Monday, 31 December 2012

The Wordsmith's Tale - Stephen Edden

(Beautiful Books Limited, 2011, 384 pages, ISBN: 9781907616969)

In 1087, Thomas the Piper picks up his whistle and coaxes forth tunes that bring to life the history of his ancestors over the span of a hundred years. Thomas’ family were serfs and story-weavers, their tale beginning with his famed great-grandfather, the dwarf Tom Thumb, once storyteller to King Edgar himself. Truth and fable are plied in a yarn that weaves its way through the years, from Tom’s search for and wooing of his beloved, once-beautiful Fleda, to the joys and tragedies of their son, gentle giant Bas, Bas’ children, the strong-willed Emma and her younger brother Harry, and finally Thomas the Piper himself.

This is a novel I found by turns haunting and playful. Although his characters may blur the boundaries between truth and romance in the tales they tell, Edden is very clear about the grim realities of life in these years – plague, famine, murder and gang rape all appear within the course of the novel. Yet this is never gratuitous, and amid these appalling circumstances we also see the characters’ strength, the immense compassion and determination in Thomas’ family, which weathers treachery and misery. The playfulness comes in Edden’s lightness of touch, teasing reference to nursery rhyme and folktale, and his wry humour, buoying up both the characters and the novel itself.

Edden is, like his storytellers, a wordsmith, and the language of the novel is unfussy but rich, making for a satisfying read. Beautiful composite words, such as ‘life-tinder’ and ‘not-too-distance’, give a distinctly Old English flavour, and sometimes original Old English words are used, to more clearly define what the characters perceive. The tales are sprinkled with poems written in an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ style, spare but lyrical, with those lovely composite words that compress meaning into something short, sweet and instantly understood. These poems, like the narrative, are sometimes haunting, and sometimes playful, and add to the sense of this as an oral tale, a story focused on the passing down of finely crafted words and the lives held within them, living on.

All of Thomas’ family were rounded, distinct characters, easy to empathise with. Their major adversaries had convincing motivations and they, too, were well-drawn – as were the secondary characters. And that includes one very flatulent mule. The main characters are fictional, but there are appearances by both Harold Godwinsson and William of Normandy.

An author’s note at the beginning of the novel deals briefly with his decision to include some Old English and includes helpful information about word-endings.

Evocative and enjoyable tale of late Anglo-Saxon England.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Sir John Harington, 1560-1612

John Harington was born in 1560 in London, to the gentleman and poet John Harington of Stepney and his second wife Isabella Markham, a gentlewoman of Elizabeth I’s Privy Chamber. He was baptised at Allhallows, London Wall, with the Earl of Pembroke as his godfather and the Queen herself as his godmother. A tiny gold font, now lost, was gifted to him from her at his baptism. Of all her many godchildren, it was Harington whom she spoke of as ‘my godson’. During his time studying at Eton she sent him a letter, exhorting ‘boye Jacke’ to study a speech she’d included; and over the following years her fondness for ‘that witty fellow’ and his drolleries, although strained at times, never ceased.

In 1569 John’s parents moved to Kelston, a few miles from the city of Bath. Here Harington of Stepney held land which had been granted to his first wife Ethelreda Malte, who may or may not have been the illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII. Harington of Stepney set about building Kelston Manor, an undertaking which John took on after his father’s death in 1582. Nothing now remains of his elaborate home but a few descriptions, some earthworks, a possible brewery building, and an overgrown patch of walled garden beside the church of St. Nicholas, which lay adjacent to the house. We do know that the Queen, on her progress to Bristol in 1592, was reputed to have visited the manor where she ‘dined right royally’ under a fountain bearing John’s witty device, a hare, holding a ring, sat on a tun. 

Church of St. Nicholas, Kelston; by Wikipedia user Rwendland

John had as his neighbours the Rogers family of Cannington, and in 1583 he married Mary, daughter of the widowed Lady Jane. When questioned by the Queen on the success of their partnership, Mary attributed it to ‘persuad[ing] her husbande of her own affectione, and in so doinge…command[ing] his’. They had nine children, two of whom, described by John as ‘two too fleeting’, died in infancy. Also numbered among the family members was Bungey the spaniel, described as a ‘rare Dogge’.

