Friday, December 15, 2017

Count Robert of Paris by Sir Walter Scott

For the last three years or so, I've avoided reading any fiction set during the Crusades. This is because I didn't want OUTREMER to be unduly influenced by anyone else's stories. Now, however, with two drafts of A Wind From the Wilderness under my belt and this part of the story becoming a little firmer, I decided it was time to read a long-awaited novel set during the same time period: Sir Walter Scott's late work Count Robert of Paris, set in Constantinople during the First Crusade.

By the time I started reading, my expectations for this novel were not very high. One of Scott's very last novels, which was very difficult for him to write, this book, in John Buchan's words, "pleased nobody":
Count Robert is history rather than fiction, a compilation from Gibbon and the Alexiad, and as prolix as Anna Comnena herself. The court of Byzantium in the eleventh century was not a subject with which Scott had any natural affinities, and he was too languid to reproduce the drama of the clash of West and East in the first Crusade. There are moments of vigour, like the fight with the tiger in the dungeon, but everywhere lassitude weights his pen.
Another critic, Philip Hobsbaum, is said to have said, whether seriously or in jest, that “Everyone who has not read ‘Count Robert of Paris’ knows it to be unreadable.” As a result, I'm slightly at a loss to explain why I liked it so very much. Maybe my expectations were so low that they couldn't help being exceeded. Or maybe Walter Scott at his very worst is still able to ace a historical yarn.

Not that the story is particularly well-grounded in history. There are howlers on every page. Scott depicts Christian medieval Constantinople as having minarets on every church (actually, the minarets were added by the Turks). Astonishingly, Bohemond of Taranto is said to have been made prince of Antioch by Alexius in 1097 (in fact Alexius probably planned to rule Antioch himself and Bohemond's claim to the city was highly controversial even among the other crusaders). And this isn't to even shake a stick at all the romantic orientalist trappings (like the imperial family riding around on elephants!) that are added in just to make the story seem more exotic.

All in all, I have a hard time labelling this story as "historical fiction" rather than "fantasy", because it's pure imagination, a kind of historically-inspired pantomime. That said, this book definitely came with its own goofy charm. Yes, it's prolix, but then, Scott is always prolix. And the things I liked were huge fun.

In Comnenid Byzantium, danger lurks behind every shadow, as you'd expect from a decadent city (yes, of course it was decadent, Edward Gibbon said so) full of cowardly, scheming and conniving Greeks (Gibbon again). An honest and upright Anglo-Saxon, exiled from his native Britain by the recent Norman conquest, and sadly parted from his long-lost love (there really ought to be a Walter Scott Tropes drinking game or bingo form or something), who now serves the Emperor Alexius as a member of his Varangian Guard (this is reasonably historically accurate), is drafted into a conspiracy to overthrow Alexius by his commanding officer, Achilles Tatius. Our Varangian, however, plans to remain loyal to the Emperor--but everyone's plots are upset by the sudden arrival of hordes of Franks on their way to liberate the Holy Sepulchre.

Alexius decides to manage the Frankish threat by getting them to swear homage to him and sending them quickly on their way. Count Robert of Paris, however, annoyed at having to swear homage, pranks Alexius by sitting on his throne (Anna Comnena records this actually happening). Later, Alexius sees the opportunity to gain a valuable hostage and has Count Robert and his wife, the fearless lady knight Brenhilda, kidnapped. As Count Robert tries to escape, he falls in with our Varangian hero, and they strike up an uneasy partnership. Meanwhile Alexius attempts to neutralise the threat to his throne, without falling afoul of the warlike Franks on his doorstep...

This book is honestly not one of Scott's best. It's very uneven (though all his books were uneven to some extent) and the ending is fairly unsatisfactory. But there were lots of things I loved about it. First, it's definitely more in the tradition of Ivanhoe and The Talisman than Guy Mannering or The Heart of Midlothian, and I've always preferred the first two books to Scott's more grounded work. If Count Robert is a fantasy, it's the kind of fantasy I love. And then it has tigers and elephants and surprise! killer orangutangs! and Funny Medievals Who Love Killing Things in the tradition of Conan Doyle's Sir Nigel and Poul Anderson's Sir Roger de Tourneville. It even has one of Scott's trademark Wily And Faintly Ridiculous Monarchs, in Alexius Comnenus:
The Emperor had stood somewhat disconcerted at the beginning of this speech, but hearing it so very unexpectedly terminate, as he was willing to suppose, much in his own favour, he threw himself into an attitude which was partly that of a modest person listening to his own praises, and partly that of a man highly struck with the commendations heaped upon him by a generous adversary.
The chapters in which the Anglo-Saxon Hereward and the possibly Norman Count Robert (except that I don't believe the real Count Robert was actually Norman? never mind it's just a story) team up to rescue Countess Brenhilda were some of my favourite in the book. They make wonderful frenemies:
"Art thou a man," said Count Robert to his companion; "and canst thou advise me to remain still and hear this?"
"I am one man," said the Anglo-Saxon; "you, sir, are another; but all our arithmetic will not make us more than two."
Speaking of the Countess Brenhilda, she was also tremendous fun. Scott clearly discovered some of those bemused Byzantine historians who recorded some of the Frankish crusader noblewomen riding astride, dressed in armour, and has gamely attempted to write an action girl. I say attempted, because he doesn't seem to have ever done this before, unless you count the not at all heroic Helen MacGregor from Rob Roy, and because towards the end of the novel he more or less loses interest in Brenhilda. He can't restrain himself from making a number of disparaging comments about her, but he also allows her to be as proud and vivid a character as her husband. The couple that decapitates unmannerly barbarians together stays together, if Count Robert of Paris is any indication. Scott even winds up providing a sort of backhanded justification for women knowing about self-defence: kidnapped and stowed away in Alexius's darkest dungeon, worried that his wife may have fallen into the hands of the philandering Nicephorus Briennius, he sets his mind at rest by reminding himself that she's quite big and strong enough to take care of herself. With all respect and appreciation for Rebecca, Rowena, etc, which other Walter Scott hero can say the same?

Bertha, the Varangian's long-lost love, is a more conventional Scott heroine, and it's interesting to note that she's depicted as discharging an important diplomatic mission with discretion and success. Anna Comnena (there are a lot of pivotal female characters in this book) is a more thorny proposition, however. Sure, the real Anna Comnena seems to have been somewhat conceited and emotional, but no more than normal for a high-ranking medieval - it was an age when titanic emotional displays were considered appropriate on all solemn occasions, and when everyone above the rank of a knight, much less a porphyrogenita of Byzantium, might feel justified in thinking highly of themselves. Edward Gibbon, however, snidely remarked that her history "betrays in every page the vanity of a female author" and Gibbon seems to be the one authority who counts: Scott's characterisation of Anna in this story is subtly and incessantly satirical. I don't happen to think that Anna Comnena was a good role model at all, even on the most charitable interpretation of her life (she indubitably tried to murder her brother at their father's funeral), but Scott was obviously following Gibbon and his Enlightenment rationalistic contempt for women as a group, not a legitimate assessment of Anna's qualities as a person and a historian.

I hasten to add that I wasn't offended by the depiction of women in this book. In fact, I found the importance of the three female characters to the plot rather refreshing and enjoyable, and obviously Brenhilda (who challenges her would-be seducer to a duel instead of cowering) was lots of fun.

Do I recommend Count Robert of Paris? Really, it depends. If you've read, and enjoyed, Ivanhoe and The Talisman, then this is another in the same vein. I thought it was immense fun.

You can find Count Robert of Paris on Amazon, the Book Depository, and Project Gutenberg.

Friday, December 1, 2017

TEN THOUSAND THORNS is here!!!

It's been a really warm week. I've been super busy with all sorts of projects, including making and decorating a number of Christmas cakes as gifts for friends. But it's time to stop and celebrate, because Ten Thousand Thorns is here!


Read it today!
Amazon | Kobo | Barnes & Noble | Apple | Smashwords
Princess Morning Light meditates in a hidden temple surrounded by ten thousand thorns. Guardian of a long-lost sword skill, the princess is destined to wake after a hundred years to return justice to All-Under-Heaven.

Or so legend says.

