The Lion at Bay…

Let’s be totally clear here.  I am an absolute fool for beautiful language.

Actually, I go well beyond “fool”.  Indeed, it might be more accurate to describe me as careering into abject devotion territory.

I know, you thought that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 57, which begins, Being your slave, what should I do but tend/Upon the hours and times of your desire…was written for some female or other who might or might not have been called The Dark Lady.

But that’s where you’re wrong.  Because, in fact, it’s about me.

Yes, that’s right.  Shakespeare was writing about me, and my starry-eyed breathlessness and utter self-abnegating devotion to the sheer blissfulness of his poetry and language…

He was also writing about me and my relationship with John Donne–also on account of his poetry and language.  Ehem.

And he was writing about me and Gerard Manley Hopkins…and me and Sir Christopher Fry…and Sir Tom Stoppard…and Pierre de Ronsard…and Homer (the Iliad recited in Homeric Greek is one of the most resplendent works ever to be heard, I promise you)…and Sorley Maclean…and now, the historical novelist, Robert Low.

(Yes, I know he looks like Father Christmas…he might well be Father Christmas for all I know…this writing lark could be his day job, you never know…)

Let’s be clear about another thing, shall we?

I don’t–that is DO NOT–read novels set in the Middle Ages.  I just don’t.

And it’s not that they’re outside my comfort zone or something, it’s that they’re well within it because a long time ago, when camels ruled the earth and all that, I was a mediaevalist and spent my time studying things like the mediaeval European Economics and Anglo-Saxon open field farming and the rise of the guilds and the demographic changes wrought by the Black Death…that is, until I hit sensory and intellectual overload and said, “Nope.  Can’t stick this.  Not at any price.”

lionatbay2For Rob, however, I make an exception.  Because of the immaculate and exquisite artistry he brings to writing in the English language.  I can’t help myself.  I say this having just finished reading his superlative novel, The Lion at Bay–second in his sequence of historical novels about Robert the Bruce, entitled simply The Kingdom.

This is the third paragraph of the new work.  Listen to it.  Feel it.  See it.

The riders were dripping and miserable as old mud, the horses standing with their heads down, hipshot in a sea of tawny bracken and the clawed black roots of heather and furze, only the moss splashed a dazzle of green into the mirr.

Right, that’s it.  I’m his.  Wholly and unconditionally.  And I can no more walk away from this book or these visions of a Scotland, beautiful and rain-swept, riven by conflict–both personal and national–than I can walk away from an eclair au chocolat.  It is not going to happen.

(And if it didn’t make you swoon with the wonder and beauty and wet of it, well, you’re a heartless, soulless, poetryless, anti-literary  nincompetantpoop, and there is nothing I can do for you…)

But that was only the opening.  And that’s what gets me about this guy!  Because every page has at least one paragraph–usually two or three–where I have to stop and read it again, savour it in my mouth, hold it there, breathing through it, allowing its flavours to seep into my head like the finest old wine–I mean, honestly?  This is Chateau Lafite 1929 for the mind.

How about this for literary gorgeousness?

Steam from horses and riders blended with the fine gruel of churned up mud and snow in a sluggish mist that will filled with shouts and grunts and clashes of steel so that the men behind Bruce shifted their horses…Beyond the mud-frothed field loomed the great, dark snow-patched bulk of the castle, where ladies of the court watched from the comfort of a high tower, surrounded by charcoal braziers, swaddled in comforting furs and gloved, so that their applause would sound like the pat of mouse feet…

How beautiful is that in imagery?  In its cadences?  In invention?  In evoking the sounds?  The smells?  The atmosphere?

And so deliciously expressive in its use of language!  Fine gruel of churned up mud and snow in a sluggish mist…?  Mud-frothed field…?  How wondrous is that?

roberthebruceAnd yet, despite the marvel of his language, his artistry in depicting the people and the canvas that was mediaeval Scotland at its most ravaged and clan-torn, this is not lavender kid-glove historical fiction, to be peered at, refinedly, through one’s mother-of-pearl encrusted lorgnette.  For The Lion at Bay charts the period from 1304, between Robert Bruce’s tentative peace with Edward Longshanks–which temporarily halted the English ruination of Scotland–through the saddening decline of William Wallace’s band and his execution, Bruce’s hasty coronation and onto the death (whew!) of Longshanks himself.

It was a dark, terrible and savage time, and Low makes no excuses for depicting the reality of that period which forged the Scots nation and character.

