“People don’t sing like they used to sing…”

Every December I do a roundup of blog posts from the passing year, mostly as an easy index for my future self. This year has been the least prolific in the thirteen years I’ve been doing this, and I’m okay with that. Since January, I’ve been helping a local organization write a book that’s going to mean a great deal to people in my community, and possibly far beyond. It’s a good kind of busy.

In the meantime, I’m glad “Quid Plura?” still exists, in all its archaic glory, to serve as a notepad for notions that no one would foolishly pay me to write.

This year, the Old English poem “Deor” gave me insight into a botched Smithsonian exhibition about Maryland sharecroppers—and vice versa.

In November, I was involved in a ceremony with implications I’m still mulling over, but studying a medieval martyrdom half a lifetime ago helped me make sense of a modern lynching.

I took some time to look at some of the bigger artistic and cultural questions in “The Banjo Player” by Fenton Johnson, a poet who never quite found the audience he craved.

A pithy post about the fire at Notre-Dame de Paris held up better, so to speak, than blogging about the news usually does.

By contrast, we’ll see if these thoughts about speech, online mobbing, weird thinking, and bad faith in academia make sense down the road.

Happy new year to those of you who still wander this way! Check back in 2020. To my eternal surprise, there’s always more to say.

“Break all the windows in the cold, cold ground.”

A knight sliced in half like a sesame bagel, a saint tossed down a hillside in a barrel lined with nails—pain is an ageless wellspring of humor, but we were too weirdly willing to laugh. As graduate students, we were honing our sense of which aspects of the Middle Ages were born of certain eras and places and which others were timelessly human. Yet something about the classroom made the medieval world harder for me to imagine. The line of scholars whose work helped us understand the past in the first place also stood in the way of a gut-level sense of real people’s lives. Then the violence was never real, only a source of other people’s pictures or words, like an idealized painting or flippant cartoon.

That changed in our second year when we studied an account of the martyrdom of St. Eulalia of Merida by the fifth-century poet Prudentius. Even though Eulalia’s faith emboldens her to taunt her tormentors and laugh off her own suffering, the descriptions of her mutilation are horrifically clinical. As a class and on our own, we translated each of the poem’s 215 lines, sobered to find that two years of Latin had brought us to such a repellent place. What made Eulalia’s martyrdom different was that we didn’t merely read words on a page. We hoisted huge dictionaries, paged through grammars, flipped through stacks of handouts, trudged across campus to recite the Latin verse and our graceless English, and tensed up when called on to read. It may have been faint, but we felt something real in our muscles and bones, a memory carried for twenty-odd years.

Last month, our town hosted a ceremony to remember one of the worst things that ever happened here, the lynching of a black man. He was accused of attacking a young white girl, but a mob denied him the justice of a trial. Not long ago, elderly locals might have heard enough from their parents to be able to name the killers or point out the dead man’s grave. Now, except for snippets from scanned newspapers, the victim is as distant as a figure in a medieval text, a fictional character rather than someone who lived.

The site is still there, just a few long strides from the main intersection. It’s eerily open, like the grassy remnant of a battlefield declared sacred only after the rest has been paved. Locals say that within living memory, a storm blew down a massive locust tree; it may have been the makeshift gallows. The church across the street hasn’t changed, except for a gravel lot for cars where the congregation used to park horses and wagons. Families arriving for Sunday services the morning after the lynching could not fail to notice the constable cutting down a corpse.

I’ve toured historic homes that looked as if their famous residents had just stepped out for lunch. I’ve stood at sites where thousands died, and others where worn-away ruts in the ground begged the imagination to run reckless over the post-holes of hill-forts and mansions. Those places made me think, and think, and think. At times, though, I wanted to feel something more. No matter how many years I hewed and hacked through ninth-century sources, not once did I hear the eldritch murmurings of kings or monks or sense a spectral hand on my shoulder. History was dead; my job as a writer was to gather and narrate its traces.

I was leery of the plan to take soil from the lynching site. The act sounded too pious and medieval, like sifting for relics to venerate, or too frivolous and modern, like filling a keychain with sand from the beach. Even so, the morning before the ceremony, I drove to the field with a shovel and spade and met others tasked with preparing the site. The ground was pliant from days of rain, so with no special reverence, I peeled up one of four grassy squares and loosened the dirt underneath. When I looked up, kids in pickups still drove to McDonald’s for breakfast, and tractors kept on rolling out of town toward the last shriveling fields of the year.

On the next day, a cold, cloudless Sunday, more than a hundred onlookers formed a crescent around the gazebo next to the church. Some of us don’t have deep roots here, but scattered among us, and settled unknowingly in nearby houses, were descendants and relatives of everyone whose lives converged on that spot in 1880: the men who raised the lynch mob; former slaves who knew the victim; the constable who tried in vain to stop the murder; and the black congregation that claimed the body and laid it to rest. Ashes and dust—our past and our future, summoned to gather in flesh and blood, shifting uneasily at the story retold.

After a benediction, a proclamation, speeches, and poems, we turned from the churchyard and crossed to the field. Squinting in the stark, clarifying sunset, people lined up to scoop soil into jars. Some filled small canisters of their own. The motion and effort made sense; no one was left to chase around their windblown thoughts. The ground gave everyone something to do, exertion their bodies might feel and remember.

An event that began in mourning and solemnity concluded with hugs and handshakes and an unforeseen lightness of heart. No ghosts hovered near us or stood by the roadside and watched. The veil of the past hadn’t risen or torn, but the chasm between old, unacquainted truths was maybe no longer so wide. Justice for the dead isn’t ours to bestow, but empathy for those who suffered, whether a century or a thousand years ago, can make a field full of strangers tremble as one, if they do more than offer up words. If you wait half your life and the earth doesn’t move, don’t just stand there. Move it yourself.

“We’ve tried potions and waxen dolls, and none of us could find any cures…”

This blog has been fallow for six months. I regret the silence, but not the reasons. I’ve gotten involved in three local nonprofits, including one whose leadership asked me to help them write a book. Theirs is the sort of worthwhile project a history-writer dreams about, I’m working with good people, and I can’t wait until we share the book with our neighbors and the world in 2020.

In the meantime, beyond my little bend in the river, I see authors, readers, and scholars apparently losing their minds. A week ago, young-adult author Sarah Dessen took exception to a college student who disparaged her work in a South Dakota newspaper in 2016. Dessen began to insult the kid on Twitter and drew forth an online mob of readers, authors, and publishers who joined her in harassment and intimidation.

Not content to let publishing win the Worst Industry of the Week award, the student’s alma mater, Northern State University, tweeted a craven apology, choosing to suck up to a bestselling author rather than defend―or even ignore―one alumna who said what she thought of a book.

Why were people invested in the young-adult fiction industry, which rakes in more than $3 billion a year, so quick to pounce on a lone, unknown student who expressed her taste in literature three years ago? Perhaps some readers and authors, living by expired cultural templates, can’t yet fathom that they stand in the mainstream and no longer wield the moral authority of underdogs. It may be meaningful that the loudest voices representing young-adult literature on social media aren’t adolescents but thin-skinned adults. Too many aspiring writers are also so keen to feel collegial with big-name authors that they’re inclined to join an author’s side, eager for the righteous rush of communal fandom. No doubt it’s corrupting for authors to have fans who look to them for meaning and purpose beyond what their books can provide. Fame, wealth, and flattery are disastrous in realms far beyond politics.