As the Vastly Martial Emperor extends his brutal domination across the world, rebel leader Clouded Sky flees the capital for the safety of his martial sect at Wudang Mountain. Meanwhile, the renegade martial artist Iron Maiden seeks a hero to awaken Morning Light. As bounty hunters and imperial guards close in, Clouded Sky must determine who he can trust - and who may be planning to betray him.

An action-packed retelling of Sleeping Beauty in the style of a Chinese martial arts epic! Novella, approximately 39,000 words.

What readers are saying...

"Ten Thousand Thorns is a version of Sleeping Beauty that has a life, message, and style all its own. I loved it!" - Seasons of Humility blog

"Unlike the original folk tale, Ten Thousand Thorns doesn’t allow its heroine to remain a whispered persona. ...It took the entire fairytale in a whole new and refreshing direction!" - When a Brown Girl Reads blog

"If you like warrior women who like their tea, and animals, and whose response to enemy soldiers is likely as not to be laughter, you’ll probably like Iron Maiden." - Of Dreams and Swords blog


The background for Ten Thousand Thorns...

This story was inspired by Chinese wuxia films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, and my personal favourite, Reign of Assassins.  I got the idea after realising that in this fantasy world of martial arts and adventure, a Sleeping Beauty figure would be blessed with enlightenment rather than cursed with sleep!

It's taken me more than a year to research, write, and edit this story. Partly this is because at 39,000 words, Ten Thousand Thorns is a little longer than my other novellas. But it's also because I had to do a lot of research! I read the classic wuxia novel The Legend of the White Haired Maiden, as well as other works by classic wuxia writers Gu Long and Jin Yong.

Even after that, I was keen to make sure my story was reasonably accurate to its Chinese setting, so I called on a friend of a friend, Stephen Wei, to read and critique the story. Stephen wasn't able to give detailed feedback on the whole story, but his notes and a long Skype call during which he explained the foundations of Chinese ethics were very helpful!

I hope you have half as much fun reading this story as I had writing it :-)

Oh, and--just in case you hadn't seen it yet...


Closing Soon - The Indie Christian Books Sale



Have you checked out The Indie Christian Book Sale yet? It closes on November 30...my goodness! That's today!

In case you haven't checked it out already:

- Tons of clean and/or Christian reads in a variety of genres
- Most of my ebooks are on sale for 99c
- Even my paperbacks are on sale (very rare!), so you can get them cheap for Christmas gifts!

You can browse the sale at www.indiechristianbooks.com or skip straight to the Suzannah Rowntree books.

Happy reading!

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

First, an announcement.

For the last several years I've been keeping up a steady once-a-week blog post here on Vintage Novels. It's worked well for me so far, but recently I've been becoming more busy and my rate of vintage-novel intake has declined. Meanwhile, other avenues of writing have opened up to me, and I've been looking for ways to fit them into my schedule.

With that in mind, I've come to a decision, which is that I'm going to go ahead and post every fortnight instead of every week. And I'm going to put the time thus freed up into writing other things.

I actually think this could be a good thing for Vintage Novels. Over the last couple of years I've felt a little pressured by the once-a-week timetable, into prioritising shorter works over longer ones. With a fortnightly schedule, I'll be able to throw some more lengthy works into the mix (Brothers Karamazov, here I come!).

And now for a review of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.

Set in the early 1300s, this is the story of Adso, a young Benedictine novice who is accompanying Franciscan friar William of Baskerville on a diplomatic mission in northern Italy. The mission is to attend a theological disputation which has emerged from a complex struggle between the Franciscan order, the Pope, and the Holy Roman Emperor - but William and Adso arrive to discover that a murder has been committed.

The local abbot, nervous that any disruption in his monastery will result in the Pope's representatives taking control, begs William to solve the mystery before the papal delegation arrives. Then, one by one, more tragedies strike. Gradually, William becomes aware that the abbey is full of dark undercurrents of politics, theology, and lust - and the nexus at the heart of these seething undercurrents seems to be the library, where a long-lost manuscript is rumoured to lie awaiting discovery. Worse still, the more William and Adso investigate, the more confusing the whole situation becomes. What will happen if they can't solve the mystery?

First of all, a content advisory - this book is not for the faint of heart, and some passages are explicit, though in the most offputting way imaginable, so I wasn't particularly offended.

Second, a spoiler warning, since it's very difficult to discuss the message in this book without discussing the ending!

So, I didn't love this book, and I didn't hate it either. It is, of course, primarily about the medieval age as it was growing old. You have the medieval tension between Plato and Aristotle on one side, and the challenges posed to the medieval world by men like William of Ockham and Roger Bacon on the other. And because Eco is so knowledgeable about the medieval world, there's a lot of convincing detail here, and the characters often seem to have convincingly medieval attitudes about things.

But the book was written in the twentieth century, and it's not a medieval book. In fact, I found it aggressively postmodern. This is a book that's very much about epistemology and knowledge, and too often I thought the book's hero William of Baskerville seemed too much like an up-to-date postmodern skeptic in a monk's habit, which spoiled my suspension of disbelief a little. Then again, maybe if I knew more about the philosophical wranglings of the time period, I wouldn't find Eco's interpretation so jarring.

The plot is a murder mystery, which keeps you turning pages even through dense paragraphs of backstory and detours into philosophy and theology, all of which Eco gradually ties into the central theme. The sheer level of detail in this book is overwhelming and immersive, and the reader digs through it all in the hope that there may be clues hiding here that will be important later. And so there are...except that infuriatingly, the clues do not actually lead to the solution of the mystery. Rather, the actual solution is only revealed through a series of coincidences. One clue is even given to the narrator in a bizarre dream, and it turns out that one of William's most important theories was a complete mistake. They do find the murderer anyway, but the overarching point seems to be about the randomness and unknowability of life.

Of course, this violates the very rules of mystery writing, which is obviously the point. Eco tries to be creative, and he achieves brilliance, but he doesn't achieve a good story. By the end of his book, all the satisfaction that comes from a detective story has dissipated. We have had all the set-up, but no pay-off: the mystery has a solution, but its discovery is a complete accident.

This is not to say that Eco's point is worthless. It actually reminded me of a point GK Chesterton makes in The Club of Queer Trades: "Every detail points to something, certainly; but generally to the wrong thing. Facts point in all directions, it seems to me, like the thousands of twigs on a tree." But whereas Chesterton used this to argue for the necessity of intuition and of revelation, it seemed to me that Eco used it to argue for total epistemological skepticism.

William of Baskerville appears in the novel with a kind of burgeoning empiricism stemming from the influence of Bacon and Ockham. It's because of his ability to observe facts and deduce others that the abbot asks him to solve the murders. But, while William's rationalism puts him at an advantage compared to many of the other monks, it doesn't ultimately help him solve the case.

There's even a whole scene where William bewails the impossibility of knowing truth, and the evil that comes from trying. He says, "I behaved stubbornly, pursuing a semblance of order, when I should have known well that there is no order in the universe." William uses logic and evidence throughout the story, but the whole point, driven home at the end of the last chapter, is that it doesn't lead him to truth. He says he "should have known" at the end of this book, because at the beginning he's already given up being an inquisitor; he's given up trying to find the difference between heresy and orthodoxy using those tools, so it was foolish of him to try to find the murderer that way.

In the book, knowledge is most memorably symbolised by the monastery library, which is one of the book's most satisfying and intriguing symbols. A labyrinth jealously locked away from common access by the spiritual elites of the medieval world, the library is used by those with access to it to coerce and tempt others. William and Adso, the empiricist and his apprentice, penetrate the library and map it out, learning its secrets. But by the end of the story, the library is destroyed in a cataclysmic fire along with the whole monastery. Long after the site is abandoned, Adso returns to scavenge what he can: scraps, pages, and fragments. "I sudied them with love...At the end of my patient reconstruction, I had before me a kind of lesser library, a symbol of the greater, vanished one: a library made up of fragments, quotations, unfinished sentences, amputated stumps of books." Because of the hubris of those that sought to hoard and control knowledge, because of the hubris of those who presume to systematise and use knowledge, knowledge itself is destroyed, leaving only incomprehensible, random scraps.