John’s collection of epigrams from 1600 contains many poems featuring or addressed to members of his immediate family. Those to his mother-in-law are often surprisingly frank, whilst several to his ‘Sweet Mall’ border on the saucy. Occasionally, as the epigrams show, both wife and mother-in-law conspired to criticise John’s frequent visits to court, and despite his partiality for playing the courtier, he did come around to their view. As for Bungey, he merited not only an epigram but, in later years, a letter to James I’s son Prince Henry, describing his intelligence and various ‘feats’, including carrying letters to and from Elizabeth’s court.  

Harington and Bungey on title page of Orlando Furioso; used under the NPG's CC licence

John graduated as Bachelor of Arts from Cambridge in 1578 and took his Master of Arts there in 1581. Despite his education and his skill as a poet, he often put himself forward as something of the harmless court fool. The tactic of hiding art within art, as promoted by Castiglione in his Book of the Courtier, was one which served John well in the upheavals of both the Elizabethan and Jacobean courts. But being a man with a certain degree of liberal-mindedness, and moreover the ‘purpose to speak frankly and truly’, he didn’t always escape trouble.  

The Haringtons had close connections with several Catholic families and both father and son seem to have held the martyred Jesuit priest Edmund Campion in high regard. In 1583-4 Elizabeth was informed that John was involved with ‘nawghtie bookes’ – not quite what it sounds like, the phrase in fact refers to some of Campion’s works, dangerous material in Protestant England, which John was helping to import and distribute.

Another kind of naughty book – by Elizabethan standards, at least – was what got John into trouble next because, kind-hearted fellow that he was, he determined to give the no doubt rather bored ladies-in-waiting to the Queen a bit of reading matter. So he translated for them in a rather racy vein book 28 of the Italian epic poem Orlando Furioso. The Queen was not impressed. Harington was to be banished from the court – until he’d translated the work in full. Undeterred, Harington did just that, and published it in 1591 with a title page which not only featured his portrait but also a nonchalant talking spaniel – representative of Bungey – a device he ‘fancie[d]’ a great deal. Both can be seen in the picture above. The same year, John became High Sheriff of Somerset.

Not long after the Orlando Furioso debacle, John turned his inventive mind to the creation of something radically different: a flushing toilet. This included two of the elements – the valve and the wash-down system – present in the modern day lavatory, and John had one installed in Kelston Manor. In true Harington fashion, it was nicknamed ‘Ajax’, punning on the Elizabethan term for the toilet, ‘a jakes’. The Queen is said to have had one in Richmond Palace, and perhaps another in Whitehall, although ‘the sound of the waters were enough to upset her digestion for a week’ and she suggested he sell the invention to the ‘Irish or Blackamoors…but not in my kingdom.’ It’s inventing the loo for which John is probably best known, which got him an ‘interview’ on the BBC’s Society of Inventors programme, and a slightly more dubious few minutes of fame in an episode of South Park. Whatever he might think of this claim to fame, it probably wouldn’t have surprised him. ‘[W]hen you have heard,’ he wrote, ‘there was one who had written of A Jakes, straight you had a great mind to see what discourse it would prove… You hoped for some knavery.’

Descendant of the Ajax; by Wikipedia user Jarlhelm

He went on to write a book based around the idea, A new Discourse on a Stale Subject called the Metamorphosis of Ajax, which was printed in1596. A list of materials for the building of the invention was included, as well as a picture of the finished article, complete with fish swimming in the cistern. However, the main part of the book was actually concerned with cleanliness of both body and mind – John nicknamed himself Misacmos, ‘hater of filth’ – which included clearing the names of some of John’s relatives, suspected of being Catholic recusants. It also contained some very unflattering comments about several courtiers, one of them the recently deceased Earl of Leicester. Once again, John was dismissed from court, with instructions to grow more ‘sober’ – although by 1598 the Queen was beginning to thaw.

