Archive for August, 2012


“Diamond rings, and all those things…”

For five years, this blog has documented medievalism from Louisiana to Serbia to Ossetia to the banks of the Potomac and the putting greens of Ocean City, but there’s one manifestation I’ve dreaded: Nazism. I don’t hesitate to point out dreary forms of medievalism, but I figured the Third Reich’s version of it would be especially awful. It is—so I’m grateful to Sidney D. Kirkpatrick for summarizing it in what’s probably the only book to feature both Nazis and art historians that can properly be called a great “beach read.”

Published in 2010, Hitler’s Holy Relics tells the story of the late Walter Horn, known to medievalists as co-founder of the art history department at UC-Berkeley and co-author of The Plan of St. Gall. As World War II wound down in Europe, Horn was a 36-year-old lieutenant for the U.S. Army; he was born and educated in Germany and had fled as recently as 1938, which made him useful as an interrogator. In February 1945, after a desperate prisoner squealed about a secret bunker under Nuremberg Castle, Lieutenant Horn investigated an incredible stash of artwork and relics, including the reputed Holy Lance and the coronation garments of the Holy Roman Emperor.

There was one problem: the Crown Jewels of the Holy Roman Empire—the crown, globe, scepter, and two swords—were missing, and the Allies feared the objects might be used to rally neo-Nazis as the Nuremberg trials began.

Horn was uniquely qualified to search for them. He had studied under magisterial art historian Erwin Panofsky at Hamburg and personally knew many of Germany’s top curators, art historians, and dealers. Plus, unlike many members of the Army’s commission on monuments and antiquities, he wasn’t a curator looking to enhance a museum collection back in the States. (A true academic, Horn carried a draft of his scholarly article about a Florentine basilica across seven countries. He fearlessly interrogated Nazis but was reluctant to submit his work for peer review.) In late July 1945, Horn was given just three weeks to find the lost Crown Jewels before a repatriation conference in Munich would render his mission moot—and the faster he could get it done, the more time he’d have to search the Soviet Zone for the family he left behind.

Kirkpatrick tells this story well, painting a dense, believable picture of postwar chaos. As the occupying army compromises with conquered locals, Walter Horn sees his birth nation in ruins, wonders about the fate of his family and friends, and hunts for treasure even when questions of cultural patrimony pale against the enormity of the entire war. Despite its lurid cover, Hitler’s Holy Relics is sensitive to the stories of individuals, not armies, from a Nazi museum curator who survives by hiding his homosexuality to the personal interest Patton himself takes in the Crown Jewels.

It’s also sensitive to the allure of medievalism, as Kirkpatrick sketches out the creepy ways in which high-ranking Nazis mixed medieval myth with occultism in an effort to raise up a truly freakish world. Kirkpatrick summarizes the legends surrounding the Holy Lance, which beguiled a young Hitler when he saw it in an Austrian museum. He also describes the work of the Ahnenerbe, the SS “think tank” dedicated to such projects as locating the Holy Grail and forcing Finnish psychics to contact Nordic spirits. Kirkpatrick details Hitler’s plans to turn Nuremberg, home of the Crown Jewels, into a bizarre neo-medieval theme park, and he takes us, via Walter Horn, to Heinrich Himmler’s insane castle, which was renovated by enslaved Jehovah’s Witnesses, furnished with an Arthurian Round Table and rune-inscribed teacups, and designed to resemble, from the air, the tip of the Holy Lance.

Notably free of the usual Discovery Channel baloney—there’s only one dubious case of wild speculation, and it comes from Walter Horn himself—Hitler’s Holy Relics is a terrific read. Kirkpatrick corrects errors in earlier, more lurid accounts of Horn’s adventures and makes clear to a non-scholarly audience why art and architecture aren’t mere ornamentation, but powerful political tools. In doing so, he confirms a chilling observation by scholar Tom Shippey that’s worth keeping in mind as you suit up for the Ren Fest this fall: “There are…many medievalisms in the word, and some of them are as safe as William Morris wallpaper: but not all of them.”

“But all the gold won’t heal your soul…”

There’s no more medieval prepared cheese product than Velveeta. That’s the message, I guess, of “Wield the Skillet, Forge the Family Dinner,” a recent ad campaign for Velveeta that stars a manly, quasi-medieval blacksmith.

Although the blacksmith chants his praise of “liquid gold,” orders soccer moms to “smite” noodles—“smite them with the liquid gold until there can be no more smiting!”—and even has his own pointlessly elaborate website, Our Book of Liquid Gold, he’s no Old Spice Guy. The campaign wasn’t funny or distinctive enough to have gone viral, and the brawny mascot’s YouTube playlist hasn’t been updated for months.

So maybe medievalism doesn’t send Velveeta flying off the shelves. The first commercial in a new campaign, rolled out yesterday, features a slackerish broheim who works at the mall. The setting is as current as can be—but the slogan is still gruesomely medieval.