Through a handful of fictional characters with whom one has bonded in quite a personal way in the previous novel, through them–Hal of Herdmanston, Dog-boy (my favourite!), Sim Craw, Kirkpatrick–Low enables the reader to see what they must have seen, to hear and to know, to experience their fears, their grim war-fatigue, their despairing longings for peace, their ruthlessness and vindictive  rage–against the English, against themselves, against their fellow Scots.

I will admit–at one point, I just had to stop reading for a bit.  The level of destruction wrought by the Scots upon each other as they sought to redress imagined and real slights to their honour and loyalties, was so relentless and hate-filled, that I, like Low’s characters, experienced a level of sinking battle-fatigue and loss.  That is fine story-telling!

Low’s depiction of the Bruce–surely the central character around whom all others revolved at this period of history–is masterful.  At once cunning and courageous, physically flawed, driven by doubt, by hubris, by rage, by honour, by glory.  Bruce is no Hollywood hero, but a fracturing and real individual, one whose longing for the crown and his determination to wear it has cost him (and his compatriots) more than he ever knew existed.   Truthfully, he takes my breath away.

As ever, Low’s attention to detail is a wonder–his knowledge of weaponry and warfare (and horses and people) an inspiration.  He is articulate and precise without ever being heavy-handed or pedantic.  Then too, I particularly appreciate his innate understanding of how vital religion and the religious controversies and politics of the day were to everyone.  He never ducks the issue for the sake of squirming by the political correctness brigade.

RobertLowTo the mediaeval Christian mind, especially to those who were bound by their vows as knights, there was no doubt in the truth or the sanctity of the Church’s teachings–doctrines which permeated the very landscape of the inner selves–their daily rituals, their thoughts, their speech defined in detail by the Church–even down to how they might or might not kill their enemy on the jousting field in God’s tourney.  And whilst, again, Low is not heavy-handed, he expertly fashion this world in which the Church was integral and powerful and the common expression of approbation, “Christ be praised!” was always followed by the response, “Forever and ever.”

But as ever, it is the glory of his language that rejoices the heart:  He heard distant laughter, a burst on the breeze, saw the red-flower flutter of flames and shrank away from it, crabbing towards the wall of the garth until the stones nudged his back…

Though Low writes of the barbarity and horror of civil war, of decency and devotion among the ashes and stones, the keening loss of the Scots for their lands and children, all of it, every last morsel of it is written with the pen of a lover and poet, transforming this most bitter of conflicts into a raw and savage beauty.

(Even if he does look like Father Christmas…in the event that Father Christmas wears beads in his beard.)


The Lion at Bay by Robert Low.  Harper Collins, London, 2012.  422 pps.  £14.99.

17 comments on “The Lion at Bay…

  1. Low’s novels sound wonderful indeed. He could not have a better ambassador for his work! You have me primed to buy, not only to enjoy but to study his use of language (and perhaps learn a trick or two).

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I confess it freely: I love him to bits. But his work–wow–it just always makes me want to work harder, think harder, dream harder…he’s stupendous, what can I say?

  2. What a lovely review – it has me salivating with need to buy this book NOW: But may I say that just as you praise Mr Low for his English, so I must praise your use of language. And yupp; I’m starting to believe that maybe you’re right, maybe Shakespeare had the foresight to pen his 57th sonnet thinking of you, a somewhat vague outline of a future lover of words.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Ha ha ha! Thank you for that. Thank you indeed.

      And salivation is the correct term–I sometimes think they should sell me a drool bib with Rob’s books…Ehem.

  3. What has happened to beautiful descriptive language? More of it I say! But M M, your wonderful use of language must rival it.

  4. prue batten says:

    I’m an utter devotee to the altar of language, M.M., and you have convinced me that above and beyond any other book on my TBR, this series may have to be next. You had me close-hauled and bound in hemp at the first paragraph. And glory be, the medieval period is my period, to read and to write, rather like ‘to have and to hold’. So thank you for this post and drawing the writer to my attention.

    I must say, I often wonder if descriptive language may have been sacrificed by many editors of mainstream houses in the progressive dumbing-down of literature. And in the case of some independent authors, just seen as a waste of time. Just a thought and a tragedy if it is true.

    By the way: I place DD in amongst writers who use superlative language.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I’ll be honest, Prue, there are times when I feel the shade of DD in Rob’s work–smiling over his descriptions. He doesn’t, as she didn’t, write pretty; they both write real. Glorious, vivid, eloquent real. And in this book in particular there were echoes of the Disorderly Knights and several battle scenes from the various Niccolo books as well.

