PETER ABELARD by Helen Waddell

15 08 2014

Peter Abelard coverThis is a love story – one of the greatest (“Abelard and Heloise” rings all the bells, like Tristan and Isolde, Dante and Beatrice, Antony and Cleopatra)  and Peter Abelard, Helen Waddell’s wonderful novel, is probably the best retelling of it. 

But her novel is more than that, for it is also the story of Peter Abelard himself, the leading philosopher and theologian of his age and one of the great tragic figures of all the ages.

“It is the strong who have enemies: it is on the mountain peaks that the thunderbolts fall,” says Gilles de Vannes, Canon of Notre Dame, quoting St Jerome. Fat old Gilles, with his razor-sharp mind, is the confidant of both Abelard and Heloise and provides the anchor that holds the story down. He knew them both in the beginning, before they met -

‘He [Heloise's uncle, Fulbert] is ambitious for her, as you have yourself perceived. He bade me say that she will be at your disposal at any hour you choose.’ Gilles’ voice rasped like a saw.

Abelard sat grimly silent. Suddenly he rose, and coming down the room, stood square in front of Gilles. ‘Is the man right in his wits?’ 

- and is still there weeping over their fate at the end:

She [Heloise] got up quickly and crossed the room to the window, that he [Gilles] might not see her agony. And standing there, struggling to control herself, she heard behind her a small stifled sound. She turned round. He had his face to the wall, but she could see the old Silenus mask distorted with soundless weeping, the hands opening and closing in impotent despair. 

Abelard agrees to teach Heloise at home, privately. Indeed, he moves into their house, board and lodging being one of the blandishments that induce him to go along with the idea. And of course they grow close. Heloise is very beautiful, very sweet and very intelligent; Abelard is a youing man still, charming and charismatic.

Then Heloise panics and runs. Abelard goes after her, searching the countryside around Paris  and returns home that night in despair only to find her waiting for him in his room.

He fumbled at the latch, the door fell open: he came in a step or two, bewildered by the light: she saw his eyes seeking, not yet comprehending, suddenly wild with hope. She was there at the window: he saw the small white oval of her face, the black pools of her eyes. With a little stifled cry, she held out her arms to him: he was on his knees at her feet, his head buried in her lap, his whole body shaking with a terrible tearless sobbing. [...] She stooped and took his head and carried it to her breast.

They have passed the point of no return. At one point, they journey back from Britanny together, Heloise disguised as a boy, and of course make love in the forest. What was there in love that taught a man all the mysteries of the ancient faiths? He looked at the young creature riding ahead of him, with a kind of awe. Was that the Heloise he knew, or had Psyche become Eros …?

The only person in Paris who is not aware of what is happening is Fulbert, Heloise’s uncle (Or was he really her father? – which would be ironical considering his attitude to Abelard, who was willing to sacrifice his career in the Church to marriage.) And when he does find out, it is Heloise who is against the idea of marriage. Eventually, she becomes pregnant, they compromise, get married in secret, and she bears him a son. But this is not enough for Fulbert, who has swung from guileless and doting to remorselessly vindictive: he has Abelard castrated.

The end of the story, in a sense.

Abelard joins a monastery, Heloise a convent (at his insistence).

However, Helen Waddell’s account of the rest of Abelard’s life, the accusations of heresy, the trial, and so on, is a masterpiece:

‘Have you read the “De Trinitate”, Gilles?’

Gilles nodded. ‘It is more than his accusers have, I’ll be bound.’

‘And is it heretical?’

‘Of course it is heretical. Every book that ever was written about the Trinity is heretical, barring the Athanasian Creed. And even that only saves itself by contradicting everything it says as fast as it says it.’ 

But he is tried at the Council of Soissons, where, in a complete travesty of justice even by the standards of the medieval Church, Abelard is sentenced after being found not guilty: his book is to be burnt and he is to be incarcerated for life. By the time his friends arrange his release, he is a broken man. He retreats with one young disciple to a hermitage in the forest, and there, as a result of a mystical insight into the nature of the Incarnation, formulates the doctrine known as the Moral Atonement, condemnned by the Church as patripassianism. [In his own words:] “How cruel and unjust it appears that anyone should have demanded the blood of the innocent as any kind of ransom. Or have been in any way delighted with the death of the innocent, let alone that God should have found the death of His Son so acceptable, that through it he should have been reconciled to the whole world ” In brief: God suffers when man or any passible creature suffers, and it is by identifying with Christ on the Cross that man becomes God.