Medieval people associated the consumption of liquid metal with horrific punishments and unbearable pain. In the 12th-century Anglo-Norman Voyage of St. Brendan, the saint discovers Judas on an island, where his unceasing torments include being forced to drink molten lead and copper, which he can’t vomit when subjected to a hellish stench.

Medieval writers also believed that the Roman general Crassus had been executed by being forced to drink molten gold. In canto 20 of Purgatorio, Dante hears talk of “the wretchedness of avaricious Midas, resulting from his ravenous request, the consequence that always makes men laugh,” clarifying a few lines later:

and finally, what we cry here is: “Crassus,
tell us, because you know: “How does gold taste?”

In Book III of Troilus and Criseyde, when Chaucer rants about the inability of the greedy to experience true love, he assumes we’ll understand references to the “hoot and stronge” drinks of Crassus and Midas:

As wolde God tho wrecches that dispise
Servise of love hadde erys also longe
As hadde Mida, ful of coveytise,
And therto dronken hadde as hoot and stronge
As Crassus did for his afectis wronge,
To techen hem that they ben in the vice,
And loveres nought, although they holde hem nyce.

Likewise, one anonymous 15th-century English nun associated this same horrible punishment with Purgatory:

and one broʒt myche gold and syluer, and þat was molten and casten in hyr þrote, and þat ran out of hyr stomake. And he seide, “Take þe þis for þ[i] cursed and wikked coueitise…”

The horror of gold-drinking as punishment survived the Middle Ages. It worked its way into Jewish folklore, 16th-century natives reportedly executed a Spaniard in colonial Ecuador with a drink of molten gold, and in John Ford’s early 17th-century play ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore (recently staged in Virginia!), Friar Bonaventura warns of the eternal fate that awaits usurers:

There is a place,
List, daughter! in a black and hollow vault,
Where day is never seen; there shines no sun,
But flaming horror of consuming fires,
A lightless sulphur, choak’d with smoky fogs
Of an infected darkness: in this place
Dwell many thousand thousand sundry sorts
Of never-dying deaths: there damned souls
Roar without pity; there are gluttons fed
With toads and adders; there is burning oil
Pour’d down the drunkard’s throat; the usurer
Is forced to sup whole draughts of molten gold…

Amazingly, there’s at least one positive medieval reference to drinking gold. After suffering her husband’s abuse, a 15th-century Spanish visionary named Tecla Servent is whisked away to Heaven, where she marries Jesus Christ and samples a remarkable beverage:

He then brought her up to heaven, where he ordered the angels to dress her as his wife ought to be clothed. The angels arrayed Tecla like the spouse of a great lord in gold and scarlet brocade. Christ thereupon ordered the angels to bring food and drink for her, and they served her precious stones on golden plates to eat and molten gold and pulverized jewels to drink.

The folks at Kraft can’t be expected to know medieval molten-metal drinking lore, but I’m still surprised that a modern focus group thought that consuming gold sounded desirable—and I say this as someone who enjoys a warm bowl of Ro-Tel/Velveeta dip every now and then. When your target demographic inadvertently becomes Judas, usurers, and brides of Christ, it may be time to rethink a creepy metaphor—and find out what a medieval blacksmith really would have known.

“Then she opened up a book of poems and handed it to me…”

“Imagine a contemporary translation of Dante that includes references to Pink Floyd, South Park, Donald Rumsfeld, and Star Trek,” writes Zachary Lazar at BOMB magazine, praising poet Mary Jo Bang’s new version of the Inferno, which debuted on August 7. As Cynthia at the Book Haven points out, Alexander Nazaryan at the New York Daily News also enjoyed the book, while in a long and far less positive piece for the Wichita Eagle, Arlice Davenport argues that we shouldn’t call this sort of adaptation a translation:

As with so many knee-jerk postmodernists, Bang’s poetics hinge on the belief that the “distinction between high culture and popular entertainment has all but ceased to exist.” So she’s free to throw in references to John Coltrane, “South Park,” Emily Dickinson, Andy Warhol, John Wayne Gacy, Stephen Colbert and Woody Allen, whenever it suits her purposes. Her Dante dwells in a pluralist’s paradise, even if he is in Hell.

But to say that contemporary culture no longer recognizes the difference between high and low art is not to say that there is no difference. It simply means that our culture has given up making the effort to sustain the difference. It is (again, ironically) a form of sour grapes.

When they’re done well, I love anachronistic adaptations—like Christopher Logue’s Homer—as long as no one assigns then to beginning students under false pretenses. That’s why I was bemused by this claim in a Vanity Fair blog post by Elissa Schappell:

Bang’s Inferno already has some corduroy-vested academics tugging on their beards with indignation and beetle-browed translators jabbing at their eyes with pencils.