* * *

People who write and read are also, I’m finding, more put off by strange, skewed, and unsanctioned thoughts than they used to be.

Decades ago, my middle-school interest in superhero comics eventually led me to pick up, every Friday for years, the weirdest indie comics on the shelves. The best and most engaging parts were the readers’ letters and rambling editorials. They read like the spillover from a mental storage unit packed to the ceiling with marginal notions and contrarian whims. We could regard the contents with amusement, step over them with discomfort, or root through them for our own purposes.

Delightfully, those commentaries didn’t slide smoothly into mylar bags of ideological simplicity. Their philosophical quirkiness would confuse and annoy today’s fans. In the past week, I’ve seen commentators and reporters react with confusion and annoyance to a 2017 interview with Alan Moore, the writer behind Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and other weirder, darker comics that somehow found homes with mainstream publishers in the ’80s. In the interview, Moore disavows his most famous work and warbles a rhapsody of challenging ideas:

What was the impact of popular heroes comic books in our culture? Why are people fascinated by alternative realities?

I think the impact of superheroes on popular culture is both tremendously embarrassing and not a little worrying. While these characters were originally perfectly suited to stimulating the imaginations of their twelve or thirteen year-old audience, today’s franchised übermenschen, aimed at a supposedly adult audience, seem to be serving some kind of different function, and fulfilling different needs. Primarily, mass-market superhero movies seem to be abetting an audience who do not wish to relinquish their grip on (a) their relatively reassuring childhoods, or (b) the relatively reassuring 20th century. The continuing popularity of these movies to me suggests some kind of deliberate, self-imposed state of emotional arrest, combined with an numbing condition of cultural stasis that can be witnessed in comics, movies, popular music and, indeed, right across the cultural spectrum. The superheroes themselves – largely written and drawn by creators who have never stood up for their own rights against the companies that employ them, much less the rights of a Jack Kirby or Jerry Siegel or Joe Schuster – would seem to be largely employed as cowardice compensators, perhaps a bit like the handgun on the nightstand. I would also remark that save for a smattering of non-white characters (and non-white creators) these books and these iconic characters are still very much white supremacist dreams of the master race. In fact, I think that a good argument can be made for D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation as the first American superhero movie, and the point of origin for all those capes and masks.

I love this: never-asked questions about why adults are now so enamored of power fantasies developed for adolescent boys; a swipe at extruded corporate entertainment products; a wistful ode to creators’ rights voided by work-for-hire contracts; a non-sequitur jab at gun owners; and a call to comics fans to think about the historical and sociological implications of superheroes. People who can’t laugh off these notions, mull them over, or counter them might do well to ask themselves why they hold their positions on popular culture as closely as religious dogma.

And yet I doubt that superheroes “are still very much white supremacist dreams of the master race,” and it’s too clever by half to claim that Birth of a Nation was “the first American superhero movie.” So what? Overstating causation doesn’t exclude the possibility of a connection. The creation of masked superheroes who operate outside or above the law overlaps with the era of the Klan’s masked “night riders” and comes not long after the raids of masked, costumed vigilantes in the “tobacco wars” in Kentucky and Tennessee (shown in the photo to the left).

Looking for the roots of American superheroes in a masked vigilante tradition may or may not pan out, but the idea is arguable. And even if he’s wrong here, in whole or in part, thank goodness for cranky old Alan Moore—because man, that’s a mind forever voyaging.

 

* * *

But then sometimes, complexity and ambiguity overwhelm those who work isn’t given to clarity. In September, the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists fell apart over the place of “Anglo-Saxon” in the organization’s name and in scholarship in general. Amid debates about the term, which is used by racists and white supremacists outside of academia, members on both sides quit in disgust, and the organization is now nameless.

The name change strikes me as surrender to racists, who will only appropriate whatever term of art the scholars of early medieval England choose next. When I went looking for reasoned arguments from both sides, I didn’t make it past scholars on Twitter accusing each other of bad faith and bickering over who’s doing more “antiracist work.” (I’m not going to link to their babyish squabbles.)

I’ve been writing about medieval history for 20 years, and for a decade of that time I taught medieval literature, but the online arguments among medievalists about anti-racist activism remind me of a more modern moment: Gonzo in The Muppet Movie traveling to Bombay to become a movie star because you go to Hollywood only “if you want to do it the easy way.” While everyone is capable of doing good in their own classrooms, cubicles, or cul-de-sacs, if your believe your primary vocation is to smash racism but you became a professor of medieval literature or history…well, I just hope a bear and a frog in a Studebaker give you and your chicken a lift.

“I can’t get unwound, why do I throw myself into the night…”

Poets pray for remembrance on the pages of an anthology—but whenever I saw Fenton Johnson’s poems in collections of African American verse, the selections were too limited for me to get a real sense of him. Fond of forgotten writers, I tracked down more of Johnson’s work to find out who he was and what he had hoped to become. My search only brought me back to his most anthologized poem, which takes on new meaning amid echoing debates about the medieval-ness of all things American.

The son of a wealthy Chicago family, Johnson earned a degree from the University of Chicago and studied at the Columbia School of Journalism. By 1913 he had self-published his first volume of poetry. Early on, he favored short, formal lyrics packed with medieval and classical references alongside Dunbar-esque dialect poems; later, he experimented (more successfully, I think) with free verse. Known to other modernists, he gathered several character sketches under the title “African Nights” and saw them published in Others for 1919: An Anthology of the New Verse.

The best of these later, more mature pieces combine the concision of poetry with a deadpan aversion to meter that keeps whimsy and sentimentality at bay. As a writer bobbing in the wake of medievalism, I particularly like this poem from “African Nights”:

The Banjo Player

There is music in me, the music of a peasant people.
I wander through the levee, picking my banjo and singing my
     songs of the cabin and the field. At the Last Chance Saloon
     I am as welcome as the violets in March; there is always
     food and drink for me there, and the dimes of those who
     love honest music. Behind the railroad tracks the little
     children clap their hands and love me as they love Kris
     Kringle.
But I fear that I am a failure. Last night a woman called me a
     troubadour.
What is a troubadour?

The editor of The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader called this poem “simply ironic mischief.” Yes, an educated poet is enjoying a chuckle at the expense of an unsophisticated musician who is good at what he does but has never wondered for a moment what he is. But there’s quite a bit more to the poem than that.

The banjo player moves so naturally through his own life that he never says whether the people who love his music are white or black, as if he doesn’t imagine that the details might matter. The race of the woman who calls him a troubadour is less consequential than the word itself, which baffles and frustrates him. Is she a white woman who finds him charming and associates him with primitivism and archaism, or is she a black woman, perhaps an aesthete or would-be patron, who hopes to elevate a purveyor of folkways by using European terms? For the banjo player, pondering these complications could lead to troubling realizations about the world.

