1356 by Bernard Cornwell
My rating : 4 of 5 stars
Set after the English victory at Crécy, during the Hundred Years’ War and leading up to what by all accounts, this one included, was the apocalyptic battle of Poitiers in the year 1356 of the title. We’re in deepest darkest France and there’s something about a mythical lost sword – ‘la Malice’ – being found and transported somewhere by someone. It’s the sword supposedly used by St Peter – and maybe even touched by You Know Who – in the Garden of Gethsemane, when the Romans came to make an arrest. Of course, the side who has control of the sword, will have God on their side, even more than the other side say they have. God, while being on both sides’ side, is urging them to do to the other side, what His son – He Himself, if you subscribe to the three-in-one principle – spent His whole life and Ministry preaching against. Most of the story follows one Thomas of Hookton, an English archer and leader of a band of warriors, who seems to have a reputation amongst the French, as he is known as Le Batard. Clearly, the ’s’ hadn’t been invented at that point. He is after the sword as well. Though his purpose for finding it is subtly different from the others’. We finally meet ’The Black Prince’ (though, as Cornwell points out, he wasn’t known as ‘The Black Prince’ at the time, nor for a long time afterwards), who is engaged in rampaging through large parts of ‘France,’ trying to get the King of France to come to battle. If the King doesn’t, then the English continue their trail of devastation and destruction and stack up the treasures they find on the way. Win win. However, by the climax, the English do seem to have bitten off more than they can chew and become holed up near Poitiers and the French decide now would be the time to catch an English army, tired and weakened by hunger, at a disadvantage. Especially, as the French now possess the mythical sword and the accompanying support of the chap ‘upstairs.’ But, as anyone knows, so it’s not giving the game away any, the English…Well, despite having read a little of the history of the time at school, I can safely say that Cornwell’s writing here is such that the result is on several knife-edges (sword edges?) throughout. He really is a master of the tense battle scene, the pivotal moment.
It can be tricky keeping track of who is who and who is/isn’t on who’s side. What with some French being on the French side, a fair few ‘English’ being as French as the French – and the Scottish…being the enemies of just about everyone, here mostly the English. Though, that’s not unusual. We do need to be reminded of course, that at this time, the majority – if not all – of the English royalty and aristocracy, spoke (what is now) French. They came form (what is now) France and more often than not, preferred to live there. Large parts of (what is now) France were, it seems, under English control, thanks, most likely, to the legacy of the Norman Conquest. The English characters all seem very down-to-earth, practical and likeable. The Black Prince, is actually quite likeable and Cornwell seems at a loss to know why history remembers him as TBP. The French, are what we English imagine the French to have been/are like – airy, gloomy, on a mission from God and generally running scared. The Scots, of course, are beard-tearingly madder than bulldogs licking piss off a nettle. No change there. I can’t believe Cornwell would go to such stereotypical lengths, so it may just be me. Though, in the Afterward, I think I can see what he’s trying to do with the two sides, in reflecting in their characters, giving the ground reasons for why the outcome was what it was. Very good.
BC does also want us to learn something about life and warfare in the C14th. The book and the general non-battle conversation, is peppered with facts and explanations about the period. You can usually see – and this applies to all books, when ‘a fact’ is coming up, when you read a character saying something and the person being spoken to says (something like) “Wait! What do you mean? Tell me more…” and hereafter follows the lesson. Cornwell actually, manages to disguise it better than most. So it becomes an enjoyment rather than a chore, as Harry Sidebottom makes it. You do wish though, that just once, a historical fiction book set (say) between 800 and 1700 wouldn’t have people rambling on about The Church on every bleeding page. It really is the way to make a dull book. The all-encompassing fatalism, that has become more than a little tiresome in some of the later ‘Warrior Chronicles,’ that no one actually controls their own destiny, can’t take a shit without judging if it is God’s Will before or after, or has any meaningful say over their own lives, is again here in abundance. Difference is, in ‘The Warrior Chronicles’ (at least for BC’s ancestor) it was that no one could know, influence change or even know, what the Norns had spun (him being a Viking and all). Without letting you know until afterwards, of course. Here it is just God. He’s still not letting you know in advance of course, but at least now He has People, many people, to speak for Him. It is clear that this is one of the themes Cornwell wants to get over, the religious mess. The Church being the self-appointed interpreters of His Will on Earth, have clearly gone such a long way from the original Message, that they can’t get back. What they have decided is the Will Of God, is the opposite of that they were supposed to be teaching. Pertinent. Set in France, and all…
It’s a good tale that rattles along at a fair old pace and mostly seems to fulfil what he set out to do with it. It has a sense of purpose that the last of his I read The Fort lacked. He still likes his, what I call ‘arms-length’ descriptions, matter of fact, blunt style of description especially in the battles, but here it works well and much better than the last Warrior Chronicles one I read. 1356 knows where it’s going, what it has to do to get there and goes to it with alacrity. There’s plenty going on, plenty of action and battle action, with last minute rescues, tense stand-offs and “Ha! Take that!” a-plenty. It’s a very visual and visceral book (in the battle scenes), but with nuances, information and messages as well. Plenty to get your teeth and brain into.