Say what? As I said at the Book Haven, it’s maddening that in 2012, Vanity Fair can’t provide us with a simple link so we know which “corduroy-vested academics” are supposedly “tugging on their beards with indignation” and which “beetle-browed translators” are “jabbing at their eyes with pencils.” It’s summer, and Bang’s Inferno was out for a only week when the Vanity Fair blog post went live. Few academics, and certainly not the stereotypes who stumbled into Schappell’s imagination from early 1950s New England, have even read the book yet.

(The only time I can remember an angry academic reaction to a mass-market translation was the mid-1990s, when Anglo-Saxonists grumbled about Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf—not necessarily because Heaney took liberties, but because his version was set to replace a more literal translation in the Norton Anthology.)

Dante scholars are, in fact, the medievalists most accustomed to seeing “their” poet made over to reflect the look of the day. In a 1983 issue of Studies of Medievalism devoted to Dante in the modern world, editor Kathleen Verduin explains that in addition to being a rallying point for 19th-century Italian nationalism, Dante was big in France and hugely popular in Victorian England. According to Werner Friederich’s Dante’s Fame Abroad, 1350-1850, Dante’s ghost was suited to every English season:

Robert Browning admired Dante for “the endurance that stood him in such good stead during his happy life.” For Carlyle, Dante was “the hero as poet.” Yet Carlyle also saw in the Florentine a spirit certainly reminiscent of the Scotsman’s Calvinist ancestors . . . Macauley’s Dante, rather like himself, was a public figure, born in great times. [page references removed]

Verduin adds that many Americans saw Dante as a proto-Protestant. The Transcendentalists were beguiled by him; Hawthorne alluded to him; Melville found him “the infernal guide to ever-deepening realms of moral complexity”; Longfellow sought solace in translating him; Charles Eliot Norton founded an academic society around him; and James Russell Lowell considered the Divine Comedy a cathedral in poetic form.

In No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920, T.J. Jackson Lears suggests that 19th-century America craved his moral certainty:

Nor was fascination with Dante confined to the Brahmin few. The poet was acclaimed and interpreted by critics in the established press, eulogized and imitated by dozens of magazine versifiers. The Dante vogue pointed not only to aestheticism or vaporous romanticism, but to widespread moral and religious concerns . . . By ignoring the scholastic superstructure of the Divine Comedy, commentators were able to join Dante with simpler medieval types. Like the saints and peasants, he became a prophet of spiritual certainty in an uncertain, excessively tolerant age.

At least three statues of the Big D here in Washington, the most prominent one in a park, attest to a literary wave that has since saturated the culture. Oh yes: You can pop “Dante’s Inferno Balls” candy while playing the Dante’s Inferno game for XBox or Playstation (with accompanying action figure). You can imagine the scent of Dante cigars, fondly recall the “Dante’s Inferno” ride at Coney Island, or show off your snazzy Dante earrings. You can also check out how science-fiction authors Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle Americanized Dante to make his Hell literally escapable.

“As a figure in the modern imagination, he has been all things to all men,” writes Kathleen Verduin, “enduring repeated reinterpretation according to the tastes and prejudice of the times; but he also unites us, commanding the common respect for the achievement of his art, and the endurance of his vision.” Whether ill-wrought or wonderful, Mary Jo Bang’s Inferno is the latest step in a dance between Dante and his American admirers. Contrary to Vanity Fair, scholars know the tune, too.

“But nothing hides the color of the lights that shine…”

In May 2008, one year after the death of Lloyd Alexander, I read his autobiographical novel The Gawgon and the Boy and wondered, “How many non-Prydain books did my favorite childhood author write?” To my amazement, I found 30 books (not counting picture books and translations from French) and set about writing short blog reviews of all of them.

Four years later, this blog series is complete. I’m genuinely sorry to bid adieu to Lloyd Alexander, but I hope these posts will serve as a starting point for adults who want to reacquaint themselves with an old friend—or find a new novel to read with their kids.

And Let the Credit Go (1955)
My Five Tigers (1956)
August Bondi: Border Hawk (1958)
Janine is French (1959)
My Love Affair with Music (1960)
The Flagship Hope: Aaron Lopez (1960)
Park Avenue Vet (1962)
Fifty Years in the Doghouse (1963)
Time Cat (1963)
The Chronicles of Prydain: The Book of Three (1964)
The Chronicles of Prydain: The Black Cauldron (1965)
The Chronicles of Prydain: The Castle of Llyr (1966)
The Chronicles of Prydain: Taran Wanderer (1967)
The Chronicles of Prydain: The High King (1968)
The Foundling and Other Tales from Prydain (1970)
The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian (1970)
The Cat Who Wished to Be a Man (1973)
The Wizard in the Tree (1974)
The Town Cats and Other Tales (1977)
The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha (1978)
The Westmark Trilogy: Westmark (1981)
The Westmark Trilogy: The Kestrel (1982)
The Westmark Trilogy: The Beggar Queen (1984)
The Vesper Holly Adventures: The Illyrian Adventure (1986)
The Vesper Holly Adventures: The El Dorado Adventure (1987)
The Vesper Holly Adventures: The Drackenberg Adventure (1988)
The Vesper Holly Adventures: The Jedera Adventure (1989)
The Vesper Holly Adventures: The Philadelphia Adventure (1990)
The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen
(1991)
The Arkadians (1995)
The Iron Ring (1997)
Gypsy Rizka (1999)
The Gawgon and the Boy (2001)
The Rope Trick (2002)
The Vesper Holly Adventures: The Xanadu Adventure (2005)
The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio (2007)

* * *

Some unsorted final thoughts:

In book after book for children, Lloyd Alexander manages to plumb serious moral and ethical issues without mentioning religion or sex. I’m not sure many young-adult writers would have either the self-restraint or the philosophical forbearance to pull that off.

