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

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.

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.

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!


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