Being Epic on an epic Scale: Review of Cornwell’s 1356

1356 coverBernard Cornwell presents us with another magnificent tale here. “1356”, is part of Cornwell’s Grail Quest series of novels, and set during the 100-year war between England and France.

The author has won many fans with memorable series of books such as “Sharpe”, which was adapted for TV and starred actor Sean Bean in the title role, the “Warrior Chronicles” and the “Starbuck Chronicles”. All of them owe much to Cornwell’s meticulous research into the real geographical locations where his fictional action takes place and the historic events that inspired his narration.

This is “boys own” stuff though and readers expecting modern Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Zena the Warrior Princess type heroines will be bitterly disappointed. Writing for a male readership clearly obsessed with rape fantasies, Cornwell’s women are strictly victims never heroines. It’s sad that Cornwell should pander to this type of male readership. His constant reference to women getting raped all over the place is not so much down to the harsh medieval world he’s writing about but shows he wants to keep such male readers happy. Still, Cornwell is a brilliant writer and this blog post is about the way in which Cornwell uses location to conjure up a believable world. I leave you to judge him on the gender issue.

EPIC on an epic Scale

Battle of Crecy

Battle of Crecy

Nobody could accuse Cornwell of not knowing how to do “epic”. The reader knows she’s in for an epic adventure the moment she opens the book. This novel is divided into four parts plus a prologue and there are a few helpful maps. The prologue begins with a location: Carcassonne in southern France. From there Cornwell transfers the action to Avignon, then Montpellier, then Poitiers, before finally reaching the climax with an astonishing battle fought between the forces of King Jean of France and England’s Prince of Wales in 1356.

Cornwell’s locations have been carefully chosen to represent the build-up to the final battle in this most epic of wars – 100 years blood-soaked years of it! And this was just one of many “skirmishes” between English archers and French knights.

We are treated initially to brutal fights between fairly small forces, sometimes just a few people fighting each other, sometimes groups of soldiers battling it out in small confined surroundings. Each encounter is fiercer and bloodier than the previous one, and with each encounter the locations get bigger, ultimately leading to the Big Bang between England and France in the autumn of 1356, when some 16,000 men and horses collided on a vast field and hillside.

Crecy Village Sign, by Peter Lucas, own work

Crecy Village Sign, by Peter Lucas, own work

The story travels from the outskirts of Carcassonne across the south of the country to the north of France and the town of Poitiers. Along the way Cornwell’s sweeping narration takes in hamlets and hovels, forests, marshland, fields, crumbling towers and fairly new monasteries, noisy taverns, whorehouses, formidable abbeys and imposing castles. In short, Cornwell presents readers with the whole medieval world known to an English soldier fighting in France.

Carcassonne, France, photograph by Jondu11

Carcassonne, France, photograph by Jondu11

The final battle is described in all its horrors and Cornwell doesn’t flinch away from stating it as it is. This is not the heroic battlefield of fantasy novels. The author travelled to the real location to get a feel for the landscape and setting, describing it in beautiful detail as it must have been in 1356.

And that battle is the real blood, piss, shit, chopped off limbs, guts and gore stuff that happened. Six thousand English soldiers meet ten thousand Frenchmen in a clash so loud it makes your ears ring, your eyes water and your teeth shatter with the din of it.

Edward III counting the dead on the battlefield of Crecy by Virgil Master, illuminator

Edward III counting the dead on the battlefield of Crecy by Virgil Master, illuminator

You can practically feel the trampled vines crunching under your feet and you’ll find yourself flinching from horses’ hooves as they kick and scream in their final moments. The clanging of spiked morningstars flattening metal helmets, crushing skulls in the process, is deafening. You’ll be checking every so often if brain matter spattered across your shirt while you were busy turning pages.

Men hack, cut, bash, batter, shoot, bite, kick, punch and trample. They don’t stop until their opponent is utterly crushed, literally, and the landscape is awash with blood, urine, excrement, rotting corpses and the tears of the survivors.

Cornwell’s “1356” battle feels totally real. For any budding writer out there planning to write a fantasy novel with a big battle scene this is essential reading.

Nothing like A Year in Provence

Palais des Papes, Avignon, photograph by JM Rosier

Palais des Papes, Avignon, photograph by JM Rosier

None of the buildings or landscapes provide any comfort or solace in this novel. This is not the France we know from holiday brochures or from reading the delightful A Year in Provence, where pretty thatch-roof cottages or magnificent castles light up the landscape and the gaps are filled by cosy restaurants serving delicious food.

These villages and towns are littered with hostile abodes where humans and animals find few creature comforts, even when some buildings are relatively richly furnished. No matter how strong or thick the fortified walls, somebody will find a way to destroy them and kill everything and everyone within. Even a location within a location, for that’s what buildings are, can serve to drive home a point, in this case: war doesn’t stop at one’s threshold just because you’ve locked the door. You can’t pull the duvet over your head to block out the hounds of war.

