Judith Koll Healey’s THE CANTERBURY PAPERS

This is the story of Alaïs, “forgotten princess of France”. One of the things HF (historical fiction) does best is to take a minor, mostly ignored and almost forgotten historical character and recreate him or her, rather as a paleontologist recreates a long extinct animal from a fragment of fossilised bone.

I first noticed Alaïs in the film The Lion In Winter, where she is portrayed (by the beautiful Jane Merrow) as very much Henry II’s mistress, the king flaunting the lovely girl in front of his ageing queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. But is that how it really was?

On this reconstruction of Alaïs’ story we have an older Alaïs, Alaïs afterwards, in the days of Bad King John, when Henry has long been dead and Richard is dead and Eleanor at 78 years old is on her last legs. The story revolves around some letters said to have been written by Eleanor years earlier while she was a prisoner in Shrewsbury. Henry, who was trying to prevent her from plotting with Richard, their son, to replace him on the throne, did not allow her to correspond with anyone, so her letters had to be smuggled out. Some were eventually concealed in Canterbury Cathedral and it is those which she is worried might compromise both herself and John, and which she asks Alaïs to retrieve and return to her. So Alaïs makes the journey from Paris to Canterbury, ostensibly as a pilgrim.

In Canterbury she is kidnapped and the excitement starts. Who has she been kidnapped by, and why? King John? Dowager Queen Eleanor, having lured her there for that purpose? The Knights Templar, for their own devious purposes? And what on earth could have been in those letters?

It is rare for me to be hooked from the first page, but I was here.

For a first novel, it is stunning. Look at her depiction of the Dialogue between “that old pair of inseparables, the Body and the Soul“, where the Body “had all the witty lines, some I suspect made up on the spot … [it is Alaïs narrating] No wonder the bishops railed against the theatre. Laughter was probably the greatest danger to orthodoxy.” Or her description of Eleanor in old age, and her comments on arranged marriages … “Although she was standing upright with no help, she looked so brittle I thought her bones might break before we got to a greeting […] As I approached, she held out her hand for me to kiss. It was freckled with age spots, clearly visible in the sun, which at just that moment decided to spread out like butter over us all. […] ‘Queen Eleanor.’ I bent low.’Princess Alaïs,’ she responded, as if we had parted on that day after breakfast.” They speak of the future (and think of the past), of Eleanor’s granddaughter Blanche of Castile, who is to marry Alaïs’ nephew, the heir to the French throne. “‘Blanche is safely installed at the court of your brother [Eleanor tells Alaïs] and the two children seem to like each other. It may be a marriage more successful than many that have been arranged by politics.’ And I knew she was thinking past me, to that time when she was married to my father because their fathers had decreed it. But then, I recalled, she later married Henry for love, and that didn’t work out too well either.

It is all wonderful stuff, and this is (for me at least, and I suspect for all who read this book) the definitive Princess Alaïs.

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What Book Would You Visit?

“What Book Would You Visit?” asks Charles French on his WordPress blog –

https://charlesfrenchonwordsreadingandwriting.wordpress.com/2017/02/04/what-book-would-you-visit/

A great question, and I suppose any novelist answering it will have created at least one story, one world, of his own that he already lives in in a very real sense and would give his left arm to visit in reality. For me, of course, that would be Mariana’s world.

But there are many other books, many universes created by other writers, I would love to visit.

Given that visiting is quite different from moving to, living in, then of them all I think I would choose Ian Watson’s Whores of Babylon. For those of you who don’t know the book, here is an excellent review of it. I am going to quote the whole thing (with Kanti’s permission), but you can click to the original here if you prefer: 

https://mahadeviyakka.wordpress.com/2010/10/28/whores-of-babylon/

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WHORES OF BABYLON by Ian Watson (reviewed by Kanti Burns)

The situation, the setting, seems simple enough at first. Out in the Arizona desert, the city of Babylon (ancient Babylon, with the Tower of Babel and The Hanging Gardens) has been rebuilt. The date set is quite late – not the heyday of Babylon, but 323 BC, when Alexander the Great lay there dying.

