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.”
For 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?
And 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.
To 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.