Cornwell’s landscapes change from hot and bothered to mud-spattered and half-drowned. His protagonists face hidden dangers in forests, in rivers and on hilltops where man and horse can die of thirst gradually or be cut down by an arrow in a blink of an eye. Even at Thomas of Hookton’s own stronghold, the Castillon d’Arbizon, there is a traitor who passes on information to Thomas’ enemies.

Caerphilly Castle, Wales

Caerphilly Castle, Wales

Castles are draughty and dark, stink and more often than not act as prisons rather than refuge. The castles and fortresses remind us that swearing allegiance to the wrong overlord can become a prison of mind, body and soul, as both Roland and Robbie find out.

Church buildings are equally hostile, inhabited as they are by deranged monks, power-hungry cardinals, duplicitous abbots and sadistic priests. Cold and dark or filled with smoke from too many candles, these churches are either decorated with mysterious paintings that have lost their meaning over time or they are being painted by arrogant artists who create art for the glorification of their patrons, not for the glory of God.

These locations are not holy places but unholy representations of man. There is no salvation here, only damnation and horrible death.

The hilarious scene between Thomas of Hookton and the ancient Countess of Malbuisson in the Saint Dorcas convent is simply priceless and particularly amusing for an atheist like myself: it tells me everything there’s to know about the absurdity of religion and churchmen!

Legend versus Reality

heathersanimations.comThis medieval world is not the world of bards and chivalry, of Breughel-peasants frolicking in fields. This is the world of Hieronymus Bosch, hell on Earth, where chaos reigns supreme. No building, no city, village or town can provide safety. Young Roland, champion at so many French tournaments, soon learns that the battlefield is nothing like the chivalrous jousting places he’s used to. Cornwell beautifully compares locations of real battles and skirmishes between enemies with the glamour of courtly tournaments.

Cornwell takes us from certainty to uncertainty, from fact to fiction. Just as historians have been baffled ever since, why the French lost the battle in 1356, when they vastly outnumbered the English, nobody knows for certain, where this battle actually took place.

heathersanimations.comAfter a prologue and several exact locations in space and time, the narration enters the mists of legends. Legend has it, the battle took place some 8 miles distance from Poitiers, near the Abbey of Nouaillé, on the 19th September 1356, but nobody has been able to identify the actual Champ d’Alexandre, the flat hilltop that reputedly served as the battlefield.

Although Cornwell went to visit the alleged location of Champ d’Alexandre, he could only choose the spot that seemed most logical to him as the field for a great battle. The mystery surrounding the actual historical location just adds to the romance of the novel and our enjoyment of it.

Using Location to underline the Leitmotif

Right from the start Cornwell uses location to demonstrate the “them and us” situation. While the gentry and rich hide behind massive walls of Carcassonne’s enormous fortress, the burgers of the town are left defenceless. The township is pillaged and raped by the English.

The novel plunges the reader straight into the hell of warfare in the first few pages – there is no glory here, no glamour; it is vile, it is brutal, it is the stuff of nightmares. There is no sanctuary to be found for the ordinary man, woman or child anywhere, not even in church, where soldiers also rape, murder and plunder.

Rich and powerful people usually find a way to survive and this theme surfaces throughout the novel. While the King and cardinals hide behind enemy lines or enter the battle only with their body guards, the foot soldiers plunge into the melee and are hacked to pieces.

The rich, most notably kings, churchmen and princes, have a tendency to survive. They might occasionally get captured, but as long as their followers can raise the ransom, these captives will eventually go free.

Location, Location, Location takes us to the Happy End

Tournament at Bute Castle, Cardiff

Tournament at Bute Castle, Cardiff

In a novel where location has such importance, naturally location acts as the final reward.

The two anti-heroes of the book, English archer Thomas of Hookton and the Black Prince, are eventually rewarded, not so much with riches of a material kind, but with the ability to go home to England after many years of fighting in France. Neither man hides behind others or seeks shelter behind fortified walls. They are found at the heart of battle every time and therefore deserve to go home unharmed and dripping with (albeit unexpected) glory.

Here an author has used a profusion of locations to give his story the epic scope the historic event requires. But the choice of locations also serves to explain the complex characters of the two anti-heroes, Thomas of Hookton and Edward, Prince of Wales. Both men are portrayed as fully rounded as the hillside where the battle took place; they are as immovable and firm in pursuing their own code of honour as the fortified walls of Carcassonne’s gigantic castle.

medieval weaponry display at Cardiff, Wales

medieval weaponry display at Cardiff, Wales

When we see them in their final battle, the main characters of the book are no longer protected physically by anything other than a hedge and a few trees. Mentally, physically and emotionally they can no longer hide, neither from their enemies nor from readers’ scutiny. Exposed to the battle and to the critical eye of the reader, the personalities of the two anti-heroes are laid bare, just as the characters of their opponents, King Jean of France and an assortment of enemies both Thomas and Prince Edward have made along the way.

Presented with a large dollop of humour and an even larger helping of historical fact with regard to weapons, battle tactics, armour and deployment of archers, “1356” is a fantastic read for battle-hardened fantasy readers who have so far shied away from historic novels but would like to get a taste of a clash between real medieval forces.