Posts from September 2009

September 5th, 2009

Alfred the Great!

Our books today – our subject today is that most alluring and elusive of all English monarchs, Alfred the Great – in history, in fiction, and in the grey no man’s land in between.

Certainly when he was born, around a. d. 848, he didn’t look like probable material for history or fiction: he was the slight, intellectual fourth son of Athelwolf, king of Wessex (a vast territory comprising Sussex, Essex, and Kent, but not all of England – great tracts of which were under the control of Vikings) – and his three older brothers, Athelbald, Athelbert, and Athelred, had every intention of ruling the land. And all three of them did rule, in succession, after Athelwolf abdicated – but the ruling wasn’t easy, thanks to a redoubtable old bastard named Ragnar Lodbrok, a fire-breathing Viking of the worst stripe, upon whose death his sons, Halfdan and Ivarr, became so enraged they half-formulated a plan to reduce all of England to a Viking vassal-state (Ivarr might have been stirred by an unfortunate nickname that followed him the whole of his life; Halfdan was just your standard-issue homicidal maniac).

The main thing standing in their way was Wessex, and the sons of Athelwolf.

Archaeologists have spent a lot of time and energy trying to determine the exact numbers of men and ships involved, but it’s safe to say the Viking forces looked overwhelming – just as it’s safe to ascribe courage and determination to Athelbald, Athelbert – and most especially Athelred, who had two distinctions his older brothers didn’t share: he was personally ferocious in physical combat, and he’d lately learned (to his surprise, in the manner of brusque older brothers) that Alfred was not a pampered kid anymore but a stalwart fighter with a first-class tactical mind.

He’d come by these gifts naturally. In addition to doing his fare share of the fighting in his brothers’ endless wars with the Vikings, he’d also accompanied his father on a pilgrimage to Rome and en route encountered the cultured Frankish court of Charles the Bald. He’d seen a larger world, one in which learning and gentle repose featured more prominently than drinking and fighting, and it answered something in his own studious, expansive mind. In short, he was deeper than his brothers, and Athelred recognized this, at least a little.

He didn’t have time to recognize it much more, because in 871 at the battle of Meredune he was mortally wounded (“mortally” for the time, that is – he took a great axe-gash and then spent weeks slowly dying of infection, in agony) and the trouble kingdom of Wessex passed to Alfred, who was in his early 20s. He had a slight but shapely frame, a beautiful face, sad eyes, steady hands, and strong arms – and he was up against the greatest warrior-culture west of the Mongols.

His rule got off to a rocky start in a series of pitched battles with the Vikings, at the culmination of which Alfred decided to pay them a lump-sum of money to leave his kingdom in peace for a while. They withdrew north of the Thames, and Alfred had a little time to rebuild his forces – and begin work on a navy, which he hoped to use to carry the fight to the Vikings on their own mastered element.

In 876 the Viking leader Guthrum (see under: homicidal maniac) broke the peace and attacked south – only to learn that Alfred had been steadily reinforcing both his defenses and the discipline of his men: the Danes were repulsed both on land and in a sea encounter, and Alfred bought himself a little more time.

He almost lost it all in 878, when luck and good timing (not to mention some pent-up homicidal anger) brought the Vikings to within an inch of wiping out the English completely. A surprise raid on Chippenham succeeded completely, seizing the royal court and driving Alfred and his followers into a hastily-scrambled exile for their lives. Here it was that Alfred’s preparations – his plans – proved their worth even when the man himself wasn’t on hand to enact them (it’s safe to say that 878 would have destroyed any of his brothers); well-trained forces on land and in the Bristol Channel held the line and then turned the Vikings back, culminating in the battle of Ethandune, in which Alfred delivered the Danes a defeat more decisive than anything they’d encountered before. They sued for peace, and as a neat little added gesture, Guthrun converted to Christianity and got baptized.

This is glorious stuff but hardly illustrative; that the kingdom of Wessex would want to survive rather than become subsumed into the Viking hoardings is only natural, and it’s natural the kings of Wessex would fight. It’s what such kings do in peacetime that works better to define them, and for the next eight years, Alfred had peace. What he did with that time is why later ages started calling him Great.