The Name of the Rose is a fascinating, yet ultimately pessimistic look at epistemology through the postmodern worldview. It actually reminded me very strongly of Jorge Luis Borges, whose short stories also deal heavily in postmodernism, symbols, labyrinths, and libraries. This is obviously intentional - there's even a character named Jorge of Borgos in homage to him. I always felt that Borges could have written a wonderful novel if he'd wanted to, and The Name of the Rose seems to be that novel.

And yet, when all is said and done, Borges's five-page stories are perhaps exactly the right length to explain postmodernism. After 500 pages of The Name of the Rose, the ultimate disappointment and pessimism at the book's heart feels a hundred times as much of a letdown.

Find The Name of the Rose on Amazon or the Book Depository.

Have you read this book? What did you think? Thoughts? Objections? I'd love to hear from you!

Friday, November 10, 2017

Chronicles of the First Crusade, ed. Christopher Tyerman

My most recent Crusader-research read was a Penguin Classics collection of excerpts from various chronicles of the First Crusade. I've been reading it slowly over the last few months, especially while working on A Wind from the Wilderness, which focuses on the First Crusade.

Christopher Tyerman, the editor, is a well-regarded crusader historian, and he's produced an excellent book. It includes a wide variety of sources, some of which (like the excerpts from Anna Comnena's Alexiad and the letters home from prominent crusader princes) I'd already read. It also includes a number of excerpts from Arab and Jewish chronicles and letters--though nothing from Armenian or Syriac sources, which seems to be an oversight.

The major chroniclers used are Fulcher of Chartes, Raymond of Aguilers, the anonymous author of the Gesta Francorum, and Anna Comnena, and the excerpts are arranged more or less chronologically, so that you get several different perspectives on any single event. This was extremely useful, for example, when I was trying to piece together exactly what happened during the battle of Dorylaeum.

One of the things I like most about medieval chronicles is how the personality of the author is communicated, and this book was a veritable checkerboard or people. I've mentioned Anna Comnena's schoolmarmish self-consciousness before, for instance, but when her chronicle is put side by side with the accounts of the Franks, something else emerges: the adroit way in which she manipulated and spun some of the less praiseworthy facts of her father's behaviour in order to head off criticism. The author of the Gesta Francorum is less a diplomat or a scholar than a soldier; the journey interests him little except as a catalogue of marches to reach an objective, but when describing battle, he revels in knightly good conduct and gallant speeches.

But it was Raymond of Aguilers who provided me with the most to chew on. Aguilers was a chaplain in the service of Raymond of Toulouse. More expressive than the author of the Gesta Francorum, Aguilers is not above hinting that the crusader council ought to have taken his advice on military matters:
On the day following our arrival, we were so angered by the natives that we openly stormed the walls and would, no doubt, have seized Ma'arrat al-Numan if we had possessed four more ladders. However, our two ladders, short and fragile, were mounted fearfully; and it was the council's decision to build machines, hurdles and mounds by which the wall could be reached, sapped and tumbled to the ground.
But reading carefully, it becomes clear that Aguilers's criticism of the council is a little more than simple smartalecry. One of the crusade's resident holy men prophesied that the city of Ma'arrat would fall to an assault with ladders within a few days, and Aguilers, if his chronicle is any indication, was deeply invested in supporting these "prophets".

Peter Bartholomew, Stephen of Valence, and other prophets emerged during the crusade's most desperate days, when they were starving and facing what seemed like certain death in Antioch at the hands of a more numerous, better-fed and better-equipped army of Turks. It was at this darkest moment, when even some of the highest-ranking knights and counts had already panicked and fled, that both Peter Bartholomew and Stephen of Valence came forward, claiming to have been visited by Christ, the Virgin Mary, Saint Andrew, and other saints. Both offered to verify their visions by undergoing trial by ordeal. Bartholomew gained priority at first by discovering (or "discovering") the purported relic of the Holy Lance. Aguilers, present on the scene, says he kneeled to kiss the point while it was still projecting from the ground.

Overnight, Bartholomew became one of the crusade's most influential figures, and he now received a steady flow of increasingly unhinged visions. He claimed to have been visited multiple times by Adhemar of le Puy, the papal legate who died shortly after the siege. Adhemar had refused to accept the legitimacy of the "Holy Lance", and Bartholomew claimed that after his death Adhemar came to visit him sporting horrible burns from Purgatory where he was being tormented for his lack of faith. Finally, Bartholomew's reign came to an end when he insisted that two-fifths of the crusaders should be massacred to cleanse them of their sins and unlock the blessings of God. This was too much for many of the other clergy to stomach, and Bartholomew reacted by insisting on a trial by ordeal, which he did not survive.

Obviously these visions were not actually from God. But I think it's unlikely that they were fabrications, either. Bartholomew and Valence both had faith in what they were saying, and Bartholomew died believing it. But whether starvation-and-trauma-induced hallucinations were at work here, or something more sinister, from my perspective it's undeniable that all this happened, in Charles Williams's words, "under the Mercy". And that's something I'll definitely be chewing over as I work on A Wind from the Wilderness and the other Outremer books.

Find Chronicles of the First Crusade on Amazon or the Book Depository.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Ballad of the White Horse by GK Chesterton

*ahem*
Of great limbs gone to chaos,
A great face turned to night--
Why bend above a shapeless shroud
Seeking in such archaic cloud
Sight of strong lords and light? 
Where seven sunken Englands
Lie buried one by one,
Why should one idle spade, I wonder,
Shake up the dust of thanes like thunder
To smoke and choke the sun?
So begins The Ballad of the White Horse, which has never failed to give me chills.

By 1911 when GK Chesterton first published the poem, Alfred the Great was surely long overdue to have an epic poem written about him. The story of his war against the Danes at the dawn of English history is one of those rare legends that is actually as true as it is stirring. And Alfred is one of the few men in history to deserve every bit of his heroic reputation. Still, most other English epics had focused on King Arthur, Queen Elizabeth I, or taken the Danes themselves as the heroes (I refer to Beowulf), and until GK Chesterton took him in hand, Alfred himself had little poetic remembrance.

The poem begins at Alfred's darkest hour, when the Danish king Guthrum had succeeded in conquering Wessex itself and Alfred was forced into hiding on the swamp island of Athelney. At that moment, it may have seemed clear that Alfred's reign was to be short and inglorious, and that England would be thoroughly conquered by the Danes. But Alfred turned the tide. Scraping together a small army, he came back to face Guthrum at the battle of Ethandune and managed to win a victory that regained Wessex, captured and converted Guthrum, and poised him as the leader of Saxon England. Alfred then used this time of peace to prepare for the next war. Not only did he carry out military reforms, he also recognised the importance of God's covenant blessings in peace and victory. He passed scripture-based laws and promoted education and biblical literacy. Years later, when Wessex was invaded again, this time from multiple directions simultaneously, Alfred was ready.

That's roughly what GK Chesterton covers in this epic. The poem is somewhat on the short side for an epic, though the subject matter and treatment are definitely in the right style. It's divided into several "books" that deal (appropriately) with some of the legends of Alfred's life, including the burnt cakes (Book IV, "The Woman in the Forest") and the infiltration of the Danish camp which Alfred is said to have carried out in disguise as a minstrel (Book III, "The Harp of Alfred").

This, Book III, contains some of the most fascinating material in the whole epic. Chesterton deals with a number of his usual themes in this story. Book VIII, "The Scouring of the Horse", is about the endless struggle between right and wrong, and the role that tradition plays in keeping this fight going. Book IV has Alfred meditating on the nobility and importance of ordinary people, a lesson that comes back when it's the common soldiers that ultimately provide the turn of the tide at the battle of Ethandune. All this is fairly typical for Chesterton.