The Westmark series—Westmark, The Kestrel, and The Beggar Queen—is Alexander’s masterpiece, a moving and mature story about the morality of violence and the profound cost of revolution and war. It deserves to be better known.

Although it’d be offensive (and futile, and boring) to suss out Alexander’s politics, I’m amused by the extent to which bureaucrats and politicians irk him, not only in the Westmark books, where “statesman” is a dirty word, but also in The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastianwhere a tyrannical government dehumanizes its subjects. The Wizard in the Tree is blatantly about politics and money, and the governing class doesn’t come off well in either The Town Cats and Other Tales or The Cat Who Wished to Be a Man. (“I should add that she always wins!” Alexander once crowed about Gypsy Rizka. “And those idiot town dignitaries always lose, which is exactly the way it ought to be.”)

Of all Alexander’s adult nonfiction, I found My Love Affair with Music the most satisfying; it’s about the sweet frustration of living with your own limitations.

Even though The Arkadians is a fairly formulaic book, I loved it, because it includes something I never thought I’d see: Lloyd Alexander in-jokes.

Alexander writes with a concision that all storytellers would be wise to study. He makes it look easy to convey imagination and wit in fast, tight, unassuming prose.

Did Alexander often fall back on a familiar array of characters and plots? Sure, but I think plenty of writers spend their lives trying to recreate the platonic form of the most important story in their minds. (“I have to hope that maybe this time I got it right,” Alexander said of his final novel.) For a thoughtful take on this question, see Jason Fisher’s 2007 Lingwë post.

On the whole, Alexander’s novels are less sentimental than I’d expected. Like the best fantasists, he’s skeptical of escapism, but his general cheerfulness means that every bittersweet ending comes as a surprise.

Lloyd Alexander was the “Old Cricket” who dispensed wisdom on the final page of Cricket magazine! How fitting.

Many of Alexander’s later books are traced with sadness, none more than the mystical The Rope Trick, the rare novel that appears to divide Alexander’s fans.

* * *

To everyone who’s read, commented, linked, and emailed me about these reviews in the past four years: thank you!

“And I listen to the chanting, and all the lies the wise ones tell…”

[Here’s the final post in a series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

“I have finished my life’s work,” Lloyd Alexander reportedly said after completing his final novel, The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio. Published posthumously, the book is a light romp through a mythical Arabia that offers readers one last tour of many of its author’s favorite themes, freshened by a conviction that dreamers and fools can end up in better places than they’re able to imagine.

Lacking the necessary focus to prosper in his merchant uncle’s business—shades of Alexander’s own youth?—the bumbling, bookwormish Carlo (a “chooch,” or loser, in the patois of his island home) searches for treasure by following a map that bears little resemblance to reality. Along the way, he gathers a typical Lloyd Alexander ensemble, including Shira, a capable heroine; Salomon, an ancient wanderer who delights in every leaf and tree; and Baksheesh, an ornery, obsequious servant. What keeps their adventure from growing conventional is this book’s slippery sense of unreality, as Carlo and his friends meet a bookseller whose market-stall vanishes, unremembered by its neighbors; a cave-bound artist who paints things that haven’t yet happened; and a merchant who sells custom dreams on bottle and flask at a time.

There’s a villain here, but like many of Alexander’s least interesting bad guys, he’s offstage for most of the action. He’s remarkable, though, for threatening a young woman with rape; even if Alexander never uses the word, it’s the only time I can remember a hint of it in any of his novels. More intriguing in Carlo Chuchio is the hero’s maturation, defined by a merciful act that leads to a death. Even at the end of his life, Alexander was haunted by the possibility that we remain guilty of misdeeds even when our intentions are good.

Alexander also wants us to be suspicious of storytellers. “Idlers! Layabouts! Lazy to the marrow of their bones,” Baksheesh complains, voicing the author’s self-deprecation. “Notorious liars, without a grain of truth among all of them put together.” And yet Alexander adapts the Middle Eastern legends, as he did with every mythos from India to Wales, for a reason. If this book comes off a bit like the old Sinbad movies, populated by camel-pullers and warrior nomads speaking broken English, only a true grouch can complain. After all, Lloyd Alexander books aren’t about actual places, but something far more real. “I would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the fools of one country and the fools of another,” the wandering Salomon notes. “Folly is our common bond.”

