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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 12, 2009

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Real-life Musical, Agincourt, Arthur, and The Hittite

As Dana Ivey explained to Harrison Ford in the 1995 Sabrina: "It's a musical. From time to time the actors will burst forth in song."

That's always been the sticking point for musical comedy on film. While on stage the sets aren't all that real, and everything is far away, movies create a much more intense reality, and when the actors start singing we might be really close to them. Tonsil-counting close.

It's simply more jarring when the singing starts. In some movies, it's completely ludicrous -- like the hideous 1973 musical version of Lost Horizon with perky music by Burt Bacharach.

Other movies, like Oliver!, did a pretty good job of gradually moving from realistic movement to dancing, from dialogue to song. West Side Story just threw the dancing and singing at you from the first.

Most musical films are somewhere in between. But one thing we all agree on: In real life, people don't start singing and doing choreography.

Unless you were in the central railroad station in Antwerp on a certain day ...

Come on, you can guess. I'm not going to describe it, except to tell you that you've never seen or heard Julie Andrews's version of "Do-Re-Mi" from The Sound of Music like this before.

Check it out at: http://snipurl.com/antwerpmusical

Full URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7EYAUazLI9k&annotation_id=annotation_72265&feature=iv

*

I'm a lifelong fan of historical novels. I grew up on Elswyth Thane's Williamsburg novels, a family saga following a Virginia family through all the American wars. I read Gone With the Wind by the time I was ten.

The Prince and the Pauper was my favorite, though, and Little Men functioned like a historical novel to me. I sought them out, until I found the best of them all: Mary Renault's Greek novels.

Beginning with the story of Theseus in The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea, I lived inside Renault's marvelous stories until I had read them all.

There was a parallel tradition of Christian historicals -- The Robe, Quo Vadis, and Dear and Glorious Physician, by authors like Lloyd Douglas, Henryk Sienkiewicz, and Taylor Caldwell.

That market seemed to disappear in the 1970s, and all the rest of the historical fiction genre along with it. It seemed to be replaced by "women's historicals," which quickly degenerated into "bodice-rippers." Nothing there for me.

But the hunger to read -- and write -- historical fiction remains, and has been satisfied in slantwise ways. The mystery genre has spawned a whole raft of historical whodunits, from Steven Saylor's Roman mysteries to Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs novels set in England between the World Wars.

Science fiction has also moved into the historical arena through alternate-history novels. The writer has to do all the same research to be faithful to the era -- but then imposes differences based on one change in the past. Harry Turtledove is the unquestioned champion of that tradition.

Over the past few years I've gradually become aware of a writer named Bernard Cornwell, though, who was writing flat-out historical novels -- no detectives, no changes.

I should have leapt to read his work -- but I was strangely reluctant. I think part of the reason I kept holding back was my love affair with Mary Renault's work -- he couldn't possibly be as good, and why read anything but the best? Or maybe I was still discouraged by the dreadfulness of the bodice-rippers.

But I finally picked up a Cornwell novel when Agincourt came out. I bought the audiobook, read by the brilliant Charles Keating.

I knew about the battle of Agincourt, and so I was not surprised that Cornwell's hero, Nicholas Hook, was an archer. The battles of Crecy and Agincourt were both dominated by English longbowmen -- and the efforts of the French to counter their deadly hail of armor-piercing arrows.

I happily surprised at how excellent Cornwell's research was -- in fact, at the end of the book he discusses the sources and some controversy about the numbers of soldiers involved.

Every step of the way, what happens is authentic -- you feel the mud and the hunger, the fear and the grim determination of these men.

Bad historical novels always have a hero (or some other key character) who represents modern attitudes. Thus we have feminists or hyper-tolerant multi-culturalists showing up in eras when people with those attitudes would be either beaten up, burned at the stake, or (at best) ignored.

But Agincourt makes no such mistake. The hero, Nicholas Hook, is a man whose life has been dominated by a generations-long feud; not particularly religious (most people weren't), he is shocked when he starts hearing the voices of saints.