This is what places him among the ranks of the great heresiarchs.

Reprinted nine times in its year of publication (1933) and in print continuously ever since, this is a book that must be read (and read again) by anyone interested in medieval Paris and/or the medieval Church, but especially by those who appreciate a marvellous and very moving love-story that has now established itself as one of the classics of the genre.

H and A LettersBut for what happens to him and Heloise later, when they reestablish contact after ten years, it is necessary to turn to another book: The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. Here we meet the new Heloise, “famed for her learning and administrative genius as an abbess,” who addresses Abelard in the opening paragraph of the first letter as “my beloved” and “my only love” and who beneath the surface is clearly still the old Heloise: in that same first letter she says “God is my witness that Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honour me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess for ever, it would be dearer and more honourable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore“. Her love had not changed one iota.

“Where is the learned Heloise?” asked Francois Villon, the Paris ‘gutter-poet’, sometime in the 1450s. “Where is he who for her sake was castrated and forced to live the life of a monk – Peter Abelard, who for love of her suffered so much misfortune, shed so many a tear? But then, where are the snows of yesteryear?”

The Penguin Classics edition of the letters that I have in my hand also contains Abelard’s Historia Calamitatum, Abelard’s own account of his misfortunes, on which of course much of the novel is based. Abelard’s own words again: “But success always puffs up fools with pride  I began to think myself the only philosopher in the world, with nothing to fear from anyone, and so I yielded to the lusts of the flesh  There was in Paris at the time a young girl named Heloise, the niece of one of the canons …’ 

Heloise on Abelard





THE THIRD WITCH by Rebecca Reisert

26 07 2014

Third Witch coverThis is the story of the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth – who are, it turns out, Nettle, Mad Helga and Gillyflower. Nettle is middle-aged, a herbalist, and blessed with the Sight; and not only that, but on occasion the “Old Ones” speak through her:

Suddenly, […] the room fills with a wave of smell, an odour both sweet and foul, like the stench of a body six days dead. I cover my nose with my hand but the smell is just as strong. I have to fight against gagging. What is happening? I don’t understand it. I look to Nettle and I see that her lips are moving. Then I hear a voice coming out of her mouth, but it is not her voice. It is a voice I have never heard before, a voice that is gnarled and twisted and dry like the root of an ancient oak.

‘You will find what you seek two leagues from Forres.

Mad Helga is the crone of the trio, old, and “as bald as a new-laid egg”. She is also, as her name implies, quite mad (or is that only when the wind blows from the north-north-west?); frequently she speaks in verse (“A drum, a drum, Macbeth doth come”), but when she does so the words she speaks are words of power: they take effect – or at least, come true.

And finally, with them in their hut on the edge of the great forest lives Gillyflower, known as Gilly. She was taken in by them seven years ago when she was – what? seven? – and her home was destroyed and her father killed by Macbeth. Now, “grown up” at fourteen, and, though dressed in rags and living in a hovel, remembering still what her life had once been like (“I had forgotten how free and glorious it feels to fly across the countryside when you’re perched atop a horse”), she seeks to avenge her father and herself: this book is the tale of that revenge.

This is Gilly, the narrator, talking to Mad Helga:

Impatience rises in me like a bloody tide. ‘Should I seek Him out on the battlefield? Or must I go to His castle?’

Mad Helga only chuckles. With one thick fingernail she flicks a bone into its place.

‘You daft old bat,’ I say, ‘speak plainly!’

Mad Helga holds up a tiny bone. The lower part dangles, broken. ‘See what your impatience has wrought? Once broken, never fully mended.’

‘I shall break your bones, old woman, if you do not answer me.’

Mad helga’s eye continues to twinkle. With the dangling end of the bone she draws a faint pattern in the ashes on the hearth.

