Thursday, December 29, 2011

On This Day In History – The Murder of Thomas Becket

On December 29 in the year 1170, a group of knights in the service of King Henry II of England murdered Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. According to legend, the murder was set in motion by an offhand comment by King Henry, who famously uttered, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” The knights, apparently, took this literally.

The murder shocked Western Europe, leading to Becket’s sainthood and a significant penance by Henry II, who had himself flogged for absolution and later walked three miles, barefoot, to submit himself at Becket’s tomb. And, as everyone who’s ever read Ken Follett’s most acclaimed work of historical fiction knows, this event inspired the final chapters of The Pillars of the Earth. Once again, that novel reminds us how significant events in history can give rise to wonderful works of fiction.

Have a Happy New Year everyone!

Sadly, St. Thomas of Canterbury did not make it to New Year's Eve in 1170.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Long Journeys Part III – Dark Descents

Holidays are tough on writers. Even when you think you’ll have time to write, something gets in the way. Agent Rachelle Gardner recently suggested that writers should plan out how much time they think they’ll have to write during the holidays – and then divide that in half. This year, I should’ve divided that number by ten. That’s how far behind I am, which is the reason for the current dearth of posts. 

For some, the end of the year can also be tough, especially when the year ends worse than planned. In the long journey of life there are always valleys, some more deep and dark than others. It’s how a person climbs out of those valleys that matters, which is another reason I find the story type called the “journey” or “quest” to be so appealing. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins not only had to make the long and dangerous physical journey to Mordor, but he also had to endure the grueling mental and emotional journey of bearing the One Ring. As anyone who’s read The Lord of the Rings knows, it’s the latter journey that was the hardest to survive.   

In Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, the gunslinger, Roland Deschain, has both a physical and a mental/emotional journey to overcome. One of my favorite episodes in that long journey is King’s second book in the series, The Drawing of the Three.

The novel starts where The Gunslinger ended, after Roland is reeling from his failures, lost in a guilt-ridden haze on the edge of the Western Sea. Then the unexpected occurs. Roland suffers a sudden attack by a creature from the sea, costing him the first two fingers of his right hand. This injury cripples his ability to fire a gun, which for a gunslinger is a very bad thing. Then infection sets in. Roland is going to die unless he can find away to recover from this terrible event, and that’s where The Drawing of the Three begins.  

Roland encounters three doorways along the beach, each of which is a portal from his world to ours. Through those doors he must draw three people who were revealed at the end of The Gunslinger as being crucial to his quest to find the Dark Tower. These three figures will also be the key to Roland’s own survival. But first, he must help them settle the score with their own demons. 

From here, King introduces us to three of his most memorable characters. The first is Eddie Dean, whose demon is an addiction to heroin, leading to some serious trouble with the mob. The second is Odetta Holmes, whose own demon – a violent and alternate personality named “Detta” – stems from a sudden and seemingly random childhood attack, which left her in a coma and damaged her mind. The third is Jack Mort, a sociopath whose evil deeds have touched more than one of the other characters’ lives. Roland’s journey continues through each of these doorways and his harrowing encounters with each of these characters. And by the end, Roland must fight for something more important than his mere survival – his redemption. 

Loss, failure and redemption are often elements of a good journey tale, and in my opinion The Drawing of the Three serves as a perfect example.

Stephen King has a new Dark Tower novel coming out in April 2012!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Lion of Ireland

I’m still immersed in my research on Vikings, which leads me to another of my favorite Viking-related novels, Lion of Ireland by Morgan Llywelyn.  

Lion of Ireland tells the story of Brian Boru, perhaps the greatest Irish king who ever lived. He ruled at the end of the Tenth Century, during a time when Norse and Danish Vikings controlled large portions of Ireland, including the Viking towns of Limerick and Dublin. Rich with natural resources and monasteries laden with silver, Ireland had lured the Vikings for two centuries, but their reign ended in large part because of Brian Boru.

The story begins when an eight-year-old Brian, the youngest son of the King of Dal Cais, discovers his homestead burning and his mother and two of his brothers slain by Vikings. Here’s a brief passage from the scene leading up to the massacre of Brian’s family: 

The Norse riverboats glided down the breast of the Shannon and nosed toward the grassy verge where the geese had fed. In the lead boat, Eyrik Gunnarsson stood tall in the prow of the River Serpent, beating his hand against his thigh in time to the cadence of the oars. Death rode with him on the night wind, and he felt pride in carrying it.
Brian’s hatred of the Vikings fuels his ambition. As a grown man, he leads skirmishes against the Limerick Vikings, luring many to their death, and in time becomes the King of Munster and ultimately High King (Ard Ri) of all of Ireland.  

Llywelyn’s Boru is a hero much like Braveheart’s William Wallace, faced with as many enemies among the kings of Ireland as he has among the Danes and Norse. The novel is filled with treachery, intrigue, and conflict, perhaps none more interesting than Brian’s volatile relationship with the sensual and cunning Irish queen Gormlaith. Her beauty transfixes Brian, and “looking into her face, he sees Ireland itself.”  

In Gormlaith, however, Brian finds more than he bargained for. By the time they wed, she was already famous, having previously married two of Brian’s rivals: Olaf Cuaran, the Viking King of Dublin who left her a widow, and Malachi Mor, the High King of Ireland before Boru claimed the throne. Gormlaith also was the mother of Sitric Silkbeard, who succeeded Olaf as ruler of Dublin, and her fiery relationship with Brian ends up threatening the kingdom he has fought so hard to unite. For her son wants Brian dead, and to kill him Sitirc gathers a Viking army for a battle that will decide the fate of Ireland.   

If you are interested in one of the most fascinating figures in Irish history, or just want another good book about the Viking Age, I highly recommend Lion of Ireland.

Clontarf, 23 April 1014, the battle that would decide the fate of Ireland.
As an aside, I consider this novel in the historical fiction genre, but in a few places it approaches the fine line between historical fiction and historical fantasy. The novel is riddled with talk of the Tuatha de Danann, Cu Chulainn and Finn mac Cool, as well as tales from Norse myths, characterizing the tension between Christianity and the old pagan ways. But there is one scene where Brian has a passionate and seemingly magical encounter with a woman who may or may not be the goddess of Ireland. The scene is clearly symbolic, but whether it was just Brian’s dream – or something quite real – is left for the reader to decide.