Because he hadn’t forgotten the Franks, and he hadn’t stopped wanting to live in a better world, even while he was running for his life in the fens of Somerset. So when he had a decade (give or take the odd Viking raid) of peace, he grabbed at it: he retrenched the fortifications of Wessex with intelligence and redundancy, he poured money and know-how into building fleets of ships (like Samuel Pepys long after him, he’s considered one of the fathers of the British navy), he revamped the administration of the kingdom, streamlined the bribery, recodified the laws and retrained the adjudicators of those laws, mandated literacy, spread the culture of books and learning, and in short went about creating that better world where he wanted to live. He was helped in much of this by a semi-shadowy figure, the Merlin to his Arthur, a canny Welsh monk named Asser who advised the king on a wide variety of matters and was his guiding light in the realm of books and learning. Alfred did some original writing of his own and some translations (including, famously, of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy), and Asser was instrumental in all of it.

His Life of King Alfred was written in 893, and it’s an immensely readable book even now, a thousand years later. Asser was at the king’s side quite often during this decade of peace and building – which might ordinarily have abetted in the creation of a sycophantic concoction of flatteries, except that Alfred himself had no real use for such things. He favored gentle usage – as all kings do – but he comes across in Asser’s book as quite charmingly human. There are dozens of passages like this one, in which we find the two reading together:

One day when we were sitting together in the royal chamber discussing all sorts of topics (as we normally did), it happened that I was reading aloud some passage to him from a certain book. As he was listening intently to this (with both ears, as it were) and was carefully pondering it over in the depths of his mind, he suddenly showed me a little book which he carried everywhere, in which were written dates, some psalms, certain prayers he’d learned in his youth, scraps of many things. He told me to copy our passage into the little book.

(Asser pauses to give thanks – then and now – for a king so in love with learning – but then he finds that Alfred has so assiduously filled his commonplace book that there’s no room left; Asser diplomatically suggests they start a new book)

You very much get the impression that Alfred brought all his enthusiasm, all his energy, to this surprise job of being king – and that his energies were far greater and far sharper than those of his brothers would have been. Of course, some of his subjects doubtless would have preferred a less intelligent king, or at least a less involved one, as Asser paints the picture of the newly reorganized legal system:

King Alfred also used to sit in judicial hearings for the benefit of both his nobles and the common folk, since they frequently and violently disagreed amongst themselves at the assemblies of their ealdormen and reeves, to the point where they could agree on virtually nothing. Under pressure of this obstinacy, both parties could agree to submit to the king’s judgement, and after a while both parties quickly started doing this. But if somebody for some reason expected that injustice would be dealt him by such an authority, he wouldn’t willingly submit to it, although the law forced him to be present, even if he didn’t want to be. For such men knew their malice could not long remain hidden – which is hardly surprising, since the king was an extremely astute investigator in judicial matters (as in so much else). He would carefully examine virtually all the judgements made in his absence anywhere in his realm, weighing their justice, and if he detected any corruption, he would ask the judges, politely of course (as was his way), either in person or by proxy, why they had passed such a seeming unfair sentence.

Needless to say, a story as good as Alfred’s couldn’t possibly have been ignored by history – he’s been embraced by yarn-spinners since the moment Gudrun bit into his first Communion wafer. Countless books have been written about him – poems, songs, ballads, operas, biographies, military histories, and of course novels … all have flowed from the presses, and each has created an Alfred subtly tailored to their own purposes. In 1961 the great historical novelist Alfred Duggan wrote The Right Line of Cerdic (although all of Duggan’s books are brilliant, all of them have absolutely crappy titles), an engrossing and stirring novel about Alfred; in 2006 David Horspool did a great, quick job of delineating the various myths that have adhered for centuries to Alfred’s stories; Paul Hill’s military study is new and invigorating; and of course there’s popular contemporary historical novelist Bernard Cornwell, who’s got an ongoing series of novels going on the story of Alfred.

These and lots more, and they all have their separate appeals – although Asser’s little book still beats them all for sheer interest. There’s a very good modern edition by Penguin Classics, of course.

