader history is turning up fascinating new research all the time, the popular conception is hopelessly ill-informed; I'd love to do something to bring the latest scholarship to modern audiences. And finally, even within Crusader history and historical fiction, the overwhelming emphasis is on the expeditions from the West, those who travelled to fulfil a vow in the Holy Land and promptly returned home again. By comparison, it's hard to find material from the point of view of the native Frankish nobility, those who settled in Outremer, and their unique perspective and experience.

What is your novel about, and what is the title?


Ahem. It’s about Outremer, from a native point of view, and the title is Outremer.

Sum up your characters in one word each. (Feel free to add pictures!)

I’m...going to try to make a short list.

Lukas: Visionary
Marta: Cutie
John: Loyal
Saint-Gilles: Autocrat
Balian: Peacemaker
Beaujeu: Spymaster
Miles: Confusing
Khalil: Hubristic
Saif: AWESOME

Which character(s) do you think will be your favourite to write? Tell us about them!

The list above may give away the fact that I’m already thrilled to bits with Saif, whose character arc is pretty epic. I’m also super excited to write about Marta. I’m not telling you anything else about them for now, because I want to surprise you.

What is your protagonist’s goal, and what stands in the way?

I hate giving away plot details too early on. OK. The protagonists want to preserve their family, their way of life, and their land. They meet 300,000 words’ worth of obstacles, including wars, assassins, evil overlords, and power-hungry princesses.

Where is your novel set? (Show us pictures if you have them!)

All over the Levant, from Constantinople to Mecca to Cairo, from about 1097 to 1293. Here's a picture of a setting on the Red Sea which I was writing about recently!


Known in 1183 as Pharaoh's Isle

What is the most important relationship your character has?

I actually have about three major protagonists and three ancillary protagonists. The most important relationship the first three have is with each other.

How does your protagonist change by the end of the novel?

By the end, all of them have changed dramatically, some for the better, some for the worse. Some of them are dead, some of them have turned their backs on everything they once held dear, some of them have been broken almost beyond repair.

*rubs hands, cackles*

What themes are in your book? How do you want your readers to feel when the story is over?

I want them to feel thrilled and harrowed but ultimately deeply hopeful and inspired to do great things. My themes are about family, multigenerational vision, building the Kingdom of God, the usual. This was what caught my imagination in the history, and I want to communicate that to my readers.

BONUS! Tell us your 3 best pieces of advice for others trying to write a book in a month.

Well for a start, don’t try to get 300,000 words done in a month!

Otherwise:
  • Put together a plot outline and do some basic research on appropriate places and customs. You don’t want to get writer’s block this month, and writer’s block is simply a fancy name for not knowing what to do next.
  • Decide how many days you’ll realistically be able to get some writing done, and set yourself a daily wordcount allotment based on that number.
  • Resist all urges to go back and fine-tune. You’ll have plenty of time to do that later. For now, just get words down on paper, no matter how imperfect.


Behind The Scenes Writing Tag

Or, The Creative Process as It Looks From Here
(for which I was tagged by Hanne-col of Ain't We Got Fun and also Schuyler of My Lady Bibliophile)
(and I was also tagged by Anna of Don't Forget the Avocadoes as a Very Inspiring Blogger, and invited to share seven hitherto unknown facts about me. I think these are fairly unknown.)

Is there a certain snack you like to eat while writing?

I drink copious amounts of tea, which I take without milk or sugar—current favourites include vanilla chai, rooibos, licorice, earl grey, oolong, and Russian caravan. Sometimes I go for 90% dark chocolate, nuts, or cheese.

When do you normally write? Night, afternoon, or morning?

Afternoon is my most productive time. I usually can’t afford to write at night because it’s too exciting and I can’t sleep if my brain is buzzing too hard—but sometimes I’ll be on such a roll in the afternoon I won’t be able to tear myself away.

Where do you write?

At my desk in our spare room, always.

How often do you write a new novel?

How long is a piece of string? If I count up all the novels I’ve done at least 50,000 words on over the course of my life, I’d say that on average I’ve started a new novel once every three years or so. As for finishing...well, Pendragon’s Heir took me ten years?

Do you listen to music while you write?

No, I almost never do, and if I do, it’s got to be something I can listen to without really hearing it—so some Lindsey Stirling or Hindi music, nothing too attention-grabbing. I usually only resort to this when something distracting is going on in the background. Music itself is a distraction to me; it uses up parts of my brain that I need to focus on my writing, especially rhythm and cadence. Most writers I know use it, but I’ve never been able to.

What do you write on? Laptop or paper?

PC. It’d be nice to have a laptop but that’s not possible for me at the moment. I use paper mostly for note-taking, although I’ve been known to jump out of bed in the night and scribble a beginning scene on paper.

Is there a special ritual you have before or after you write?

Nope. Not really.

What do you do to get into the mood to write?

A lot of the time I’ll start by going over what I worked on yesterday, getting into the feel of what’s happening in this part of the story, and doing a little editing. Then I can jump back into the flow of things from there.

What is always near the place you write?

Stacks of research books—usually poetry and fiction that captures the mood I’m trying to reproduce, and history or non-fiction books to refer to. My atlas. My timelines, if I’ve made them. Pens, paper, and scribbled notes about what I want to see happening in the story, including page number references to fascinating tidbits I found in my reference books. My cuppa. My phone. Sometimes a candle or incense or an essential oils burner to make things smell nice.

Do you have a reward system for your word count?

Not much beyond “Yes, you can check Twitter/go for a walk/answer that email, but only once you’ve finished another thousand words.”

Is there anything about your writing process that others might not know about?


