CROWN IN DARKNESS by Paul Doherty (Review)

A mystery featuring medieval sleuth Hugh Corbett

Scotland, 1286

The north of England had been a new experience to Corbett who had served in Edward’s armies in France and Wales, but Scotland was something different. Quieter, more lonely, beautiful yet menacing. He had observed it carefully as he travelled into Edinburgh. Vast forests of pine, dark and forbidding, where boar and wolf ruled; wide wastes of lonely, haunting moor, bogs, mountains and lakes covered the land. In England, the old Roman highways, sometimes much broken but their foundations still solid, spread out from London to form the main routes for travel. In Scotland, apart from the King’s Highway. the Via Regis, there were few roads, only beaten tracks. Corbett had found it difficult to reach the royal burgh of Edinburgh and. when he did, bitterly wondered if it had been worth the effort …

I have been looking at some of the early Hugh Corbett mysteries, ones I missed first time round.

Crown In Darkness takes as its historical setting the death of 44-year-old King Alexander III of Scotland as he rode from Edinburgh to his wife at Kinghorn on a wild night in March, 1286. The horse stumbled and fell, the king was killed.

But Was there more to it than that? my favourite medieval-mystery writer, Paul Doherty, wonders – and sends Sir Hugh Corbett to investigate.

Why should there have been more to it than that?

Because both his sons were dead, and his eldest daughter, who was married to King Eric of Norway, had also died, in childbirth, so Alexander’s sole heir was his three-year-old Norwegian granddaughter. An unlikely contender for the throne.

What is  more, Alexander had recently taken a second wife, Yolande, a French princess and it was to her that he was hurrying the night he died (or was murdered).

No, he had to read Kinghorn where Yolande was waiting. He thought of his new French Queen. The beautiful face of a Helen of Troy framed by hair jet-black as the deepest night., olive, perfumed skin and a small curvaceous figure clothed and protected in a profusion of satins, velvets and Bruges lace. He wanted her now; to possess that soft warm body, ripping aside the protests and the pretences. Perhaps she would conceive, bear a son, give Scotland a Prince. A vigorous boy to wear the crown and protect it against the ring of wolves and falcons both at home and abroad. He must reach Kinghorn …

And there on the road he died (orwas murdered).

But cui bono? Who would benefit (a) by the king’s death, and (b) in particular by the king failing to reach his queen before he died?

The man who thought he would step into the gap was Robert Bruce, grandfather of the Robert Bruce who did eventually become king years later. Robert Bruce the elder, who was now nearly eighty years old, was still full of energy and was, after the late king, the most powerful man in Scotland.

The other potential king was John Balliol, who did eventually become the next king. His claim was probably better and he had the support of the man who was de facto if not de jure overlord of them all, Edward I of England.

This is the setting. Hugh Corbett does not want to go to Scotland and does not enjoy his visit. But he does manage to solve the murder – for murder it was – before being declared persona non grata (a lot of Latin today!) in Scotland and deposited unceremoniously on the English side of the border – to his great delight.

A classic.

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MORALITY PLAY by Barry Unsworth (Review)

As is so often the case with Barry Unsworth’s novels, the reader finds himself living the life of an outsider, in this case a whole gallery of typically medieval outsiders: a young priest on the road, outside his diocese and therefore outside the law; a troupe of impoverished strolling players struggling to survive in the middle of winter; a whore,down on her luck, travelling with the players; a group of religious dissenters, the Brethren of the Spirit … And all involved in what can only be described as a very literary medieval mystery.

It was a death that began it all and another death that led us on. The first was of the man called Brendan and I saw the moment of it. I saw them gather round and crouch over him in the bitter cold, then start back to give the soul passage. It was as if they played his death for me and this was a strange thing, as they did not know I watched, and I did not then know what they were.

Thus the story opens. The young priest, Nicholas Barber, freezing cold (having lost his cloak in a narrow escape from an irate husband who returned unexpectedly) and starving hungry, happens upon a death scene being performed by a company of players; only the death is real and because of the death the players are one man short: Nicholas is co-opted.

He travels north towards Durham with them (they have been ordered to perform at Durham Castle on Christmas Day) but before they can get there they are caught up in the death of a child – a boy, Thomas Wells – and the story of the young woman accused of murdering him.