‘Heed well, Gilly. These curls here, this is our own wood, Birnam.’ Her voice is suddenly as sane as a tax collector’s. ‘For two days you will travel through it. Until midday on the first day, travel due north. Then turn west for a day and a half. Partway through the morning of the third day, you must leave the wood and take to the road that folk call Old Grapius Road. Follow that road through the hills and mountains. ‘Twill not be an easy journey through the mountains, girl, but the road will lead you through the best passes. Finally you will come to a long silver loch. Travel north past its northernmost shore till you come at last to the castle of Inverness, his northern castle, perched high on a ridge above the firth where he can guard against attack from the loch, river or sea.’

I study the map of ashes, tracing its outlines onto my heart and searing its curves into my memory. Finally I look up. ‘Helga, I do not remember much of castles and their ways.How shall I gain admittance to the castle?’

Mad Helga’s hands thrust out suddenly, spilling the bones into the ashes. Her fingers flash about till the map is erased and the bones soiled and buried in the ashes. ‘Tis your revenge, not mine, lass. I neither know nor care whether you be admitted to his  castle or no.’ She begins to rock back and forth, singing, ‘Greymalkin shall not stalk your rest, nor Ulfling seize your – ‘

I close my fingers around her wrists. ‘Stay with me, Mad Helga, just a moment more. Tell me, I beg you, once I gain admittance to the castle, what must I take to bring to you?’

For a long time, Mad Helga is silent. She sits so still that I snake my thumb to the underside of her wrist and press to feel the throb of her pulse to make certain she is still alive.

Then she says, ‘Bring me three pieces of His heart.’        

When you have read it you will know all three of the witches as well as (better than, in most cases) you know your family and friends. In a good, a positive, sense, the play will never be the same again: it adds to the play.

And not only that. It also achieves the rare combination of being both beautifully written, and frequently un-put-downable.

Rebecca Reisert published The Third Witch in 2003, then in 2004 a novel which let us in on the hitherto secret backstory of another mysterious Shakespeare character, Ophelia (Ophelia’s Revenge: I’ll post my review of that tomorrow); then, apparently, nothing. And I can discover no news or bio of her on the internet. I do hope she is well, and still writing, and that we shall have the pleasure of reading her third novel very soon.





WE SPEAK NO TREASON by Rosemary Hawley Jarman

6 07 2014

Treason cover

Rosemary Hawley Jarman’s We Speak No Treason is a romantic novel based on the life of Richard III and his relationship with the original Nut-Brown Maiden, the girl who becomes the mother of his illegitimate daughter, Katherine Plantagenet. I read it long ago, and now I have come across it again, republished as two books: The Flowering Of The Rose, and its sequel White Rose Turned To Blood.

Like Anya Seton’s John of Gaunt, the Richard of Gloucester we meet here is a man of honour. Like John, he is afflicted with an exaggerated sense of loyalty that makes it imposssible for him to seize the throne and order the murder of his dead brother’s child(ren).

Treason1 coverIn The Flowering Of The Rose, we see him first through through the eyes of our heroine who, though the daughter of a knight, is, at twelve, a skivvy at the beck and call of both the nurse and the cook in the household of Lady Elizabeth Grey. [The nurse's] wrinkled eye was upon me and I searched my mind for a task left undone, a duty neglected. I had been beaten once already that day; thus was I standing to watch Dick and Thomas Grey from the window. I could not sit down easily. But a beautiful skivvy, for on May Day in the local village, all men gaze at her, the King’s jester, Patch, just passing through (his master visiting her mistress) falls in love with her, and a wandering minstrel dedicates the ballad he has been working on for months to her: The Nut-Brown Maid. It becomes famous.

She is a Cinderella figure. Her mistress marries King Edward (there is witchcraft involved) and four years later, when she is sixteen, the Maid follows her to London where she meets the King’s young brother, Richard of Gloucester.

I heard Patch’s light step behind me in the passage, and without taking my joyful gaze from the scene below, stretched out my hand, crying:

‘Ah, my friend, remember you this day! When all men called me fair, and the old ballad-maker said I would be a true maid, and fashioned this song for me ere he died! Take my hand and say you have not forgotten!’

And I felt his hand in mine, and we stood together listening to the music until it ended, and I turned with shining face to give him one kiss out of my true pleasure, for after all he was my friend and had shared this moment with me. And the hand which held mine did not belong to a fool, but to the King’s youngest brother, who stood looking down at me with, God be praised, the same look I had seen in the eyes of men that May Day long ago.