Umm...well, I love little wordcount counters. I just got an app on my phone, Write-O-Meter, which helps you keep a log of daily wordcount, and tracks it over time, and tells what you’re averaging and how long it’ll take you to finish at this rate. It also has a rewards system but I don’t pay attention to that. The wordcount tracking is particularly thrilling. I can sit in a happy trance staring at that thing for hours. The only thing I can’t do that I’d love to be able to do is friend others and be able to compare wordcounts with them. For that, I have to Google-chat-message Schuyler!

So there you go! Are you participating in NaNo this year? Don't forget to pop over and friend me on the site!

Friday, October 23, 2015

Poem: L. E. L. by Christina Rossetti

I've been thinking about Christina Rossetti lately, and it recently struck me that there's one thing I  really love about her.

Rossetti often strikes a chord with me. I got her Complete Poems for my birthday last year, and since then, as I’ve dipped in from time to time, I’ve discovered a few new favourites. Some of her poetry appeals to the lover of dramatic storytelling, some of it to the meditative recluse. And some of it appeals right to something that, at this time of my life, I sometimes identify with a bit.

It truly doesn’t define my life (certainly not when I'm busy and the sun is shining and there's work to do!). Other things define my life—my writing, my reading, my faith, my family, my ministry of availability to struggling friends. And I think Christina Rossetti felt the same way. But that didn’t stop this minor theme from surfacing from time to time in her verse; and those of her poems that deal with this are often the ones I find myself remembering and quoting the most.

Christina Rossetti never married. On one occasion, she broke off an engagement when her intended converted to Roman Catholicism. Later, she rejected another suitor who didn’t share her passionate faith and moral seriousness. She spent her life writing, caring for her aging and beloved mother, and volunteering in various mercy ministries.

So at this particular stage of my life, I can sometimes really identify with Christina Rossetti. Her poetry of deferred and wistful hopes is something I've come to appreciate more and more as time goes by. She writes about the sorrow never entirely absent from the joy in watching friends and acquaintances pair off: “All love; are loved, save only I.” She writes about heartbreak and lost love: “With all sweet things it passed away, And left me old, and cold, and grey.” She writes about the difficult decision to put her faith and her God above the man she loved: “None know the choice I made and broke my heart, Breaking my idol.” She writes quietly, gently, of her hopes: “I wonder if the springtide of this year Will bring another Spring both lost and dear” and of her fears: “I still am sore in doubt concerning Spring.”

I think these are things that a lot of young women feel from time to time. Sometimes, being unmarried seems, well, less than desirable! For me, it’s at those times that Christina Rossetti has walked alongside me, feeling what I’ve felt, sorrowing over what I’ve sorrowed over.

But most importantly, guiding me into the right responses. In Christina Rossetti’s footsteps, I’ve been encouraged to leave self-pity behind, to fix my eyes on eternal things: “True best is last, true life is born of death.” I’ve been encouraged to look foward to relationships which will never run aground: “think how it will be in Paradise When we’re together.” And I’ve been reminded that no matter what earthly love I may or may not experience, a glorious heavenly Love is mine, so that with Christina I can truly say, “The birthday of my life is come, my love is come to me.”

These poems have been a blessing to me in the past, and I think they will be a blessing to you, too. Here's one of them.

L.E.L.

“Whose heart was breaking for a little love.”

Down-stairs I laugh, I sport and jest with all:
        But in my solitary room above
I turn my face in silence to the wall;
        My heart is breaking for a little love.
                Though winter frosts are done,
                 And birds pair every one,
And leaves peep out, for springtide is begun.

I feel no spring, while spring is wellnigh blown,
         I find no nest, while nests are in the grove:
Woe's me for mine own heart that dwells alone,
        My heart that breaketh for a little love.
         While golden in the sun
        Rivulets rise and run,
While lilies bud, for springtide is begun.

All love, are loved, save only I; their hearts
         Beat warm with love and joy, beat full thereof:
They cannot guess, who play the pleasant parts,
         My heart is breaking for a little love.
                 While beehives wake and whirr,
                 And rabbit thins his fur,
In living spring that sets the world astir.

I deck myself with silks and jewelry,
         I plume myself like any mated dove:
They praise my rustling show, and never see
         My heart is breaking for a little love.
                 While sprouts green lavender
                 With rosemary and myrrh,
For in quick spring the sap is all astir.

Perhaps some saints in glory guess the truth,
         Perhaps some angels read it as they move,
And cry one to another full of ruth,
         “Her heart is breaking for a little love.”
                 Though other things have birth,
                 And leap and sing for mirth,
When spring-time wakes and clothes and feeds the earth.

Yet saith a saint: “Take patience for thy scathe”;
         Yet saith an angel: “Wait, for thou shalt prove
True best is last, true life is born of death,
         O thou, heart-broken for a little love!
                 Then love shall fill thy girth,
                 And love make fat thy dearth,
When new spring builds new heaven and clean new earth.”

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Battle of the Beowulfs

Beowulf fans have never had it better. Since JRR Tolkien gave his landmark lecture Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics in 1936, then shot to literary superstardom himself, this long-obscure Anglo-Saxon epic poem has emerged as perhaps the twenty-first century's best-loved and most widely-read pre-Renaissance work so far. The splendid 1999 translation by Seamus Heaney did much to reinvigorate Beowulf's cultural clout, which in turn made other translations desirable. In 2013 I was delighted to hear about Douglas Wilson's Beowulf: A New Verse Rendering, but when in 2014 JRR Tolkien's long-awaited prose translation was published, I knew for sure that I would be writing this post.

I've already given Beowulf an in-depth review here, but this time I wanted to do something...a bit more comparative.

The Project 


Read the Heaney, Wilson, and Tolkien translations together, in as short a time as possible, and decide which of them is my favourite.

(Then, because we happened to have it and I'd never read it but liked what I'd skimmed, I threw Frederick Rebsamen's 1991 Beowulf: An Updated Verse Translation onto the pile. It would also have been nice to include the Chickering and the Raffel translations, but we didn't have them and six might have been a bit unmanageable! Next time!)