November 14th, 2008

In the Penny Press – the TLS!

I get looks whenever I buy the TLS, and not just because I’m a stone-cold super-hottie. No, I get cautionary looks from bookstore cashiers (never the brightest bulbs in any bookstore’s chandelier – some of the older ones don’t even know how to operate their own registers!), as though I might be unaware of just how staid and boring the periodical I’m trying to purchase is.

In a way, it’s understandable. After all, the TLS isn’t flashy, and one glance inside is enough to clue in just about anybody that what few pictures there are exist only as marginalia for what is a very large amount of prose. Page after page of multi-columned reviews in tight type, with no pie-charts and precious little in the way of multi-color graphics.

And partially, this appearance is accurate: the TLS is the world’s most serious book-review organ. It’s intellectually coruscating, temperamentally abstruse, and often Olympianly unanswerable. Most of its reviewers are distinguished academics and writers (this particular issue is in large part devoted to music, and the lead-off article is by none other than the brilliant, electric Charles Rosen)(as with most of the lead-off articles of the TLS, this one is worth the price of the periodical all by itself), and although they’re usually chatty and helpful, they don’t slow down for their audience. The tiny handful of people I know who claim to read the TLS universally skim it (and most not even that – back issues, dutifully bought, pile up on nightstands like autumn leaves), and that, too, is partially understandable: so much depth and detail, week after week, can feel oppressive to the perpetually over-leveraged.

I read the TLS from cover to cover (in an average issue, I entirely skip perhaps two pieces, on topics that hold no interest whatsoever, but even here I’m a bit ahead of the game as far as those skimmers go, since I don’t subsequently try to pretend I read those pieces); I consume it. When you read as many books as I do, when you’re as often frustrated with the book-reviews you read (and of course lately there’s the fact that I write book reviews, not only here on a regular – if entirely un-commented-upon – basis, but also over at Open Letters) as I am, the TLS comes appears every week like a banquet from the gods.

But even so, it’s easy to see how somebody unfamiliar with it could mistake it for being dry and dull. It looks dry and dull, but oh! It isn’t. Intellectual and aesthetic probity of this magnitude is always exciting, but it’s not only that – very often, the TLS is genuinely funny. Not slapstick humor, mind you, and sometimes rather droll, but still possessing a definite twinkle in the eye. The uninitiated find this impossible to believe, but it’s true.

Take the 7 November issue, for instance. Yes, it starts off with the aforementioned long and stunningly good Rosen article on various styles of piano-playing, but very soon after that, the issue gets down to some serious one-liners and extended guffaws.

Well, maybe not very soon after that – there’s a great but somber piece on the British in WWI, for instance, and there’s a review of the new Coen Brothers movie Burn After Reading that, while not specifically funny, does have a wonderful line about how, like and The Hudsucker Proxy and O Brother, Where Art Thou? “the new film is boastful rather than apologetic about its own inconsequentiality.”

But what about Tom Shippey’s long, openly baffled review of the new monstrously unedited bagatelle from Neal Stephenson, Anathem? Shippey pretty clearly goes back and forth between being utterly nonplussed by the book and being vaguely disappointed both with it and with its intended audience:

Stephenson says there’s no reason to read the chronology at the front of the book, “If you are accustomed to reading works of speculative fiction and enjoy puzzling things out on your own.” (note that there are two requirements here).

If you give it a minute to settle in on you, that closing parenthetical is pretty damn funny, in an utterly composed, even cold way.

And then there’s Nicholas Vincent, whose brief review of the new Bernard Cornwell historical fiction Azincourt (about the Battle of Agincourt – I must have been absent when everybody agreed to change the spelling) is so chock-full of malicious fun that I’m going to break with Stevereads precedent and quote it in its entirety. Enjoy:

Bernard Cornwell’s cast of foul-mouthed military boors are here transported to the fifteenth century, with all the consequences of setting down Andy McNab, Jake “Raging Bull” La Motta, and Dr. Tourette in the midst of Little Arthur’s History of England. There are so many intestines spilled “like wet eels sliding from a slit sack”, so many pukings and involuntary voidings of the bowel, so many meticulously prepared cliches, that the reader is left wading in ordure, longing for a sentence of more than thirty words, for a word of more than two syllables, and for any reflective or descriptive passages not concerned with bodily fluids.