Book III is the one that, in the lead-up to the battle, confronts Alfred and Alfred's vision against Guthrum and Guthrum's vision. In Book II, "The Gathering of the Chiefs", Alfred calls three leaders to his banner - Eldred the Saxon, Mark the Roman, and Colan the Irishman (sing it with me now: "For the great Gaels of Ireland/Are the men that God made mad/For all their wars are merry/And all their songs are sad"). Each of these men is a specific "type" - Colan the imaginative artist, Eldred the simple farmer and Mark the rational believer ("And his faith grew in a hard ground/Of doubt and reason and falsehood found/Where no faith else could grow"). When Alfred meets Guthrum in the Danish camp disguised as a minstrel, we find that Guthrum also has three chiefs, and just as the Saxon king and the Danish king are foils to each other, so the Saxon chiefs and the Danish chiefs mirror each other. The differences are underlined in the ensuing sing-off. There is Harold, Guthrum's nephew, with a simple and mindless love of glory, wine, and women. There is Elf, Guthrum's minstrel, the singer of a hopeless and beautiful paganism. There is Ogier, Guthrum's earl, a disillusioned old pagan who knows the demonic "wrath of the gods behind the gods/Who would rend all gods and men." And finally there is Guthrum himself, who evidently is no longer sure if he believes in the gods at all, and kills mainly to know that he himself is alive.



The unifying purpose of the poem seems mainly to compare and contrast these four pagan types with the four Christian types, and to dramatise their struggle through the ages in the context of one battle long ago in England. In GKC's own words, "Alfred has come down to us in the best way (that is, by national legends) solely for the same reason as Arthur and Roland and the other giants of that darkness, because he fought for the Christian civilization against the heathen nihilism." In that sense, The Ballad of the White Horse is firmly twentieth-century in flavour. Chesterton is writing one of those "historical" pieces which is only ostensibly about the history. In fact, it's about his own day, and I can't help finding this a little bit disappointing. A more sincere attempt to communicate Alfred in his own world, and his enemies as they were, might have rung a little more true, and felt more meaningful in its celebration of Alfred's life. Of course, I will never try to pretend that authors of historical fiction can separate their interpretation of the history from the needs and intentions of their own day. We see everything through a lens of applicability; that's an inescapable part of existence. Writers of epic, in particular, have always exulted in anachronism. But I think there's a way to find application in the history by listening to what it has to say, and there's a way to force application by shouting over it. The Ballad of the White Horse strikes me as being a trifle shouty.

I feel bad saying this, because Chesterton is one of my favourite authors. And this poem (although this is the first time I've read it right the whole way through) contains some of my very favourite Chesterton quotes--hair-raising, chill-causing, wonderful quotes that beg to be declaimed aloud. But I have to say that after reading the entire thing, I have to agree with JRR Tolkien's legendarily grumpy assessment of this poem:
P[riscilla]....has been wading through The Ballad of the White Horse for the last many nights; and my efforts to explain the obscure parts to her convince me that it is not as good as I thought. The ending is absurd. The brilliant smash and glitter of the words and phrases (when they come off, and are not mere loud colours) cannot disguise the fact that G.K.C. knew nothing whatever about the 'North', heathen or Christian.
I was mildly offended the first time I found this in Tolkien's Letters, but actually? He's right. Much of the "brilliant smash and glitter" Tolkien talks about does fall flat, being simply there for show. Not all of it, of course, and there's enough that does "come off" to raise your hair on your scalp multiple times over. But the ending is abrupt and clumsy. And most of all, you get the impression that the characters are modern-day philosophical constructs, not genuine Saxon and Danish battlechiefs.

I have to further admit that not everything Chesterton was trying to say resounded with me. As a Protestant, it was a little difficult to take Saint Mary's role in this poem, even as a Protestant who thinks Protestants ought to give Mary more credit. Her message to Alfred, which is basically, "So, I'm not going to tell you if things are going to get better, have fun finding out" is not something that I find compelling, and I actually don't think Alfred would have found it compelling either: God's actions in the world are not incomprehensible, and Alfred staked his kingdom on the comprehensibility of God's actions when he invested, not just in military strength, but in religious reformation.

All this said, I still loved this poem and will definitely be revisiting it in future.

*ahem*
A sea-folk blinder than the sea
Broke all about his land,
But Alfred up against them bare
And gripped the ground and grasped the air,
Staggered, and strove to stand. 
He bent them back with spear and spade,
With desperate dyke and wall,
With foemen leaning on his shield
And roaring on him when he reeled;
And no help came at all. 
He broke them with a broken sword
A little towards the sea,
And for one hour of panting peace,
Ringed with a roar that would not cease,
With golden crown and girded fleece
Made laws under a tree.
Ahhh.

Find The Ballad of the White Horse on Amazon, the Book Depository, and Project Gutenberg.

If you're in the market for a wonderful biography of Alfred, I can highly recommend Ben Merkle's The White Horse King, which is every bit as stirring and thrilling as this poem!

Friday, October 27, 2017

Poem: Tapestry by James McAuley

For one reason and another, I haven't had a lot of time to read this month. So, as usual, I'm going to share a poem instead of a book review. This one is a favourite new discovery from James McAuley's Collected Poems...



Tapestry
by James McAuley (b1917)

Alert to the waldhorn
The silent poplars tremble;
Spearmen and hounds assemble
To hunt the unicorn.

Beside the fount at bay
They have him fast surrounded;
The mort is already sounded,
When he springs clear away.

But see, at a virgin's beck,
He enters at the walled garden;
Proudly he stoops his neck,

Subdued to his fair warden;
A banderole bears above
The monogram of love.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Writerly Updates + Snippets + TEN THOUSAND THORNS cover!!!

I really ought to be keeping everyone better updated on all my various writing projects! October has been busy, and that's a fact. However, I have been sitting on a number of exciting announcements, and I suppose it's time to reveal a few.

OUTREMER: A Wind From the Wilderness


Oh, goodness! I can't believe I never made an official announcement about this, except maybe an offhand comment on Twitter. On the last day of September, after an extremely intense month, I finished the second draft of OUTREMER book 1, A Wind From the Wilderness. It's still very rough and not yet ready for beta reading; I intend to do at least one more stiff edit before seeking feedback. With new characters and plotlines appearing, and at twice the length of the first-draft material, it's going to need some serious plot and character surgery.

However, I'm excited by how much it improves on the first draft, and I can't wait to dig back into the next edit/draft, hopefully no later than December. I have a perhaps unrealistic hope of having it beta-reader-ready by February. We'll see.

Snippets!

“I was on watch this morning. I could hear what those boys were saying. ‘It’s the filthy Turks,’ they say. ‘Let’s burn it,’ they say, ‘like good Christians, and send them all to hell.’” He spat into the bilge. “So I went down the hawser and bit one of them.”
“Why did you do that?”
“Didn’t like their talk.”
“That was a stupid thing to do.”
Kismet shrugged. “Not really. I know their sort. Cowards. Knew they’d run.”
“They weren’t running when I came up.”
“Mm. So I s’pose I owe you.” 

*

“Don’t expect to live long if you betray us, Greek,” the count added.
Before he realised what he was doing, Lukas lifted his chin and gave the count glare for glare. “I do this for love of my master, not for fear of you,” he said disdainfully.
The instant the words left his mouth he knew they were a mistake. The count turned his head in a queer sharp little movement like the challenge of a bird of prey, and Lukas steeled himself for wrath—
“That’s enough, Lukas. Be on your way,” the bishop said very hurriedly.

*

They were on opposite sides of something much, much bigger than themselves. Something that had begun long before either of them was born. Something that would go on long after both of them were dead.
Something that not even love could conquer.

*

Thatoul’s own residence was a low stone house built at the citadel’s knees. Round pillars supported a portico, and the entrance-hall led directly into an inner courtyard which was small but delightfully decorated with a fountain and lush greenery. Saint-Gilles, Galdemar and Bessarion followed Thatoul around the pillared portico to where chairs of polished wood softened by dyed sheepskins awaited them by a low marble-topped table.
Saint-Gilles sank into one of the chairs with a sigh of satisfaction. “Your house is like a pool of water in the desert, Thatoul. It does me good to be in it.”
“You have no such places in your own country, my lord?”
Saint-Gilles stifled a smile with his hand. “We have our own luxuries, naturally. But for the last year we’ve lived as nomads, travelling from place to place, through deserts, over mountains, in battles, in sieges, and often in fear.”
“Too long at war,” Thatoul replied, “and men forget what really matters.”

*

“My freedom,” he whispered into the dark, under the rumble of the snores of the others. “And what will I do with it? Starve?”
“God be merciful, Greek. Forget I said anything. Lie in your hammock and whine some more! You’ve done nothing else since you got here!”
The boy’s disgust stung him, and he sat up, swinging his feet over the side. “Why should I bother? Everyone I know is probably dead.”