Last week I finally sat down to sprint through all four, which I managed (sans all introductions, forewords, and commentary material) within five days.

The Contenders 


Beowulf: A New Translation by Seamus Heaney, 1999
Fingers were bursting,
the monster back-tracking, the man overpowering.
The dread of the land was desperate to escape,
to take a roundabout road and flee
to his lair in the fens. The latching power
in his fingers weakened; it was the worst trip
the terror-monger had taken to Heorot.
And now the timbers trembled and sang,
a hall-session that harrowed every Dane
inside the stockade: stumbling in fury,
the two contenders crashed through the building.
Heaneywulf, as it's sometimes called, was the Beowulf I grew up on: devoured it as a child, listened to Dad reading it aloud after dinner, returned to it at intervals thereafter. Till last week, I hadn't read it for a number of years and was looking forward to revisiting it as the first stop on my tour.

The first thing to strike me was the tone. As I read it aloud, I found my voice dropping an octave and slowing considerably. Heaney's language is very direct, declarative, measured, and dignified. Beowulf is full of ironic humour and understatement (as in "the worst trip" in the quotation above) and this came out quite clearly in this translation.

Heaney uses few archaisms and few kennings, the poetic Anglo-Saxon metaphors. He does, however, make good use of obscure regional words, often Gaelic in origin, such as bawn for an embattled fortress or graith for harness. He also coins some kennings of his own--"wound-slurry" for blood.

Heaney was Irish and a poet in his own right, and both those things leave their mark on his translation.




Beowulf: An Updated Verse Translation by Frederick Rebsamen, 1991.
The stone-cobbled road     ran on before them
as they marched together.    Their mailcoats glistened
laced by smith-hands--linked steel-jackets
clinked an armour-song    as they came to the hall
strode in their war-gear    straight to the door. 
They settled broadshields    bright by the wall
rounded and hardened    by ringing forge-hammers.
They bent to the benches    breast-coats in rows
life-guarding corselets.    They leaned ash-spears
ranked by the door    reaching above them
gray-tipped treelimbs.    Geats rested there
wealthy in weapons.
Reading this aloud, I found it much quicker and lighter than Heaney. Rebsamen uses a minimum of punctuation, relying instead on a strong rhythmic pulse and caesurae (the little spaces at the centre of each line) to cue us in on the arrangement of the thoughts. The tone is significantly more disjoined than Heaney, and more indicative than declarative; this translation tells a story, while Heaney's seems to pronounce facts.

Immediately, just from the short excerpt above, you can see that Rebsamen preserves a lot of kennings and Saxon-style compound words. "Armour-song," "thane-sorrow," "war-son", "shoulder-companion", "throne-warden" and "the Measurer" in reference to God are just some of the colourful Anglo-Saxon figures of speech you'll find here. As to the humour, Anthony Esolen referred (on the back of Wilson's rendering, actually) to the "palette of irony that ranges from grim understatement to barely suppressed hilarity" and while the understatement didn't come out anywhere near as well as in Heaney's translation, there was definitely a moment of barely suppressed hilarity that came along late in the poem and took my breath away, which I'd never even noticed in Heaney.

With its close adherence to Anglo-Saxon linguistic quirks, Rebsamen's translation felt to me the closest experience I've had to personally reading the original Anglo-Saxon.




Beowulf: A New Verse Rendering by Douglas Wilson, 2013
My final breath is bartered, a bargain I call it,
To gain all this gold. Give yourself to the task,
Care for the commonwealth. I can tarry no longer.
Build me a barrow, with all my battle friends,
When the pyre's heat is past, on the proud headland,
At the wide Whale Cliff, a witness to glory,
A memorial for men, my memory to keep,
So crews under sail coming by may call it by name,
Calling it Beowulf's barrow, as breezing homeward,
They work their white-throated ships over the wine-dark sea.
The first thing to note is that this is not actually a translation, but a rendering by a serious Beowulf fanboy and accomplished wordsmith working from his five favourite translations--Heaney, Chickering, Lehmann, Raffel, and Hall, and occasional reference to the original. In his Introduction, Wilson modestly admits "I never want to get a phone call from Seamus Heaney inquiring into just who exactly it is I think I am." In the final analysis, I have to say that the author of this rendition has much to be modest about.

The rhythm of Wilson's rendition is somewhat choppy, sometimes fast, sometime slow, and sometimes stumbling around in a welter of short uncertain syllables that don't quite scan, and not in a good way. I didn't find the humour so clear as in Heaney's translation, and didn't care for the regular use of repeated words and phrases for little other discernible reason than to make the lines scan properly.

However, this is a respectable amateur attempt, and maybe Wilson's best verse so far (I enjoyed his poetic renderings of the Song of Songs and the Book of Revelation, and think this is better). Where Wilson soars into poetic beauty, he does soar. Also, Wilson is a classical scholar, and so his translation pays homage to other classics (eg the "wine-dark sea" nod to Homer in the passage quoted, which I think works marvellously well).

He's also a theologian, and I particularly enjoyed his perspective on some bits of typology--particularly the comparison of Heorot and Grendel to Eden and Satan in lines 90-109, and the rendition of Heorot's compliments to Beowulf's mother taking on the tinge of a Marian blessing (although Tolkien would not have agreed).

Finally, the Appendices to this version are highly valuable. The first is an essay originally published in Touchstone, concerning the Christian apologetic of the poem (and after reading the thing four times in just over four days, and then taking in JRR Tolkien's commentaries, I'm far more convinced than before that Wilson is right on target in this evaluation). Another Appendix outlines the complex chiastic structure of the poem, explaining something of where it gets its incredible literary power--almost in itself worth the price of the book.
 

 Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary by JRR Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, 2014
To the abyss drew me a destroying foe accursed, fast the grim thing held me in its gripe. Nonetheless, it was granted to me to find that fell slayer with point of warlike sword; the battle's onset destroyed that strong beast of the sea through this my hand. Thus many a time deadly assailants menaced me grievously. With my beloved sword I ministered to them, as it was meet. In no wise had they joy in that banqueting, foul doers of ill deeds, that they should devour me sitting round in feast nigh to the bottoms of the sea; nay, upon the morrow they lay upon the shore in the flotsam of the waves, wounded with sword-thrusts, by blades done to death, so that never thereafter might they about the steep straits molest the passage of seafaring men.
I usually can't stand prose translations of poems, but I should have known that Tolkien's wouldn't be...well, prosy. Instead, it's highly declamatory--simply made for reading aloud. It rolls. It flows. It alliterates. It's the closest thing I've read to the Authorised Version of the Bible in a long time. It never lets you forget that you're reading a poem.

By the time I hit Tolkien, I was used to one thing all the translations so far had had in common. Some passages are just tricky to render, and in all the translations I had difficulties with all the same passages--in reading, my brain would stop and say, "Wait, what?--Oh." Tolkien, of course, by far the most apt of all the wordsmiths featured here, wins every time; he snaps his fingers and the words just dance; he makes each of the tricky passages crystal clear. And meanwhile, the delicate irony of the poem survives better in Tolkien than in anyone else save Heaney. ("With my beloved sword I ministered to them"...heh.)

As a lifelong scholar of Anglo-Saxon, Tolkien probably knew this poem and the language it was written in better than any of the other translators featured today. This is a good thing in some ways, but it's a drawback in others, especially when his perfectionism runs away with him. Here he opts for an almost amplified translation style that gets a little wordy after a while, and some passages at worst made him sound like the Florid Sword in Andrew Peterson's Wingfeather Saga or the Thesaurus in Bored of the Rings.* ("Maim!" roared the monster. "Mutilate, mangle, crush. See harm.")

Since finishing the translation proper, I've gone on to read through Tolkien's extensive commentary on the poem, collected in several excerpts in the same volume. It's a wonderful guide to many of the poem's different aspects--linguistic, cultural, religious--and I would recommend it to anyone wanting to study Beowulf in a little more depth.

* Not really a recommendation!

The Verdict


In the end, I have to say I didn't achieve my goal, which was to decide which of these four Beowulf translations was best. All of them have wildly different strengths and wildly different weaknesses. Forced to rank them, I'd probably put Heaney at the top, closely followed by Tolkien and then Rebsamen, with Wilson bringing up the rear.

I'd call Heaney's the best experience and the current can't-miss-it translation, if you want to understand why so many people love the story today. Tolkien's is of course a must for any Tolkien fan, as well as anyone who'd like to delve a little deeper into the full meaning of the poem. Rebsamen, with his wonderful use of Anglo-Saxon-style expressions, would be a good choice for lovers of odd words and phrases, or folks wanting to reproduce Anglo-Saxon diction. And Wilson's will appeal to Christian readers wanting to grasp the poem's theological aspects a little more clearly.

Perhaps the very best thing I got reading four different translations of Beowulf in less than a week? An amazing, full-orbed, sometimes staggering appreciation of the wonderful complexities and nuances of the poem. It seemed to get bigger and deeper each time I read it.

Here's an example. After Beowulf's fight with Grendel, a minstrel sings a song in his honour. As part of this song, he retells two stories--one of Sigemund the dragon-slayer, the other of Heremod, a Danish king who falls through greed and selfishness. By the third time through, I realised the amazing significance of these two tales. (Spoilers!) At the end, Beowulf falls slaying a dragon. The tale of Sigemund foreshadows the dragon battle at the end, while the tale of Heremod, with more complexity, puts an almost allegorical slant on the tale: in real life, the dragon of greed, selfishness, envy, and suspicion is the real bane of kings. This interpretation gains traction from multiple instances in the poem where we are admonished, as in lines 20-25, or where Beowulf is admonished, as when Hrothgar warns him against falling into Heremod's mistakes as he prepares to return home, to win and keep loyalty through free and generous giving. There is a definite parallel intended between Heremod, who falls because of an internal dragon, and Beowulf, who falls because of an external dragon. (end spoilers.)

This is just one of the things I noticed reading Beowulf this time, along with the wonderful chiastic structure and the astonishing extent to which Tolkien drew on the poem in building his world, especially in The Hobbit and in the Rohan scenes of The Lord of the Rings. It was a real pleasure, to say nothing of an eye-opener, to get the opportunity to experience this amazing poem in such a way.

What about you, folks? Have you read Beowulf, and in which translation(s)? Which do you like best?

Monday, October 12, 2015

Writing Announcement + Snippets

The big news this month is that I have finally started work on a rough first draft of the novel affectionately known as The Tome. And, because lots of you are awfully good guessers, and because I'm having such a thrilling time writing the thing, I'm going to tell you a bit about it.

The working title of this story is (drumroll)...

OUTREMER


which I refer to in capslock because that's what it seems to demand. I can't say how long it'll be, except that 250,000 words is a conservative estimate and the first draft will probably squish even that. I also can't say when you can expect a release date announcement, but I know it won't be within two years. I can't even guarantee that the title will remain the same, or that it'll eventually see the light of day between the covers of one volume. We'll see. Early days.

However, here's what I can tell you: It's about the Crusader States, specifically from a pullanus (Frankish settler) viewpoint. Like most of my work, it's a historical fantasy. It's requiring a huge amount of research. And you pronounce the title OO-truh-mare, to rhyme with Rupert de la Mare.

Also, I'll be participating in NaNoWriMo this year, since they're going my way--I'm hoping to get about 50,000 words per month done, DV. Are you doing NaNo this year? Come over and say hi!

In fairytale novella news, I'll also be doing final edits on The Bells of Paradise this month, and after that I might take a gander at Never Send To Know. It still only exists in rough first draft form, and I thought it was terribly carelessly written while I was writing it, but a couple of weeks back I gave it a re-read and was pretty encouraged.