For a long time their love affair consumes them both, then they are separated by events of state. And she later bears him a daughter of whom he knows nothing.

In Part Two, the Jester (“Piers, the man, Patch, the fool) continues the story. He has, he tells us, “loved two women in my life”. These two are our Nut-Brown Maiden and Lady Anne Neville, daughter of Warwick the King-maker and, when her father is killed, heir to enormous wealth and lands. Richard wants to marry her, but his brother George of Clarence is against this as the marriage will make Richard much too powerful. Then the girl disappears.

Richard searches for her, apparently heart-broken, but Patch believes him to be interested only in her money, and when by chance he comes across her he does not at first inform Richard.

Now we have a reversal of the Cinderella story, for Anne, the princess, is concealed as a kitchen-maid among folk who have no idea who she is. And Richard, who truly loves her – she was his childhood sweetheart – is still desperately searching for her (the Nut-Brown Maid apparently quite forgotten!)

Eventually, of course, Patch tells him, the girl is saved, they marry, and Richard and Anne live in the north – with Patch, who becomes Richard’s jester. They have a son, Richard’s heir.

Then King Edward dies.

And that is the end of this book (i.e. the first two Parts of We Speak No Treason).

You will want to read on, that is for sure.

And here is a glimpse Rosemary gives us in advance of Henry Tudor, the bad guy of the next book, the contender for the throne whom no one took seriously until it was too late. After all, he had no claim to the throne whatsoever …

His Majesty keeps mastiffs. They lie outside his chamber of a night. Soon after his coronation we had a big baiting at Smithfield: in its way an innovation because instead of a bull, he commanded that a lion should be tried against three of his dogs. When the great tawny beast lay dead, and the curs, all gaping gory wounds, stood panting froth, King Henry ordered a strange conclusion to the sport.

‘Hang them,’ he said in his high Welsh voice. ‘Traitorous dogs shall not rise against a king.’ It took long moments for the big animals to choke on the end of a felon’s halter.

Lovely man.

Treason2 coverLike the first book, White Rose Turned to Blood is divided into two parts (Parts 3 and 4 in the original one-volume novel). The narrator in the first is the Man of Keen Sight, a landless knight and one of Richard’s company, whom we have already met, and in the second we are back with the Nut-Brown Maiden, the twelve-year old we started with at the beginning of the first book, now Richard’s ex-mistress and mother of his bastard daughter, living in a nunnery.

When this volume opens, Richard is dead, and the narrator and his companions are in a cell awaiting execution for “treason” – ie fighting on behalf of the King against the usurper Henry.

I am thirty-three years old, and I have served three reigns and seen the separate and singular manner of their ending. A fourth reign I shall not see, nor would I wish it. There is no King, save the King of Heaven, other than the third Richard. [...] I will close my ears to the hammerings that build my doom and, in love, remember Richard. Then he was Duke of Gloucester, and seventeen. Now he is but ‘the traitor Plantagenet’ and he is dead.

I shall think on the day when, for the first time, he asked: ‘Will you ride with me?’

And so we go back to 1469, when the young knight first met Richard and entered his service, and we follow Richard’s career through again from a quite different perspective.

I love this. It reminds me of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet in its four-dimensional approach, the three different spatial views followed by a view from further on in time. And the way she links the different perspectives is masterly: here, for instance, the narrator tells how he met the Nut-Brown Maiden:

It was at Fotheringhay, and I had gone down into the camp, late, with some message. Everything was steaming with damp summer heat and in the musky darkness i discovered him with a young maid whom he bade me guard through the ranks and deliver to the Duchess of Bedford’s apartments.
Kneeling beside him, I remembered more. I had thought it prudent to offer the damsel my arm, as she struggled through the trailing briars. Her hand on mine was like a small smooth flame. She stopped suddenly when we had gone a few steps and turned to look back.
‘Ah Jesu!’ she whispered. ‘How he shines!’
I fixed my sight upon the pale Duke, bringing him near in the lanternlight. A moth flew round his face and he lifted his hand to brush it away. The maiden smiled, in tears.
‘There is a light … a light,’ she sighed.
‘What then, mistress?’
She had looked up at me from the cavern of her hood.
‘A light about him not of this world,’ she said.
I could see nought but the fen-fires, burning malefically.