Johnson’s poem raises a larger question that gnawed at him, one that also occupied the poets and artists of the Harlem Renaissance: What relationship do African Americans have with European-derived civilization, and vice versa? There are also questions here for critics and scholars: Does too much thinking about form and taxonomy take all the fun out of art? Compared to audiences who react to his music with joy, is the woman who responds cerebrally missing the point?

The banjo player’s confusion over the word “troubadour” reminded me of the movement in medieval studies to promote a “global Middle Ages.” While I think it’s smart for medievalists to look beyond Europe, which hardly had impervious or easily defined boundaries back then, I find it odd that people in a field with bowstring sensitivity to the legacy of colonialism would talk about “medieval” Africa and “medieval” Asia, as if terms that mark the European timeline are an easy fit on other continents. (Alas, the promo copy on the back of my Charlemagne book refers to “medieval Baghdad.” Can’t win ’em all.) Likewise, a black American man who plays the banjo, an African-derived instrument, is not a medieval troubadour, even though the two are obvious artistic kindred. Is the woman failing to see the banjo player and his traditions on their own terms? If so, then what is she, despite her attempt at a compliment, not seeing?

In the 1922 edition of The Book of American Negro Poetry, James Weldon Johnson noted only that Fenton Johnson “is a young poet of the ultra-modern school who gives promise of greater work than he has yet done.” In a later edition in the early 1930s, he honed his critique, describing how Fenton Johnson had

disregarded the accepted poetic forms, subjects, and language, adopted free verse, and in that formless form wrote poetry in which he voiced the disillusionment and bitterness of feeling the Negro race was then experiencing. In some of this poetry he went further than protests against wrong or the moral challenges that the wronged can always fling against the wrongdoer; he sounded the note of fatalistic despair. It was his poetry written in this key that brought him recognition. The central idea of this poetry was startling. Doubtless its effect was in some degree due to the fact that it was an idea so foreign to any philosophy of life the Negro in America had ever preached or practiced. Fenton Johnson is the only Negro poet who has ever sounded this precise note.

Nine decades later, it’s no longer true that Fenton Johnson alone among African American writers gave voice to despair, but James Weldon Johnson makes his poems sound like a dead end. They’re not. Time has offered them new life and fresh possibility, especially if we give them room to be personal reflections rather than only pronouncements about race.

Read “The Banjo Player” again, and note how the wandering musician defines success as pleasing other people. Sure, that can be a metaphor for African American experiences, but it’s also a sigh of frustration from a poet who never achieved major success and eventually stopped writing for publication. “It seemed to me like trying to walk the Atlantic ocean to obtain recognition in the literary world and especially when one was attempting to present the life of the race to which I belong,” Johnson lamented in 1920 after writing three books of poetry, publishing a doomed magazine of his own work under different pen names, and founding a largely imaginary movement for racial reconciliation. He would soon sell five poems to Poetry magazine, but his pessimism was prescient. “I know that my dream of success in literature is fading,” he confessed, “because every story I have ever offered a standard magazine has returned to my desk.”

Who are we if no one pays heed to our work? Fenton Johnson knew: Writers and artists dread the exhaustion of misunderstanding and hate the ache of indifference, no matter where or when they lived, regardless of what you believe you should call them.


Left: Vielle players and a citoler player from the Cantigas de Santa Maria, c.1280. Right: detail from Henry Ossawa Tanner, “The Banjo Lesson,” 1893.

“Pharoah’s army, they got drowned in the sea one day…”

Sometimes he feels like a motherless child.I hopped the barbed hedge of graduate school more than 20 years ago, but the burrs and brambles of medieval thinking still cling to my life. I never know if they’re brittle twigs, best brushed off and swept away, or green sprigs that can be woven into some new, small, useful thing. Take “Deor,” an Old English poem that puts on thorns at the strangest of times—even when I’m reading about a different culture thousands of miles away and a millennium later.

I can’t post a decent translation of “Deor” without violating somebody’s copyright, so go peruse Maryann Corbett’s recent version, which skillfully gets the sense and some of the sound of the original. Deor, the speaker, alludes to a series of terrible, violent incidents from Germanic history and legend, all stories that would have been known to his listeners at the time. His cryptic refrain, Þaes ofereode, Þisses swa maeg—”that has passed, this shall too”—ends with a personal revelation: Deor is a scop, a poet, a singer of tales who has been ousted from his position by a newcomer who has won the favor of the king. He casts his own reversal of fortune in terms of the tyrants, heroes, and legendary figures whose tales, which now offer consolation, were the raw material for his poems and songs.

“Deor” can teach the newcomer to Old English poetry a good deal about its characteristics: that air of grimness; a worldview that floats somewhere between stoicism and fatalism; an elegiac tone; and above all, a lament for the misery of exile, of being sundered from a leader and a meaningful role in a community. So was it taught to me; so did I teach it to others.

Or so I imagined. A funny thing happened the first time I discussed “Deor” in the classroom. A quiet student in the back raised her hand and dared to asked, in defiance of all my just-out-of-grad-school certainty: “What if this poem was meant to be…funny?”

Thrown off, I asked her to elaborate. She argued that being alone, homeless, and unemployed, while all bad, were not as bad as being murdered, or hamstrung, or having your hands and feet cut off, or having your family murdered and being raped yourself—the fates of the men and women in “Deor.” I argued the scholarly case: that the lament of an exile was serious business in Old English poetry, that the humor in the Old English poetic corpus was wry and understated, and that the original audiences for this poetry would not have been looking for levity.

But then I read “Deor” aloud, going for snide, whiny, and melodramatic—and the class laughed—and I conceded that someone could easily perform the poem in ways that could make the speaker look preposterously self-pitying and wholly bereft of perspective.

I later made a habit of running the student’s theory past every medieval-lit scholar I ran into. All of them said the notion was flat-out wrong. At least one was offended. I still didn’t believe that the student’s interpretation would have been a common and even likely one in gear-dagum, but I was also troubled by the way a poem, a work of art, had been pressed and embedded into one lost time, one dead place, and buried under a century of scholarship that protected it from any new creative whim.

My student’s speculations about “Deor” sprang to mind, unexpectedly, as I read Hearth and Home: Preserving a People’s Culture, George McDaniel’s 1982 study of the houses of African-American tenant farmers in southern Maryland. McDaniel’s book is packed with thoughtful observations about the ways cultural knowledge endures in house design, building techniques, and the little details of craftsmanship, even when subsequent generations don’t know they’re remembering it.

