Good news. I’ve got a real renter. The guy who came to look at the place a while back called and said he wants to take it. So if my questionable e-mail renter happens to be legitimate, I’m treating him badly. But I don’t think the odds are very high for that.
I’m blogging about Bernard Cornwell’s Enemy of God again tonight, because the only subject I can think of for a post is a comment I wanted to make about that book in my review, and which I forgot to include.
I don’t mean to beat on Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles again and again, because that suggests I hate the books more than I do. If I really hated them, I’d have stopped reading them. I long ago gave up the compulsive idea that I had to finish every book I started (even—horrors—books I’d paid good money for). Cornwell is one of the solid professionals in the field of historical fiction, and he always gives excellent value for money. He’s too good to give up on, even when he irritates me.
He’s great at the details. He knows how linen was processed in the Dark Ages, and how the process smelled. He knows what plants grew in what region, when they blossomed and what the blossoms looked like (you’ve probably noticed, if you’ve read my novels, that “the flowers were yellow” is about as detailed as I ever get in matters botanical). He knows (or convinces you that he knows) how mounted cavalry fastened their horseshoes in Arthur’s time. Details like that are the result of careful and exhaustive research, and they make all the difference in bringing the past to life for the reader.
But I caught Cornwell in a big error. It’s the kind of error all historical novelists (me probably more than most) make, and make on purpose. But it’s more objectionable in some cases than others.
All historical novelists that I know of alter their characters a bit, giving them attitudes that didn’t actually exist in their periods. The further back in history the story is set, the more attitude adjustment the novelist has to do. Trust me. If you were to spend just a few minutes inside the head of a real warrior of Arthur’s time, the sheer mass of ignorance, superstition, prejudice, hate and tribalism would send you running for an exorcist.
But there are limits, especially in books as well researched as Cornwell’s. There’s a scene in Enemy of God where Arthur and Derfel, the narrator, meet again after a long period of alienation. Arthur apologizes and asks Derfel’s forgiveness. Derfel gives it.
If I’ve learned anything in my historical research, it’s that nothing like that would have happened among Dark Age heathens (which Arthur and Derfel are in the book). Such men lived in an honor-based culture, in which “face” was the only thing that mattered for a man. Such men never, ever apologized, even to their closest friends. The best such men would have been able to do would be to take up as friends again, silently agreeing to say nothing about what had passed between them.
The only thing that made such an act (an apology and forgiveness between warriors) possible (if rare) was the coming of Christianity with its radical new ethic.
This scene is dishonest. Cornwell is trying to picture a “merry olde Britain” going along just fine before the Christians came along to mess things up. And to show us how admirable his heathen heroes are, he depicts them performing an act that they would never have performed, and that they would have despised if done by Christians, the only people who actually might have done such a thing.
Cornwell should know better than that.