Yep. That's what I said. Saints talk to him -- St. Crispin and St. Crispinian, to be precise. But Hook is no Joan of Arc. The first time they speak, he doesn't do what they tell him -- and someone dies because of it. Eventually, he learns to listen, but both he and the saints are seeking justice -- which in that era is hard to distinguish from vengeance.

These saints were, you see, the patron saints of the French town of Soissons, which was brutally sacked by the French. So when the battle of Agincourt takes place on St. Crispin's (and St. Crispinian's) Day, it is quite satisfying to think of it as the punishment of the French by the patron saints of the town they treated so brutally and treacherously.

Don't misunderstand: this is not a religious novel, not in the sense that it is self-congratulatory about any religion of today. Cornwell is historically accurate in portraying the "Christianity" of Hook and his saints the way that the religion was conceived of by common people of the fifteenth century.

It's actually a bit disturbing to hear a saint growl, "Kill him."

But it's also refreshing to see a novelist take the religious faith of his characters seriously -- as a part of the historical milieu they lived in.

From beginning to end, Cornwell makes no false moves. His hero is a common man and his only contacts with royalty are in circumstances that we fully believe. Henry V is an important figure in the story, but he is mostly viewed from afar, and Nicholas Hook doesn't become his best buddy (there's no Falstaff in this version of the story).

I have bought several other Cornwell novels to see if he is consistently this good. But whatever I find out about those books, I can assure you of this: Even a finicky reader of historicals like me was more than satisfied by Agincourt: I was moved, I was gripped by this book.

The best way to get this story is to have Charles Keating read it to you. I think I would have missed some of the texture of the story and its setting if I hadn't had his rich, wry voice (and accent) leading me through the events.

*

The new tradition of historical mysteries continues, but with a surprising twist in The Killing Way by Tony Hays. Billed as "an Arthurian mystery," the book might be dismissed as just another celebrity-as-detective novel.

Instead, it's a more-than-respectable entry in the tradition of Arthurian novels; the fact that it's a mystery is almost a distraction.

My first Arthurian fiction was T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone. I read the book right after the Disney movie came out, but had no idea from that edition that there were three sequels -- a whole series called The Once and Future King. (I was in fourth grade -- what did I know?)

I didn't find out about the other books till I was involved in performing a dramatized recording for the blind when I was in college -- but then I read the whole series and was quite moved by it.

My favorite Arthurian fiction for many years was Mary Stewart's moving series of novels about Merlin -- The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment. These novels were new when I was in high school and college, and they shaped the way I looked at all other Arthurian stories.

Stewart did some serious research and created a powerful story that took place on the cusp of the transition from Roman to Saxon Britain. But she also took Merlin's magic seriously. She didn't let it take over the story, the way it does with The Sword in the Stone, which makes no effort to be realistic. Instead, Stewart shows us a subtle and inadvertent magic -- strange prophecies, odd events -- and her Merlin tries to resist the legends that grow up about him.

More recently, Jack Whyte has done a magnificent job of a completely magic-free, realistic series of novels called The Camulod Chronicles (nine books so far, starting with The Skystone). Archaeologists have learned much about that era of British history since Stewart wrote, and Whyte's version of events is quite believable.

And yet ... I yearned for just a bit more influence from the Breton tradition that led to Mallory's Morte d'Arthur.

The Killing Way strikes a happy medium. Like Whyte, Tony Hays eschews magic -- but he includes a bit more of the Arthurian lore.

The trouble with historical treatment of King Arthur is that the earliest reference to him doesn't call him a king at all! He's a mighty warrior, already legendary by the time he was referred to in writing. But no title is attached to him.

Yet Hays is of the school of thought that these great heroes didn't come out of nowhere. Yes, the stories have been embellished and expanded, and other characters and tales have been tacked on -- but, just as there was a real Trojan War that inspired The Iliad and The Odyssey, there was surely a real Arthur, and probably a real Kay, a real Gawain, a real Mordred -- even a real Guinevere (though Lancelot and Galahad are French and impossible -- added in by French troubadours to please their courtly patrons).

