Monday, September 6, 2010

Murder in the Mud - Agincourt

Lately, almost all my reading has been no-nonsense history books, some being a bit dry and rather academic.  As summer has been winding down, the mood struck me to lighten things up and engage in the comparatively guilty pleasure of some fiction...but at least historical fiction that is.  It's been awhile since I read a novel of historical fiction, and I didn't have anything particular in mind, so I just hit my local book store to browse the shelves and see if anything would strike my fancy.  After a good cup of black coffee from the in-shop cafe, and an hour or so of thumbing through a variety of selections, I finally left with a copy of Bernard Cornwell's "Agincourt" tucked under my arm.

For all my interest in things historical, I have never actually gotten around to reading a Cornwell book.  I know that he has his detractors - I've heard that his work is formulaic, characters are one-dimensional, plot lines are repetitive and predictable, and that his prose is ordinary.  But Cornwell's books are very popular, he has written many of them, including all the Sharpe books set in the Napoleonic Wars and the more recent Saxon novels, so I figured that there must be something to his stuff  if so many other readers enjoy it so much  Anyway, if I had nothing else that I desperately wanted to read, I said to myself, why not give him a try.  I didn't want to dive into the middle of one of his multi-book sagas, and since Medieval history is more interesting to me than the other periods he writes about, of the books in the store, Agincourt (which is a single volume book) seemed the most obvious one to pick up. 

Turns out, I very much enjoyed the book.  I agree, Cornwell is probably best described as a "middle-brow" writer.  In other words, his book is aimed at an audience with enough of an interest in the history of the era the story is set in to want to read this kind of book in the first place, but it isn't of a serious enough nature to satisfy academics and scholars.  The book is fairly well research though - there are notes at the back describing his sources, a further description of the battle and campaign, an essay on the longbow, and a transcript of a BBC interview with the author - all of which show that the author has a more than basic grasp of the documentation surrounding this pivotal battle that contributed so much to the English national myth.  If you have read John Keegan's Face of Battle, you won't get anything here that wasn't in that book, but Cornwell's narrative of the battle doesn't conflict with that interpretation either.

Cornwell's characters are all one or two dimensional certainly, and are painted with very broad brush strokes, but I did appreciate his cast of heroes and villians.  The protagonist is a common archer, Nicolas Hook by name, in Henry V's expedition to France.  He was outlawed for striking a rapacious priest, and now like all his fellow warriors, doesn't really care why he is fighting in a foreign land, just knowing that his king wants him to kill Frenchmen, and he is more than happy to oblige him.  Hook is not a character with modern sensibilities plunked into a medieval story, but is really a man of his own time - he has no problem engaging in murder, in intent and deed, his conscience never seems to be disturbed over all the violent acts he witnesses or commits, and he is for all intents and purposes, a bit of a psychopath, responding to voices that only he hears in his head (allegedly those of Saints Crispin and Crispinian) that tell him when to run, when to hide, and when to kill.  The cast of supporting characters is entertaining also - evil priests, lusty priests, noble tournament champions, honorable enemies, religious fanatics, damsels-in-distress - everything you would expect from a tale set in the later Middle Ages.  King Henry V in this book never actually delivers the famous Shakespearean "Band of Brothers" speech, (although he does say things a bit similar in front of his army just before the French attack), but as an example of what made this book involving to me, his character is a bit more interesting than the one that the bard gives us.  Henry is a religious fanatic, literally believing that God himself has sided with his dynastic cause, and for this reason, in his mind, he cannot lose even when leading his army into what any sane person would see as a French trap with no way out.

I could give some criticisms - the prose is not of literary award quality, the plot is predictable, and things do get resolved somewhat abruptly,  but the story here is really all about the battle itself - and of describing that, Cornwell does a marvelous job.  You really feel as if you are right in the middle of the fighting of a battle of the nastiest kind - mired in knee deep mud, killing armored men with hammer blows to the head, or lifting the visor of a stunned and prone opponent to thrust a dagger into an uncovered eyeball.

When all is said and done, "Agincourt" is not a work of classic literature, but it is a guilty pleasure (a cynic might say a bit of war porn) for anyone desiring a characterful description of this most well known of Hundred Years War battles.  The tale is told very cinematographically, reminding me in its plotting and pacing of a Michael Crighton novel - so if that kind of thing appeals to you, this book will too.  In fact, there is supposedly a British adaption of this book starting filming very soon, with a screenplay by Michael Hirst, who gave us also "Elizabeth", the Cate Blanchett breakout film, and the Showtime series, "The Tudors".  The talk is that this is supposed to be filmed in a "Saving Private Ryan" fashion, showing the brutality of 15th century combat without romanticism and with a graphic first person point of view.  Something maybe to look forward to in 2012.

I don't know if I am a convert to all of Cornwell's works or not, but "Agincourt" was more than worthwhile, and I may now someday give his "Grail Quest" and "Saxon Stories" a try.

For a bit of additional color, here are links for the "Band of Brothers" speech from two previous film versions of Shakespeare's Henry V.

First, the Lawrence Olivier 1944 version:



And here is the 1989 adaption directed by Kenneth Branagh:



I don't know which one I enjoy better - Olivier's delivery is I think a bit more inspiring that Branagh's, but the English in the 1944 film don't look gritty and muddy enough to match the actual descriptions of the battle.  The 1989 film is a bit more accurate in that sense.  But these are both good movies to get you in the mood to read "Agincourt", and to wet your whistle while waiting for the film of the novel to get made.

Thinking about those long ago archers, commoners all, taking down an army of armored aristocrats does also make one want to put together an English Hundred Years War army of one's own.

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