Kismet’s voice was suddenly level and cold. “Then you ought to avenge them.”


The City Beyond the Glass


With A Wind From the Wilderness on hiatus and Ten Thousand Thorns gearing up for release, I'm trying to get another draft written on The City Beyond the Glass, my retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses set in Renaissance Venice. Did you know that for 100 years spanning the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, over 60% of young patrician Venetian women were forced into monasteries in an effort to preserve the exclusivity of Venice's oligarchy? And that this very quickly led to many of the old houses dying out completely? This is the historical backdrop to a story that I'm really excited about. I've only just begun nibbling away at the second draft. Look for this one, DV, sometime in the first half of next year.

More Snippets!

“Plenty of girls don’t get to see their husbands before the betrothal.”
She was right. I didn’t have to take this risk. With only daughters to carry on the family line, Papa had long since resigned himself to the extinction of the Caloprini name. Nevertheless, he hoped that the Caloprini trading empire would continue under the watchful guidance of a capable son-in-law. Whoever he’d chosen as my husband, it would be someone like himself. A patrician on the Great Council. Someone respectable. Someone steady.
Someone old.
A simmer of rage coiled through my stomach, and I stood up, snatching mask and gloves from Lucia’s hands. “Plenty of girls are gutless.”

*

“One of these days,” Gonzaga said wearily, “I’ll wake up and it will suddenly occur to me. Aha! Signora Gemma doesn’t like me! And it will all make sense.”

*

“I begin to think this house is bewitched, Signor. I begin to think that this is a case for the Inquisitors.”

*

“Do you ever think of anyone’s interests but your own?”
“Frequently. You’d be surprised how far a man can advance his interests through serving the interests of others.” 

*

“Oh ho, is that your game, is it, my Delilah? ‘Tell me wherein thy great strength liest.’ I think not.”

*

Filippa gave a hiss of annoyance as Lucia fumbled with my hair, and took over, screwing it into a hard knot on my head and jabbing it with pins. “If we have to go, let’s go,” she whispered, glancing over her shoulder at the open door. More softly she added, “He’s going to follow us, Gemma.”
“I know,” I said again. 

Ten Thousand Thorns

Most exciting of all: Ten Thousand Thorns is coming on November 30, 2017! And here's the cover, if you haven't seen it already:

Now on pre-order!
Princess Morning Light meditates in a hidden temple surrounded by ten thousand thorns. Guardian of a long-lost sword skill, the princess is destined to wake after a hundred years to return justice to All-Under-Heaven.

Or so legend says.

As the Vastly Martial Emperor extends his brutal domination across the world, rebel leader Clouded Sky flees the capital for the safety of his martial sect at Wudang Mountain. Meanwhile, the renegade martial artist Iron Maiden seeks a hero to awaken Morning Light. As bounty hunters and imperial guards close in, Clouded Sky must determine who he can trust - and who may be planning to betray him.

An action-packed retelling of Sleeping Beauty in the style of a Chinese martial arts epic! Novella, approximately 39,000 words.

I know, I know, it's been ages since I announced the first draft of this story. And I was working on the research for several months even before that. This has not been a quick project, partly because it's the longest novella I've ever written, partly because of my intense focus on Outremer, and partly because the research has been so onerous. I was blessed to find a beta reader who in addition to being Chinese was also a big fan of the wuxia genre, but although he was very encouraging, he did give me a lot of homework to do. Ten Thousand Thorns is finally here, however, and it's going to be huge fun!

Now, the release date is November 30. But!!! Ten Thousand Thorns is available for pre-order right now on Amazon. So, if you're keen to have it land on your ereader the red-hot second it appears, pop off to Amazon and snag a copy now, and in the meantime you can add it on Goodreads.

Or...if you're super keen to read it before anyone else, email me at rosa(dot)gaudea(at)gmail(dot)com, and I'll book you in to receive an advance review copy!

Friday, October 20, 2017

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

Ahahahahaha! You didn't think we were going to slog all the way through Shakespeare's history plays right up to Richard III, and not follow it up with The Daughter of Time, did you?

Because we totally are.

Twelve years ago, I'd never heard of this book in my life - nor, for that matter, of its author. Then a lady at church produced this book. I gulped it down in one sitting that very afternoon. By the time I ran out of book, I had not run out of afternoon, and I was filled with a burning sense of historical injustice. I wanted to take some long-misunderstood historical figure and vindicate them so thoroughly that nobody would ever forget it.

Why exactly I picked Queen Guinevere, I'll never know. It's not like she was actually historical. But did it stop Teen Me? Nah! Six days later, I had the first draft of what would later become Pendragon's Heir written. It's still the fastest I've ever written anything in my life, and it came out of me in a white-hot streak purely as a result of Josephine Tey and The Daughter of Time.

As I picked the book up a second time last week, I wondered if the old magic would have dissipated - or whether I'd be waking from a creative daze a week from now to discover that I had inadvertently written another book.

The Daughter of Time is a detective story. Inspector Alan Grant is recovering in hospital from a broken leg sustained in the course of chasing a criminal around London, and is slowly going crazy from boredom. Just in time, his actress friend Marta Shearing turns up to suggest he use the time to reopen a cold case...a very cold case, some historical mystery that has never been fully explained. Grant turns up his nose at Mary Stuart's Casket Letters and also at the Man in the Iron Mask, but then Marta sends him a sheaf of pictures of historical personages. Grant finds himself captivated by one particular portrait, a Renaissance gentleman with the wise and weary face of a judge.

When he turns the picture over, he's shocked to discover that the man is Richard III, English history's most notorious murderer until Jack the Ripper. Fascinated despite himself, Grant is sucked deeper and deeper into an investigation of the facts concerning Richard's short but able life. Did Richard really usurp the throne? Did he murder his nephews in the Tower of London? What does the circumstantial evidence indicate?

This book was every bit as good the second time around, and almost as irresistibly inspiring (thank goodness that there are a few juicy unsolved mysteries in Crusader history, and I don't have to go looking for more). By now, almost seventy years after it was written, The Daughter of Time is recognised as one of the great detective stories of all time, and must have created thousands of passionate Ricardians (or so Richard III's current-day apologists are called). And yet, it somehow does this while defying a whole heap of tested story conventions. The stakes, for instance, are low to nonexistent. There are no villains lurking in the corners of Inspector Grant's hospital room, and he'll suffer no more than a slight injury to his pride if he fails to vindicate Richard. The case is cold, and I don't believe the scene ever shifts out of Grant's hospital room, where he lies in bed looking at books and his ceiling and having conversations with occasional visitors. It's not what you'd expect to form the raw material of a gripping detective yarn. And if Josephine Tey was such an avid Ricardian, you'd expect her to write a weighty non-fiction tome instead of trying to shoehorn all the evidence and scholarly debate into a light detective novel.

And yet she does it.

Partly it's her sophisticated and witty authorial voice. Within the first couple of chapters, Tey lampoons a whole stack of genre and literary fiction in terms that will have you giggling out loud. Partly it's her deft understanding of plot. She doesn't just give her hero a mystery to solve, she constructs the mystery out of the historical facts, complete with twists and turns. Christopher Nolan defines story as "a controlled release of information", and that's what Tey does here. With consummate skill, she has distilled her historical argument into a series of nicely-weighed and controlled factual revelations. She takes the skeptical reader on a journey of discovery along with her hero, and it's wonderfully compelling.

Most of all, too, it's Tey's evident passion for this subject. I've read a couple of her other novels, and none of them seemed to measure up to this one (though Brat Farrar is fun). History is clearly something she was very serious about, and in this story she's avidly debating a subject she loves. The Daughter of Time is full of crusading fervour, and this is a big part of what makes it so irresistible.

It was interesting re-reading this book after becoming much more serious about history, myself. While the main focus of the book is on vindicating Richard III as a good man and a good king, Tey has a bigger point to make in this book: that history can be, and often is, completely fabricated from half-truth, exaggeration, and sometimes downright lies. While I wouldn't agree with all her perspectives on history (I think it's quite possible that the Covenanters were both political rebels and martyrs to their faith at one and the same moment, for example), this is clearly the truth. If you think "revisionist history" is innately a dirty concept, then you should definitely read this book for an excellent example of what revisionism should really be about.