McDaniel opens his book with the history of a tenant house in Mitchellville, Maryland, that was dismantled by the Smithsonian in 1969 and rebuilt 30 miles west at the National Museum of American History, where visitors to the (now also dismantled) “Hall of Everyday Life in the American Past” could go partway inside. “From the beginning, some members of the Smithsonian staff felt that something was missing,” McDaniel writes, explaining why they called him nearly a decade later to research the history of the house and its likely furnishings. Still respected in my area of Maryland for collecting irreplaceable African-American oral histories and documenting the homes of freed slaves in the late 1970s, McDaniel soon discovered that this plain four-room house, for which the Smithsonian had no documentation, did indeed have people to speak for it, men and women from twelve families who had lived there at various times from 1912 to 1967. He invited them to visit the Smithsonian, and their reactions were illuminating:

If one were to choose a side of the tenant house to be the front, the length with the door centrally located, flanked by two windows, is the more symmetrical, stylish, and formal. It “should” be the front…The other length has a door near one corner, a window near the other, and no opening in the center. It is off balance, unwieldy in appearance, and “should” be the back…Indeed, there are examples of houses in Prince George’s County and elsewhere in the mid-Atlantic region of this very design, with the symmetrical length as the front. That’s the way the house was reassembled in 1968. But when Elizabeth “Mamie” Johnson saw the house ten years later, she politely declared in a rather puzzled tone: “You’ve got it backwards.”

Every living former resident and neighbor and the son of the original landowner agreed: The house was, to use McDaniel’s words, “representative of this house type, but not true to the actual, historical orientation of this particular house.” There were other problems: Smithsonian curators assumed that a very small downstairs room was the kitchen and a bigger space was the sitting room and dining room, when it was really the other way round. Daily life centered around a larger kitchen, not a rarely used parlor.

McDaniel also learned that the wooden walls on display for Smithsonian visitors had been covered with newspapers and whitewashed to be more attractive. Many children had lived in the house, including one who recalled as an adult that he had greatly prized his .22 rifle. The Smithsonian setup showed no signs of gun ownership—or traces of a young boy.

Even though the house stood on the outskirts of a major metropolitan area, represented the experiences of a large and accessible class of people, had been occupied as recently as 1967, and was curated by professionals with the best of intentions, the Smithsonian got it wrong. Imagine how much more we’re doomed to misperceive across more than a thousand years. Those of us who study the literature and history of the distant past like to think we account for our assumptions, but what if our assumptions about our assumptions are off?

None of this hasn’t been pondered for ages by much smarter people, but in the years since my student asked her question blessedly unimpeded by assumptions, few new opinions have formed about “Deor.” The author of a book about humor in Anglo-Saxon poetry appreciates the irony and dark humor of certain turns of phrase, and another scholar has found it useful to look at “Deor” and other Old English laments through the lens of blues lyrics. Yet no one to my knowledge has seconded my student’s notion, that at the very least, someone might have performed the poem—or at least can perform the poem—in a way that uses allusions to legendary violence to make his own rootlessness seem funny and small. I don’t know that my student was right; she wasn’t wrong to wonder.

George McDaniel was adamant about what his own field work revealed: “The black families studied here did not live in ‘shacks.’ They are not stereotypes, mere ciphers.” Likewise, the standard interpretations of “Deor” are correct about the culture and times, but may be wrong about how the anonymous poet hoped he’d make people feel; how a specific someone once recited or performed the poem; how real readers or listeners have received it; or which features of the poem appealed to the individual monk who wrote it down.

If the lives of African-American tenant farmers in southern Maryland can so confound the assumptions of historians from a distance of only 30 miles and a single generation, then any given soul in medieval Wessex regarded the world with a distinctiveness that’s not ours to know. We can only allow that somebody like him existed, because somebody who had a similar notion does now, a suggestion that complements analysis with creativity. In the free, weedy fields outside the garden, we can hope for a laugh ringing over the hedge, unlikely and strange, but at least now imaginable across a thousand years.

“…and the fire and the rose are one.”

Impermanence is a shock, even in a faith that makes clear it’s the way of the world. Yesterday’s terrible fire in Paris was jarring and sad, but all shall be well: Notre-Dame can be rebuilt, because it’s been rebuilt before.

Throughout the day I heard many melodramatic and sentimental pronouncements, most of them by commentators who don’t know much about the history of Notre-Dame. You don’t have to be an expert on the cathedral to appreciate that its survival since the Middle Ages is itself a marvel. By the 18th century, many of its gargoyles had disintegrated or were worn into stumps. Statues over the lintel depicting the dead rising from their graves came down in the 1770s, allowing royal processions to fit more easily through the doors; revolutionaries then denuded the cathedral of statues and artwork that had enshrined cléricalisme and féodalité. Ham-handed attempts to “fix” Notre-Dame in the early 1800s by attaching new stone with quick-rusting iron pins only made the building less structurally sound.

The late Michael Camille tells the story in The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity:

One can hardly recognize Notre-Dame as we know it today from the early daguerreotype made by Vincent Chevalier just before 1840, an image in which the great cathedral appears as a disintegrating patchwork pile. In their 1843 project for the restoration, Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste Lassus described the structure not as a church, but as a ruin. The second part of their forty-page text is a chronological account of the gradual destruction of this once magnificent Gothic edifice, not only by neglect and time but also by the violence of human hands.

Thanks to Victor Hugo’s efforts to lobby the July Monarchy in the 1830s, the French state agreed to fund restoration efforts, and architects Viollet-le-Duc and Lassus began to rescue the building in the 1840s. They turned a husk back into a cathedral, and their work was so convincing that the world largely forgot that Notre-Dame had ever been in shambles.

The best known 19th-century additions to Notre-Dame are probably the 54 gargoyle-like creatures known as “chimeras,” the most famous being “le Stryge,” the bitter critter on the cover of Camille’s book. Within a few years, artists, photographers, and postcard-sellers were treating these new grotesques not as recent decorations meant to “look medieval,” but as ancient survivors, timeless objects of melancholic contemplation, as if Notre-Dame had witnessed the centuries but had, through some miracle, remained untouched by them.

When tourists at Notre-Dame in 2100 hear about the devastating fire of 2019, they won’t comprehend it. Even if docents point out a scorched pillar or emphasize the relative newness of the roof, visitors will know in their bones that they’re standing in a sacred place that hasn’t changed since the Middle Ages, as most tourists felt before yesterday’s fire. They’ll rightly look backwards, blind to the fire and smoke; so we now take solace in looking ahead.


Vincent Chevalier’s daguerrotype of Notre-Dame, circa 1840. Note the absent statues and empty niches.

“There, behind the glass, stands a real blade of grass…”

When it comes to blogging, 2018 was not a prolific year around these parts. Work on a new nonfiction book, big professional and civic commitments, and the nine-month search for a new home out here in the woods all kept me away from my favorite forum for writing stuff that doesn’t fit anywhere else.

That said, what I did write here was substantive, if I do say so myself. Have a look:

During last year’s interminable winter, I revisited a translation of a eighth-century poem, and spared the reverence.

Did you know that F. Scott Fitzgerald published stories about a medieval warlord modeled on Ernest Hemingway? I tracked down the original Redbook issues and followed Fitzgerald’s pulp-flecked path: “In the Darkest Hour” (1934), “The Count of Darkness” (1935), “The Kingdom in the Dark” (1935), and “Gods of Darkness” (1941).

Like John Denver at the PMRC hearings, I griped about the current crop of aspiring censors: different politics, same old finger-wagging prudes.

It took eleven years, but I finally posted a transcript of a 2007 speech outlining what modern writing teachers can learn from Carolingian monks.