Hey! I haven't done any snippets for an age. Let's have some!

Snippets

 “It is an odd means you have chosen to prove your love for me.”  
The Bells of Paradise

Thump. Something hit the ground behind him. Lukas turned and drew the knife at his belt in one quick motion. Behind him, Marta’s face froze in open-mouthed surprise...Behind her...
Behind her, a thing that was both something and nothing. A ripple in the surface of the light. A scent that made him sneeze, a scent like morning, winter, and yesterday.
Thump.
“Run!” his father shouted. “Run! run...
Outremer

“Can you spare me a cigarette?” I asked. My purse was backstage, and I needed some kind of stage-business to occupy my hands while he came out of his trance and gathered his wits.
Never Send to Know

The thing that was not Janet stood over him with a thin ecstatic smile like that of a saint in a glass window. “Yes. Beg. Put your mouth in the dust. Tell me you will do anything for me.”
The Bells of Paradise

Someone yelled something. Saint-Gilles reined his horse in a tight circle to survey his surroundings with his good eye. One of their escort shot the butt of his spear into the crowd and knocked someone sprawling. Saint-Gilles glared at the others—fifty-six years of war and justice and he could fit a good deal of ire into one eye—and was pleased to see them shrink back.
“What was that?” he asked the bishop.
“My Greek is vile,” said Adhemar with a wry grin, “but I think someone called us barbarians.”
Outremer

Only the flash of a glimpse, and she was gone, melting into the shifting crowd. But in that glimpse, John was sure he had seen Janet. He called out her name and elbowed after her. There was the blue velvet ahead of him again, her back turned, a dark veil clouding her hair. He cried “Janet” again and turned her by the shoulder.
Someone gave a cry of protest. There was the mutter of steel sliding out of leather and the light glinted off a long slim blade as the point flickered to his breast. John spared no glance for it; he stared into the woman’s face and his heart sank. She was a beauty—one of the few in that room unmarred, save for the fay-woman harshness in her eyes. But she was not Janet. Her hair was red, not ash-blonde, and with sudden terror he saw long thin jewel-points crowning the border of her hood.
He had found the Queen of Faerie.
The Bells of Paradise

“You must think I am a merchant,” Saint-Gilles bellowed.
Outremer

“Chin up, glamour boy!”
Never Send to Know

He struck me in a low tackle, wrapping his arms around my hips. We ploughed into the ground and I felt the hem of my much-abused dress give way with a low grinding shriek. 
Never Send to Know

Back and forth they went, the sun gleaming off their mail shirts like the scales of a snake. 
Outremer

Evrard grimaced. “Believe me, when I came to suffer for the love of Christ in this broiling country, I did count on getting the bloody flux. Didn’t count on being roasted alive in my armour, though.”
“This man complains too much,” Lukas said in Latin, to Bertrand. “I do not think he will live long in Palestine.”
Outremer

John looked up past the trees for the first time since he had come to Faerie. To his surprise the sky was not midnight-dark, but glowed with the deep blue of late dusk. All the stars shone with a steady golden light, as if here they were a little nearer to the earth, or a little younger than the sky. The arch of heaven itself seemed made of a substance something like still deep water, something like flawless glass, and something like a polished blue jewel.
He could have stared into it forever.
Sir Thomas jabbed him in the side with a pointed steel toe. “Climb out of heaven, friend,” he called. “You are wandering into my path.”
The Bells of Paradise

“I am surrounded by children,” he bit.
Outremer

Alexius leaped to his feet. “For the love of God,” he hissed, and then somehow, Lukas did not see how, Tancred lost his footing and his grip on the Greek noble in the same instant, and crashed to the floor at the emperor’s feet.
Outremer  

"But then I met—really met you—and I’d spoken to so many people about you; I thought I knew you!”
“And found you didn’t?”
“In truth, I find report a very liar.”
Never Send to Know 

Friday, October 9, 2015

Downfall of the Crusader Kingdom by WB Bartlett

I've already given this book a bit of a review on Goodreads, but I thought now might be a good time to give a somewhat more in-depth review on the blog. Especially since we've recently seen the 444th anniversary of the Battle of Lepanto.

I've been studying the Crusades in a fair bit of depth lately, and will be continuing to do so for the foreseeable future. When I first decided to sink some serious research into the epic 200-year history of the Crusader states, I thought I'd be walking a minefield. The subject of the Crusades is so politicised, and there is so much misinformation out there, that I was sure it would be difficult to find any really trustworthy sources.

How wrong I was.

I pretty soon discovered that although it doesn't attract a lot of attention, Crusader history as a discipline boasts an impressive array of serious scholars studying the subject less out of a desire to make a political or religious point than out of a sincere love of the history. In addition, recent years have seem some amazing work being done on this period of history, so that the average contemporary English-speaker now has vastly more resources to draw on now than he did ten or fifteen years ago. The one problem? All the misinformation at the popular level, and the corresponding cultural swampage of the true story. As Thomas F Madden, author of the wonderful New Concise History of the Crusades and Fourth Crusade expert, says:
In the Middle East, as in the West, we are left with the gaping chasm between myth and reality. Crusade historians sometimes try to yell across it but usually just talk to each other, while the leading churchmen, the scholars in other fields, and the general public hold to a caricature of the Crusades created by a pox of modern ideologies.
What doesn't help the situation is the sheer dryness and inaccessibility of a lot of the modern histories. Bernard Hamilton's The Leper King and His Heirs, for example is worth its weight in gold to the serious researcher as a study of the reign of Baldwin IV--but it's also a more challenging read than most readers are willing to commit to.

That was why I was so thrilled to discover Downfall of the Crusader Kingdom, by WB Bartlett.