Does Tey successfully vindicate Richard? Well, the debate continues to rage. Nobody denies that Richard III was a supremely competent and brave man (not even Shakespeare), and there are a couple of strong counterarguments that Tey fails to address in her novel, including some that have come to light with more recent research. But Tey does provide good reasons to preserve an open mind.

In The Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey has done an excellent job of marshalling and presenting a historical argument within the medium of fiction. No textbook or peer-reviewed scholarly article would have done so much to rehabilitate Richard III, travelled so far, or produced such passion in so many people. There's definitely a place for historical non-fiction, but The Daughter of Time is a wonderfully inspiring example of the power of fiction.

And, it's a wonderful, original, gripping detective story. You can't go wrong reading this book!

Find The Daughter of Time on Amazon or The Book Depository.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

100 Years of James McAuley

A hundred years ago today, on October 12, 1917, James McAuley was born.

McAuley has been one of my favourite poets since I was first introduced to his work five or six years ago. In his own words, McAuley felt "the persistent desire to write poems that are lucid and mysterious, gracefully simple but full of secrets, faithful to the little one knows and the much one has to feel." His poetry was accessible, but multilayered; lyrical, perhaps with debts to the Metaphysical poets. It took the Australian landscape as a perpetual inspiration and wove legend into it, and sometimes it became sharply satirical.

I still haven't read a great deal of his verse (though I recently managed to track down a rare Collected Poems). Here's one poem:

Anonymous Message

Believe O believe a native
Of the country of despair:
You must never give up hope,
Even just as something to wear.

The dry well choked with corpses
After the razzia, the need for flight,
The underground tricklings of pain,
The black empty wind all night -

They can't hinder, they even help:
Quite suddenly time uncloses
The most ancient, most fragrant, the most
Medicinal of all the roses.

You can read more James McAuley at the Australian Poetry Library, which I highly recommend that you do.

Have you seen any interesting articles on James McAuley for his centenary? If so, drop a link in the comments!

Friday, October 6, 2017

Richard III by William Shakespeare

And now for Richard III!

We last saw Richard of Gloucester, easily the most dominating and memorable character in Henry VI Part 3, crossing the line into villainy by murdering Henry VI himself, whom everyone in the Wars of the Roses can agree is personally a harmless and holy man (if a terrible king). As Richard III opens, peace has finally come to England--but Gloucester has discovered a terrible talent for war, and as a hunchbacked monster, he feels that the only good use for his talents in peacetime is to scheme, plot, and murder his way to the throne.

Never mind the fact that those standing in his way include both the brothers with whom he formed a "league inviolable" in the previous play. And those are just the ones he begins with.

This play is incredible, and I'm honestly a little amazed, because even though I've seen a number of productions of this play, none of them contained anything near the full text. And obviously none of them managed to communicate the sheer weight of backstory that hurls the play toward its ending. To experience Richard III the way it was always meant to be, you simply have to begin with Henry VI, Part 1 and work your way forward from there.

Why? Because the whole point of Richard III is that you can do evil today and maybe tomorrow, but sooner or later justice happens. Over and over again in this play, characters suffering trauma, humiliation, and death at Richard's competent hands are driven to acknowledge their guilt. For instance, take the Duke of Clarence. All the history plays are punctuated with breezy prison murder scenes. The Tower of London has assassins the way other castles have mice, to steal a simile from PG Wodehouse. But when the assassins arrive to collect Clarence, the scene is one long drawn-out battle of wits as Clarence attempts to awaken their consciences. The amazing thing? He very nearly succeeds. In fact, he succeeds with one of them (and Shakespeare takes his time in this scene to show the murderers wrestling with conscience). What ensures Clarence's death is that ethically speaking, he hasn't got a leg to stand on: every single plea he makes to God, to righteousness, and to divine justice condemns him. "How canst thou urge God's dreadful law to us/When thou hast broke it in such dear degree?" demands one of the murderers. Clarence has crimes of treachery and murder on his own conscience, and by the time his killers finally silence his pleas, we understand perfectly that divine justice has come for him.

And for everyone else in the victorious Yorkist camp, from the three York brothers who slaughtered Prince Edward to the retainers who stood by in silence without preventing it, to the women who simply enjoy the fruits of an unjust victory. York has won the battle against Lancaster. But this doesn't mean they were more righteous than Lancaster: both sides have committed atrocities. 

It simply means that their doom will be shocking, bloody, and completely unprecedented.

The play spirals to its conclusion in a succession of heavy dramatic ironies. Curses come home to roost, often upon the very people who pronounced them. Even Anne Neville, whom Richard woos and wins over Henry VI's bleeding corpse, acknowledges her complicity in her own destruction. Oddly, the play featuring one of Shakespeare's most fascinating and irresistible villains is also the one with the most brutally stark distinction between right and wrong.

Which brings us to Richard himself. The play is shocking in all sorts of ways. There's the body count, which includes two young children. There's the way that Richard masks his ambition behind a facade of affability and even piety. There's the fact that this facade is so badly cracked that most of the most important characters know he's a monster and yet fall for his manipulation anyway! But all these things pale in comparison to the shock of realising that in all his evil deeds Richard is acting as the agent of a just and longsuffering God. Nobody likes to think of Providence acting through the medium of insane murderers. 

Except Flannery O'Connor, I guess, God bless her.

Don't misunderstand me. When I say that Shakespeare makes Richard the instrument of God, I don't remotely mean that he should not be seen as a villain. On the contrary. Most stories with such a magnetic and fascinating villain protagonist wind up garnering all sympathy for the villain. Ahem, Milton. In the unforgettable wooing scene, Lady Anne makes this exact mistake, but it's as if Shakespeare is making fun of us. Anne is quickly disillusioned and unceremoniously murdered. So much for loving the bad boy. (As an aside, I relished Richard's outspoken misogyny in this play, which Shakespeare rebukes by using the Duchess of York, Queen Margaret, Queen Elizabeth, and Lady Anne as a powerful but complex chorus to comment upon his crimes.) When Richard faces the future Henry VII in the final act, the battle comes as a breath of fresh air. After four play's worth (or even eight, if you count the Major Tetralogy) of murky grey-and-grey wars, we finally get an unambiguous moment of good versus evil. By this point, we can't wait to see Richard, the last man standing, get his just deserts.

Historically, of course, the battle of Bosworth Field was nowhere near as clear-cut. Richard III was probably not a villain, and Henry VII unheroically spent a good deal of his time imprisoning and slaughtering the last survivors of the house of York. In Richard III, Shakespeare presents a stirring bit of Tudor propaganda painting both the previous dynasties as hopelessly morally compromised. But he was a good enough storyteller to make it work.

Richard III is without a doubt the best play in the Minor Tetralogy, and a more satisfying piece of storytelling (in my opinion) than any of the Major Tetralogy except, perhaps, Henry V. The Tudor-propaganda aspects do become a little obvious in the final act, and unlike pretty much all the other history plays in either series, it is not subtle in the least. Henry V forces you to chew it over long after watching, while the themes and intent of Richard III are blatant and repetitive. But even with these shortcomings, I think that ultimately, it's my favourite.


I've seen three film versions of Richard III

I saw the Laurence Olivier film many years ago. I can't remember very much about it, but I do remember being captivated. Also, the violence is mostly kept offscreen, so if you want to share this play with the very young (which, why? WHY?) then this version is the one to go for.

Ian McKellan's 1995 production is brilliantly conceived but not particularly faithful, and should definitely come with a content warning. Updated to a nightmarishly gorgeous dieselpunk 1930s, it imagines Richard as a fascist dictator, which would suit the play even better if most of Richard's most fascist moments hadn't been edited out. At just over an hour and a half, this version cuts out a huge amount of the dialogue and everything to do with Queen Margaret. The result is sleek, fast-paced, blackly humorous, and almost completely detached from the backstory, which also detaches it from its own theme. It's stylish, but it leaves many of my favourite moments on the cutting-room floor.

The Hollow Crown production starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role is the only one of these films that includes Queen Margaret, and therefore the only one that comes with the important backstory attached. Cumberbatch has the time of his life as Richard, but the cutting-down of the play compromises some of the most important and memorable scenes, especially Clarence's death and Anne's wooing. On the other hand, Judi Dench and Sophie Okonedo absolutely own every scene they're in, and the film does a very smart job of utilising Queen Margaret in several more scenes than the play, strictly speaking, demands. It's a reasonable, but not an inspired, production.