“Send me your warning siren, as if I could ever hide…”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

“I have been, to some extent, in situations like the ones I described,” Lloyd Alexander told curious children, without further detail, when discussing The Kestrel and The Beggar Queen. “One of the most difficult things about writing those books was dredging up a number of very terrible memories.” If The Kestrel is Alexander’s war novel, then The Beggar Queen, the third and final Westmark novel, is his warning about the costs of revolution, even when violence is necessary.

Two years after enduring a war started by traitorous aristocrats, Westmark is still a monarchy, but a devolving one, with avowed revolutionaries holding high office and breaking up noble estates into smaller farms. Theo, the queen’s consort, has little to show for his life as a bureaucrat. Harvests are failing, while royalists, constitutionalists, and revolutionaries are falling into factions. Overnight, Westmark becomes a dictatorship under Cabbarus, the villain of the first novel, and ideological enemies again become reluctant allies.

Suffused with casual brutality, The Beggar Queen plausibly depicts tyranny, and Alexander finds bleak humor in it:

It had always been the good pleasure of the kings of Westmark to ornament their capital city and immortalize themselves at the same time. Some put up statues of themselves on horseback. Others preferred works of less equestrian and more civic interest: promenades, public walks, and gardens. Augustine the Great enlarged the Juliana and installed its famous bells. Mickle’s father, in the earlier, happier days of his reign, built the fountain of the great square.

Cabbarus followed in the example of previous rulers. With a difference. He had not yet raised a statue of himself, although he looked forward confidently to one day doing so. He had not yet proposed any monument or memorial. Instead, in the first months of his directorate, he offered Marianstat something of immediate, practical use: not a token of his own immortality, but a demonstration of the mortality of others.

He built a gallows.

The Beggar Queen might have been a direct commentary on fantasy if readers had been asked to choose between idealistic revolutionaries and a liberalizing, well-intentioned monarchy, but Alexander is concerned here with realism, creating a police state that’s dishearteningly believable—as are his depictions of death, suicide, and torture, even when he treats terrible moments elliptically or allusively. The revolution in Marianstat, the capital city of Westmark, is full of bravery and sacrifice, but even when it gets exciting, Alexander doesn’t romanticize it. Street fighting, palace-storming, barricade-building, and scenes of bourgeois revolt represent both the hope and the horror of revolution: that sometimes it takes on a life of its own.

I’m reluctant to say more about the Westmark series for fear of spoiling it for new readers. I’ll say only that Alexander himself is elusive in these books; it’s hard to know where his personal experience ends and fiction begins. The vengeful Justin, eager to shed blood in the name of republicanism, seems more than a little influenced by Alexander’s depiction of John Brown 25 years earlier, and at least one historical scene from August Bondi:Border Hawk recurs in The Beggar Queen, where it’s put to good use. Still, what makes Westmark memorable is that Lloyd Alexander passionately reassembles his life and work—stock characters, historical interests, war experiences, and decades of brooding—to create his finest story about the individual moral burdens of political acts.

The Beggar Queen ends abruptly, as if Alexander were exhausted from having set Westmark on paper at last. It’s one of his least sentimental endings, but fittingly so, dictated as it is by what one character calls “the hard facts of statecraft.” Slow to judgment and unburdened by ephemera, the Westmark books teach children a rare adult lesson: Government is a hard, messy business, but we fail at it only when we stop querying our consciences, even if we earn endings that aren’t entirely happy.

“Wake up, wake up, king in a Cath-o-lic style…”

There’s nothing quite as weird as sitting at home, sweating off a muggy August noon like a forsaken tumbler of iced galangal ale, when a knock at the door heralds a package: copies of your book translated into Brazilian Portuguese.

Behold: Tornando-se Carlos Magno: Europa, Bagdá e os impérios do sécula IX, translated by Carlos and Anna Duarte and published this summer by Editora Record of Rio de Janeiro. It’s a sharp little book, with those interior paperback cover flaps I find exotic because they seem to be de rigeur everywhere but in North America.

Is Brazil full of Charlemaniacs? I’ve no idea—but the arrival of Tornando-se Carlos Magno gives me an excuse to share some Charlemagne-in-the-news links I’ve been hoarding. (The first three come courtesy of Scott, an American expat in Germany who recently posted some nice photos of Aachen.)

“Tongue of toad, newt so greeny…” Christopher Lee has announced Charlemagne: The Omens of Death, a sequel to his weighty-brass Charlemagne concept album from 2010. Grimacing musically, he promises “100 percent heavy metal.” (The first album is available on CD or as an iTunes download. I reviewed it here.)

Saxon: The Book of Dreams, a new novel by Tim Severin, features something I can’t recall seeing in fiction before: Saxon canoodling at Charlemagne’s court.