In 1599 John accompanied the Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux, to Ireland, where his involvement in ‘action’ led to Essex knighting him. True to form, John couldn’t resist a joke, and the entry in the Calendar of State Papers was for Sir ‘Ajax’ Harington. But the Queen was displeased at Essex’s handling of the Irish campaign, and John narrowly avoided imprisonment in the Fleet prison as a result. Luck was on his side – after some days of being rebuffed, Elizabeth eventually granted him an audience. And the knighthood remained.  

So did John’s capacity for getting into trouble, which included a suit brought against him by his brother-in-law for stealing goods and a spell of imprisonment for debt after standing surety for his disgraced cousin Griffin Markham. Fortunately, the outcomes of both crises were in his favour, and in 1603 King James I created him a Knight of the Bath.

Although John made sure to be attentive to his new monarch, it seems to have been James’ son, Prince Henry, who was his main interest. John’s Epigrams of 1600, witty, acerbic and touching in various measures, was dedicated to the Prince in 1605, and John wrote him letters and translated and annotated texts for his edification, including several works relating to religion. John had a deep interest in theology, and supplemented it with practicality, such as drawing attention, in 1608, to the need for more money to restore Bath Abbey.

Bath Abbey today; by Wikipedia user Bluedog423

Even while still in his early forties, John had been troubled with lameness enough to call himself a ‘cripple’, and a couple of years later he was ‘olde and infirme’. Whatever ailment he suffered from, it was long-lasting: in May 1612 he was conveyed to the healing spa of Bath ‘sick of a dead palsy’. He eventually returned to Kelston, and managed to compose more letters to Prince Henry, who died on the 6th November that year. Two weeks later, on the 20th, John himself died.

His funeral was held on December 1st – the feast day of Edmund Campion. He was buried in the parish church of St. Nicholas, with a grave slab which reads simply ‘In memory of Sir John Harington, knight, 1612’. Originally his grave was located within the communion rails, but during the Victorian rebuilding of the church, the slab at least was relocated into the churchyard, where it still stands.

Tomorrow, November the 20th, marks the 400th anniversary of Sir John’s death. But because you can’t keep a good legend down, I’m posting this today, which just happens to be World Toilet Day – an event aiming to promote accessible and clean toilet facilities for all. I like to think Sir John would approve. 

Sir John in the early 1590s; used under the NPG's CC licence


Collinson, J. (1791) The History and Antiquities of the County of Somerset, Bath, R. Cruttwell
Grimble, I. (1957) The Harington Family, London, Jonathan Cape
Jesse, G. (1866) Researches into the History of the British Dog, London, Robert Hardwick
Kilroy, G. (2009) The Epigrams of Sir John Harington, Farnham, Ashgate
Pudney, J. (1955) The Smallest Room, London, Michael Joseph

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The Knot - Jane Borodale

(HarperPress, 2012, 448 pages, ISBN 9780007313327)

Henry Lyte is a man who is passionate about plants. Recently remarried after the tragic death of his first wife Anys, he still finds more than enough time to absorb himself in the world of flora, working to translate and consolidate an important Dutch herbal. And he also has ambitious plans; plans for a magnificent garden replete with herbs, a decorative knot at its core. Yet Henry Lyte doesn’t sleep well. Ghosts from his past tug at him, refusing to be ignored. And in the here-and-now, the malignant presence of his step-mother Joan Young winds its way around him like bindweed – threatening everything he loves.

This is a rich, often contemplative novel, yet with strong sources of conflict, and I enjoyed it immensely. It focuses on the years between 1565 and 1578, and there’s a strong sense of the period, in the way that the characters reason as much as in depictions of dress, music or custom. The dialogue is well-crafted, and flavoured with Elizabethan words and grammatical structures enough to convince, but not distract. The novel is written in the present tense and at first I found the reading slightly slow-going as I adjusted to this, as well as the gentle pace, which is largely the result of Borodale’s luscious and intricate prose, steeped in nature – above all, Henry Lyte’s love of plants. Not only does she include many descriptions of the plants themselves (the one of lilies at night is my particular favourite) but there’s also a great deal of imagery based around them, often linking plant with human. The reader never forgets the importance of plants to the central character.