You can find Richard III on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg and Librivox.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Phantom Lover by Ruby M Ayres

Things have been super busy around here lately--I've been working hard on not one but two big writing projects, which I hope to share good news about shortly! Given this, I decided to leave Richard III till I had the time and energy to savour him properly.

Instead, I'm just going to cheat a bit and repost a review from Goodreads of a delightfully silly vintage romance novel I read a couple of months back. Enjoy!

The Phantom LoverThe Phantom Lover by Ruby M. Ayres
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Oh good HEAVENS.

I always meant to try some Ruby M Ayres, because she is always cited as an inspiration for PG Wodehouse's Rosie M Banks, and the inspired drivel produced by Rosie M always seemed incredibly entertaining. I'm happy to tell you that this book was every bit as daft as I could have hoped, although it might have been improved by a shipwreck and a jewel robbery. It didn't have those, but it did have the most wonderfully idiotic hero you've ever met.

His name is Micky. He falls for the heroine, a shrinking violet named Esther, at first sight as she is heading off to make a hole in the river after being jilted by his caddish friend Raymond. Having restored Esther to a state of non-suicidal life, Micky returns home to find Rotten Raymond heading off to Paris and asking him to deliver one last letter to Esther.

Despite being a preux chevalier, Micky can't resist opening and reading the letter, which turns out to be a nasty heartless missive. Concerned about Esther's mental health, Micky substitutes a letter of his own - a romantic love letter signed YOURS EVER, ROTTEN RAYMOND.

He then proceeds to thoroughly Cyrano himself.

Does it occur to Micky that sooner or later Esther has got to find out that Rascally Raymond isn't sending her letters and pound notes and fur coats? No, dear readers, it does not! When Worthless Waymond marries a wealthy widow and it becomes the talk of the town, Micky ships Esther off to the country so she won't find out.

She does.

She runs off to Paris to confront Ruthless Raymond, and Micky trails along with her so that he can tell her he actually wrote the letters, at which she is justly miffed.

So of course when they all wind up back in London as thoroughly sundered hearts, Ratfaced Raymond tells everyone that Micky was seen in Paris with Miss So-and-So, hem-hem.

To which Micky, who I told you is an idiot, flies into a chivalrous rage and informs everyone within earshot that he and Esther have been married for weeks.

At which point I may have laughed myself sick.

Will Esther get Micky's last love letter in time to patch things up, or will he succeed in proposing to Miss Disposable Third Party and dooming himself to permanent unhappiness? Silly question!

View all my Goodreads reviews!

You can find The Phantom Lover on Project Gutenberg, if you're brave.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Henry VI, Part 3 by William Shakespeare

I was actually super excited to read this play, because it's the last instalment in Shakespeare's English-History Theatrical Universe before Richard III. And it may be rather an irony of this whole belated journey through the history plays, that the chronologically last in this eight-part series is also the one which I first came to. Fifteen years ago or so, my parents hired a DVD of Laurence Olivier's Richard III.

It was mesmerising. It was unforgettable.

It was super confusing, because I didn't know who half the characters were or why they were important or what they'd all been up to before the play began. You could piece together a few things, for example, like the fact that Richard had already been stabbing people pretty freely. But I never actually knew what had happened, and somehow I never quite made the mental connection that hey, maybe I should actually read those plays.

I'm thrilled to have now rectified this situation.

As much as I loved Henry VI, Part 2 I'm now tempted to prefer Henry VI, Part 3This play is a little tighter and more focused than Part 2, and it is intense.

With the Wars of the Roses in full swing and the Duke of York now openly claiming the throne, Henry VI desperately engineers a peace by promising to make York his heir. York is satisfied with this, but Henry's formidable warrior queen Margaret is outraged, and so are many of his staunchest supporters. Margaret raises an army and succeeds in capturing, humiliating, and murdering the duke--but in doing so, unleashes York's three surviving sons on a vengeful rampage that carries eldest son Edward to the throne itself. The Lancastrians retreat to Scotland and France to regroup--and when Edward IV makes a diplomatic faux pas, they're more than ready to reignite war.

This play was terrific, and shows that even after Part 2 Shakespeare had an incredible amount of epic awesome up his sleeve. Defiance, murder, revenge, betrayal, ambition, and the by-now obligatory romantic scene, all of which in this first tetralogy excel in being creepily wrong compared to the more heartfelt and tender scenes in the second. But by far the most compelling element of this play is the relationship between the three brothers that anchors the story.

At the end of the last play, the York brothers are just the Duke's four sons, and the only one with a discernible personality is Richard, already distinguishing himself as a reckless and outspoken fighter. But Part 3 is the tale of how the brothers are welded together into a triumvirate by the tragedies that befall their family--and then shattered apart by their own lusts.

Douglas Wilson once identified "girls, gold, and glory" as the usual temptations of great warriors, and it's interesting that each of the three York brothers is drawn to each of these things. Edward IV's weak spot is women, and his downfall comes at the unwilling hands of presumably the first beautiful woman he's met who refuses to fall into his arms. The steady and dutiful George, Duke of Clarence, is quickly alienated when Edward grants wealthy heiresses to his new wife's family over the heads of his brothers, and defects to the Lancastrians. Meanwhile Richard remains faithful to Edward--but underneath his loyal exterior he's hatching his own plans to eliminate everyone standing between him and the throne.

All this tragedy, revenge and betrayal is everything you ever wanted in a story about siblings. But everything just gets that tiny bit better when one of the siblings concerned is Richard of Gloucester. Richard is a hugely fun character in this play. Silver-tongued, ambitious, snarky, and unscrupulous, it's actually hard to call him a villain, as hard as Shakespeare works to depict him as one. The reason for this is that Richard is only one of many unsavoury characters in this play. Both York and Lancaster are equally morally compromised, and this play merely continues a mounting series of terrible actions on both sides. By now, the civil war is so rancorous that when Margaret kills York, or the York brothers kill Clifford, they do it with lingering, malicious mockery. This is a play where the main characters discover one of their enemies expiring on the battlefield and spend an uncomfortably long time hurling insults and abuses at the corpse. Against such a backdrop, it's not until Richard heads off to knife the only unmistakeably decent person in the whole play that we feel he's crossed a line. Until then, he's simply one among many anti-heroes, and by far the most engaging and colourful one.

Would You Trust This Man?
By now you can probably tell that I absolutely loved this play, and I did. That said, this one is definitely not as strong as Henry VI, Part 2. The first half of the play is absolutely as terrific as anything Shakespeare ever wrote, and it all scrambles back together again for the end. But much of the second half had weirdly rushed pacing, and there were a number of things that fell flat in consequence. The three battles more or less blur into each other, and a number of plot developments don't get the time they need. George's return to his brother's cause, for instance, is abrupt and unexplained. Warwick's death feels like it really should have been made more of. It's as if everything suddenly fast-forwards until we get to the capture of Queen Margaret and Prince Edward.

This is a serious letdown in an otherwise intense and memorable play, but it's salvaged well by the knockout ending. With Lancaster out of the way, Richard is now poised to scythe his way through the entire House of York until it's just him left atop a pile of corpses. I already know how that pans out, but I'm looking forward to reliving it all, this time with a much better idea of what happened in the backstory.

I watched the Hollow Crown production of Henry VI, Part 3 which actually they called "Part 2", even though the majority of the content is from Part 3. Anyway, of course Benedict Cumberbatch makes a mesmerising Richard of Gloucester, consuming the scenery with evident glee. As usual, the adaptation is a good bit looser than usual with Shakespeare on film. While some of the edits in the second half did a good job of adjusting the original play's pacing problems, a surprisingly large number of scenes are altered, some even with lines added or changed, in order to intensify or modify the story. The result works well as television, but is getting pretty far removed from Shakespeare's original. Also, a warning--it's gratuitously, pervasively gory. Not recommended for the young or squeamish.

Find Henry VI, Part 3 on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Henry VI, Part 2 by William Shakespeare

After the plodding, uninspired mess that was Henry VI, Part 1, I wasn't quite expecting Henry VI, Part 2 to be so great.