It is not, though, your typical “medieval mystery”. The players simply need money to continue their journey north and the only way they can lay hands on any is to perform a play that will attract an audience. Martin, their leader, decides to perform a “true play”, the play of this local murder; but to perform a play based on such a thing is quite unheard of. “Who plays things that are done in the world?” demands one of the shocked players when Martin suggests it.

Then, when they perform it, they find it is false: it does not work.

The whole first half of the book builds up to the performance of the first Play of Thomas Wells (which they subsequently rename The False Play of Thomas Wells) and its follow-up, The True Play of Thomas Wells; the second half of the book is the traumatic if not finally tragic sequel to these performances.

As a player, Nicholas sees everything, from medieval life in the raw –

I saw the beggar who had come to our fire and spoken of lost children. An egg had fallen and smashed below the stall, where the snow was trodden. The yolk of the egg made a yellow smear on the snow and a raw-boned dog saw it at the same time as the beggar did and both made for it and the beggar kicked the dog, which yelped and held back but did not run, hunger making him bold. The beggar cupped his hands and scooped up the egg in the snow and took it into his mouth and ate all together, the egg and the fragments of shell and the snow

– to a great joust. Nicholas, imprisoned in a castle tower, watches the joust taking place in the lists below and realises that the knights and nobles too are performing in their own play; and later sees a dying knight, mortally wounded in the joust, with “no role left to play but this last one of dying, that comes to all.”

Fine writing and a fine story with some great characters and a vivid reconstruction of the life of those particular outsiders known as players whom we now think of as central to the culture of an age and place and people.

THE RUBY IN HER NAVEL by Barry Unsworth (Review)

Sicily, 1149

Christians? You put yourself on a level with them, you who are of Christian birth? You call them Christians, these filthy palace Saracens that claim to be converted to our faith and secretly continue to practise their own?’
‘I have seen no evidence of this,’ I said, but he did not hear me or showed no sign of doing so.
‘Once a Saracen, always a Saracen, it is in their blood,’ he said. His eyes had a staring look now, that famished smile had gone, and with it all pretence of benevolent interest in me. He leaned forward across the table, bringing his face close to mine. ‘It is in their corrupted blood,’ he said, ‘and they will corrupt our blood with it if we allow them. […] Tell me, Thurstan, what does Christendom mean to you?’
‘It is the term we use for those regions where our Roman faith is predominant.’
‘That is all it signifies to you? This great spread of our faith no more than a matter of geography? I will tell you what Christendom is. Christendom is the universal Christian Church, the universal Christian society. Christendom is a mighty host that is destined to bring the world under its sway.’

An unusual but fascinating setting: the court of the Norman King Roger of Sicily. Following the failure of the great army of the Second Crusade at Damascus, Sicily – and the whole of southern Italy and the eastern Mediterranean – seethes with unrest. Palermo, with its Muslims and Jews, its Byzantine Christians and its Roman Christians, seems a kind of melting-pot, symbolic of the rest of the region. King Roger, who has sworn to maintain equality between the races and creeds, is visibly failing to do so as his Norman courtiers seize more and more power and property for themselves at the expense of the rest.

In the middle of all this, a young Anglo-Norman called Thurstan Beauchamp works under a Muslim, Yusuf, the minister responsible for the Diwan al-tahqiq al-ma’mur, the Diwan of Control (or Diwan of Secrets) – and dreams of the knighthood and the life that should have been his, would have been his if his father had not entered a Cistercian monastery and given all his lands and property to the Cistercian Order, thereby leaving his son unable to pursue his training. Now, under Yusuf, Thurstan is officially responsible for recruiting and organising entertainers (dancers, singers) for the royal court, but in fact much of his work is on the secret side, carrying out confidential missions for Yusuf.

All this comes together as he sets out for Bari (a port on the east coast of Italy) to meet a Serbian emissary and deliver a message, but, while there, he falls under the spell of a penniless gypsy dancer, Nesrin, (who, after the start given to her by Thurstan in Palermo, becomes famous throughout the courts of Europe – she’s the one who, later, has a ruby in her navel “that glowed as she danced”). And then, quite by chance, he meets his childhood sweetheart, Lady Alicia, now a young widow and recently returned from Jerusalem.