Henry Lyte of Lytes Cary Manor in Somerset was a real historical figure, and he is treated here with sensitivity and respect. Although the novel is third-person, Borodale tells the story almost exclusively through Henry’s point of view, so that we gain a deep insight into the thoughts and feelings of this complex and interesting character. Henry Lyte is a man beleaguered by guilt over past actions and not without foibles, but he is also private, compassionate, dedicated, with a deep appreciation of nature and a desire to share his knowledge of it in order to help others. In many respects he’s a man of his time; when his views do tip into the unorthodox they are never of the extreme kind but rather the sort of questioning one could well imagine occurring in the context, as he explores and ponders man’s place in the natural world.

The narrative’s focus on Henry and his immediate world means that events outside of Lytes Cary are often distant; the displacement of the Huguenots, for example, or the formation of a local militia to repel a possible Spanish invasion, are touched upon in no more than a few lines, which perfectly encapsulates the insular feel of life on a minor country estate in the sixteenth century.

This estate also happens to be populated by a number of satisfyingly drawn characters: the outspoken gardener Tobias Mote; the unsettling Widow Hodges; Henry’s new wife Frances, whose dislike of the Levels which surround Lytes Cary borders on obsession. The Levels are almost a character in themselves, always on the margins of the inhabitants’ lives, sometimes venturing all the way in; a reminder of mortality yet also a demonstration of life springing from death – unstable both metaphorically and literally. Borodale captures their liminal state well, but she also makes them very real, through her beautiful descriptions of abundant summer plants, for example, or the glimmering floodwater which needs to be navigated in winter.

The novel also includes extracts from Henry’s Niewe Herball at the start of each chapter, illustrations based upon the woodcuts from his book, and a picture of Henry Lyte himself, all of which help to bring him just that bit closer. An author’s note at the end explains some of the history behind the novel.

A detailed, absorbing and touching literary tale of a man who deserves to be better known.  

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

The Merry Wives of Windsor - Shakespeare's Globe

(Opus Arte, 2012, 145 minutes)

Windsor, England, and the ‘fat knight’ Sir John Falstaff is down on his luck. But not to worry. Convinced that the ‘merry wives’, Mistresses Page and Ford, have succumbed to his charms, Falstaff is determined to seduce them both – gaining the keys to their husbands’ coffers along the way. Unfortunately for Sir John, he has reckoned without the Wives’ integrity, several humiliating assignations, and a very cramped and extremely smelly laundry basket.
  This has to be one of the most enjoyable Shakespeare productions I’ve seen, and it’s certainly one that’s had me doubled up with laughter. Originally performed in 2008 it was revived and went on tour in 2010, before being recorded live at the Globe for DVD. Although live performances aren’t always successful as recordings, this one has transferred well to film, and my only complaint is that sometimes more inclusive shots would have been preferable to the close-ups which obscured parts of the action.
  Purists may take issue with the Globe’s editing: the minor character of Bardolph, for example, has been cut, as have a comedy scene centred on Latin and an incomplete sub-plot. Many speeches have been shortened to give them punchier comic timing. But it’s easy to see why the Globe has done this – they’ve worked hard to create a satisfying and comprehensible piece of entertainment, and as such I reckon Shakespeare would probably let them off.
  Serena Evans and Sarah Woodward star as the titular wives, playing their parts to the hilt to give us a pair of witty, believable women, honest but not above a ribald joke or two, and certainly not above teaching Sir John Falstaff a lesson. Superbly played by Christopher Benjamin, our troublesome knight's plummy voice and grandfatherly aspect just can’t conceal that he’s an earthy, fat old rogue with an inflated sense of his own sexual attractiveness and a propensity for getting into enormous amorous scrapes. Meanwhile Andrew Havill very nearly steals the show as the Fawlty-esque but not unsympathetic Master Ford, convinced he’s being cuckolded but always thwarted in his downright hilarious, laundry-pervaded attempts to uncover the culprit.
  Bright Elizabethan costumes and lively accompanying music played on period instruments add further layers to enjoy. The original play contained only one song, here titled ‘Fie on Sinful Fantasy’, but the Globe have also incorporated three more: ‘My Love is Fair’, based on a poem by Shakespeare’s contemporary George Peele, and ‘Ding Dong Bell’ and the immensely catchy ‘Merrily and Ever Among’, both rooted in Shakespeare’s own words. Again, this is something that might perhaps have the purists grinding their teeth – but the Globe blends each song in seamlessly and pulls it all off with flair.
   They don’t forget the message of reconciliation on which the play ends, either, which gives it just that bit more emotional depth. Mind you, even in the midst of that, Shakespeare couldn’t resist a joke, and it’s that wittiness which really sets the tone for this production – overwhelmingly sunny, imbued with a huge spirit of fun, and full of energy and the zest for life which Falstaff himself is famous for. Well worth at least one viewing! The DVD also contains a gallery of cast photos.
You can watch the trailer for the 2010 tour below.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Into the Valley of Death - A.L. Berridge