This book was a wonderful read. Fans of Ronald Welch's Knight Crusader, Rider Haggard's The Brethren, or anything to do with the battle of Hattin or the Third Crusade will want to read this book, since it explores the history of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem during the catastrophic 1180s and the leadup to the Third Crusade. This is one of the better-documented periods of crusader history, and this book amply demonstrates why: seething with epic battles, political intrigue, unforgettable characters, and desperate last stands, this was without a doubt the most dramatic and colourful period of a long and dramatic history.

Bartlett writes clearly and engagingly, without sacrificing historical detail. Where Bernard Hamilton, focusing on much the same period, zeroes in on details, or debates famous issues from one side or another, Bartlett zooms out a little, bringing us what is above anything else a story--a tragic and unforgettable epic. The details he does include--and they are very welcome--are aimed at setting the scene for this story. Bartlett puts us in Kerak at Isabella and Humphrey's wedding, while Saladin surrounds the walls. He puts us on the Hattin battlefield, making sure we're familiar with the weapons and the tactics used by each side.

The drawback of telling this as a story? A certain amount of writerly interpretation creeps in. This is unavoidable in any book, but more prominent in this one than most of the more scholarly histories I've read. Another factor is that the book was published in 2007, and since then a couple of groundbreaking histories have been published focused on this era. That's not too much of a problem: the footnotes prove that Bartlett, not himself prominent among modern crusader historians, is formidably well-read in all the right names, from contemporary historians like Riley-Smith and Edbury to primary sources like Ernoul and William of Tyre. All the same, with a few more recent works under my belt, I had to disagree with a few of his conclusions.

Bartlett follows more traditional views in a number of cases. For example, he tells us that Baldwin IV's leprosy was seen as punishment from God, while Bernard Hamilton in The Leper King and His Heirs makes a good case that medievals actually saw lepers as messianic symbols. Another example of traditional thinking puts the blame for Saladin's Hattin campaign on Reynald of Chatillon and his raid on a Muslim caravan earlier that year. Though time-honoured, this theory fails to take into account the fact that Saladin subscribed to an ideology of jihad and was already preparing to invade the kingdom when Reynald organised his 1187 raid. Scholarly opinion is even divided on whether Reynald broke the truce by attacking the caravan; according to Bernard Hamilton, it's been suggested that Saladin had provided the caravan with a ridiculously strong guard in order to give him an excuse for moving troops through Christian territory. I don't have a problem with saying that Reynald was quite enough of a hard-boiled pirate to go around breaking truces indiscriminately; I don't want to defend him in the slightest--but I don't think he can be fairly blamed for the loss of the kingdom. Bernard Hamilton argues persuasively that Reynald showed good strategic thinking in his raids, which may have infuriated the Muslim world but certainly didn't provoke them to take any action they wouldn't have taken anyway.

I also thought Bartlett painted the political divisions between "hawks and doves" in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the 1180s somewhat simplistically, and I wasn't convinced by his argument that Baldwin IV's reign saw the nobles becoming too powerful for the kingdom's good. I'd argue that on the contrary, Baldwin IV was able to lead the nobles well enough when his health was up to it. It wasn't so much the nobles' strength, as the personal weakness and unpopularity of his successor Guy of Lusignan, that compromised the kingdom's safety.

Apart from these cautions, I can't recommend Downfall of the Crusader Kingdom warmly enough. Whether you've studied this fascinating period in any depth or not, you're almost sure to find this a highly informative and enjoyable read.

Find Downfall of the Crusader Kingdom on Amazon or The Book Depository.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Shakespeare's 5-Act Structure: Part 2



Previous articles on plot structure:

LOTR and Plot Structure, Part 1
LOTR and Plot Structure, Part 2
Shakespeare's 5-Act Structure, Part 1

If you remember, last week I discussed Shakespeare's use of 5-act structure, with specific attention to Acts 1 and 2. This week I'm looking at Acts 3-5. This was a very interesting exercise, because in these final acts, some fascinating differences crop up between comedies and tragedies.

Spoiler warnings apply!

ACT 3: CLIMAX


One of the biggest differences between Shakespeare and Tolkien is in their treatment of Act 3. As I observed in LOTR and Plot Structure, Part 2, Tolkien uses his central third acts to showcase big action/battle scenes. In Shakespeare, the Climax doesn't focus on one setpiece. Instead it marks a series of domino-like reactions surrounding the plot's turning-point.

In five-act structure, the Climax maps onto the Midpoint of KM Weiland's Act 2 and finishes with the "Second Pinch Point". According to classic plot theory, the Climax is a turning point. In a comedy, it's the point at which things start going well for the protagonists; while in a tragedy, it's where they start going badly. In practice it's a bit more nuanced than that.

For example, sometimes Shakespeare plays this almost brutally straight. In Romeo and Juliet, the tone is comedy, comedy, comedy right up to Act 3, at which point it takes a shrieking left turn into tragedy.

Sometimes, Shakespeare plays around with this trope, as in Much Ado. Here the Climax actually occurs offstage when Claudio thinks he sees Hero cheating on him with Borachio. Just as in Romeo and Juliet, this causes the plot to take a turn for the tragic, potentially tricking well-educated members of the audience into believing that everything will end sadly. It doesn't.

Another way Shakespeare plays with his Midpoint? Sometimes, like DK Broster in The Flight of the Heron, he doesn't even let us see it. In both Shrew and Much Ado we hear about the climactic Midpoint only after it occurs, from an eyewitness. At first this might seem an odd choice, given the high potential for drama that might come from directly showing us what is without a doubt the most pivotal scene in the play. Thinking it over, however, I wonder if Shakespeare feared stealing his own thunder. In both cases, especially in Much Ado, it could be argued that he foregoes the pivotal scenes in order to milk maximum drama out of the reaction scenes--the wedding scene in Act 4, for example.