Back in July, historian Istvan Deak surveyed Europe in the New York Times and wondered, “Where’s Charlemagne when we need him?” His conclusion struck me as odd: “A new imperial construct embracing all nations, religions and non-totalitarian ideologies might well be the only alternative to the revival of tribalism with all its tragic consequences.”

One law firm draws a fiery line from Charlemagne to mesothelioma litigation.

The Daily Mail serves up “six things you must do in Aachen.” Go there, they suggest, for “a Holy Roman Emperor’s treasure, fine dining and a biscuit.”

Charlemagne and Alcuin popped up last week in coverage of the new Viking “invasion” of Lindisfarne.

National Museums Scotland has acquired a holy-water stoup that 19th-century royalty thought belonged to ol’ Karl der Große.

When a modern-day knight on a horse named Lionheart crosses Canada “to revive the values he says have been lost to the modern world,” you’re darn right Charlemagne gets a mention.

Finally, an old favorite: As everyone gears up to go back to school, let France Gall provide a video response to that immortal question, “Qui a eu cette idée folle / un jour d’inventer l’école?” (You know you want to.)

“On the tall cliffs, they were getting older, sons and daughters…”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

The Kestrel is one of Lloyd Alexander’s smartest and most mature books. It’s also his most unpleasant—not because it’s a bad book, but because it’s painfully personal in its recollection of war.

Having spent the first Westmark novel introducing his version of 18th-century Europe, with its grasping political factions and tottering monarchy, Alexander seems poised to pit his characters against each other in an ongoing debate about political philosophy. Believing that people are born good, Theo argues for a monarchy kept in check by three consuls elected by a parliament. Equating monarchy with tyranny and disdainful of aristocracy, the revolutionary Florian continues to advocate a republic. Soon, though, none of this matters, as philosophical opponents become allies of convenience, and The Kestrel becomes a novel entirely about war.

The war with neighboring Regia is the work of traitorous Westmark aristocrats who deplore their rapidly liberalizing monarchy. Alexander despises statesmen who start wars, but in The Kestrel he casts a nonjudgmental eye on the people forced to wage them, from royal ministers who reluctantly impose martial law to normally gentle people who become legendary for bloodshed in battle.

The Kestrel demands more of young readers than any other Alexander novel. The cast of characters is vast: street waifs, satirists, revolutionaries, commoners, con artists, military officers, aristocrats, doctors, monarchs, bureaucrats, farmers, poets, washer women, courtiers, constables, and spies. As heroes become killers, whole chapters read like matter-of-fact military reports, sometimes with pages of indirect speech about tactics and logistics. Armies pillage, field commanders execute noncombatants, and mobs of peasants loot great manor houses. Days, weeks, and months pass without comment, as if the details are just too much to bear.

Even for an adult, The Kestrel can be a difficult read. No other Lloyd Alexander book contains as much violence and death, and while it’s never gratuitous, and in only one instance is it graphic, it’s still unnerving. Fresh faces die, as friends from the first book commit terrible acts and struggle to justify themselves. The cover of the 2002 Firebird paperback edition of The Kestrel calls Alexander a “Grand Master of Fantasy,” but the Westmark books are bereft of the consoling mysteries of the genre. As the author himself explains on the inside back cover, this series is his effort to confront wartime experiences only hinted at in previous books:

Vague shadows of Westmark and the volumes that followed had been in my head for half a dozen years before I was able even to put a word on a page. World War II was long over, and I had come home from Europe with my Parisian wife and daughter. I had been writing happily for a good while, and had discovered that stories of fantasy worlds were, for me, the best way to express my attitudes and feelings about people, problems, and relationships in our real world.

Still, questions stuck in my mind: the uses and abuses of power, not only the conflict between good and evil but–far more difficult–the conflict between good and good, noble ideas broken by violence even in a good cause; and, in the midst of tragedies, events that were hysterically, incongruously funny. I have no idea why Westmark chose to be written precisely when it did. More surprisingly, I found myself dredging up distant memories of what I had seen and known myself in combat. I did not find answers to questions raised and expect I never will. Nor was it an attempt to exorcise my own demons. No, I keep and cherish those demons. I like to believe they’re my conscience.

Questions of conscience haunt The Kestrel. How can a leader live with himself when he saves the state by spreading propaganda and imposing unjust laws? How can a man judge another’s life-or-death decision without standing in his place? How can a bloodstained warlord return to normal life? Alexander has no answers; we carry our moral burdens for life.

And yet amid war, there’s love in The Kestrel, too, unromantic but real, from the dutiful officer adoring his young queen to a street urchin who falls for her benefactor. Love also offers the promise of peace, if not redemption, for broken warriors:

He hesitated. Mickle was watching him closely. Finally, he said, “Yes, I do love you. Now. As much as I’m able.”

Mickle gave him a questioning glance, then said lightly, “Does that mean more? Or less?”

“It only means—” Theo began. “It only means that I’ve hated so much for so long, I’m sick with it. I don’t recognize myself. I’m not even sure I know what loving is.”