(Penguin: Michael Joseph, 2012, 480 pages, ISBN 9780718158989 )

‘Into the valley of death rode the six hundred’. It’s a line I’ve been familiar with from childhood, long before I properly knew what the Crimean War was, or what the Charge of the Light Brigade really meant. I may even have known the names of Raglan, Cardigan, Lucan and Nolan. But the common soldiers, the men who struggled on the battlefield, were hacked and blown to pieces in the attempt to drive the Russians from the Crimea? No. Much like Berridge herself says here about the film The Charge of the Light Brigade,
the story as I’d heard it seemed to have no heart.
This one does.
It’s 1854, and private Harry Ryder is just one of hundreds of soldiers in the Allied Armies moving towards Sebastopol. But Harry bears the British army a grudge. Holding them responsible for his father’s death and the uncertainty of his own prospects, he’s openly and damningly critical of their innate incompetence. Yet there’s something more insidious than that in their ranks – something that leads men to destruction and could lose them the war. Brought together by chance, four very different men and one woman set out on the dangerous path to uncovering the truth – before it’s too late.
This is an action-filled novel – covering just a few months of the war – that crackles along at one heck of a pace. Hard to put down, and when I did, I’d often find myself returning to it a few minutes later. All the major characters are fictional, with the exception of Colonel Doherty; and there are, of course, brief appearances from men such as Cardigan and Nolan. But the focus of the novel is those in the ranks, which gives a very up-close and personal view of what was really happening. There’s a wealth of detail here – Berridge obviously knows her stuff and integrates it very well. Occasionally I found myself embarking on a search for military-based words that even my dictionary didn’t have, or looking for a translation of cant phrases such as ‘on the shake lurk’, but as these added a real sense of the period, I wasn’t going to complain.
I really enjoyed Berridge’s style, which not only draws you along with its flow but manages to be powerful, almost muscular, and graceful at the same time. She doesn’t flinch from describing the carnage of war, and the descriptions are visceral and often harrowing. But we also get to see the heroism and friendships that persisted in spite of all this – in particular the friendship between the five main protagonists.
One of the strongest points of the novel for me was the characterisation of these five; all well-rounded, all individuals with their own unique narrative voices, and with such realistic inner lives that it’s impossible not to empathise with them. I particularly like the balance Berridge strikes with both these and others. Harry, for example, is a captivating protagonist, but we know he’s far from perfect; whilst a man we may see as a tyrant is shown to be as human as anyone else – and Berridge made me absolutely believe it. Another plus is that these are not prim and proper Victorians but real people we can understand; yes, they have principles, they have religious faith, but this always seems genuine, and it doesn't preclude some characters swearing, enjoying their rum ration, and having a fondness for innuendo, either.
On a more practical note, three maps at the front of the book are extremely useful for placing the action, in particular those two which show the location of and routes taken by certain troops. A Historical Note at the end gives some of Berridge’s source material, as well as describing the genesis of the story, which is highly interesting in itself. I’ll leave you to find out why!
A superbly told tale of the Crimean War with a twist of mystery – I’ll be looking out for the next!