So what does Hays do with Arthur in The Killing Way? To my relief, he doesn't have Arthur trotting around solving mysteries.

Instead, he creates a young man named Malgwyn, who lost his family to Saxon raiders and became a vengeful warrior. But in one crucial battle, Malgwyn loses his sword hand. He expected it to be a death sentence, and he was content with that -- he had nothing to live for.

However, Arthur -- a local king and war leader, but not yet the high king of the Britons -- saved his life and had him nursed back to health by monks, who also taught him to read, and write with his left hand. Malgwyn, useless now as farmer or soldier, is a scribe ... and a drunk. He hates Arthur for saving him.

But he also has a stubborn persistence about finding out the truth, which makes him useful as a detective. Since there were no professional detectives in this era, Hays has to do the same dance that other writers of historical mysteries perform, making up plausible reasons for there to be a sleuth who gets involved in multiple mysteries.

He does the job as well as anyone, though I must say that the one place where his research is faulty is in the adventure portions of the novel. Hays has the quaint notion, for instance, that a Roman short sword, the gladius, can be thrown some distance, with accuracy enough to injure a man.

You'd have better results with a rock.

But the failings are few, and no worse than the flaws we routinely accept in movies and TV shows.

Where Hays shines is in the area where Steven Saylor does: with characters and relationships. Malgwyn has a brother, to whom he entrusted his baby daughter after the murder of his wife. The relationship between the brothers, and between Malgwyn and his daughter (who starts the novel thinking he's merely her uncle), and between Malgwyn and his sister-in-law, are the heart of the book.

And the book does indeed have a heart. The mystery is well-created, but we also see -- and Malgwyn is intimately involved in -- the events leading to Arthur's taking the sword from the stone (not magically). The political maneuvering is plausible, and so we can expect future volumes to take us through Arthur's struggles against the Saxons and his rivals among the Britons.

The Killing Way is not a magnum opus, like Agincourt -- because, unlike Cornwell's novel, Hays's has to set up a franchise. But for what it is, it's very good. And he takes the historical Arthur seriously enough to keep me happy.

*

And as long as I'm talking about historical novels, let me give you a heads-up about a book called The Hittite, written by Ben Bova (under the pseudonym Marc Addams).

Though Bova is best known as a science fiction writer, he sticks closely to plausible history in this retelling of The Iliad from the viewpoint of a Hittite soldier who comes to Troy in the aftermath of the collapse of the Hittite Empire.

Just getting to Troy is a gripping story, and Bova is meticulous about showing due respect to the legendary story while making sure that everything that happens is completely believable.

Best of all, the hero/narrator, Lukka, is a fascinating, likeable, believable character. He returns to the Hittite capital, Hattusas, while it is being sacked, and learns from his dying father that his wife and sons might still be alive.

Are they refugees? Slaves? Dead? Lukka assembles his company of soldiers and begins the westward trek to follow and find his family. He assumes they would be sold in Troy, long an ally of the Hittite Empire, but when he reaches Troy he finds it under siege by a motley army of Achaians -- and his wife is a slave of Menelaos.

Bova's plotting is delightfully resourceful, getting Lukka involved in all the important events without doing violence to the traditional story. He also devotes a middle section of the book to the point of view of Helen herself -- and fully realizes her character.

The story is completely convincing and emotionally satisfying; the adventure and warfare are gripping enough to keep me awake to finish the book in a single night.

It's the first volume of a trilogy, but Bova plays fair: This book has an excellent, completely satisfying ending.

Ben Bova was the editor who bought my first science fiction story, so he's a few years ahead of me in the writing life; I hope that when I'm his age, I'll be doing, as he is, the best work of my career.

The bad news, folks, is: You can't buy this book. It hasn't been printed yet. I don't even know when it's coming out. But I'll remind you when it does come out -- and besides, when you see the book cover, and the title The Hittite, you'll remember my review and you'll pick up the book.

Once you start reading, you won't want to put it down.


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