What can I say? Read those books. They leave 99% of fiction set in the medieval period quite in the shade.





HEIR TO SEVENWATERS by Juliet Marillier

29 06 2014

Heir to Sevenwaters

This is for those who read and enjoyed Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters trilogy (Daughter of the Forest, Son of the Shadows and Child of the Prophecy) as the books came out and are now wondering whether to buy and read the two sequels.

The first, Heir to Sevenwaters, carries on seamlessly, transporting the reader back into the great forest, that world of Celtic magic and mystery where we once came to feel so at home. This time, the heroine is Clodagh, daughter of Lord Sean of Sevenwaters and his wife Aisling, and granddaughter of Sorcha – yes, that Sorcha. She is the good daughter, the dutiful daughter, who organises the household for her twin sister’s wedding and keeps everything running smoothly while her middle-aged mother goes through a difficult and exhausting pregnancy from which everyone fears she may never recover. But Lord Sean, who has six daughters, desperately wants a son to be his heir. Will this be the son he has awaited so long?

At the risk of spoiling the story, I must tell you that a son is born, but then during Clodagh’s sister’s wedding celebrations he is snatched away and a changeling composed of sticks and stones and feathers left in his place.

Clodagh, who had been minding the baby when it happened, is blamed.

Lord Sean believes the kidnapping was political, the work of his enemies. Clodagh, who knows that the changeling is not mere sticks and stones and feathers, disagrees. Her baby brother, she insists, has been taken to the Otherworld, the home of the Fair Folk, who now in these latter days are not as friendly as once they were, and she must follow him there and rescue him.

In the end, a great adventure. Yes, in the end. During the first third of the book, little happens. We simply follow the day-to-day events and concerns of the family and the visitors who arrive for the wedding, as seen through the eyes of Clodagh. Medieval domestic soap-opera.

Seer of SevenwatersI am not going to write a separate review for the next book, Seer of Sevenwaters, because here the slow start, the tedious first third of the story, becomes a tedious two-thirds and I only kept reading (and skipping chunks) because I was waiting for something – anything! – to happen. Eventually, it did, and I must say I enjoyed the last few chapters, but that is not enough.

 





AN ANCIENT EVIL by Paul Doherty

26 06 2014

An Ancient Evil coverThis is the first in a series of novels based on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales by my favourite author of medieval mysteries, Paul Doherty, author of – among many other great tales – the immensely successful series known as The Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan. But this series is different in that it doesn’t have a single protagonist, a medieval sleuth like Brother Athelstan, going from book to book, but a whole group of characters who take it in turn to tell the tales that make up the series. As in the original Canterbury Tales, where Chaucer’s pilgrims are on their way from the Tabard Inn, Southwark (on the Thames, opposite the walled City of London) to the shrine of St Thomas à Becket in Canterbury, and to while away the time, each tells a tale, sometimes edifying, often amusing.

In the Prologue to the present book, the landlord of the Tabard, who is to accompany them on the pilgrimage, suggests that each evening the pilgrims should take turns to tell another tale: “‘So when we move out tomorrow to St Thomas’s watering hole, let us tell a merry tale to instruct or amuse. But, at night,’ his voice fell, ‘let it be different.’ He stared round the now quiet company. ‘Let us tell a tale of mystery that will chill the blood, halt the heart and curl the locks upon our heads.’

An Ancient Evil, the Knight’s Tale (he is first in the Chaucer original, and first here) is a tale of strigoi.

Strigoi are the evil dead arising from their tombs at night. It is a Romanian word which also exists in the form striga, witch, and seems originally to have meant an evil witch with vampiric tendencies (like a lamia?). In Italian, strega, streghe, means witch. The Romanian and Italian words both derive from the Latin strix, striga, screech-owl. Which brings us to metamorphosis – shape-shifting – and the question: Is the striga (the witch/vampire) primarily a nocturnal bird, or is she basically human?