The plot of Azincourt is thin and cinematic. It involves Nick Hook, an archer whose one claim to fame is his ability to dispatch an incredible number of victims. Even before the battle proper, Nick has stabbed or bludgeoned to death nearly a dozen men, and this before counting the occasions when he strings his murderous bow. Within the first seventy pages, there are two gang rapes, from the second of which our hero clears his mind, somewhat implausibly, with “thought[s] of the badgers on Beggar’s Hill”. Thereafter, Hook (note the stabbing masculine monosyllable) makes off with the fair Melisande (remark the yielding and feminine anapest), and together they and their dysfunctional families bring various, not particularly interesting problems to bear on a story best summarized as “psychopath goes to war”. The introduction to this plot of the lecher-priest, Father Martin, certainly increases the pornographic element, although Martin’s claim to have met the Bishop of Oxford in a brothel staffed by nuns is either mendaciously boastful or miraculously prophetic: the bishopric of Oxford was not created until 1542, more than a century after Agincourt.

Cornwell’s account of events is advertised as “supremely well-researched”. Certainly it has involved him in reading at least three and possibly four works of serious history. Through their cool assessment of the battlefield and the campaign’s rich documentation, the experts – among them John Keegan, Anne Curry, Juliet Barker and (not mentioned in Cornwell’s acknowledgements) Christopher Allmand – have recaptured the horrid history of Agincourt with its slaughter in the sucking mud of Picardy. Cornwell, by contrast, so revels in the filth that one is left wondering whether, like several of his characters, not least the disgusting Father Martin, he is secretly celebrating what he seems to deplore. Fortunately, it is at this stage of that the events of October 1415 begin to gather pace. As French hubris thunders towards nemesis unleashed from English (and Welsh) bowstrings, and as we are once again told the old story, the reader can sit back, enjoy the show, and forget about the talentless actors who Cornwell has thrust, gurning and cursing, onto his blood-spattered stage. Grand-Guignol combined with didactic display of historical knowledge is, as ever, a formula difficult to resist. Homer knew this. Bernard Cornwell not only knows it, but has used it to sell a stack of books that would stretch from Troy to Agincourt and back.


Mr. Vincent, there’s a job waiting for you at Open Letters, should you be interested.

And in this issue of the TLS, as in any issue, the reader looking for chuckles will come to the last page with high expectations. That last page, in a relatively new and eminently sensible layout decision, now belongs to J.C.’s “NB” column, always an odds-on favorite for making you laugh out loud over your lunch of spicey Indian food. It’s with mounting dismay, then, that the reader gets through three of J.C.’s four little items without cracking more than a smile. Even the last item, a brief, sarcastic review of a new book of apparently nonsensical statements called Oxymoronica, seems set to be well-behaved, although the book’s compiler, Dr. Mardy Grothe, comes in for some apparently well-deserved ragging for over-explaining the items he’s chosen:

… just as you are delighting in Emerson’s claim “All my best thoughts were stolen by the ancients”, Dr Grothe pops up to prick your pleasure: “How can people from centuries ago steal ideas from modern thinkers? Of course they can’t. This is Emerson’s way of describing a fairly common experience.” You don’t say. But he does: in chapter after chapter.

We get a choice selection of oxymorons, from the likes of Thomas Mann (“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people”), Samuel Goldwyn (“We pay him too much, but he’s worth it”), and Josephine Baker (“I wasn’t really naked. I simply didn’t have any clothes on”), but by that point we’re only lines from the end of the issue, and still there’s been no capping zinger from J.C.

But then it comes, in the issue’s very last line – a tart, memorably witty oxymoron to take home:

If you ignore the parts written by the author, this is a good book


So you see, appearances can be deceiving. The TLS might look frumpy and humorless, but in reality, it’s seriousness and learning need the regular release of zingers, kind and unkind. I quote a great philosopher: “The more advanced the civilization, the greater the need for the simplicity of play.”