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Posts Tagged ‘Richard

Richard the Lionheart and Robin Hood

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So I started reading this book:

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And I started reading it, sadly, just a few short months after I finished writing my novel set in 1204, including odd events mentioned in this text. But that being said, I did confirm that what I had written conforms with Bartlett’s accounts (mainly of post-Byzantine Cyprus). So that’s my background to the book. And unusually, I’m going to review two books at once, and you’ll understand why half way through.

Why read any bio of this famous/infamous king of England? And why read this one in particular? Well, not just for the names, although Conan the Duke, Count Vulgrin and Grimaldo Grimaldi certainly draw the eye and make it sound like a work of fantasy. Why? Because Richard is probably England’s most famous king, and I reckon that if you ask the average person in the street, they wouldn’t be able to tell you why. That’s why. And why this one? well because, I reckon, it’s a great all-round and accessible work.

And this is the thing. Biographies can sometimes focus so much on the individual that it becomes meaningless, lacking context. This book does not. In fact, it is a biography of a dynasty more than a man. And even broader: of an age as much as a family. With kings being such a force at the centre of national, religious and military policy, any biography of the king should by rights include something of a general history. This book does that.

It covers every major flashpoint of which I have been aware in the history of the Angevins: the murder of Thomas Beckett, the battle of Horns of Hattin, the Jews of York, Acre, Jaffa and Chalus among others. And in doing so, it ties it all to Richard and his Angevin family, a dynasty that it turns out is as riven and troubled as any imperial Roman one.

I will state here my only two gripes. One is that the book could really have done with a family tree to which to refer, and I had to find one online to help me at times. The other was the author’s use of the phrase ‘both orders had been decimated at Hattin’, which niggles me as a Roman historian, for decimation specifically relates to the execution of one man in ten, and is frequently misused in place of obliteration.

The book is set out in a reassuringly chronological manner, covering the subject in stages: Early life, the politics of family, coronation and consolidation, the rise of the crusade, and then its fall, capture and imprisonment, John’s betrayal and release, war with France and finally demise and its impact. The treatment of John is also very fair, I think, which is unusual in a world in which he is uniformly villainised without adequate explanation. Parts of the tale, which reads often like a general history, are boosted by anecdotal asides, which is nice.

Several things occurred to me and were noted down during my read:

  • I’d never considered how much impact the death of Barbarossa had on the crusade
  • The collapse of the bridge at Gisors under Phillip mirrors the collapse of the Milvian Bridge under the emperor Maxentius, about which I’ve written. An odd symmetry.
  • The only assessment possible of Richard (like Marcus Aurelius) is only possible against a background of constant war, and we have no idea what kind of a peacetime king he would have been.
  • I’d forgotten how cool the Blondel and captivity story was.

The book ends in a summing up and what effects Richard had on history. All in all, this was a cracking read and one of the better biographies I have read. I highly recommend it. And to give you a taste, here’s a lovely quote:

“Only one son stood by his deathbed and he, ironically, was illegitimate […] Henry reportedly said of him that he was his only true son; it was the others who were bastards.”

My favourite line in the book. And during the closing parts of the book, unsurprisingly there is a short nod to the legend of Robin Hood and Richard’s part in it. And that’s the interesting thing. I’ve also just finished a ‘biography’ of Robin Hood, which I received ahead of publication and was planning to review, and this just seems to be kismet, the two being so aligned. So I now also give you:

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Now in fairness, I fully expected to hate this and to poo-poo it. I’m too rooted in historical record to give great credence to legends. That being said, there is an element of truth to all legends, and so, like King Arthur, or Achilles, or Troy, or Springheeled Jack, I occasionally indulge to see what other people think. I did so here.

It is a brave, and interesting, premise to launch your book treating Robin as a historical figure and then looking into the historiography of it, trying to ascertain how valid it is. And that warmed me to it. For Matthews is not stating that Robin was definitely real, lived in Privet Drive with his aunt Flo and worked for the water board. He presents evidence and himself treats it with suspicion as well as fascination. So my initial scepticism was gradually worn away.

The first thing the book did, and its first quarter is devoted to this, is to examine the earliest surviving ballads. Here, I encountered a tale that was at one and the same time the old, familiar Robin Hood of legend, but also a new and surprising take. I find myself even now wondering why no author or filmmaker has ever tried to turn this original medieval tale into a movie or book. It would surely be a new angle, despite being also the earliest. Robin comes across a lot more brutal and wily here.

And the thing that really struck me is that despite the traditional treatments I’ve seen and read, the Robin of earliest legend may not have been born during the time of Richard the Lion heart and King John. In fact, in the quoted text, there is reference to King Edward, making it likely Edward I or II, at the end of the 13th century, not the 12th! I was astounded. For this alone, the book was worthwhile.