In An Ancient Evil, the strigoi are the undead, vampires whose origin seems to be Moldavia, the Transylvanian Alps and the ancient Romanian principality of Wallachia. Indeed, they are the “ancient evil”, for the tale begins 250 years earlier when, in the outskirts of Oxford, a strigoi, a “devil incarnate” which”had travelled from Wallachia in the Balkans pretending to be a man dedicated to the service of God“, was buried alive rather than burnt, and a monastery built over him. Now, 250 years later, a spate of horrible murders (whole families with their throats cut and bodies drained of blood) brings Sir Godfrey Evesdon to Oxford as the King’s Commissioner, to investigate and carry out judgement. He is accompanied by a Scottish clerk named Alexander McBain and a blind exorcist, Dame Edith Mohun, herself a survivor of “the dark forests and lonely, haunted valleys of Wallachia and Moldavia”, where she had been a captive, and had been blinded when she tried to protect herself. The two men cannot believe that the strigoi has survived in his coffin all these years. “Have you not listened?” she snaps. ‘The Strigoi never die. If their corpses survive, they merely sleep!’

Interestingly, the Romanies we meet in the book travelling around Britain will not go near Oxford or the Thames Valley.

As the tale unfolds, there are interludes in which the story is discussed by the shocked pilgrims. Is it true, they want to know, or is it simply a tale to frighten children? Is the middle-aged knight telling the tale, whom they know simply as “Sir Knight”, himself the hero, Sir Godfrey, when he was a young man? And is the strigoi who survived still hunting him, intent on revenge, following him – following them – along the road? Perhaps even one of them?

A great start to the series.





THE SILVER WOLF by Alice Borchardt

13 06 2014

The Silver Wolf cover

Alice Borchardt’s The Silver Wolf is set in Rome in the time of the Frankish Emperor Charlemagne, the latter half of the eighth century AD. But the great city is not now what it once was: Regeane didn’t know what she’d expected of the once-proud mistress of the world when she’d come to Rome. Certainly not what she found.

The inhabitants, descendants of a race of conquerors, lived like rats squabbling and polluting the ruins of an abandoned palace. Oblivious to the evidence of grandeur all around them, they fought viciously among themselves for what wealth remained. Indeed, little was left of the once-vast river of gold that flowed into the eternal city. The gold that could be found gilded the palms of papal officials and the altars of the many churches.

And this is true. Life in the Rome of the Dark Ages was squalid and sordid in almost every respect, though as the celebrated courtesan Lucilla points out, it was in some ways an improvement over the past: for instance, the hypocaust that heated the baths of the villa at the end of the first century AD “was fired by slaves who never saw the sun from one end of the year to the other“, whereas now, her men “are paid extra to fire the hypocaust and are always happy to do so. … This world is better than that of the ancients.” Maybe. She should know. You will decide for yourself after you have entered it.

The book is full of magic and mystery: shape-shifting and werewolves; ghosts, and other spirits, good and evil; involuntary psychometry; astral travel; a miraculous healing – and full, too, of the kind of medieval outsiders I alweays identify with immedieately, for instance the new Pope’s mistress, who is accused of witchcraft by his enemies; a female werewolf named Matrona, who has been alive “since the beginning of time”; and a one-time leading intellectual beauty and arbiter of fashion, now with no nose and living in a convent in Rome.

Regeane is a werewolf, as was her father before her. When the book opens, she is being held prisoner (a steel collar and chain in a locked room with a barred window) by her sadistic uncle, who is of course aware of her “affliction” but wants her to go through with the marriage anyway then kill, or help him kill, her husband, who is very rich. He will pocket the proceeds and continue to “supervise” (his word) his niece. Thanks to Lucilla, the Pope’s mistress, she manages to avoid this fate, but as the Queen of the Dead later tells Regeane, “Woman Wolf, the road to paradise is through the gates of hell,” and Regeane does indeed go through these gates and through hell (and we with her) before she achieves happiness.

The writing is superb, and some of the lines unforgetable. I could quote all night, but how about this? “I have often thought if one could impart the doings of humankind to a rose, the only thing it would understand would be the sweet, drawn-out lovemaking of a drowsy afternoon.”

Nevertheless, it is in describing the relationship between the woman and the wolf that the book most distinguishes itself. For understand that this is not one person shape-shifting, it is two distinct personalities – two utterly different personalities, one a woman, one a wolf – both occupying the same two, interchangeable, bodies. It is, so far as I know, absolutely original and quite unique. Normally the shape-shifter is the villain of the piece, but here the wolf is no creature of horror, she is something natural and marvellous, while the woman, Regeane, is the heroine. We feel everything she feels – and everything the wolf feels – experience everything they experience; and from the first page, and right till the end, identify with her – with them – completely.





