A friend of mine confirmed for me that the author Bernard Cornwell stood out as an excellent contemporary writer. And so, I picked up 1356 and Gallows Thief from the library. Am I glad that I picked up both! If I had only gotten 1356, it would have forever tainted my perspective on this talented writer. You see, Gallows Thief was a remarkable mystery novel set in London during 1820, which I could barely put down. On the other hand, 1356 succeeded in thoroughly repelling me. I understand that the 14th century was rife with cruelty and corruption. But, should this be dwelled on ad nauseam?
Curiously, I almost started the second chapter despite the first being more horrifying than certain parts of Dante’s Inferno. I congratulate Cornwell on his descriptive powers! Though I managed to endure the eye gouging, rape, and castration scene, the discovery that the main character was a heretic made me abruptly lose all desire to read further. I have no sympathy for heretics before Luther–especially the Cathars, with whom I suspected Thomas Hooker was linked; but, I do not know for certain. I might have ignored the matter of his faith, but not when piled onto the brutality of the preceding chapter!
This brings me to the topic of realism. As Aristotle declares in his Poetics, fiction should reveal general truths, while histories reveal particular truths. Historical fiction combines the two tendencies, which increases the interest I have in reading them. My favorite author, Alexandre Dumas, is famed for his historical fiction. However, one can make an idol out of realism so that the truth is lost in exchange for the details.
The events in chapter one take place during a successful assault of a city. Crimes of rape, torture, mutilation, and murder are being committed all around, and the constant mention of the devil, hell, gore, excommunicated soldiers, and that the town is going up in flames create a rather perfect vision of hell. No doubt these things happened in 14th century France. But it seems wrong to immerse the mind in such things. “Then,” you say, “should one pass over these details? The result will be a skewed vision of the past.”
Yet, one does not need to dwell on those things! I just described the first chapter. I hope none of my dear readers are distressed by my brief description! Historians write about these details in the same way, which novelists would be wise to emulate. Make your reader dwell on better things! I mention a castration scene. I had read another in Gene Wolfe’s Soldier of the Mist, but the way he wrote it shocks rather than sickens the reader. The scene passes, and the reader moves on to noble things.
Many writers rightly pride themselves in their ability to immerse the reader in their worlds. But one should never forget the advice of the Three Wise Monkeys: “See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil.” This saying originally meant that one should dwell on good and noble things rather than evil, because from evil thoughts proceed evil actions. But, let me add another word of praise for Gallows Thief. Cornwell perfectly immerses the reader into a world of judicial corruption and crime, but neither at the expense of truth nor telling a good story. I wish he had done the same for 1356. His understanding of the high middle ages is wonderful–perhaps better than any contemporary author–and I was curious to know more about Brother Michael and a certain Spanish Dominican. But, the excessive gore was too much.