If you’re still with me after this fallow year, thank you! Please check back in 2019; there’s always more to say.

“Believing he listened while laughing you flew…”

[This is the fourth of four blog posts focusing on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s medieval-themed stories. The first post can be found here, the second can be found here, and the third one is here. If it matters to you, please be aware that these posts about obscure, 80-year-old stories are pock-marked with spoilers.]

Six years passed between the publication of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s third “Philippe” story and the fourth and final entry in the series. By the time “Gods of Darkness” debuted in the November 1941 issue of Redbook―which hailed the seven-page sketch as its “novelette of the month”―Fitzgerald had been dead for almost a year. According to scholar Janet Lewis, Redbook had been the only magazine willing to print the stories, and I’m guessing they ran this final installment out of some combination of nostalgic tribute and contractual obligation.

A reader who’s made it this far into the Philippe stories knows what’s coming. There’s the ninth-century warlord inspired by Ernest Hemingway, the anachronistic 1930s gangster slang, the dull prose that always tells and never shows, and a boyish obsession with the building and maintenance of forts.

I’m not kidding about the forts:

Half a dozen horsemen, irregularly strung out, began feeling their way down the forty-five-degree angle of the slag-and-sand slope.

“That’s my fort,” Philippe said. “You like it?”

[ . . . ]

In sight of the castle he had made on the hilltop, he drew rein for a moment, to reward his own work admiringly. New wooden structure was risen to replace the first crude one, destroyed by the King’s incendiaries. This one, like the first, was of logs, but it was taller, more elaborate within and without. His current problem was to try to make a moat by letting in the Loire; but having no engineering education, and commanding no one who understood the process, the venture had so far been confined to digging fine-looking ditches and then seeing them either washed quickly away, or else coquettishly avoided by the choosy water of the river.

“It’s good, though, isn’t it?” he demanded of Griselda. “We’ve got a house; we’ve got quarters for the boys; we’ve got pasture for the animals―and we’re beginning to have a little city down here around the foot of the hill. There’s ten, twelve houses….”

If Fitzgerald had spent even half that much time exploring the conflicting subtleties of the medieval mind, the Philippe stories might feel inhabited by humans. Instead, the banter between Philippe and Griselda is as flat as a scene from a 1930s “B” movie:

Griselda, fatigued, dismounted in the pasture halfway up. Pale and lovely, she sat in the last lush grass of October.

“I love you, Philippe,” she said as he dismounted beside her. “Oh, I don’t mean that―I was just thinking: can’t I love you sometimes when you don’t expect it?”

The pale wonder of her skin was a texture so like death that for a moment Philippe hardly knew what he held in his suddenly gentle arms. Only when a bearer of water had come and returned, did Griselda move and whisper: “I know I’m difficult, Philippe; but you’re so difficult, and I never had anything like this happen to me before.”

“Cheer up―you’re all right,” said Philippe. He had a dread of anything happening to her delicate health.

Despite his oppressive deadpan, Fitzgerald tries here and there to be playful, to no real end. “In less time than it has taken to describe Philippe’s bodyguard, he met the approaching party,” he writes at one point, a wink from a narrator who rarely steps forward with thoughts. I’m not the first reader to wish that the Philippe stories were filtered through the eyes of an observer, a ninth-century Nick Carraway who could have given Fitzgerald’s version of the Middle Ages a solid sense of place.

Fortunately, “Gods of Darkness” delivers a plot twist that at least deserves points for novelty. During the months Fitzgerald spent immersed in scholarly books and working out historical timelines, he was beguiled by Margaret Murray’s 1921 book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. As Philippe starts to become a competent ruler of his ancestral lands, he realizes that his girlfriend and his henchman both speak a strange language and hold secret influence over the locals. His military prowess and burgeoning administrative skills will mean nothing unless he allies himself with an unpredictable force, the local witch cult:

“I haven’t got any conscience except for my country, and for those who live in it. All right―I’ll use this cult―and maybe burn in hell forever after…But maybe Almighty Providence will understand.” He looked toward the swift flow of the Loire. “Maybe He built a castle once. Maybe He knows.”

And then defiantly:

“But if these witches know better, then I’ll be one of them!”

If Fitzgerald had stopped at “Maybe He knows,” then Philippe might have become a broken-down idealist worthy of noir. Instead, the big, dumb warlord bellows his intentions, drowning out a moment when Fitzgerald should have respected his readers’ capacity for inference. We’re detached from the fate of a character we’ve barely been persuaded to care about, with none of the gut-punch thrill of pulp.

In the only major scholarly article about the “Count of Darkness” series, Janet Lewis floats a theory: Philippe’s compromises are an allegory for the need of the United States to team up with the Soviet Union to defeat Hitler. The Redbook issue with “Gods of Darkness” did hit the stands a few weeks before Pearl Harbor, so maybe some readers saw things that way, but these stories feel less like political exhortations than clumsy studies of people dealing with dark times. Perhaps any sociopolitical message is an accidental echo: Fitzgerald told editor Maxwell Perkins that he enjoyed the escapism of writing about medieval Europe, even if it was risky to write a massive novel that revisited Philippe at three phases of his 60-year career. “The research required for the second two parts would be quite tremendous,” Fitzgerald confessed, “and the book would have been (or would be) a piece of great self indulgence.”

The Philippe stories are self-indulgent, and their rare readers end up disappointed or indifferent. Yet I haven’t seen anyone appreciate one obvious insight in these tales: that if you drop Ernest Hemingway into the crucible of boundless chaos and war, he may seem at first like the sort of man to rebuild the world―but he’ll get in over his head, and he’ll end up believing in nothing.

* * *

The Philippe stories might be more revealing if we read them alongside Fitzgerald’s other work. After the letdown of “Gods of Darkness,” I turned back to This Side of Paradise, his 1920 debut novel. For the medievalist, the highlight of Chapter Two, “Spires and Gargoyles,” is a passage with its own precocious subtitle, “A Damp Symbolic Interlude,” the musings of Princeton underachiever Amory Blaine as he wanders the campus:

The night mist fell. From the moon it rolled, clustered about the spires and towers, and then settled below them, so that the dreaming peaks were still in lofty aspiration toward the sky. Figures that dotted the day like ants now brushed along as shadowy ghosts, in and out of the foreground. The Gothic halls and cloisters were infinitely more mysterious as they loomed suddenly out of the darkness, outlined each by myriad faint squares of yellow light. Indefinitely from somewhere a bell boomed the quarter-hour, and Amory, pausing by the sun-dial, stretched himself out full length on the damp grass. The cool bathed his eyes and slowed the flight of time―time that had crept so insidiously through the lazy April afternoons, seemed so intangible in the long spring twilights. Evening after evening the senior singing had drifted over the campus in melancholy beauty, and through the shell of his undergraduate consciousness had broken a deep and reverent devotion to the gray walls and Gothic peaks and all they symbolized as warehouses of dead ages.

