Tuesday, April 14, 2009

More on William Marshal

I just finished reading "The Greatest Knight", Elizabeth Chadwick's take on the story of William Marshal. There was a lot of horse coaching and tricking out which reminded me of some male friends who are addicted to their cars. I started reading "car" for "horse" and could channel the emotion of man and beast. As one who never has sat astride a horse (only a pony at the Bronx Zoo), the fact that I could sense the feeling of what it must have been like for a knight such as William Marshal is a testament to Chadwick's writing.

As I was first introduced to this knight in "Devil's Brood" by Sharon Kay Penman, I knew what to expect in Chadwick's character delineation. And I was not disappointed, there were no lapses in strength of character, though there were lapses in Marshal's fortunes. He served first Henry the Young King until a specious slur engendered by jealous fellow knights caused Henry to send him packing. But Marshal was there at his deathbed, and took up the Cross to honor him with a journey to Jerusalem. Similar events unfold in his life in service to the Angevins. His loyalty to his king, whoever it may be at the moment, is his defining attribute.

At the beginning of Marshal's life he was an endangered hostage under King Stephen. When his father, an unfortunate cuss, broke with the conditions and left William to die, Stephen did not kill him. And so the figure that held England together upon the death of King John could easily have been someone else without the innate stamping of the code of chivalry.

This was a good book, well drawn characters, believable intimate scenes, lots of handsome horses. I understand it will be available in the US in the early fall. Maybe then it will get the attention here that it has earned.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Evil King - King John of England

Just how bad was King John? According to Jean Plaidy, THIS BAD. In her novel, "The Prince of Darkness", he is so absolutely evil that there is not a single redeeming feature to act as a kind of internal foil to flesh out the unscrupulous, unconscionable acts described, among them murder, rapine, egregious theft, inordinate lust, lack of valor and military success, disrespect for the Church, etc.

I had thought John had some connection with Robin Hood (the whole Robin Hood legend is one of my cultural gaps), but upon reading superficially I find that the proto Robin Hood was first mentioned with regard to the 1230's, and thus a little later than King John. Plaidy makes no reference to Robin Hood in her novel. Anyway, to her John is the physical embodiment of evil, and no one else in the novel is permitted to be bad, with the possible exception of King Philip of France. All of the barons are exemplary, contained, assuredly not rapacious as a 13th century baron might have been.

William Marshal puts in appearances throughout, an example of a throwback to when times were better and he, as the embodiment of chivalry, was respected, consulted, and listened to.

This novel definitely had its uses because I knew nothing of King John, so this was new territory for me. Of course he was driven to affix his seal to Magna Carta. Plaidy's treatment of John was so slamming that it got to be a touch tiresome.

As a digression - almost 15 years ago I was lucky enough to take a trip to London. There I saw a contemporary Magna Carta in the British Library and it was one of those OMIGOD moments - THERE IT IS. I had a similar moment when I saw the Wilton Diptych in one of the museums - (across a spacious room, in the middle of the room - OMIGOD it IS the Wilton Diptych!!!) But I am just a poor lass, and can no longer afford London, or Europe, so I am building something of an affinity with Arthur Waley, that great translator of "The Tale of Genji" who never went to Japan. Luckily the internet is something of a substitute, but not as good as the real thing.

Back to John - a little surfing convinces me he had some good points, chiefly administrative talents. Apparently he functioned as an impartial adjudicator in the Royal Courts. But he has been compared unfavorably to Nixon, and Wikipedia tells me he was elected Worst Briton of the 13th century. In any case not a cardboard figure of seething evil.