When it comes to the tragedies, though, Shakespeare puts the Midpoint right in front of us. In Romeo and Juliet, it gets played out with vivid gore and maximum drama, as Romeo is goaded into killing Tybalt. In Othello, it's a bit more low-key, as Iago masterfully introduces the suspicion of his wife's infidelity into Othello's mind.

Finally, Shakespeare's third acts end at the point where KM Weiland would advise including a Second Pinch Point.

In Tragedies, the end of the Third Act starts a clock ticking. Juliet's father betrothes her to Paris, and she must take swift and decisive action to avoid being forced to marry a second time. In Othello, the discovery of the handkerchief in Bianca's possession convinces Othello that his wife is cheating--setting him on the path to murder.

In Shrew, the end of the Third Act comes when Petruchio spirits Kate away from her wedding feast to his isolated home, where their final confrontations will play out. In Much Ado, we get a moment of fine dramatic irony as the only people who know the truth fail to thwart Don John's plan. In both comedies, the "Pinch Point" ushers in the final Act 4 conflict between the lovers.

ACT 4: FALLING ACTION




Act 4 leads up the the third plot point.

In the tragedies I analysed, this was the segment of the plot in which everyone takes a deep breath before plunging over the precipice at the Third Plot Point. There's a lot of positioning for the final scene, and here the characters miss their last chances to extricate themselves from the mess they're in: for example, in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet arranges for her escape from Verona, unaware that Fate plans to prevent it, while in Othello, we get a series of missed opportunities for repentence.

In the comedies, on the other hand, Act 4 is not such a breather. Instead it sees the most intense confrontations yet, following on from the (offscreen) Midpoint. In Much Ado, it's the disastrous wedding scene, followed by Beatrice's ultimatum to Benedick. In Shrew, it's a series of escalating struggles between Petruchio and Kate.

In keeping with this difference, the Third Plot Point at the end of Act 4 has a different function depending on whether it comes in a comedy or a tragedy.

In tragedies, the Third Plot Point ushers in the catastrophe of Act 5. In Othello, I believe the Third Plot Point occurs when Othello smothers Desdemona. That's his catastrophic decision, and it ushers in a series of revelations that destroy him (and everyone else). In Romeo and Juliet, it occurs when Juliet fakes her death, and it causes a similar series of destructive reactions.

In comedies, by contrast, the Third Plot Point is a moment at which the conflict between the lovers resolves itself in an unexpected accord. This occurs in Shrew when Kate, almost despite herself, gets the joke and begins to join Petruchio in his mad world of windy words. It also occurs in Much Ado when Benedick agrees to fight Claudio for Hero's sake, to prove his love for Beatrice. This is a fragile accord which will be tested again in Act 5, but it's basically the end of their conflict.

There are some fascinating differences here. In contemporary three-act plotting, the Third Plot Point ushers in the climactic conflict in which the protagonists either win or lose. However, in Shakespeare's five-act plotting, that win or loss happens functionally at the end of Act 4, at the Third Plot Point itself. Whether in tragedy or comedy, it is the protagonist's last moment of decision. It sets up an Act 5 in which the direction of the plot is largely taken out of the protagonist's hands, showing the unavoidable consequences of the victory or defeat that occurred at the end of Act 4.

ACT 5: RESOLUTION/CATASTROPHE/DENOUEMENT



Act 5 has a lot of names, but Resolution, Catastrophe, or Denouement are the most common. It occupies the same space as Act 3 of a 3-act plot, but in practice it often plays out with quite a different purpose. In 3-act plotting, Act 5 is where the hero's final struggle takes place, leading to his win or loss. In 5-act plotting, that struggle has usually already taken place, with the decisive moment often occurring at the Third Plot Point. Another word associated with Act 5 is "unravelling". So Act 5 is the point at which plots are revealed and everyone finally figures out what everyone else was up to. The Third Plot Point may have been the point at which the protagonists won or lost, but they may not even know it yet. In Act 5, they find out.

In Shrew, Act 5 sees the unravelling of Lucentio's zany plan to marry Bianca. It's followed by Petruchio placing his bet that Kate will prove to be the most obedient of her three sisters. In the eucatastrophe, she proves worthy of his trust, winning his bet and finally getting the honour and authority over her sisters which she craved at the beginning of the play. In Much Ado, Act 5 sees Benedick following through on his commitment to challenging Claudio, proving the strength of his love for Beatrice. This sets him on the path to tragedy (he intends to kill his best friend), but a eucatastrophic turn of events reveals Don John's plot, vindicates Hero, and leads to Claudio's repentance. In the comedies, Act 5 not only ties up loose ends, it also tests the commitment between the new couple and proves it strong.

In Romeo and Juliet, we find catastrophe: both the leads commit suicide, thereby bringing about the reconciliation of their confused and grieving families. Rather than being revealed, Friar Lawrence and Juliet's plan goes horribly wrong. Meanwhile, in Othello, moments too late to save Desdemona, Emilia exposes Iago's plot, which leads Othello to commit suicide as a final act of justice.

In both cases, the protagonists have already either won or lost by the beginning of Act 5. The decisive moment was the Third Plot Point. The Catastrophe (or eucatastrophe) which follows is not typically driven by the protagonists' direct action. Instead, it is the moment at which divine justice or divine mercy overtakes the protagonists' previous choices and the story spirals out of their control. Maybe the protagonists get good rewards for good deeds (as in Shrew). Maybe they commit themselves reluctantly to a righteous course which will destroy their lives, but are saved by a last-minute twist (as in Much Ado and everything Tolkien ever wrote). Or, in tragedy, maybe justice for their folly overtakes them, righting the world. In each case, interestingly enough, both Shakespeare and Tolkien show preference for denouements that take matters out of the protagonists' hands.

Fascinating, no?

To make all this easier for you, I've made a simple diagram comparing five and three act plotting.


