Back in the days when our local library was a place for children's books from the 50s and 70s to go and die--in other words, a treasure trove for homeschooled children--one of my brothers unearthed Andre Norton's book Huon of the Horn, and we all read it avidly. We did not know that Andre Norton was a classic sci-fi author, and we did not know that in this book she was pretty straightforwardly retelling an old chanson de geste. We recollected--or I did, at any rate--that Huon of Bordeaux was King of the Fairies, successor to Oberon in Puck of Pook's Hill, and we were fond of King Arthur legends, so discovering Huon of the Horn was great fun.
The book was soon cleaned out of the library and I hadn't thought of it for years when re-reading The Song of Roland whetted my appetite to go back and revisit this retelling--the more so as there doesn't actually seem to be a good easily-available translation of the original Huon of Bordeaux chanson. I was able to locate Norton's version online, however; and curious to see how it stood up to a re-read.
I found it unexpectedly thought-provoking for a fairly straightforward retelling.
As I explained in my Song of Roland review, the medieval chanson de geste was quite different in flavour to the romances that followed in the 13-1400s. Romances, like Le Morte D'Arthur or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, had more interest in love stories, magic, and adventures to surreal fairytale landscapes. Chansons, on the other hand, were basically gritty war epics. Huon of Bordeaux, the chanson Andre Norton is retelling in this book, was composed in the 1200s and exists only in fragments. The full story, as Norton tells it, comes from a later version that has been extended, presumably with romantic elements added. So I would classify it as a romance, not a chanson--but it still served as a nice little chaser to The Song of Roland.
The plot is exciting, though episodic. When a villain persuades Charlemagne's son and heir to attack the young Duke of Bordeaux on his way to court, and Huon manages to slay his anonymous attacker, Charlemagne exiles Huon from the kingdom on a quest that's sure to bring him his death. Huon must travel to Babylon. And he must kill the Amir's greatest lord, kiss the Amir's daughter, and bring back a handful of hair from the Amir's beard and a handful of teeth from the Amir's mouth.
Norton's retelling comes in two parts. Part One tells how Huon travelled to Babylon and with the help of Oberon, King of the Fairies, achieved his quest and won the hand of the Amir's daughter Claramonde. Oberon thereupon names Huon his heir, and Part Two tells the further adventures of Huon and Claramonde, and how Huon earns the right to succeed Oberon.
It was all good fun. I appreciated Claramonde's character particularly: plucky and dignified, she advises Huon when he's around and commands the defence of his castle while he's away, even taking part as an archer (one is reminded that medieval advice columnist Christine de Pisan recommended baronesses learn how to fight for this very reason).
Which reminds me. Many of our misconceptions about medieval history actually come from other periods of history. Medieval kings in Christian countries, for instance, were not absolute monarchs. In many cases, in fact, succession was not a matter of the eldest son automatically succeeding to the throne; instead, it was understood that the heir must be approved by the election of the barons. Huon of the Horn contains as its primary theme the tyranny of kings and the resistance of the plucky duchy of Bordeaux--from Huon, its rightful duke, and Claramonde, its duchess, all the way down to the common people plotting liberation in the streets--against all sorts of misbehaving emperors, dukes, and governors.
Huon himself was a wonderful character. At the beginning of the story, he's a hot-headed youth who gets into fights easily and makes his greatest mistake in lying about his faith to gain admission to Babylon. (This, by the way, is fascinating, because the Templars instructed their knights to lie about their faith if it would save their lives in captivity; and at the dawn of the 1300s, this led to their spectacular downfall.) By the end of the story, however, Huon has become a wise and cool-headed man who humbles himself before his rivals--the Emperor of Alamayne, even King Arthur--in order to preserve peace. Given the historical context of the story, it's hard not to see Huon as an aspirational hero, a demonstration to the knightly audience of the humility and peaceableness of the true Christian hero as contrasted with the tyranny of many of the lords, kings, and emperors around him.
And because of his humility, Huon is rewarded with a high post as the co-king of Elfland, tasked with defending the universe against the forces of darkness on the Western Marches with King Arthur as his colleague.
Another of the many things that fascinated me in this story was the character and role of Oberon, king of the Fairies. As a practically all-powerful ally, Oberon is always stepping in to rescue the characters from Certain Death! But in the second half, he repeatedly refuses to help Huon. The reasoning goes that now that Oberon has adopted Huon as his heir, he must be left to earn his place on his own. Around this time, I began to feel a mite uncomfortable. I realised that Oberon was functioning as the story's Christ-figure. So what does it mean if Huon must earn his position as king? On more mature thought, however, I began to wonder if the poem was drawing a graceful distinction between justification (Huon's repentance for lying leads to his adoption by Oberon) and sanctification (now he must work for his happy ending). Certainly, the final scenes, in which the Elf King goes into Paradise leaving Huon (and Arthur) to occupy Elfland, gain a lot of power from Christlike imagery, and puts an unexpected grin on the reader's face. For Huon's job is the job of every Christian in the world. We too defend the universe against the forces of darkness. We too reign with Christ and the saints.
This review is already too long. I could point out the wistfully hopeful picture of Huon going to the Holy Land and recovering Jerusalem, for instance, or the equally wistful fact that he does so with the help of a Shah of Persia who has converted to Christ (the medievals' hope to be aided by an Eastern Christian potentate was so strong it took mythical form in the person of Prester John). Or I could discuss the interesting case of the Adamant Island where bread and wine saves Christian souls but destroys false converts.
It would be interesting to know if Andre Norton made any alterations, additions, or omissions to the story in retelling it like this for children. Certainly it's one of those retellings that seems more aimed at a faithful reproduction of the original, than in reinterpreting it for a new generation. As such, I really enjoyed it. Perhaps the story isn't as epic or as tightly-woven as you might expect from really great literature; but I was amazed at how much food for thought there was in this short book.
Find Huon of the Horn on Amazon or Abebooks.