Mickle nodded. “I suppose,” she said quietly, “I’ll have to wait until you find out.”

Parents of especially sensitive Prydain fans may want to read The Kestrel before their children do, or even with them, but I hope they won’t be put off by its seriousness. Right up to the shocking turn on its final pages, the book is full of brutality and loss, but Alexander’s humane sensibility never falters. For young-adult readers, there’s no better place to start coming to terms with the notion that the fairy-tale kingdoms they adore are doomed to be eclipsed by human nature.

“But the world spins on regardless, which is lucky for you and me…”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. The second and third Westmark novels will be covered in subsequent posts. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

I’ll put this simply: Westmark is Lloyd Alexander’s masterpiece. Published in three volumes from 1981 to 1984, the series deserves to be at least as well known as Alexander’s beloved Prydain books. In fact, this story of a monarchy on the verge of painful modernization ought to be the next challenge for all maturing Prydain readers. I suspect that in the past 30 years, no other series for young adults has offered a more thoughtful look at the morality of violence. Adults will find it intriguing, even disquieting, too.

Westmark, the first novel in the trilogy, is populated by Alexander’s stock characters, but the world they inhabit is distinctively troubled. The kingdom of Westmark is plagued by a broken monarch mourning his lost daughter; a greedy courtier is de facto tyrant; the aristocracy is either corrupt or flirting with revolution; the streets teem with beggars; and there isn’t a trace of magic in sight. No fantasy, Westmark is the remarkable start of a 700-page series, a sort of young-adult Les Miserables that abandons the conceits of sword-and-sorcery kingdoms to ask difficult questions about tyranny, government, and violence, both individual and political, in a setting that resembles 18th-century Europe—with all the complexity that implies.

The moral development of Theo, an orphan turned printer’s apprentice, is at the heart of the Westmark series. Naive and relatively happy, Theo “loved virtue, despised injustice, and was always slightly hungry.” He unthinkingly wishes death to tyrants and blithely considers himself kindly, good-natured, and honorable—until he shocks himself by committing an act of violence. Sinking into a personal morass of theft, grifting, and lies, Theo realizes he doesn’t even know his own heart, especially when confronted with a second chance. “Killing is wrong. I believe that. I still do,” he insists. “But now I wonder. Do I believe it because I wanted to be a decent man. Or—because I’m a coward?”

Westmark complicates the question when Theo falls in with a band of revolutionaries led by the charismatic Florian, one of the most intelligent characters Alexander ever wrote. Picking up on anti-monarchic skepticism introduced a decade earlier in The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian, this first Westmark novel sets the stage for grand-scale political drama—and some big philosophical questions. When Torrens, the exiled royal surgeon, takes pains to distinguish between monarchy and tyranny, the revolutionary aristocrat Florian argues that no monarchy is worth preserving:

“Preserve it?” returned Florian. “Preserve a power fixed by accident of birth? Unearned, unmerited, only abused? You have been sadly misled, Doctor, if you come to me for that. Legitimate monarchy? The only legitimate rulers are the people of Westmark.”

“That, sir, is a dream. I do not share it with you. There are abuses; I do not deny it. They must be corrected. But not through destruction. If I have a patient with a broken leg, I mend the leg. I do not bleed him to death. I do what is possible and practical.”

“So do I,” said Florian.

Is there any other young-adult novel in which two temporary political allies hold a good-faith debate about the relative merits of monarchy and parliamentary democracy? Amazingly, Alexander lets their argument simmer unresolved. Theo and the reader are left to ruminate, while Westmark darkly hints at bloodshed to come.

Already bereft of magic, Westmark continues the skepticism about government and bureaucracy that often tempers Alexander’s whimsy, from The Town Cats to The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian. On the first page of Westmark, Alexander suggests limits to bureaucratized charity when he tells us that the “town fathers” are responsible for Theo’s apprenticeship: “instead of sending him away to a King’s Charity House, where he would be made miserable, they arranged the same for him locally.” By the second page, we learn that Cabbarus, Chief Minister of Westmark, routinely arrests and executes printers and publishers. He rose to power, we later discover, because he possesses “the virtue of diligence with an immense capacity for drudgery” and is “willing and eager to accept the duties the other ministers found boring.” He now has “his fingers in everything from the purchase of lobsters to the signature of death warrants.” The villain of Westmark isn’t a distant shadow, as in Prydain, or a stock tyrant who shows up for the climax, as in Sebastian. Cabbarus appears in the flesh by the fifth chapter of Westmark and reappears throughout the book. No “dark lord,” he is shameless, wicked, and plausibly human.

The kingdom Cabbarus schemes to control is equally plausible in its tyrannized misery. In Westmark, appeals to the government go unanswered, stormtroopers check travelers’ papers, and the existence of a “beggar factory” is well known: “Youngsters bought or stolen, then broken past mending, sliced up, squeezed into jars to make them grow very crooked. Sold off to a master who pockets whatever charity’s thrown to them.” Westmark swams with urchins whom fortune will never bless; if they’re extremely lucky, they may learn how to read.