The tower that in view of his window sprang upward, grew into a spire, yearning higher until its uppermost tip was half invisible against the morning skies, gave him the first sense of the transiency and unimportance of the campus figures except as holders of the apostolic succession. He liked knowing that Gothic architecture, with its upward trend, was peculiarly appropriate to universities, and the idea became personal to him. The silent stretches of green, the quiet halls with an occasional late-burning scholastic light held his imagination in a strong grasp, and the chastity of the spire became a symbol of this perception.

“Damn it all,” he whispered aloud, wetting his hands in the damp and running them through his hair. “Next year I work!” Yet he knew that where now the spirit of spires and towers made him dreamily acquiescent, it would then overawe him. Where now he realized only his own inconsequence, effort would make him aware of his own impotency and insufficiency.

The college dreamed on―awake.

Look at what Fitzgerald can do when he knows what he’s doing. To a status-addled Princetonian, the Gothic embodies imagination, ambition, humility, and the weight of tradition all at once. A rainy walk across campus can make the heart swell with giddy confusion. Those three paragraphs show a sensitivity to human emotion that’s absent from dozens of pages about warlords and fort-building.

The nod to Gothic architecture is also a sign of the times. When Fitzgerald attended Princeton from 1913 to 1917, the campus’s oldest Gothic spires were still fairly recent, having been built only after the Civil War, and many of the gargoyles had begun leering down at cocky undergrads only three or four years earlier. Fitzgerald knows to tap into not only the romanticism of Gothic Revival architecture, but also its pretensions. He failed to make sense of the 1930s through the lens of medievalism, but he was smart to see that the Middle Ages could be fertile ground for ambiguous symbolism and complex allusions.

You wouldn’t know it from The Great Gatsby, but Fitzgerald was haunted by medieval shadows. His biggest failure in the “Philippe, Count of Darkness” stories is his inability to figure out if the Middle Ages were a warning about the problems of his own age or the beginning of a way out of them. The mind of a Jazz Age author turns out to have been a Gothic novel: enter the mansion, get lost far beneath it in medieval crypts.

“How soft your fields so green can whisper tales of gore…”

Only one man in American history can claim to have been both a baking-powder revolutionary and a passionate medievalist, and nobody else is going to note this anniversary, so let me do the unasked-for honors: This week marks the 200th birthday of Eben Norton Horsford, the chemist and engineer who spent his golden years trying to convince a highly skeptical world that he had discovered hard, undeniable, multidisciplinary evidence of a thriving Viking city—in Massachusetts.

If your instinct is to laugh at the idea, please reconsider. As fond as I am of intellectual and architectural follies for their own sake, Horsford’s Viking fixation left us with a useful monument to the weird ways we work out what is or isn’t true, which are often a more subtle folly of their own.

Horsford helped popularize the notion that the Vikings had rambled higgeldy-piggeldy through New England. Evidence would surface much later that the Vikings had hung around Newfoundland, but no one has found proof of their presence farther south, despite its plausibility. Scholars didn’t buy into Horsford’s theories, but he did have his fans, perhaps because he had credentials any popularizer would envy. After Horsford studied civil engineering and taught mathematics, two years in Germany made him one of the first Americans formally trained in chemistry. He then spent sixteen years at Harvard putting his research to practical, profitable use. In the late 1840s or early 1850s, Horsford found that baking powder no longer needed to come in two separate packets of sodium bicarbonate and cream of tartar, the supply and price of which were erratic. Instead, he proposed replacing cream of tartar with calcium acid phosphate, invented a way to manufacture it, got a patent, figured out to how dry it and sell it safely pre-mixed, and became wildly rich. If you’ve baked anything this week, you can thank a Viking-obsessed Harvard chemist.

And so Eben Horsford—scientist, industrialist, education activist—apparently decided that since he had prospered in mathematics, civil engineering, chemistry, and business, then nothing else human was alien to him. And what were Vikings in America but the next laboratory puzzle to be solved? More than a century after its publication, The Discovery of the Ancient City of Norumbega, Horsford’s book-length 1890 report to the American Geographical Society, is a remarkable read: Horsford is certain that the new scientific techniques of his era have helped him unearth evidence of Vikings in his own back yard. The implications beguile him:

As we all know, there have been before the world many scores of years, in some instances for as many centuries, certain grand geographical problems, challenging the spirit of research, the love of adventure, or the passion for discovery or conquest. They are such as these: Where was Atlantis? Where was the Ultima Thule? What is there at the North Pole? Was there a Northwest Passage? Where were the Seven Cities? Where were the El Dorado of Raleigh, and the landfall of Leif Erikson, of Columbus, of John Cabot, of Verrazano? And where were Vinland and Norumbega?

“Vinland,” of course, is mentioned in the Viking sagas. “Norumbega” has a later, legendary pedigree as a large and impressive city somewhere south of Nova Scotia, based on maps and travelers’ accounts from 16th-century Europe. Horsford is convinced it was a specifically Viking city, and he’s eager to convince you too—but first he reprints a response from Judge Charles P. Daly, president of the American Geographical Society.

“We have hitherto but inadequately appreciated the Northmen as a race—their adventurous spirit, their capacity, and the degree of civilization to which they had attained in an age when Europe was but emerging from the darkness that had enveloped it for many centuries,” Daly writes, invoking recent scholarship suggesting that the “Aryans” came from Scandinavia, “which would make the Northmen the progenitors of the Greeks, the Romans, and with the exception of one or two races, of all the nations of modern Europe; which, if further researches should establish to be fact, would make them the greatest race in the history of mankind.”

These 19th-century racial notions aren’t surprising, but they’re a good reminder to be wary when authoritative scholars in any age argue primarily from trendy thinking. Horsford isn’t content with his wealth, his impressive accomplishments in chemistry, or his legacy in the kitchens of the world. Driven in part by racial pride, he hopes to use his well-trained mind to disentangle the knotted mysteries of human civilization.

Delving into philology, Horsford is convinced that local place-names—among them Nanset, Naumkeag, Namskaket, and Amosheag—are of “Norse derivation.” He claims that a quirk of Algonquin speech accounts for the name “Norumbega”: The Algonquin, he explains, couldn’t pronounce the “b” sound without putting an “m” in front of it, so the ancient name of Norway, “Norbega,” became “Norumbega.” He bolsters his argument by pointing out that the “mb” quirk is common in African languages, and that plenty of cultures can’t properly pronounce the languages of others. By tinkering plausibly with proto-linguistics, Horsford writes Vikings into the history of Massachusetts. “I may say,” he declares, “there is not a square mile of the basin of the Charles that does not contain incontestable memorials of these people, that will presently be as obvious to others as they now are to me.”

Horsford the philologist is also Horsford the close reader of literary sources. He’s fascinated by an obscure object in the Saga of the Greenlanders: a húsa-snotra that Viking explorer Karlsefni refuses to sell for any price. Even now, nobody knows what a húsa-snotra is. At various times scholars have supposed that it was a carved ship’s ornament, a weather vane, or an astrolabe. Horsford thinks it’s the pans for a set of scales. Whatever it was, a húsa-snotra was said to have been made of North American mǫsurr wood, which Horsford believes is a wet tree with burrs or large warts—just like the trees he sees around the Charles.