GENTLEMEN OF THE ROAD by Michael Chabon

9 06 2014

Gentlemen of the RoadTwo “gentlemen of the road”, vagrant warrior/mercenaries with their trusty swords and horses – almost knights errant, almost Don Quijote and Sancho Panza, but equals in most ways, and both essentially con-men. They have to be in order to survive.

One – Amram – is a gigantic African who, it transpires, set out years ago in quest of his daughter, taken by raiders. He never found her, and is no longer really looking. But he cannot go home without her.

The other, Zelikman, is a Jew – a Jew with a sword.The author seems to find this paradoxical, I am not sure why.

Perhaps it is the self-image of the New York Jew – the wise-cracking cowardly comedian at one extreme, the awe-inspiring pacifism of The Last of the Just at the other. But in fact, since Abraham fought Chedorlaomer and his allies more than three millennia ago, and Joshua and David among many other generals and kings conquered the land of Canaan and much of the surrounding area, and they fought back against the all-conquering Assyrians and Babylonians and were deported from their land to Babylon (where, finally, they sat down and wept) and Jewish freedom-fighters like Judas Maccabeus and Simon bar-Kochba caused the Seleucid and Roman Empires so much trouble that the whole might of the empire had to be sent against them not once but repeatedly and finally the city of Jerusalem razed to the ground and the inhabitants of Israel and Judah – again! – deported en masse, and this time dispersed to the four corners of the earth.

This is not a passive people.

Then, for many, many years, they had no homeland, they were no longer a “nation” as such, but a religion, a culture, an ethnic minority (“race”) that kept themselves separate here, there and everywhere.

Our second hero, Zelikman, then, comes of one such community in France. Everywhere he travels he is thought of as and referred to as a Frank; to the Franks, back home, he is a foreigner. He is also a physician, the last in a long line of physicians, and the first, it seems, who has not stayed at home and practised as one.

Then they rescue and, having rescued, take on the burden of helping, a fugitive prince, the rest of whose family have all been murdered in a bloody coup d’état. How could Zelikman say “No” when he learnt that this was the heir to the Jewish Kingdom – yes, Jewish Kingdom – of the Khazars. All right, Amram is at first reluctant to get involved in “politics”, but for some strange reason he finds himself growing very fond of the efeminate and infuriating young prince.

Something very different, then, from the usual medieval whodunit or romance, and very strongly recommended.





MURDER THROUGH THE AGES

19 05 2014

MTTA

Another anthology of historical mysteries, this one focusing entirely on murder, with stories chosen by Maxim Jakubowski – an expert if ever there was one.

In the medieval period – which of course I turned to first – the tales range from Peter Tremayne’s “Who Stole the Fish?” (Ireland, AD 664), in which Sister Fidelma investigates the disappearance of a large salmon from the monastery kitchen (along with the brother who was cooking it, but no one seems to care about him), to Paul Docherty’s “Id Quod Clarum” (Oxford, 1441), in which the obnoxious professor of theology collapses and dies of henbane or belladonna poisoning while delivering a lecture.

Of the stories set between those two dates, I especially liked Kate Ellis’ “The Fury of the Northmen” (South coast of Devon, Britain, AD 997) where we see a young woman take the lead in unearthing the true facts of a killing in a male-dominated Saxon village, and Susanna Gregory’s “The Trebuchet Murder” (Cambridge, 1380) in which yet another obnoxious professor of theology is the victim. (I am beginning to wonder whether it is characteristic of medieval mystery writers that they once studied theology and fantasised about murdering the professor? From what I hear, academic theologians can indeed be an arrogant and obnoxious lot.)

Then there is a longer story, “Raven Feeder” by Manda Scott (Orkney/Norway, AD 999) that I enjoyed. Its theme is the clash between the old religion of Odin, Thor and Freya, and the religion of the White Christ which was being imposed on all and sundry by the brutal Olaf Trygvason, King of Norway. Excellently imagined and written.

