All hefty questions, that Derek Birks addresses in a thought-provoking manner Continue reading
Many years ago, in the palace of the Ajuntament in Barcelona, I came across a set of fresco mural painting, showing how Catalan knight in shining armour Roger de la Flor, after generously saving the Byzantine Empire from some Turkish horde or other, was betrayed and murdered for his pains by the same Emperor he had saved… Bad Byzantines! Bad!
All very interesting – and yet… Continue reading
And it’s not unlikely I’ll adopt it as such.
Incidentally, it goes very well with Kipling’s two books of “history” stories, and his other occasional foray into historical fiction. There are not many – just enough to make me wish he had written more.
Also, this would make a nice answer to the unavoidable question of Why Historical Fiction…
Were you ever asked? And what did you say?
I’ve been told recently that in a previous life I must have been a worshipper of Chronos, or perhaps even some sort of minor deity in the field of past time… Which was, I know, a nice way to remark on my obsession with history.
Because yes – in case you haven’t noticed, I do love history. I love it in itself, I love how it is told in scientific earnest and in fiction, I love the way its perception changes through time, I love how it is understood, misunderstood and coloured, I love the games one can play with it.
Still, it was just that – stories that had really happened and were now firmly lodged in books. History was an interesting and bottomless collection of stories, but… it had all happened already. I remember having this notion, as a child, that history had happened, and that I wouldn’t see any of it in my lifetime.
And then… I was fifteen when the Berlin Wall fell.
I remember standing rooted before the TV set, and watching Berliners climb over the spray-painted wall, with pickaxes, and sing, and push their way past the perplexed VoPos… And I cried my eyes out over it.
I cried with joy, I was moved – not only because of the thing itself, but because, for the first time in my life, I consciously saw history leap out of books and happen.
And it was so alive, and forceful, and sweeping. Empires really crumbled, and crowds really sang in the streets, and tore down much more than physycal frontiers… Knowing in theory that the world could change overnight had been one thing – seeing it happen changed everything.
All of a sudden, all the stories in the books, all the far-away facts that had been just ink and paper, came alive. It was as though witnessing one made them all more real. As though it breathed life into them all. As though it blew away all the dust that had coated them.
On the night of November 9, 1989, as the Wall fell, the world took a whole new meaning in my eyes – a new layer of reality that comprised movement and change. Everything became more vibrant, more vivid, deeper, in a whorl of iridescence and undercurrents. It was thrilling. And shocking. And magnificent.
So, yes. I know nothing of my previous lives, but I know exactly what rite of passage made me a worshipper of Chronos, and Clio, and Mnemosyne – and that happened on a November night, twenty-five years ago.
The kid is smart enough, but hates most teachers, spends far too much time playing Assassin’s Creed, delights in amassing bits and bits of obscure knowledge, yet won’t make an effort to remember two Roman emperors in a row.
The way he is made to learn doesn’t help, either. They hop from emperor to later emperor, leaving out whole decades – never mind that they contain key logical steps of the whole story. Diocletian, Constantin, something of Theodosius… Right, but what of the fifty years of anarchy Diocletian ends? Blank. How does Constantin become emperor? Never mind. And what about the Visigoths? Who?
Thinking there is no way he can understant – let alone appreciate – history by fits and starts, I try to bridge the gaps. To make him see cause and effect and cause and effect. To show how all these disconnected names are actually characters in one long tale – and a true one.
Speaking of which… we are talking late Empire, here. An eventful, messily adventurous, exciting time, if a gloomy one. The kid is a voracious reader, a lover of adventures and battles – the gorier the better… how, how, how on earth can he miss the stirring romance of it?
So I’m trying hard. I tell him about the people, the places, the times, the battles. I make him think, work out the long shadows thrown by even the dryest piece of fiscal policy. I make him put himself in the shoes of Diocletian, of a peasant faced with ruinous taxes, of a general at the north-eastern border facing the Visigoths…
“I think you have too much imagination,” he says, shaking his head at me – after telling me he likes Julius Ceasar because he invented the testudo formation and some kind of trap or other…
At least he never told me yet that history can’t have happened. That was another girl I tutored, years ago. She was fifteen too – it must be a bad age for history.* This started out with Latin, actually. One day she didn’t feel like translating Titus Livius – some battle I forget – she up and told me it was useless, anyway.