Horsford the philologist and Horsford the literary scholar then cede the floor to Horsford the geographer and archaeologist. Using travelers’ descriptions, local history, and colonial sources, he deduces that the Vikings built a fort at the mouth of Stony Brook, which now separates the towns of Waltham and Weston: “I drove directly there,” he proclaims, “and found it on my first visit.” An area paved with boulders fascinates him, and his scrutiny of alluvial soil deposits leads him to believe that a colonial stone dam is the ancient handiwork of Vikings.

It’s really rather amazing: Everywhere Horsford looks, he sees the remnants of a Viking economy—specifically, a system of canals used to float blocks of coveted mǫsurr wood out to waiting ships. His belief in the existence of a thriving wood-block trade prompts him to theorize that every tributary of the Charles must have evidence of a Viking dam or pond either along it or near its mouth—and when he goes looking, he sees what he was predisposed to see. Centuries of Native American and European habitation notwithstanding, nothing along the Charles doesn’t make Horsford see Vikings: “The canals, ditches, deltas, boom-dams, ponds, fish-ways, forts, dwellings, walls, terraces of theater and amphitheater, scattered throughout the Charles, are the monuments I had in mind.”

And so Eben Horsford, profoundly invested in this imagined heritage and desiring to make it tangible, built the rest of us a tower.

* * *

Horsford donated so much money to Wellesley College that in 1886, they flattered him with the naming of Norumbega Hall, a rather un-medieval wooden building that hardly evokes a spirit of exploration or adventure. John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a sonnet for the occasion, one that flatters Horsford’s romanticism while backing away from any promise of authenticity:

Not on Penobscot’s wooded bank the spires
Of the sought City rose, nor yet beside
The winding Charles, nor where the daily tide
Of Naumkeag’s haven rises and retires,
The vision tarried; but somewhere we knew
The beautiful gates must open to our quest,
Somewhere that marvellous City of the West
Would lift its towers and palace domes in view,
And, lo! at last its mystery is made known—
Its only dwellers maidens fair and young,
Its Princess such as England’s Laureate sung;
And safe from capture, save by love alone,
It lends its beauty to the lake’s green shore,
And Norumbega is a myth no more.

It’s a curious poem, full of Wellesley girls re-cast as maidens from medieval romance, but not a single Viking.

The most lasting physical remnant of Horsford’s folly, though, is the Norumbega Tower, which he built in 1889 at the mouth of Stony Brook to mark the supposed site of the Viking city and fort. Architectural follies are usually their own justification, but Horsford gave more specific reasons than most people who build such things. In The Discovery of the Ancient City of Norumbega he explains, at first graciously:

It will invite criticism, and so sift out any errors of interpretation into which, sharing the usual fortune of the pioneer, I may have been led.

And then rather less so:

It will help, by reason of its mere presence, and by virtue of the veneration with which the Tower will in time come to be regarded, to bring acquiescence in the fruit of investigation, and so ally the blind skepticism, amounting practically to inverted ambition, that would deprive Massachusetts of the glory of holding the Landfall of Leif Erikson, and at the same time the seat of Europeans in America.

Committed to the falsifiable nature of science, Horsford nonetheless hopes romanticism will encourage future generations to lean his way.

I get a kick out of discredited scholarly theories, but Horsford’s isn’t luridly presented, at least not in this book. He leaves us few nutty-sounding reveries and no McKinley-era equivalent of all-caps exhortations. A man of his time, he turned his polymath’s mind toward the credible techniques of “scientific history” as pioneered in European universities, and off he went on the trail of his preferred past. He found it, as he knew he would. Human prejudices are as consistent as chemistry, if not as quantifiable.

As the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage approached, a vocal minority of Americans, many of them New England autodidacts inspired by a popular 1837 edition of the Vinland sagas, cringed at the prospect of letting an Italian Catholic in the service of Spain get credit for the European discovery of North America. (My favorite manifestation of their protest: a replica of a Viking ship that floated past the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.) The racial assumptions of the day helped stoke Horsford’s efforts, but even though few scholars bought into his theories about Vikings on the Charles, contemporaries did consider him rather progressive for his support of women’s education. Horsford’s example just goes to show how ephemeral many social standards will prove, and also how wrong we’re all going to be about something, even the cleverest among us, in the fullness of time.

The man who literally gave us our daily bread longed for a more romantic legacy, one that would link him to his presumed ancestors and affirm their superiority. His 200th birthday is a chance for the rest of us to feel a link to the past, not to some silly racial or tribal forefathers but to anyone whose sincere disorientation humanizes him and humbles us. Let’s all then chase our theories, pore over books, and tromp along riverbeds chasing the boot-prints of phantoms. If your confidence in your own worldview is as unshakeable as Eben Horsford’s, than the Norumbega Tower is a warning: pray that posterity is no less kind to you.

“And they burn so bright, while you can only wonder why….”

[This is the third of four blog posts focusing on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s medieval-themed stories. The first post can be found here, and the second can be found here, and the fourth is here. If it matters to you, please be aware that these posts about obscure, 80-year-old stories are pock-marked with spoilers.]

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s third story about medieval France “shows that national chaos does not fail to bring forth a leader.” That’s the chirpy editorial comment just below the byline in the August 1935 issue of Redbook, and it makes me wonder if the magazine’s staffers actually read the story. By this point, they’re no longer touting Fitzgerald’s contributions on the covers, so readers would have had to stumble upon “The Kingdom in the Dark” while flipping through an issue already packed with other, lighter fiction. I wonder how many of them even remembered where the story of Count Philippe of Villefranche left off eleven months earlier.

To my surprise, Fitzgerald’s name still carries cachet for Redbook readers. Elsewhere in the issue, his name pops up in the introduction to a complete novel, We’ll Never Be Any Younger:

WHAT F. SCOTT FITZGERALD DID FOR THE “LOST GENERATION”—FOR “FLAPPERS” AND “SAD YOUNG MEN”—IN “THIS SIDE OF PARADISE” AND “THE GREAT GATSBY,” ELMER DAVIS IS DOING NOW FOR THOSE WHO ARE LIVING UNDER THE SIGN OF ALPHABET AGENCIES AND GREAT PROMISES.

That’s a kind endorsement of Fitzgerald’s influence, but it’s also a backhanded compliment that casts Fitzgerald as a has-been, a generational spokesman now receding into mere precedent. It makes sense, I suppose, that his medieval stories would dramatize rebuilding a world from scratch, and the unavoidable failures that follow.

As with Fitzgerald’s previous medieval stories, “The Kingdom in the Dark” doesn’t have a complicated plot. Count Philippe continues to consolidate power on his hereditary lands by building a fort overlooking the Loire, where he can collect tolls and taxes from merchants as they ford the river. There’s a charming, boyish innocence to Fitzgerald’s pride in writing about this fort, which is clearly the product of his own historical research:

Philippe had no education in military architecture, and probably any engineer-centurion of Caesar’s army would have laughed it to scorn, yet he had planned with a great deal of shrewdness:

To the north the hill fell straight to the river; westward it was protected by a sheer cliff fifty feet high. The vulnerable points were east and south. It was with the eastward side, a slope of shifting sandy soil that would bear no solid construction, that he was unsatisfied . . .