Previous articles on plot structure:

LOTR and Plot Structure, Part 1
LOTR and Plot Structure, Part 2
Shakespeare's 5-Act Structure, Part 1

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Flight of the Heron by DK Broster

 Today I'd like to review just the kind of book I decided to start this blog for...a melodramatic vintage adventure novel, the kind best eaten up with a spoon and lashings of whipped cream.

DK (Dorothy Kathleen) Broster's The Flight of the Heron, set during the 1745 Jacobite uprising under Bonnie Prince Charlie, is the first of the once famous Jacobite Trilogy. It follows the intersecting fortunes of two men, who at first glance seem almost complete opposites. Ewen Cameron, a young Highland laird in the service of the Prince, is dashing, sincere, and idealistic. Major Keith Windham, a professional soldier in the opposing English army, is cynical, world-weary, and profoundly lonely. When a second-sighted Highlander tells Ewen that the flight of a heron will lead to five meetings with an Englishman who is fated both to do him a great service and to cause him great grief, Ewen refuses to believe it. But as Bonnie Prince Charlie's ill-fated campaign winds to its bitter end, the prophecy is proven true--and through many dangers and trials, Ewen and Keith find that they have one thing indisputably in common: both of them are willing to sacrifice everything for honour's sake.

I summarised this story on Twitter a week back with the words "Honour, nobility, drama, heartstrings"--and you'd better believe it! The book has a slow first section (of five) which takes its time introducing you to the characters and their motivations. Pretty shortly, however, the book becomes unputdownable, and I polished the second half of the thing off in one afternoon.

I can see why The Flight of the Heron has always been so popular. It is melodramatic. It is intense. It is about people with a wonderfully touchy sense of honour. There were times when I told myself this was the best Jennifer Freitag book I've read since Plenilune.

I have to admit that at times the characters' sentiments were so lofty as to seem unreal to me, but I freely acknowledge that I've always thought ours a peculiarly cynical age. In the end, I'm not a hundred percent sure whether a sense of honour like this ever historically existed--but it's awfully good fun to read about, and I loved that the sense of honour shared by the two main characters was what brought these enemies together and made them friends. Not that Keith Windham's sense of honour is quite as functional as Ewen Cameron's; in fact the whole point of the book revolves around how Ewen's sense of honour calls out and revives Windham's, so that his friendship with Ewen restores him the capacity to care about such things. As Belinda Copson points out in D K Broster: An Appreciation (caution: link contains spoilers!)--
There is more going on here, though, than a tale of gallant deeds and misunderstandings. Ewen Cameron is a true romantic hero, with high notions of chivalry which others find difficult to live up to. But in Keith Windham, Broster has created a much more complex character, for whom an unexpected friendship is a form of personal salvation. Windham has had a lonely unloved childhood, neglected by his mother and betrayed by a woman he loved; and has since resolved that he will form no other close relationships, since these have only let him down. He is resolved on a cynical approach to life and a friendless military career. His friendship with Ewen breaks through this protective shell, and the decisions he is forced to make about the competing claims of friendship, honour and duty make him re-examine his own opinions and values.
Much has been made of the fact that the most intense relationship in this (rather intense) novel is not the one between Ewen and his fiancee, Alison (though there were a couple of bits that had me misting up) but the rather complicated friendship between Ewen and Keith. This focus on male friendship is actually something that was a bit more common in older times (Heron was first published in 1925)--think of the friendships in books like The Lord of the Rings or Twelfth Night or John Buchan. Still, I'm actually really glad I began reading this book before looking at the Goodreads reviews, because you can't bung a brick in there without hitting someone who thinks The Flight of the Heron is some kind of homosexual romance. I've read enough history to know you can't always discount such allegations out of hand, so I read The Flight of the Heron with an open mind, but I honestly couldn't see anything that would lead anyone to think the friendship between the two characters goes anywhere beyond what was considered normal in close friendships at that time. Yet another example of moderners reading their own interpretations back into behaviours that they no longer understand.

Apparently DK Broster consulted around eighty reference books before beginning work on The Flight of the Heron, and the historical and geographical accuracy of the novel has always been highly praised. Broster herself had never planned on writing about the '45--there were already so many books dealing with it--but succumbed on a trip to Scotland, and wrote a whole trilogy. That may explain an oddity of this novel, which is that it assumes the reader is already pretty familiar with the history of that uprising. I am not (hey, it's been years since I read Waverly), but I didn't let that slow me down. I was particularly fascinated, however, by Broster's decision to give an ominous leadup to the Battle of Culloden, and then skip right over it to the aftermath. This was noteworthy because the battle was the turning-point, or in plotting lingo, the Midpoint, of the whole plot. Even more intriguing, I knew I'd seen this technique, of skipping over the Midpoint, elsewhere--in some of Shakespeare's comedies. But I'm anticipating next week's 5 Act Structure in Shakespeare post.

Apparently, The Flight of the Heron was filmed in the '60s. No idea if it's any good or not.
One of the things I particularly enjoyed about The Flight of the Heron was the maturity that brought serious emotional gravitas to what otherwise might have been a lightweight melodrama. The theme noted above--the calling out of the dormant sense of honour in Keith Windham's character, which brings the grace of friendship to a lonely life--adds welcome depth, and also communicates something very important about the Jacobite cause. The history depicted was well-researched, and avoided the common trap of over-simplification. And the characters were sympathetically drawn, with good and bad on both sides.

Another was the fact that Broster stands squarely in a long tradition of Scottish adventure writing. The three most venerable practitioners in this tradition were of course Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and John Buchan, all of whom wrote adventure stories about Jacobites, and all of whose influence can be traced in the story. I don't think that Broster quite lives up to their standard, but she gives it the old college try, and succeeds remarkably well. If you like those authors, you'll probably thoroughly enjoy DK Broster's The Flight of the Heron.

Find The Flight of the Heron on Amazon and The Book Depository.

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