Finding himself in league with con artists, Theo wonders why one of his colleagues, the portly, mustachioed Las Bombas, so dramatically embellishes his adventures. Theo’s exchange with Las Bombas’s footman is telling:

“The Salamanca Lancers! Great Copta! Trebizonia—I wonder if he even knows where it is. Why does he put out such nonsense?”

“No business of mine,” said Musket. “For all I know, he can’t stomach the world as he finds it. Can you?”

Theo did not answer . . . He had been more comfortable when he had been able to judge Las Bombas a complete rogue.

There are things you expect to find in a Lloyd Alexander novel—decency, the challenges of maturity, trenchant moral questions—but his usual themes really shine when they’re dropped into a world ruled by mere humans rather than wizards. “Books are one thing; how the world works now is another,” shrugs Theo’s mentor Anton, but Westmark, though consistently sad, isn’t depressing. It’s a somber, thoughtful study of how the immature conscience grapples with moral ambiguity when deprived of the comforts of fantasy.

“Come down off your throne, and leave your body alone…”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

In 1970, two years after completing his Prydain series, Lloyd Alexander turned to a disenchanted world. Packed with narrow escapes, feline heroics, and political oppression, The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian stars a young violinist cast out of a baronial court after offending a pompous count. As Sebastian learns to eke out a living in a fantasy recreation of 18th-century Europe, he has to decide what he really thinks about royalty, tyranny, and revolution. In a world without magic, his opinions, and the actions that proceed from them, have consequences, mitigated only by the cruel mystery of music.

By now, Alexander had established his stock characters: the naive but maturing hero; the tomboyish princess inclined to royal snobbery; and the self-deprecating author stand-in, in this case Quicksilver, who leads a traveling theater troupe. Through Quicksilver, Alexander defends his life’s work by lauding fiction’s simple truth:

“Make-believe and moonshine? Say naught against them! Before the Regent’s bloodhounds snatched away my Harlequin and Columbine, we used to put up a play that did handsomely for us. No more than a nursery tale of a swineherd who killed a dragon and married a princess—with your obedient servant as the dragon. Moonshine? On the face of it, if you will. But I’ll tell you, my lad, there wasn’t a plowboy or kitchenmaid, doddering grandsire or crone of eighty, who didn’t see themselves as the brave swineherd or fair-haired princess. For a little time, at least. And were none the worse for it. Indeed, I’d say they were all the better! Make-believe? There’s more truth at the bottom of it than you’ll find in the Glorietta’s Court Gazette!”

More complicated is Alexander’s approach to music, embodied by a cursed fiddle:

“Lelio called it so,” Quicksilver answered, “and claimed each owner came to grief because of it. As he said, they weren’t the ones who owned the fiddle, but it was the fiddle that owned them; and if they hoped to get music from it, it would cost them dearly. According to Leilo, one poor fellow wasted away the longer he played, as if the fiddle were drinking his life like a glass of wine. Another took leave of his wits altogether, and died a-babbling the fiddle was to blame.”

As it turns out, Leilo the clown suffered for his unfulfilled art:

“I think his heart broke because he knew the fiddle had music in it that even he could never hope to play. He could hear it in his head, but never have it in his fingers. It ate away at him, night and day, until he sickened with brooding over it. And so the fiddle brought him grief, too; and took his life as surely as it had all the others. He told me this as he lay dying in this very wagon, and at the end he begged me to smash the accursed thing, to break it into splinters and burn it.”

More than ten years after My Love Affair with Music, Alexander found a way to channel his frustrations with the fiddle into fiction, using music to enhance a novel that flirts, ultimately, with political questions.

As in the Prydain books, the villain—here the unscrupulous Regent of Hamelin-Loring—remains offstage until the very end, but his invisibility isn’t about creating an eerie aura of mystery. Instead, the Regent typifies a bad leader who vexes his subjects impersonally, even across vast distances. Alexander sees vestigial virtue in monarchy and suggests that parliamentarianism is the next tricky step in a kingdom’s evolution, but to his mind (and to my great delight), the worst consequence of tyranny is mindless, dehumanizing bureaucracy. When the men of Hamelin-Loring leave their homes to perform mandatory roadwork, the government seizes their land—on the grounds that their farms are now untenanted. “We obey one law—and another punishes us for it!” howls one worker. “Meantime, the Regent lines his pockets all the more.”

The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian is a lovely novel, but when you know what follows it, the book feels tentative. In the early 1980s, Alexander would think far more deeply about tyranny, political violence, revolution, and the human tendency to romanticize monarchy in his superb Westmark trilogy—also set in a reimagined 18th-century Europe, and again without a hint of magic. Sebastian deserved its 1971 National Book Award for delivering a rousing story about friendship, maturation, and music, but Alexander needed three more books to disentangle this novel’s political premises—and a decade to ponder the adult implications of fantasy worlds.