Later, Philippe explains the fort to the local abbot:

“Father couldn’t defend his house, God rest his soul! But I have an idea that the Northmen will have some job trying to crack this crib in a hurry. Look—this thing is only the first palisade—then there’s a second palisade, then the rampart and trench. On two of the other sides I’ve got the river and the cliff.”

Then Fitzgerald gives us an arid little lecture on ninth-century forts:

In an hour they were in sight of the house or fort. Land was easy to get in those unsettled days, but the ability to dominate and cultivate it was another matter. The prohibition of forts and castles had only just been withdrawn by the king, in the face of repeated invasions of Northmen; and though this law had not been observed literally for a half century, the art of fortification had fallen into desuetude.

Finally, Philippe shows off his fort to a girl:

“Like it?” Philippe asked the girl, with ill-concealed pride.

“I think it’s fine,” she said, and took a side glance at him, with pity for his pride in his homely effort.

“It’s not so good,” he said, with the modesty of possession. “Still, we’ve got three buildings up there—there’s the log fort and the houses for my men-at-arms and servants made of mud and rock. They’re part of the defenses.”

“It’s nice.”

She looked at him as a little boy playing soldiers, and for a moment they regarded each other. Then, reluctantly, he turned his eyes from the lovely head.

Fortunately, “The Kingdom in the Dark” isn’t entirely about forts. Philippe is intrigued by the girl, Griselda, who’s on the run from the new king, Louis the Stammerer, apparently because he made her lover in his court disappear. Fitzgerald’s description of her isn’t terrible, but it’s little better than the sort of prose that earns aspiring fantasy novelists a thorough critique from their peers:

The girl rode well. Her rather small curly head perched on a long body that carried it proudly. She was pale, and her lips were very red. There was a lovely necklace of faint freckles above an amber-colored surtout belted at the waist. Her eyes were small and hazel, with lashes of a delicate pink tan.

Nothing in this description of Griselda tells us anything useful about her. Can this really be the same novelist who could imply so much about Gatsby and his acquaintances through subtle descriptions of posture and clothing?

Fitzgerald revels in costuming, but little else, in an interminable passage about the king’s entourage:

To a man of our time, associating the Middle Ages with plate mail, the column would have seemed singularly dissimilar to any mental picture he might have formed of chivalry—and it was not chivalry in the sense that the word implied five hundred years later.

At the head of the procession rode a squad of scouts, carrying short spears, and short flat swords slung at their belts. Some wore cap-like padded helmets, turbans almost; others wore headgear of the same shape but of leather. There was no attempt at uniformity—under short tunics of blue, red, green or brown, there were usually perceptible a rough mail: rings sewed on leather, or crude coats of rings entire. Universally they wore leather moccasins, short or long, held in place by crisscross strips of hide.

After this casual advance party followed the King and his attendants—Louis in a long white tunic of fine linen shouldered with a cape of purple. Round his head was a light golden circlet; around his middle a golden chain of flexible links from which swung a flat jeweled sword . . .

King Louis was flanked by a gray-haired knight and an ecclesiastic. Following them came a quartet of esquires, then about sixty horsemen, dressed with as little uniformity as the advance guard . . . Then came the supply wagons, drawn by huge horses instead of oxen, and driven by men who served also as cooks and sutlers. A group of horsemen, well armed and knightly of bearing, brought up the rear.

Are you still awake? Anyone who’s written historical fiction or popular nonfiction knows what’s going on here. Fitzgerald has done his homework, and by God, he’s going to exhaust every last scrap of his notes. It’s painful to behold, all the more so because he opens this pageant with a paragraph that distances the reader from the world of the story. We’re glancing backward through time at a museum display of mannequins in costumes, not characters we ought to care about.

Briefly, Fitzgerald catches sight of a morally intriguing premise: Philippe conceals Griselda from a cruel, absurd king, even though he ought to be loyal to him, and even though Griselda has stolen one of the king’s horses. Philippe swears falsely that he knows nothing about her—when he does, Fitzgerald tells us that “invisible girths tightened on Philippe’s diaphragm”—and this false oath would have potentially interesting implications in a more thoughtful story. Instead, the king’s men burn down Philippe’s precious fort, Philippe executes the conspirators, and the gloomy count spends just two sentences wondering if he’s being punished: “I took a false oath this morning, and maybe Almighty Providence doesn’t believe me anymore. But someday, by God, I’ll build a fort of stone that all the kings of Christendom can’t burn up or knock down!” Is this a moment of heroic defiance, or hypocritical futility? Beats me. There’s no sense of Providence in this story, no appeal to truth, no sense that anything matters in “The Kingdom in the Dark” but brute force.

“But Philippe was wasting his passion,” Fitzgerald writes. “Three days later Louis the Stammerer, King of the West Franks, obligingly died.” That’s the final line of the story, a conclusion that snuffs out whatever embers of tension and conflict that Fitzgerald has spent nine pages struggling to kindle.

“The Kingdom in the Dark” is an unsatisfying mess, but I’d be a lazy reader if I didn’t dig for something more. The jarring, meaningless ending doesn’t have to be a sign that Fitzgerald, like Philippe, was “wasting his passion.” Maybe the closing of the story is a statement in itself, Fitzgerald’s implication that history doesn’t unfold in a coherent narrative.

For some writers, the Middle Ages are an admirably pure foil to the miserable complexity of the modern world—or they’re a era of ignorance that reflects our own superior wisdom, or a supposed source of cultural origins, or a period that highlights timeless aspects of human nature, or a setting whose violence bestows “authenticity,” or a distant carnival of irreproducible human strangeness. Novels, movies, and TV shows cover all this ground, but Fitzgerald’s Middle Ages may be one of the bleakest fictionalizations of the Middle Ages I’ve come across. In his vision of ninth-century France, he can’t imagine spontaneous human organization or the persistence of culture. After Viking raiders blast the landscape to rubble, the locals are reduced to helpless savages. Only a nobleman can motivate them and impose order.

Yet even Philippe falters: The destruction of his precious fort makes him despair, and he considers joining the Norsemen as a mercenary. Only his new squeeze, Griselda, brings out the best in him, insisting that he has a responsibility to his subjects and reminding him that one can hate the king as a person but still be loyal to him. It’s the second time a woman has tempered Philippe with reason and softened his heart. In “The Kingdom in the Dark,” he gets noticeably nicer, showing a genial rapport with his majordomo and the local abbot that was absent from earlier stories.

Even so, this is a tale in which the hero who rebuilds civilization will defy his king, swear false oaths, and ignore laws that aren’t of his own devising. In his notes, Fitzgerald wrote that the character of Philippe, inspired by Ernest Hemingway, was meant to represent the “modern man,” but three stories in, the comparison isn’t flattering. Modern stories set in the Middle Ages inevitably comment on the present. Is Fitzgerald rationalizing corruption if it’s for a good cause during desperate times? Is his medieval world a warning, or a template he thinks we’ll someday require? I can’t tell; I don’t think Fitzgerald knew either.