This play begins with the arrival of Margaret of Anjou, Henry's new queen. Margaret is a fantastic character, by the way--young and penniless, but coldly ambitious and willing to go to any lengths to get what she wants. What she wants is to rule England by ousting Duke Humphrey of Gloucester as Henry VI's protector and taking up his influence over the young, devout, and impressionable king. Her conspiracy to destroy Humphrey quickly gains support not only from her own self-interested Lancaster supporters, but also from the Yorkist faction, led by Duke Richard of York, who secretly hopes that Humphrey's removal will smooth his own way to the throne which he believes is rightfully his...

First of all, Henry VI, Part 2 is not quite Shakespeare at the top of his form, but it's Shakespeare operating at an unprecedentedly epic scope. You name it, this play has it: pirates? villainous forbidden love? assassination? intrigue? witchcraft? battles? satire? catfights? trial by ordeal? Henry VI, Part 2 is a sprawling tale covering years of history, all social strata and dozens of characters. While Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V are known to history as the "Major Tetralogy" and this one gets stuck with "Minor", I can't help feeling that the scope of this play is on a whole different level.

Without a sharp focus on specific characters, and with a plot that encompasses so many different subplots (including fun appearances from the young future Richard III!), this play is a lot to take in, and Shakespeare would for the rest of his career confine himself to a smaller scope. Personally, though, I found it a thrilling and satisfying historical epic. The currents of intrigue that started running in Part 1 now threaten to sweep England into a full-blown civil war, and the sheer scope of the play helps to underline the drama of what's happening.

Piety

If this play is difficult to like, it's because of the characters. The only genuinely heroic character is Duke Humphrey, who spends the whole first half of the story being disgraced and then brutally murdered with the connivance of almost every single other prominent character. The notable exception is Henry VI himself, and the great irony of the play is that Henry is a fat lot of help.

In this instalment of the story, more so than in Henry VI, Part 1, Henry's most notable character trait is his devout goodness. A pious and gentle young man, you'd be pardoned for expecting that England would be peaceful and happy under his reign. But it isn't. Henry makes a terrible king, and he's helpless in the hands of his ruthless and cunning nobles.

"Here is the central irony of the play: Henry's Christian goodness produces evil." So says director Peter Hall, arguing that Henry's adherence to Christian ethics puts him at a disadvantage vis-a-vis the ambition, ruthlessness, and hunger for power of the nobles around him. This is, of course, the Game of Thrones school of ethics: goodness simply can't compete with evil because evil is willing to fight dirty. It's a natural modernist interpretation of the play, but I can't believe that the author of The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Winter's Tale, or Macbeth would seriously promote such a worldview. Macbeth is the ultimate picture of an unscrupulous tyrant laying the foundations of his own destruction, while in Measure for Measure, it's the devout Isabella and the just Duke who easily overcome the self-interested Angelo. No, Shakespeare didn't really believe that goodness is incompetent by definition.

So, no, Henry VI Part 2 is not about a king whose devout piety renders him incapable of resisting evil. Henry's kingly flaws are of course bound up in his piety, but it's the specific kind of piety that he represents which makes him weak. Shakespeare would have been familiar with the passage in Matthew 10:16 where Christ tells his disciples: "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves." Our Lord knew very well that evil men are willing to fight dirty, and he specifically told us not to be naive about this. Shakespeare's Duke in Measure for Measure is a terrific picture of a Christian ruler who aces the wise as serpents part: perceiving and dealing with the corruption in his realm. Henry VI, on the other hand, not only fails to perceive the corruption surrounding him (whether in a mere charlatan pretending to have been cured of blindness, or in his own queen, Margaret), but also repeatedly fails to take action to address it. When things go wrong, Henry complains or faints or calls it the will of God. His primary failure is not his piety. It's his failure to express that piety by means of active justice.

Oddly enough, I read all about the Duchess of Gloucester's case in Charles Williams's book on Witchcraft.

Justice

In Act 2, Shakespeare uses a minor subplot to hit this point home. An armourer accused of treason and the servant who accused him undergo a trial by combat. There is a good deal of satire surrounding the trial: this is not a knightly confrontation between noblemen, but a clash between two drunk and frightened men. It's an unedifying struggle of might between might, when it should actually have been a dispute of truth against truth, ably adjudicated by the king himself. (Romans 13:4 designates civil authorities as God's ministers for justice). Throughout the play, repeatedly we see Henry VI fail to minister divine justice. Meanwhile his powerful nobles subvert justice, turning it into a realpolitik contest of might against might.

To give him his due, Henry recognises (as his nobles do not), that justice is ultimately done in history by a watchful and concerned personal God (this is one of the distinctives of Christianity). When the trial by combat comes to its close, Henry observes:
For by his death we do perceive his guilt.
And God in justice hath revealed to us
The truth and innocence of this poor fellow,
Which he had thought to have murdered wrongfully.
Henry puts his trust in God to see justice done: its "righteous cause prevails." Of course, by the end of the play, hopelessly outmaneuvered, he's fleeing the triumphant Duke of York who is hell-bent on taking his throne. Duke Humphrey puts his trust in justice and innocence too: "All these could not procure me any scathe/So long as I am loyal, true and crimeless." The equally ill-fated Lord Say states, "The trust I have is in my innocence/And therefore I am bold and resolute." These three men are the most just men in the play, and all of them believe they will get justice because they are just. What all three of these men fail to recognise is that however steadfast divine justice may be, earthly justice is, at the moment, hopelessly corrupt (at least partly because the Lancastrian succession actually does have its roots in usurpation).

And as God's ministers of justice, it's their job to fix this.

Again, the trial by combat is the perfect expression of what's wrong with England in this play. The armourer goes into battle confidently, a skilled swordsman, while his accuser is not just hopelessly outclassed but also petrified. To everyone's shock, the accuser triumphs and the armourer confesses his treason as he dies.

This scene struck me when I was reading it as being rather irrelevant to the rest of the plot, but thinking back, I realise how incredibly pivotal it is in a thematic sense.

First, the play is full of good and just men being disgraced and defeated. If Shakespeare believed in divine justice at all, we should expect him to include one small exception as foreshadowing of the ultimate truth and reality of divine justice. That, in this scene, is exactly what we find. The armourer loses, and the servant wins, not because he is powerful but because he is right. It's a hint that no matter how bad things may be in the rest of the play, evil will ultimately fail.

Second, however, this scene is only a small exception to the injustice running rampant in the rest of the play. In this scene God dispenses divine justice by means of something close to a miracle, and it's pretty obvious that for Shakespeare this is a bad thing. If justice was being properly done in England by means of the ministers appointed for it, then trial by combat, war, and insurrection - in a word, raw power struggles - would not be deciding the fate of anyone, let alone thousands.



An Underappreciated Masterpiece?

There is a lot in this play, and this review has run a bit longer than I expected. (I should acknowledge that on first reading, most of the thematic richness of this play passed me by, and I turned to the helpful discussion on Wikipedia for some jumping-off points for my analysis.) Apparently, however, critics consider this the best of the Henry VI plays, and I can see why.

In that case, I have a question: why on earth is it so hard to find a decent production? I've now seen two adaptations of this play, and both lopped out most of the content in order to graft it onto a similarly truncated version of Part 1. Along the way, most of the action and the thematic richness was lost. Henry VI Part 2 is a sprawling, epic play with a thought-provoking point to it, well and truly deserving of a full adaptation. I think it's my second favourite play in either tetralogy so far.

I saw the Hollow Crown production of Henry VI, Parts 1 and 2 which condenses both plays into about two hours (boo!). With gorgeous production values and excellent acting (I was initially unconvinced by the decision to cast Sophie Okonedo as Margaret, but quickly won over by her energetic performance), it was compelling watching. I skipped two scenes and would recommend checking out a parental advisory if you like to be warned about content. A couple of historical inaccuracies made me laugh (I'm pretty sure they didn't use voodoo dolls in medieval England, and a noblewoman like the Duchess of Gloucester would never have been brought to trial looking like a scarecrow!), and like I mentioned, a lot of the action got cut out. Alternate recommendations welcomed!

Find Henry VI, Part 2 on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg and Librivox.

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