      Another quality they share is of course both being Scots, they never write of Scotland as a Disneyland setting, but revel in its true nature–the piercing cold that punctures pretense, the often rain for which the Scots have nearly as many words as the Inuits have for snow, the glorious unyielding land. And again, both being Scots, they understand probably from birth, how the people feel about this land and how this drove them to defend it.

      Very much hope you enjoy Rob’s books! *wink*

  5. margaretskea says:

    Hi MM, well you’ve comfirmed it for me – last week on Goodreads folk were recommending Low and I went out to the library to order one of his if possible to see if I’d enjoy it. – clearly I would. Can’t wait for one to come now – can see a buying of whole series coming on…

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I read the first one after I met him at Kelmarsh where he was doing a talk with Simon Scarrow about how much the Vikings and Romans had contributed to Britain–which was both fascinating and hilarious. And within a page of the first book, I was hooked. And I have to say, I’m not very hookable–the critic in me is too well-developed and strong after all these years. But Rob’s language and his knowledge, much of it hands-on, just bowled me over. Enjoy!

  6. Medievalgirl says:

    This sounds interesting. I have read a little about Robert the Bruce (not much) and watched a documentary on him, and it appears he was not above killing to preserve his own power, and could have a ruthless streak.
    The destruction wrought upon the Comyns serves as an example- apparently their estates were decimated by Bruce’s men.

    Also, it seems be could be something of s schemer and double dealer- trying to keep out of trouble with Edward I (or worm his way back into favor with him) whilst attempting to undermine the other guy.

    Whilst I respect and admire Robert Bruce, I am inclined to dislike over-simplified depictions of him which are sugar coated or present him and the Scots as all sweetness and light.
    Part of the reason he was so successful I think was because he knew how to play the game, and was prepared to use underhand tactics to win.

    That this book represents some of what the Scots did to each other, instead of just what the English did to them (as there was something akin to a civil war raging in Scotland at this time) is good in my opinion. Seems more balanced then others, but I may be wrong.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      It’s very balanced, yes. Low makes no apologies for Bruce’s vindictive streak, but sees it for what it was. And, as I say, Rob doesn’t make him into a Hollywood freedom fighter. He also, along the way, makes some very keen obsservations about the Scots perhaps needing an overlord to keep them from killing each other in their perpetual feuds. Then too, he is very clear–just as the historian Amanda Vickery has been recently–about how violent and ruthless was the whole culture of knighthood. As I say, this isn’t lavender-kid-glove historical fiction, this is muddy ground level on the battlefield…

      • Medievalgirl says:

        It was indeed, and I do think we should try to see the past as it was as much as possible, instead of trying to make it line up with our own notions and ideas.

        I think it has even been suggested that Robert Bruce was like Edward I in some respects, such as his ruthlessness in dealing with those who might oppose his rule, or determination to assert his authority. Does that amount to heresy?

        Interesting though how historical figures may exhibit similar characteristics, and even perform similar actions yet one may be hated and despised for doing so, and the other viewed as a hero.

        I think I may have seen that book (or one like it) in a charity shop recently. Tempted now…..

      • M M Bennetts says:

        Well, what you’re now talking about is being an historian. And in the life of a historian, there should be whole strings of moments when one realises that one’s theory was nice, but the facts don’t support it, so it’s time to rethink and get back to the drawing board.

        There’s a fascinating discussion of just this issue in Dorothy L. Sayers novel, Gaudy Night, where Miss Devine–a historian–talks about having failed a doctoral candidate not because his thesis was wrong, but because he knew it was wrong and had gone ahead with it–the gist was that she had seen his name on a visitors’ log at some library and she knew therefore that he had seen a document which wholly disproved his theory and although he hadn’t destroyed the document–he wasn’t so immoral as that–but he had stolen it, so that no one could disprove his thesis and he’d get away with it. And that, she considered poor scholarship.

        Robert Low makes it quite clear that Bruce–as well as the other ‘candidates’–dragged the whole country to the brink of total ruination in their war for the crown…and he does imply the question, Was it worth it?

  7. Medievalgirl says:

    Well oddly enough I do want to be one of those, and I am a student of Medieval history. Yes, theories and thesis can indeed be wrong, and discussions seem to go on and on,- then someone provides a whole new angle on something, which may ignite even more debate.

    Then again, if historians didn’t theorise and argue, would they have anything to do?

  8. After reading your review, this book is going on my must-read list. I must say that your writing was beautiful as well, M M.

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