Another interesting assertion is that Robbinhood might be a now-lost medieval term for an outlaw. That would make tracking the legend down nigh-on impossible, of course, so Matthews continues to examine any historical Robins. What he presents, based on the works of medieval tale-tellers, is more than one plausible historical Robin Hood, or the basis for them. This fascinated me.

The book then moves into investigations into possible pre-Medieval origins for the Robin legend, connecting ancient mythology, Saxon legend and more with the tale. For me, the book got a little bogged down at this point. The depth of the mythological work was impressive and probably deserves a book in its own right, but at times it seemed to me somewhat peripheral or tangential to the purpose of the book. I may be being unfair here, and will leave that to other readers to decide for themselves.

We then go on to examine the potential historical background of the other characters in the tale, being Marian and the ‘Merry Men’. This, again, fascinated me, and made it worthwhile.

What did surprise me was that half the book turned out to be recounted ballads of Robin Hood, the last 120 pages given over to these appendices. I felt that this was somewhat unnecessary and lacked the focus on the subject that I saw in the early chapters, since without Matthews’ commentary on it, it became little more than source material.

The upshot? A brave attacking of a tricky subject. Despite a couple of negatives, one of which being the brevity of the actual work, it threw my preconceived notions aside and provided me with fascinating new nuggets of information that I treasure.

I enjoyed it. If you have an interest in the subject, you probably will, too.

So there you go. Two books in one post, the first out now the second in May. Fascinating reading, for sure.

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Written by SJAT

April 23, 2019 at 9:00 am

The Holy Lance

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I recently had the opportunity to read an advance copy of Andrew Latham’s ‘The Holy Lance’. Initially I was hesitant, I have to admit. I am reasonably familiar with the Knights Templar in both popular myth and actual historical record, and am, frankly, a little sick of the endless connections made between the Templars and various supernatural or secret cult activities. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to read the book and discover that, although it revolves entirely around a group of Templars and the eponymous artefact, there is not a hint here of the ‘secret society and weirdo damned Templars’. This is a tale of knights, duty and the battling of inner demons, not the Rosicrucians or the Masons in armour trying to hide the body of Christ or some such.

Once I realised that it was a work of historical fiction about the real Poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon and had not fallen into that most common and woeful trap of ‘Dan-Browniness’, I was properly enticed, and dived right in. In fact, despite the artefact at the heart of the tale being such a mythical, sacred item, the book remains grounded and realistic. After all, just because something is mythical has never stopped real people hunting it and believing in it (witness not only the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant, but also the Nazi obsession with relics and occult objects.)

Inside, what I came across was a solid tale based during the Third Crusade, in the aftermath of the dreadful battle at the Horns of Hattin. Rather than being some ‘Indiana Jones and the Holy Grail’ knock-off, the story does not wallow in the supernatural, raising the spear of Longinus – the Holy Lance supposed to have pierced Christ on the cross – to be some kind of earth-changing relic. It is simply a religious relic, albeit an important one, sought by a number of the power groups active during the crusade, for its morale-boosting effects and the belief that it aids an army in victory. Richard Coeur de Lion sends the protagonist on a mission to recover the spear and aid his cause in the Holy Land. Completely as an aside from the main plot and characters, incidentally, I also have to point out that I love this unusually realistic portrait of the great Richard I, as opposed to the usual ‘bearded action hero’.

I will not delve too deeply into the nuances and details of the plot, for that way lie spoilers and disappointment. What I will say is that this is a hunt, and something of a race, to acquire the Lance, run by more than two groups. The political situation is nicely put, with conflicting forces not always on opposing sides of the war. Indeed, the oiliest, wickedest bad guys in this nominally belong to the same side as the Templar protagonist. Characters struggling to regain prominence or to maintain it in a world where power and position are most important are pitted against unwilling hunters who are bound by duty and oath to service. Christians both pious and base struggle against each other, as well as against the agents of Saladin (also, incidentally, a refreshing and unusual characterisation) in an effort to bring the lance back to their faction. Don’t forget that in this awful crusade, the English and the French probably hated one another more than either of them hated the Saracen!

Strangely, for me, the most important and most powerful thread (themes?, ideas?) in the novel, which so outweighs the main plot concerning the lance and the machinations of the powerful, is the personal journey of the protagonist. A former knight who joined the Templars to seek a way out of a world of blood, violence and base impulses, Michael Fitz Alan faces a daily battle against his inner demons and, while he is a strong, often irritatingly unyielding and deadly character, this dark, uncertain side of him is what makes him real to the reader. He is a character that sits well in his place in the plot and will drive the story on beyond this volume with ease.

The upshot is that the Holy Lance is an action packed, tense race to recover a holy relic, pitted against the hordes of the Saracen, power-hungry Christian nobles, his own masters of dubious ethics and various side-groups. Throughout the story, the character of Fitz Alan unfolds, and thus is born the series of the English Templars. Roll on book 2, I say.