Friday, 29 June 2012

Hawk Quest - Robert Lyndon

(Sphere, 2012, 672 Pages)

Given that I like to allow time for a wide range of reviews to accumulate, it’s pretty rare for me these days to get hold of a book almost straight after its publication. But when Hawk Quest came on the scene I really sat up and took notice. Released in January 2012, it was greeted from the start by a flurry of highly positive reviews. The storytelling sounded first rate. The premise was one I loved the look of. I couldn’t resist – and I wasn’t disappointed.
The novel, which is Lyndon’s first, takes place just six years after the Norman Conquest. The dust jacket, in fact, calls the tale an ‘epic…of the Norman Conquests’, but although Normans feature quite significantly, the main thrust of the novel is succinctly summed up in the title. The Turks are holding captive a Norman knight. The price of his release: four incredibly rare, pure white gyrfalcons. The Frankish mercenary Vallon, talked into delivering the ransom terms by a young Sicilian scholar, soon finds himself embarking with a motley company on a journey of epic proportions, bound not only to capture the birds in their northern homeland, but to deliver them to their final destination of Anatolia. The question is: can they do it?
Deceit; love; skirmishes; ships; feisty women; Vikings; and, of course, hawks – you name them, this novel has them. Lyndon’s knowledge of both the history and the practical matters – such as the construction of ships and the handling of falcons – is evident throughout the novel, but it’s always worn lightly, never becoming onerous; although I admit I often had to resort to the dictionary for various ship-related terms! At over 650 pages, this novel is a heavyweight, but the pace never slackens. I often found myself reading it compulsively: it’s a book that’s hard to put down. Lyndon writes well – his style can be spare or lyrical, as the situation demands, and he sprinkles unusual and dialect terms throughout, adding to the evocative effect of his prose. Nor is he afraid to use dialect and slang in his dialogue, which makes a refreshing change and is often just plain fun.
The main characters in the novel are strongly drawn, memorable and complex. I especially liked Vallon, the sometimes enigmatic major protagonist, with whom Lyndon has achieved something that’s not always easy: the creation of a character who is very much of his time and may exhibit traits and attitudes unsettling and distasteful to the modern reader, yet is also very human – someone struggling to come to terms with his past and remake himself in the present, with whom we can empathise.
I’m particularly fond of novels that feature an ensemble cast thrown together in often less than ideal circumstances, and Lyndon pulls this off with panache, showing us both the tensions and the bonds that form on this huge and frequently difficult journey. If occasionally some of the characters of the original company seemed a little underdeveloped, I can appreciate that the massive scale of the novel made this unavoidable. And, of course, the journey itself becomes a kind of character, often taking centre stage as the environments the group pass through, even down to their weather, are detailed in vivid description.
An absolutely cracking read; powerful, truthful and compelling. Apparently there’s a sequel in the making – you can be certain that’s one book I’ll definitely be buying!

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Emperor: The Gates of Rome - Conn Iggulden

(Harper Collins, 2003, 624 pages)