“I refuse to believe it ever happened.”
I was perched on a ladder, browsing a bookshelf for an Osprey volume depicting the battle in question – and nearly fell down.
“You refuse what?”
She said it was at once to absurdly complicated and too pat.
“They made it up. They must have. And Latin as well. Who’s fool enough to speak something that needs conjugating at every step?”
I might have mentioned modern German and Russians, but I had other, more pressing questions in mind.
“But, my dear girl, if you don’t think they fought battles, spoke Latin, grew farro, laughed at outrageous comedies, and occasionally murdered each other, what do you believe they did all the time?”
The kid shrugged with the supreme indifference of youth.
“Something else, clearly.”
And she would have proceeded gleefully to invent a known- worldwide conspiracy to magnify the glory of a less-than-glorious Rome – except I sent her back to work on her translation.
She is a brilliant pharmaceutical researcher now, and we still laugh about her theory when we meet – so I guess one day we’ll laugh about Diocletian as well…
But I don’t despair yet. The romance of history and the fun of the thought-process are there, his for the taking. The kid shall see it – if I have to beat him all the way there.
* Well, actually, at fifteen I already loved history to distraction, and indeed, it was the age when… but I guess that a) I was a bit of a geek; b) this is fodder for another post.
In less than two weeks, James Aitcheson’s new historical novel, Knights of the Hawk will be out.
It is the third book in a trilogy, and I loved the first two volumes* – so I’ll most certainly buy and read the third instalment of the story of Tancred a Dinant.
They make for a great read, these novels: good, solid, exciting adventures in a post-Hastings England, from a Norman point of view, with a well-meaning hero, talented in the art of finding trouble.
Tancred is a half-Breton who serves under Norman colours, and does not know too well what to call himself. He very much means to be a good knight, a good vassal, a good Christian, and is brave, honourable and smart – but also far too ambitious, outspoken and headstrong for his own good…
Aitcheson chronicles his struggles and rise, and does it well. He writes with good rhythm, engaging characters, excellent dialogue, and his recreation of Medieval England rings rich and true without overwhelming the reader with needless detail. What is even more, his people think, feel, fight, believe and talk like XI Century people.
So yes, I really like these books – and this is why I was surprised by a few of the reviews on Amazon. Now, let me explain: I did this some time ago, when the second volume, The Splintered Kingdom was just out in the UK, and the reviews were just a handful, all of them good to enthusiastic, but…
But most reviewers remarked on the violence and brutality of the fight scenes. One reader described them as “high-octane stuff”.
And I was perplexed, because I’d found nothing especially gruesome in TSK – and I’m a wimp. I have trouble reading very graphic descriptions of violence, tire easily of too much grit and gore, and have been known to abandon books out of sheer revulsion.
So I wonder. Have I developed a higher threshold for written violence over the years? It seems unlikely, and in truth I think it is something else.
I think it is that Tancred, hero and narrator, never shows a qualm when it comes to battle, killing and bloodshed. He has been fighting his whole life, with unabashed enthusiasm and a certainty of being on the right side. He enjoys it – and yes, it is a hard and chancy life, foes are in dead earnest, friends die, defeat and ruin are never far away, and yet to Tancred few things equal the battle-joy.
Not once in four hundred pages does he go through one of those crises of disgust and remorse. Fighting is his job – in a very unashamed and medieval way: he is good at it, he has developed a little of what he doesn’t know to be adrenaline addiction, and almost pities those who ignore the way of the sword and its dangerous joys.
Very politically uncorrect, very historically correct.
So I wonder: is this what creeps out reviewers? Not so much violence itself, as an attitude to violence? This brazen taste for battle – that works its high-octane charm on us, civilized people, even while we feel we ought to disapprove it?
* Actually, the second one I also reviewed for the HNR.