A theme park? No, it is serious sociology, organised by the University of the Future at Heuristics (yes, really). American (and other) volunteers are trained and taught ancient Greek and arrive in Babylon as Greek tourists. But they are there to stay. There is no way out unless you leave – as a tourist – within a month. Otherwise, you learn Babylonian and you stay.

Was the autumn of a culture marked by vast, capricious building projects? By exercises in archtectural metaphysics, designed to stem the tide of time? […] Was Babylon the psychic salvation of the American Dream, or the very symbol of its decay?

Very reminiscent of J.G. Ballard!

Yet when Alex Winter, our hero, descends from the hovercraft outside the Ishtar gate, though the experiment has only been under way for about five years, everything is old, everything is ”normal”, and, weirdly, the people seem to have been there for ever: they are people of the ancient, not the modern world.

Alex arrives in the same batch of newbies as the beautiful Deborah, falls in love with her, and wants to ‘enjoy’ Babylon with her. However, she adapts fast to the utterly different way of life while he is still being the all-American boy-tourist, and after a couple of days she drops him as an embarrassment to be with.

Searching for her, he meets and makes love to the rich and aristocratic Thessany at the Temple of Ishtar, goddess of love and fertility; and when he gets into debt it is Thessany who pays his debts for him, and thus, as it turns out, purchases him. He becomes her slave. Unable to adapt, to believe what is happening, he is forced to submit by two arrogant but very adaptable women, Deborah, who treats him with complete disinterest, and Thessany, who, while seeming to be his friend, buys him, and has him whipped and branded – and goes on sleeping with him. They are the whores of Babylon. But he, the cynic, has become by the end of the book a true Babylonian, too; and he adores them both.

Actually, Alex is all along very effeminate. A real man would adapt to what was, after all, very much a man’s world. The opening lines of the book are: When Alex was thirteen, he and the other kids in his age group used to fight with knives. Every Saturday morning for months on end they practised single combat, and pairs, and two-against-one. Alex hated it. The blades were made of stiff rubber but the bruises were real. This sounds like the opening of a TG sissy-boy story, and I’m surprised that in Babylon he doesn’t get castrated, a perfectly normal procedure in this world. Still, at the end of the book he is still hardly more than a boy and after being whipped and branded, what else can happen to him? But that will come in the still unwritten sequel.

Yet what is happening? It is too real to be artificial, but it is not quite real: there are anachronisms. For instance, Alex finds a cassette – which everyone but him refers to as a strange “scroll”. And when Alexander (yes, Alex meets his namesake, Alexander the Great) quotes the Greek philospher Eratosthenes, General Perdiccas mutters “Not born yet.” “Never mind,” responds the King.

On the other hand, Alex gets to watch Euripides’ Andromeda, a lost play of which only a fragment is extant. Impossible if this is artificial.

I think we can safely say it is time travel. Nothing else fits. Most of the population are native ancient Babylonians. Then there is a small group of time-travellers, some aware, some unaware. Of the characters in the book, Alex and Deborah are unaware on arrival, though she becomes aware later, I think. The substitute Alexander the Great and a few of his closest associates are aware. Thessany is probably a native. Unusually for me, I cannot decide whether I identify with Thessany or with Deborah, the American girl who becomes a priestess in the Temple of Marduk.

Alex, on the other hand, is, while not gay – quite the contrary – a complete wanker with an obsessive urge to interfere, and deserves all he gets. But even he quickly comes to understand that not all is as it seems, or rather seemed when they first arrived – this is from near the beginning of the book:

All of a sudden Alex really saw these people in the street, not just witnessing them but experiencing them.

Slaves. […]

What if the slaves ran away? Would soldiers hunt them down in the desert, using dogs to track and spears to chivvy? Could one escape across a state line from Babylonia into America and be free again?

America didn’t yet exist. America was unknown. Any state line was a fault line in time, behind which Babylonia had slumped into the past, had submerged itself like a whale sounding deep into the abyss of history …

Great writing and a great book.