Finally, two wonderful stories set 2000 years earlier. First, Amy Myers’ “Who Killed Dido?” (Carthage, 10th Century BC): the culprit is one of the gods, and the investigator Aphrodite, the goddess of love herself! Then there is “Investigating the Silvius Boys” by Lindsey Davis (of Falco fame), in which the victim is Remus and the “perp” his brother Romulus; brother against brother “one of the oldest crimes in the world,” as she says herself on the first page of the story. (I’m not giving anything away.)

A great collection





THE WOLVES OF PARIS by Michael Wallace

13 05 2014

WofP

Good tales of the supernatural set in medieval times are few and far between so I was sceptical when I noticed The Wolves of Paris on offer from Kindle and claiming to be just that. But it was Free, so I downloaded it – nothing to lose. And almost gave up after the first few pages which – well, let me simply beg you: keep reading! The rest of the book is as good a story of sorcery and werewolves, and the all-powerful Inquisition, as I have ever come across.

It occurs to me that most werewolf/vampire stories I have read – or viewed – recently have had me identifying with the vampires or the werewolves – how can you not in, for instance, Vampire Diaries? – or in A Taste of Blood Wine? – but here, in this novel, the werewolves and the sorcery surrounding them are depicted as irredeemably evil. And the Inquisition is quite as bad, in its own way: Henri Montguillon, Dominican Prior, is a figure out of my worst nightmares.

In Paris lives Lucrezia de l’Isle, born Lucrezia di Lucca, now a widow with a terrible secret.

And approaching Paris are two brothers from Florence, the elder a banker and investor, the younger in disgrace after getting on the wrong side of the Inquisition at home in Italy. Both are in love with the beautiful Lucrezia – have been since before her father married her off to the wealthy French aristocrat – and both dream that now, this time …

But Lucrezia’s husband is not dead. He is a werewolf, one who retains his human mind but can never resume his human shape – thanks to her intervention when the spell that first changed him into a werewolf was cast. 

Highly recommended if you feel at home in medieval Paris – and can imagine the Seine frozen solid, enabling packs of starving wolves, and gigantic werewolves, to hunt unhindered within the walls of the city itself.





Ingmar Bergman’s THE SEVENTH SEAL

3 05 2014

Dedicated reader though I am, I do occasionally watch a DVD when I find myself at home for the evening with nothing to do. And so it came about that last night I watched, again, after ten years, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

 7thS5

It was shot in black and white on a real shoestring budget (Bergman predictably could not find backers for his marvellous script), yet it managed to win the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1957 and has been acclaimed as a cinematic masterpiece ever since.

A knight, played to perfection by Max von Sydow, returns from the Crusades to find Death stalking the land. The opening scene of the film, dawn on a bare northern beach, reveals the knight and his squire sleeping on the pebbles while their horses wait patiently at the water’s edge. They do not appear to have been shipwrecked. Presumably they were put ashore there during the night. The knight wakes, washes his face in the sea, kneels and prays.

Then turns to see Death standing behind him. “Who are you?” “I am Death … I have walked long at your side.” “That I know.” The knight proposes a game of chess. Death accepts and the game proceeds, giving the knight a respite during which he can save at least some of the small group of helpless people who collect around him.

Bergman tells us that he was inspired by the Carmina Burana, the songs of the wanderers, the homeless and the seekers during the 13th and 14th centuries, the time of wars and famines and plague, of the Great Mortality and the Dance of Death. He was also inspired by the passage in the Book of Revelations from which he took his title, Revelations chapter 8. The first verses are read, voice-over, during the opening scene. Read it for yourself. Then the knight’s wife does so, aloud and at length, during supper when the knight arrives home towards the end of the film. She has been awaiting him all these years and now they are finally reunited in death.

It is a cross between a medieval Morality Play, made up as it is, partly, of allegorical figures and events, and a modern Historical Novel, with tragedy and humour intermingled, scenes memorable for their realism, their happiness and love (the dreamy and lovable wandering player Jof and his beautiful wife (Bibi Andersson) and perfect baby, symbol of a future which looks to be in grave doubt), for their horror (the procession of self-flagellating penitents stumbling through the villages, the girl burnt as a witch before our eyes), and for their sheer timelessness (Death with his string of captives in silhouette dancing off across the horizon at the end of the film).

Bergman said of it that it was one of the films closest to his heart. It is now one of the films closest to mine.

 








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