I’ve know of Conn Iggulden for many years, but for whatever reason, never got around to reading any of his work until now. The Gates of Rome is, I believe, his first novel, and opens the Emperor series, which follows the lives of Gaius Julius Caesar and some of his closest associates. I was a little unsure what to expect, but when the book introduced me to the future Roman emperor covered from head to foot in mud, I decided it was probably worth reading on.
With his father often absent in Rome, there’s plenty of opportunity for young Gaius and his best friend Marcus – fostered by Gaius’ family after his father’s death – to engage in various escapades (and get into several scrapes on the side) as they roam the family estate. But all that changes when the boys turn ten, and Gaius’ father hires the sour ex-gladiator Renius to toughen them up, and train them in the art of killing – not to mention surviving in the very dangerous world that is Rome. The novel charts their progress, and the ways in which their lives are intertwined with so many others, as both setbacks and triumphs conspire in the formation of the eminent men they will one day become.
Iggulden’s prose is spare but sturdy, and if it sometimes borders on the inelegant, the pace of the book doesn’t let you notice it for long. The characters aren’t described in huge depth, and Iggulden could easily have slipped into stereotypes – larger-than-life Marius, loyal Tubruk, cranky Renius – but this doesn’t happen, with the major players in the main being powerfully drawn. Marcus and Gaius made engaging protagonists, and in particular I found their youthful antics great fun. Occasionally I did feel that their characterisation was a little uneven – perhaps because at times Iggulden seems to be trying to make them simultaneously equal and complementary – but I guess this could just as well be showing the uncertain steps taken in growing up and finding your identity.
Iggulden is, of course, well-known for his somewhat laid-back approach to historical accuracy, not being afraid to modify things as it suits him. Some of this he acknowledges in the Historical Note at the end of the novel – some of it he doesn’t. If you’re keen on historical novelists sticking to accepted fact, then you may have problems with the novel. Although I suspect that – depending on how it’s done – it might bother me in later instalments, it didn’t cause me much of a problem here. Neither did the very subtle ‘magic’ element, which was focused mostly on healing and foresight.
There were some aspects of the novel I did have reservations about – changes in character relationships that seemed implausibly rapid; events that had a whiff of contrivance; and above all, the placing of information dumps in dialogue. But on the whole, I found the book a quick, enjoyable read – although I fully admit that I’d read the next one as much to find out what happens to that delightfully crabby old git Renius as to Marcus and Gaius.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Galahad - Paul Newman

 (Halsgrove, 2004, 126 pages)

I spent quite a while trying to pin down the genre of this idiosyncratic novel. Eventually I decided on the Polonius-style definition of ‘alternative historical fantasy’, and that’s about as close as I can get.
The narrative – ‘and I swear by the Holy Rood it is all true’ – follows our titular hero from childhood to adulthood, from innocence to experience. Galahad begins with the intention of becoming a novice monk, but alas, he is assigned to the monastery at Cerne Abbas, where he soon learns that God is not the community’s most prominent member. With his purity somewhat compromised and his religious ambitions thus thwarted, he embarks on knighthood, eventually becoming a knight of the Round Table, sent by Arthur on a quest for the Holy Grail – which is what forms the backbone of this book.
The setting, as my classification above hints at, is a somewhat elastic one. The fantasy label stems not so much from the inclusion of magic – there’s very little – but rather characters and creatures from myth and folk tales: Herne the Hunter, for example. I call it ‘alternative’ because the past it purports to be set in never really existed. Defined in the novel as the ‘Dark Ages’, it’s actually a realm where Iron Age tribes rub shoulders
with Roman names and dress, and marauding Vikings – although the milieu is overwhelmingly Medieval, with lots of talk of chivalry, knights charging around in hauberks (well, a bit more than hauberks, actually, but you get the idea), and castles in plenty. Many anachronisms are clearly deliberate (the proto-disco lights, for one); with others it’s harder to tell. Having read the novel before, I was prepared to take it on its own terms in this regard, and by and large that was fairly easy.
There were times, however, when the novel felt a bit uneven. Galahad wasn’t an uninteresting character, but in many ways I preferred his younger self; the older Galahad can be an endearing rogue, but he also has a world-weary cynicism that might have benefited, I feel, from more humour to complement it. That’s not to say that the novel isn’t funny: indeed, I could go further with my earlier definition and try terming it ‘alternative historical comic fantasy’. But that too can be a bit of a hit-and-miss affair: some parts are extremely amusing, whereas elsewhere, the humour can seem forced.
This sort of see-sawing characterises the novel as a whole for me. Sometimes the vignettes which form the tale are entertaining, sometimes they appear strained attempts to make a point or joke; sometimes Newman’s prose tips into cliché, sometimes it’s captivating and innovative; sometimes the dialogue snaps, sometimes it’s banal; sometimes Galahad’s ‘philosophical’ asides are tedious, sometimes they’re interesting; and sometimes the characters seem flat, whilst at others they’re appealing. I do wonder if tighter editing may have been beneficial here. Closer proof-reading would certainly have been so: there are numerous spelling issues (the Dylfric/Dyfric switching is enough to make your head spin), word muddles (e.g. ‘Father’ instead of ‘Farmer’), omissions, and repetitions, including one several lines long.
‘[T]his book’ says Galahad, ‘should appeal to all, from swineherds to archbishops’. Well, when I first read it back in 2008, I really enjoyed it. Now it’s a bit of a curate’s egg for me. In some places it definitely seems a bit off – but there are parts that are excellent. And as a final comment: I think it’s testament to Newman’s ability that, even though I knew the ending, it was still as poignant for me as it was four years ago.
A quirky reworking of the Grail Quest with some enjoyable elements. And disco lights.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Sword at Sunset - Rosemary Sutcliff

