I learned about Neil MacGregor when I saw his name in the History Book Club catalog. Searching for his name in the local library did not bring me the same book, but I was intrigued by the title Germany: Memories of a Nation. Reading the memoirs of Heros von Borcke, a famed Prussian cavalryman who served under Jeb Stuart, brought to my attention how little I knew of Germany’s history between Charlemagne and the Renaissance and between the Renaissance and World War II. With the thought that this book would help fill in those gaps, I plunged into it.
One of the considerable problems with writing a history of Germany is that Germany only first existed as a state in 1871 when Otto von Bismarck brought about unification. Prior to this point, the land we refer to today as Germany existed as a federation of states known as the Holy Roman Empire. Though having a ruler, the Holy Roman Empire, the individual states often pursued their own political and economic goals. How does one create anything like a comprehensive history such a loosely united principalities?
I’ve gotten halfway through The Children of Hurin by J. R. R. Tolkien and edited by his son Christopher Tolkien. So far it exudes a style and mood at variance with other works of Tolkien. It feels more like a Greek tragedy or Viking saga: it has the style of the latter and the tragic flaws of the former. None of Tolkien’s eucatastrophe is present therein, unless we count the happy death of Androg, who died a better man than he lived. If it were not for this happy death, I should doubt that the famous Tolkien really wrote the story. Little else relieves one from the heavy sense of sorrow hanging over the action.
Joy or even humor is missing from the work. Tolkien’s major work, The Lord of the Rings, can get pretty dark at times, but its characters defy their desperate circumstances with joy, humor, or even glory. Boromir’s death lost some of its sting by the exuberant courage of his last stand. Homely humor from Samwise Gamgee brightened up Sam and Frodo’s trek through Mordor. How about the orc slaying game played between Legolas and Gimli at the desperate Battle of Helm’s Deep?
Suhren’s memoirs, Teddy Suhren, Ace of Aces: Memoirs of a U-boat Rebel, stands as a very interesting, but all too short, German submariner’s reminiscences of the Second World War. Suhren’s real first name is Reinhard. His nickname Teddy comes from his days in basic training, when his comrades noticed that he marched like a teddy bear. And so, the name stuck. The officer in charge of his training remarked to Suhren later in the war that he succeeded in training many thousands of young men, but Suhren was the one recruit in whom he did not succeed! Despite his lack of polish, Suhren excelled in his U-boat training, became one of Admiral Karl Dönitz’s best U-boat captains, and was promoted out of the boats to be a section commander in Narvik, Norway during 1942.
Suhren’s promotion occurred just when the Battle of the Atlantic turned against the U-boats. For this reason, Peter Cremer’s U-boat Commander is a much more compelling memoir: in warfare which claimed the lives of 75% of German submariners, Cremer became one of only two captains made in 1942 to survive the war. Cremer’s memoirs also contain far more detail about the difficulties posed by Allied destroyers and anti-submarine planes and the progress in U-boat technology.
Recently, I had the pleasure of reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead and What’s Mine’s Mine by George MacDonald. Novelists like these, the kind we term “classic,” well deserve that term. Every book of theirs brims with insights into the human condition. So many other writers’ concerns are only skin deep, but Dostoyevsky and MacDonald write of the soul. MacDonald has the tendency of doing this in a sermonizing fashion, which has perhaps made him less popular among moderns. Yet, there was a time when great preachers could attract crowds. Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, wrote one hundred years ago but his insights the evils of socialism and fallen man strike one as still relevant.
The House of the Dead focuses on the dark side of man–his fallen nature. And no wonder: this novel derives from the experience of Dostoyevsky being exiled to Siberia for his involvement in a radical political group. What Dostoyevsky saw of human nature in prison cured him of Marxist ideas and the concept of the perfectibility of man forever. This novel records the sheer divide between nobles and commoners and the great diversity of the convicts: there were Chechens, Old Believers, Muslims, a Jew, Orthodox, Catholics, Poles, Russians, rich, poor, middle class, laborers, soldiers, craftsmen, and others. Many were perfectly well off, but this did not prevent them from committing crimes. The commoners in the villages outside of the prison referred to the prisoners as “unfortunates.”
I was happy to have the pleasure of reading Howard Pyle’s Otto of the Silver Hand (Pyle’s first work of fiction) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sir Nigel during the same time. Doyle wrote Sir Nigel to be the prequel to his The White Company. The White Company held as great a readership as Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes until the Second World War, yet it still retains enough popularity to have been published continually since 1891. That book’s superiority over Sir Nigel is plain from the former’s variety of action, variety of characters, and better weaving of religion within the martial code of chivalry. Pyle’s novel, Otto of the Silver Hand, also better excels at weaving together the religious origins of chivalry into the knight’s code.
The reason behind this lies in the manner of the protagonists: Otto and Allen Edricson are both cloister bred, while Nigel Loring, whom we see as a squire in Sir Nigel, was raised within a knightly household and taught to value the manly virtues more than the decent–the loud virtues more than the quiet. It is like comparing Robert E. Lee to Nathan Bedford Forrest. Both were valiant men, but the heavily Christian upbringing of Lee better tempered his irascible nature than the more worldly education of Forrest tempered the Wizard of the Saddle’s hot blood. And so, his peers called Lee “the marble man” for his peaceable and orderly character, while Forrest struggled to control his temper almost until the very end. Even so, Nigel Loring takes about as long as Forrest to fully assimilate the gentle virtues, while Allen Edricson and Otto start from the decent and work to the manly–although, Allen is described by his friend Hordle John as already having a stalwart heart despite his meek exterior.
Many people neglect Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s military and medieval fiction. Prior to this, I have reviewed The Adventures of Gerard, which follows the sometimes grave and sometimes comedic adventures of a French dragoon during the Napoleonic Wars. Now, I turn my attention to Doyle’s romance of the Hundred Years’ War: The White Company. One senses that Doyle immersed himself in the period, both its history and its literature. (In the preface to Sir Nigel, the prequel to this book, he lists some excellent resources on the medieval age.) As far as this medievalist can tell, Doyle makes no factual errors on the equipment, weapons, clothing, economy, or habits of the people.
One does wonder whether he lets some of his ideas about the French Revolution get mixed into his description of the impoverished people of France and their wealthy overlords. However, there can be no doubt that interminable war had reduced the people of France to a sorry state, even if not entirely reminiscent of late 18th century France. One finds the character of the longbow men well delineated. The chivalric attitudes of the nobles drop easily from the mouths of the characters, just as they would have from the knights of old. At the same time, their chivalry adjusts to the real world situations in which they find themselves.