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So why would I want to go there? Probably because it is neither the one nor the other, or rather because it is both, the present very much alive and kicking but implanted in the remote past. I suspect that at first I would react and behave as Alex does, but (having read the book!) would settle in quicker. I would want to explore the ancient city, getting to know  people and trying to sort out the time-travellers (like Deborah and Alex) and the natives of that world (like Thessany) – yes, I would certainly want to meet and get to know all three of them. Then, after a year or two, I would want to travel to other cities, other countries. If “America didn’t yet exist”, then Alexander the Great’s world did, and from Babylon I could travel on east and visit Persia (on the Silk Road!) and India (Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro!), then turn back and head west and explore ancient Israel (Jerusalem!) and Greece (Athens!) and Britain (the Druids!) in the late 4th century BC.

 Then come home and write some wonderful novels.

 This was to be just a visit, wasn’t it???

THE WAY OF WYRD by Brian Bates

Medieval Magic and Mystery

  • real Middle-earth, set between the Underworld and the Spirit World
  • Anglo-Saxon sorcery and shamanism
  • Shamanic healings
  • the loss of the soul
  • encounters with spirits, including the three Wyrd Sisters
  • finding one’s guardian spirit (totem animal)

Medieval Outsiders

  • a Saxon sorcerer/shaman
  • a young Christian scribe from Christian Mercia on a mission in pagan Wessex

way-of-wyrdWay back when, The Way of Wyrd opened a whole new world to me and many others: the shamanistic world of pre-Christian (Saxon) England, the world that was in some respects the original of Tolkein’s Middle-Earth.

I have classified it here as Fiction, though (like much of the best HF) it is also a documentary novel – in this case (to quote the Preface) “a report of a major research project into Anglo-Saxon sorcery […] in which each event and detail of the teachings is reconstructed from the Anglo-Saxon evidence.”

The book is divided into two parts, the first tells how a young Christian scribe, Brand (our narrator), meets Wulf, the wolfman, the sorcerer, and is eventually obliged to acknowledge the reality of Wulf’s powers; the second is the story of Brand’s own encounters with “wyrd” and the World of Spirits.

And as Brand comes to understand what “wyrd” means and is, so do we, at least to some extent.

After what is in effect a classical healing narrative (it is a shamanic healing and Wulf the sorcerer is clearly what we now think of as a shaman), we go back to Brand’s arrival on the south coast  where he is part of a mission imposed on the pagan king of what is presumably Sussex (the realm of the South Saxons) by the Christian king of Mercia, Wulfhere, son of Penda, the “most powerful warlord in the land”.

Wulf later explains that and another healing, this time of a horse, in terms of “life force”, and goes on to introduce Brand to runes, carved on a stick as a protective amulet. He explains why people fear him – and why warriors do not fear death. He speaks of the Wyrd Sisters – then suddenly announces that “they have come to loosen your fibres”. Brand is terrified.

In the second part of the book, the point comes where the natural and the supernatural intersect – which is of course what sorcery and witchcraft are all about, as is made abundantly clear in this book, but misunderstood (or totally ignored) in most orthodox religion and science (though the greatest scientists – men such as Newton and Einstein – like the great trailblazers of religion, do not make that mistake): things go together, happen together (co-incidence) but it is not a matter of one causing the other.

By sorcery [Wulf explains], I mean the forces that rule Middle-Earth. I have told you that, for the sorcerer, everything vibrates the web of wyrd, whether it is an act of the gods or the movement of the tiniest insect. Your arrival trembled the web. The flight of the ravens trembled the web. My presence vibrates the web. All our lives are locked together in the shimmering world of wyrd in which all things are enmeshed, and connected to one another by the threads of wyrd.’

I had been impressed by Wulf’s explanation of a web which contained all things, but now that I was supposedly caught within it, the idea seemed sinister and I could not accept it …

Finally, Brand loses his soul, and has to travel to the Underworld to beg the assistance of “the mighty smiths” before he makes the leap into the World of Spirits in a desperate attempt to retrieve it.

Of particular interest to me now (on rereading the book) were Wulf’s explanations of such common symptoms as fever and sweating: so different, yet quite as likely and as reasonable as our explanations, and his remedies at least as effective.

And this: ‘You must draw your spirit to you along your fibres by singing your own song. That way the guardian spirit will find you […] Do not worry about the words, just make the sounds that come to you. The spirits will understand.’ He gripped my arm. ‘You must do it, Brand. You must! If you do not sing, you will see only visions of death. […] I cannot tell you what to sing, or how to sing. It is your guardian spirit we are seeking. It must be your song. […] Float your word-hoard on the waves of wyrd; the power to release your guardian spirit lies within you alone.‘ These might be words for any poet – indeed any writer!