A love story, yes. But Thurstan has already been offered a substantial bribe if he will accuse Yusuf of attempting to make him a convert to Islam, and thus bring about Yusuf’s downfall. He, of course, refused. But when Alicia is taken prisoner, and her release – her very life – depends on Thurstan bearing false witness against Yusuf, his long-time friend and mentor – what is he to do? Is honour the most important thing for him? And the consolation of Nesrin the dancer? Or should he accept the knighthood and land he is offered, and the hand of Alicia?

A marvellous story, and beautifully written, as one would expect from Barry Unsworth, thrice shortlisted for the Booker Prize and once the winner. But don’t expect another Morality Play: Barry Unsworth is not one to repeat himself, and this book, its setting and its hero are as different as A Tale of Two Cities is from Hard Times.

KINGDOM OF THE GRAIL by Judith Tarr (Review)

This book is set in post-Arthurian times when Merlin was still bound by Nimuë’s enchantments and the Grail still something a knight might reasonably set out in quest of. It is a period of which I am very fond, but the only other time I had tried to read a Judith Tarr novel, I gave up after a few pages! I expected the same thing to happen here.

It did not. Far from it! So probably that other time had been me. (And why I almost never write negative reviews!)

After the first few pages, I could not put Kingdom of the Grail down.

It is the story of Roland, hero of the epic poem La Chanson de Roland in which Roland dies when he is ambushed by Saracens in the pass of Roncesvalles in the high Pyrenees. Only here he does not die: the story goes on, made wonderful, made mythical, by Judith Tarr’s own brand of magic. Roland, a descendant of Merlin, is both enchanter and shape-shifter – it is in his blood – and warrior – he is Count of the Breton Marches and one of the King’s Companions of Charles the Great of France.

A beautiful woman, Sarissa, appears at the court in France, bearing a magical sword, Durandel, and offers it as a prize. Roland wins it and becomes both her champion and her lover.  But what does she represent? What force, what kingdom, is he now champion of?

As the story moved on, I noticed how much Tarr has been influenced by such writers as Tolkein and Lewis. Everything leads up to a final battle between the forces of Good and Evil that is the best I have come across since the closing chapters of Lord of the Rings and The Last Battle which brings the Narnia books to a close. And her wizard (Merlin = Gandalf) and wicked sorcerer (Ganelon, tool of the Dark Lord) are the real thing, as is her man born to be king (Roland) of the enchanted land whose ancient king (Parsifal) is dying, waiting only for his successor to take up the sword and fight the great war that he himself no longer can – though before that can happen, Roland, not fully trusted yet by Sarissa and blaming her for the massacre of his friends at Roncesvalles, flees in the form of a hawk and is for a while lost to mankind, his home the wilderness, the wasteland. “He had been human once. He had no particular desire to wear that shape again …”

But this is not mere imitation. It is great writing of the same genre. It has everything, and I cannot recommend it too highly.

SPEAKING OF SIVA by A. K. Ramanujan (Review)

SPEAKING OF SIVA is a book of vacanas, religious lyrics written in Kanada free verse by medieval Virasaivas. As the translator, A.K.Ramanujan, says, “They all speak of Siva and speak to Siva: hence the title.”

Kanada is a Dravidian language spoken today by about twenty million people in the South Indian state of Mysore. The vacana poetry, written between the 10th and 12th, centuries represented a breaking away from the rigidity of classical Sanscrit tradition. It is spontaneous free verse written by ordinary men or women – yes, women – of various castes, some even outcaste, some illiterate.

Their leader was Basavanna, whose poems exemplify both the protesting (“protestant”) stance of the movement and its bhakti devotion to one god, in this case Siva. A perfect example, perfectly translated, is:

The rich
will make temples for Siva.
What shall I,
a poor man,
do?

My legs are pillars,
the body the shrine,
the head a cupola
of gold.

Listen, O lord of the meeting rivers,
things standing shall fall,
but the moving ever shall stay.

The second poet represented in this collection is Dasimayya. Whereas Basavanna always addresses Siva “O lord of the meeting rivers”, Dasimayya calls him “Ramanatha”. When he says that to the true Virasaiva

his front yard
is the true Benares,
O Ramanatha

we hear again the voice of the best of the Old Testament prophets, the truly spiritual man.