Written by SJAT

March 26, 2015 at 10:27 am

Robin of Donald

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I know I promised you a kids/travelogue post, and I promise there’s one coming, but each week I look at writing said post, but realise that there’s a new great book out there that I need to make sure everyone knows about. So, we’re back onto Historical Fiction again, but hold on to your seat, as this is some of the best you’ll ever read.

You see, we’re all tremendously familiar with Robin Hood. Most of us were weaned on Errol Flynn, Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone fencing up and down stairwells and plotting in golden thrones, swinging through the greenwood like Tarzan in camo. It’s still the yardstick by which swashbuckling is measured. You probably know of or remember Richard Greene. And Michael Praed and Jason Connery mooching around moodily to Clannad’s ‘Hooded Man’ soundtrack. Everyone tutted and sighed at the strange route that Kevin Costner took from Dover to Nottingham via Sycamore Gap at Hadrian’s Wall, but we still loved the movie, even as we complained. Morgan Freeman still rocks, of course. And some of us even saw the much more down-to-earth version with Patrick Bergin. And though ‘Men in Tights’ makes me twitch, I still love Cary Elwes. There was some Xena-esque American series, I believe, which largely passed me by. And Tony Robinson in Maid Marion and her Merry Men. And even Russell Crowe with his wandering accent and his ladyfriend fighting off the French nation with a school outing.

So… the point of all that? We’ve seen Robin Hood a million times, in a million guises. We know him inside and out. We even know all his friends and most of the events that are likely to occur in his tales. I have become jaded with Robin. I even largely stopped watching his tales as they are churned out by rote. They are now as realistic and fresh as a King Arthur story (and don’t even get me started on them). No one can surprise us with Robin Hood, right?

And then along comes Angus Donald and turns it all on its head. I approached his first novel, Outlaw, with trepidation. I had actually exchanged words with Angus about his new novel as I was producing Marius’ Mules at the same time, and I went to read Outlaw, partially because it’s good to know what other people are writing (what you’re up against), partially as a break from the constant Roman text I was reading at the time, but mainly, I have to admit, because Angus seemed like such a nice guy. I did not read it because it was a book I would naturally take from a shelf (see my words above about being jaded with the whole Robin Hood thing.) I read it, I am now aware, for all the wrong reasons.

But what is important is that I read it.

Because it actually did surprise me. Not only did I realise, only a quarter of the way into the book, that I was now reading it because I couldn’t put it down, but it had completely swept away my reluctance to touch the subject with even a barge-pole. I read Outlaw. In fact, I read it twice that year, as a break from my Roman reading. Outlaw is a stunning book that makes Robin a believable (and oft worrisome) character. A man who rules Sherwood with an iron fist. A man who should not have ‘merry men’, but rather ‘goons’, ‘thugs’ and ‘muscle’. His companions, had they been 700 years later would have names like ‘Knives’, ‘Squint-eye Pete’, and ‘Leftie’. In short: Robin is a 12th century gangster.

In fact, I enjoyed Outlaw so much that I have become something of a Donald-o-phile, clamouring for him next book while he’s still poised over the ink well, thinking of the title. And so, I actively promote his work wherever I can. I love the series, and I love Angus’s writing. Bit of a turn-around from being reluctant to read his first novel, eh? In fact, Angus has gone on to produce four novels in the series, with a fifth under the pen as I write this.

And the reason I’m telling you all this? Because Angus has not one but two books coming out! The paperback of King’s Man has become available in the UK today, and the hardback of Warlord is out on the 19th July (a mere fortnight.) This gives you time to buy and read the first three before Warlord comes on sale. Believe me, you’ll not need two weeks. They’re un-put-down-able. I seriously urge you to buy and read the series. If you’re unsure, buy and read Outlaw alone, just to decide. One book… what harm can it do! (American release dates as yet unknown I’m afraid, but they will be released in due course there, and the first two are available. You can always order them from the UK sites, of course. Hee hee hee.

Outlaw introduces us to Robin and his world, in a brutal and realistic, yet heroic and engaging tale seen through the eyes of the ageing Alan Dale, troubador and ‘merry man’. Holy Warrior takes the stories into dark, uncharted territory with Richard Coeur de Lion and his crusade. King’s Man (my fave so far) spins the most amazing yarn concerning Robin’s trial for heresy and King Richard’s imprisonment in Germany. I simply cannot wait to see what treasures Warlord holds…

So, just to help push you into it, here are my reviews for the first three books:

Outlaw         Holy Warrior      King’s Man

And the important links, of course, for your viewing pleasure:

Angus’s website     Angus’s page at Amazon.com     Angus’s page at Amazon UK     Angus on Twitter     Angus at the HWA site 

And that’s pretty much all I have to say today. Don’t miss out. Read the books. You’ll love them, I guarantee it. Hopefully, Angus will allow me the use of the images. If not, I will surrender myself to the castle at Nottingham and await summary justice by that little Norman tit, sir Ralph Murdac…

Ciao for now.