Essential reading for anyone interested in the culture and beliefs of the early Middle Ages – Middle-Earth.

Paul Doherty’s THE CUP OF GHOSTS

Medieval Outsiders

  • Templar Knights after the suppression of the Templars
  • French spies in London, English spies in France

cup-of-ghostsI was roused before dawn. Servants clattered up the stairs with pails of hot water, followed by others carrying Monsieur Simon’s heavy tub. I was told to strip, to wash carefully and dress in the sombre clothes Monsieur Simon had brought: blue hose, soft leather boots from Spain, linen undergarments, a dark blue gown with a waistband which had a concealed fold for a dagger and a ring for my hand.

‘A gift,’ Monsieur Simon explained.

Finally a heavy dark brown cloak fastened round the neck with a silver clasp. Monsieur Simon also provided a money belt with little pouches sewn along the edge, each crammed with silver coins.

‘I would like to say this is also a gift from me.’ He shook his head. ‘The wealth was your uncle’s. You have it now. I can give you nothing else. Remember you are Mathilde de Clairebon, distamt kinsman of Monsieur Simon de Vitry. Look,’ he urged, coming up close and peering up at me, ‘I’ve studied you, Mathilde. You have a ready ear and a quick tongue!’ He smiled. ‘Your knowledge of physic, herbs and potions is truly remarkable. Your uncle aslo told me you know Italian, you can speak the Norman French of the court; it’s only a matter of time before you study English, learn their customs, adopt their ways.’

‘What will I be?’

‘What the Princess Isabella decides. You will be introduced as a demoiselle de chambre.’

What we have here is, in effect, the first volume of a life of Mathilde of Westminster, most sought-after physician in London during the years when Princess Isabella of France reigned supreme in England, first as Edward’s Queen and then as Queen and Regent with Mortimer at her side.

Like Isabella, Mathilde was French – the niece of a senior French Knight Templar. After the destruction of the Templars, when everyone remotely associated with the Order was in hiding, an old friend of Mathilde’s uncle found her a place (it was where he thought she would be safest!) right in the heart of the palace of King Philip himself. She became a lady-in-waiting to Princess Isabella.

It was as such, and by now Isabella’s only confidante, that she accompanied her to London.

But murders and assassinations were occurring all around them with ominous regularity. Who was carrying them out – or more to the point, who was ordering them? Was it Philip, in France? Was it Edward, now Isabella’s husband, in England – Edward, who loved to pretend and for whom nothing was as it seemed? And what part was Peter (Piers) Gaveston playing in all this?

This is Doherty at his best, on a character – Isabella – who seems to have fascinated him all his life. The last time he touched on her, in A Tapestry of Murders, it was to deal with her death as an old woman living under house-arrest in Norfolk. Now, though, he has given himself much more scope: at the end of this book the pieces are set out on the board but play has not yet really begun.

It is noteworthy, too, that in this book, Doherty takes on (for the first time, so far as I know) the role of the female protagonist, writing in the First Person as Mathilde. It is something I myself have done (and am still doing) myself in my Mariana de la Mar books, where I have found it both limiting and liberating: he does it superbly.

PETER ABELARD – Helen Waddell

Kanti Burns, Book Reviews and more ...

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…

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MAGNUS – George MacKay Brown

BETTER THAN SLEEP

Magnus coverThis is the story of Magnus Erlendson, Earl of Orkney in the Twelfth Century; or rather (as it says in the book) “half-earl”, for there were two heirs, Magnus and his cousin Hakon Paulson; the story of Magnus, the mystic, who cares for the seal injured by hunters, who sits in the prow of a ship reading a book during a great sea battle, and was born to be a saint.

But he was also born to be Earl of Orkney, and half the islands support him. There is civil war, during which the islanders are reduced to poverty and despair. In the end, after three years of fighting, Magnus is killed by treachery when he agrees to meet his cousin for peace talks.

George Mackay Brown, who died in 1996, was primarily a poet, and this is his most poetic novel, a long prose poem. He was also a…

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