But for me the star of the movement, and of this collection, is Mahadeviyakka.

Mahadeviyakka, or Akka Mahadevi, was initiated into the worship of Siva at the age of ten and from then on considered herself his bride; however, she was a very beautiful girl and men clamoured for her hand in marriage. When the king spotted her, her fate was sealed, and she became one of his wives. Eventually, though, she ran away from the palace (probably to the King’s great relief!) throwing off, according to legend, not just marriage but all the conventions (including her clothes) and spent the rest of her life as an itinerant poet and ascetic.

You can confiscate
money in hand;
can you confiscate
the body’s glory?

Or peel away every strip
you wear,
but can you peel
the Nothing, the Nakedness
that covers and veils?

To the shameless girl
wearing the White Jasmine Lord’s
light of morning,
you fool, where’s the need for cover and jewel?

Or here is another favourite of mine by Mahadeviyakka:

Who cares
who strips a tree of leaf
once the fruit is plucked?

Who cares
who lies with the woman
you have left?

Who cares
who ploughs the land
you have abandoned?

After this body has known my lord
who cares if it feeds
a dog
or soaks up water?

Akka Mahadevi in samadhi, nude but draped in her flowing hair.

Do, please, read more of these perfect translations of her poems and those of other great Virasaiva poets by the late Attipate Krishnaswami Ramanujan, a great poet and scholar.

THE SILVER WOLF by Alice Borchardt (Review)

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 always identify with immediately, for instance Lucilla, 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, 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.

THE BURNING TIMES by Jeanne Kalogridis (Review)

In Carcassonne, in the south of France (in the heart of the Occitan – Cathar and Templar country), Marie-Françoise, a nun, the Abbess of the Convent of Poor Clares, is arrested on a charge of heresy and witchcraft. A young Dominican inquisitor, Michel, finds himself appointed to interrogate her, his superior having fallen ill, and there being no time to bring in a replacement.

In fact, they have already encountered one another: she once performed a healing miracle in his presence, he considers her a saint, and she herself refuses to speak to anyone other than Michel.

Michel, however, is shocked when it transpires that the Church has already condemned her, that the hearing is just a formality, that she is to burn. He insists on listening to her, hearing her story. And what a story it is.

Who is this woman, this healer, whose real name is Sybille and who has brought down the wrath of the Church upon herself? Is she one of the last of the Race, as she claims?

And who is Michel? Is he simply the young monk he seems to be? Or is he something else altogether, as the Abbess, Sybille, appears to believe?

There are wonderful descriptive passages – the dead and dying at the Battle of Creçy, several appalling burnings, one in Toulouse, one in Avignon, and one in Carcassonne, and a description of Avignon and the Palais des Papes that is quite unforgettable:

Heaven and Hell, it is. Never have I ridden through streets narrower, filthier; nor seen more whores, brigands, beggars and charlatans gathered in one place. (They say in Avignon there are so many reliquaries containing a lock of the Magdalen’s hair, it must have been long enough to encircle the world; and so many fingers belonging to Saint John the Divine that he was obviously a monster, graced by God with a dozen arms.)

Likewise have I never beheld such beauty, such grandeur, such wealth. More ermine exists in Avignon, they say, than in the rest of the world combined, and I can vouch for it now. On my arrival, I let myself be led by the Goddess into the great square in front of the Papal palace, and watched the glorious display of finery: the nobles in their canary, peacock and purple silks and brocades, the Papal gendarmes in uniforms blue as the broad Rhône, the cardinals in wide-brimmed carmine hats and snowy furs. Across from me stood the Palais des Papes, the Palace of the Popes, that magnificent cacophony in stone, built upon a cliff that dropped precipitously to the shores of the Rhône. Tall as a great cathedral, it was much broader in span – in fact the size of a king’s estate, grand enough to house several hundred, its massive walls enclosing dozens of spires and turrets. And those walls faced a great city square.

As I neared the Papal palace, my steed atremble as if he sensed the Evil residing there, I saw a platform.

A platform for inquisitors, and before it an execution berm. …

It is a book you need to read twice. Not that it doesn’t come over first time – it does – I was awed – but when you re-read the Prologue after finishing the book, you suddenly appreciate nuances you missed first-time round, and are drawn on unresisting into Part I again.