(Chicago Review Press, 2008, 495 pages)

First published in 1963, Sword at Sunset is perhaps Rosemary Sutcliff’s best known adult novel, a vivid re-imagining of the myth that is King Arthur. Sutcliff strips away the medieval ‘romance’ here, instead drawing sparingly on Welsh tradition, and grounding her tale very much in the realities of the post-Roman era, as the inhabitants of Britain struggle against not just the rising tide of the Anglo-Saxon ‘Sea Wolves’ and their allies, but dangerous division amongst themselves.  
The story is narrated by Sutcliff’s Arthur, Artos, as he lies dying of a battle wound in the monastery of the Island of Apples, and takes us on a journey from his early years as the Count of Britain, the canny head of a roving warband whose purpose is to break Anglo-Saxon power in Britain, through to his election as High King and beyond. But the novel doesn’t charge straight into battle: Sutcliff starts slowly, building up a detailed sense of Artos’ world and his character, so that although I was unsure about him at first, I gradually came to respect, and then to like him. Artos makes a thoroughly believable post-Roman warleader, not above using trickery and threats – even towards his own people – if it allows him to further his cause; but although he has his flaws, he’s also very human: dogged and made vulnerable by a fateful encounter in his home hills, committed to his cause, afraid of the loneliness accompanying authority, and in many respects honest, decent and loyal, it’s easy to empathise with him, and of all the characters in the book, he was my favourite. Sutcliff said that she was more 'deeply involved' with this novel than any other, and described herself as 'living' as Artos during the time she was writing it, and it’s perhaps a mark of this involvement that whilst her style is very distinctive, I never felt I was listening to anyone other than Artos himself. Her other characters were well drawn, their natures often deftly conveyed by just a few well chosen words, and the relationships between them are emotionally powerful and compelling – especially between Artos and his two closest companions, Guenhumara and Bedwyr.  
The descriptions of surroundings and events are, as ever, detailed and vibrant, especially visually – the passages depicting sunsets stand out particularly – which leaves a strong impression of having actually experienced them. Sutcliff, from what I’ve read of her work so far, wasn’t one to shy away from describing bloodshed and cruelty either, and this novel is no exception: there are several images of gut-wrenching violence, although it’s never gratuitous. 
As might be expected given the novel’s grounding, there’s no real magic in this book – and no Merlin, either, for that matter – only a strong sense of Fate, the whims of which some people can discern, and others can’t. At first I felt that the way in which Artos picked up each of his companions along the way seemed somewhat neat and linear, but viewed as part of the current of Fate, it makes perfect sense.
My only real niggle with the novel was the portrayal of the Little Dark People, a semi-subterranean race of pygmy people (rather like the Picts of legend) with Neolithic aspects, which occasionally brought me up short. But if I’m honest, they eventually blended in with the rest of the tale, and it ended up seeming as if they always had.
Overall, a masterful imagining of who and what the original ‘King Arthur’ may have been, well written and with deft references to the old legends. Towards the beginning of the novel, Artos, when trying Ambrosius the High King’s sword, speaks of it being ‘perfectly balanced’. I think the same can be said of Rosemary Sutcliff’s tale.