Friday, January 10, 2020

"Agincourt," by Bernard Cornwell--Fiction Review

Today we’re talking about "Agincourt," a historical fiction by Bernard Cornwell, where people kill each other for no better reason than their collective belief that they think God wants them to do so. Thankfully, that shit doesn’t happen anymore today. It was an actual battle you can learn about in English history. In fact, it’s the big battle Henry the Fifth is often remembered for by not just the bard himself, but by anyone who calls themselves an Anglophile—which is a creepy word. I think because it has “phile” in it, and pedophile has really ruined that suffix for everything else.

Bernard Cornwell

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

Bernard Cornwell’s attention to historical accuracy and detail is done with a historian’s acumen—that’s my first and biggest love for this novel, or at least the intellectual in me makes that claim. Like in a lot of historical fiction, there are a couple places where the author warps events slightly to fit his narrative, but this is done so minimally, and at the end of the novel, the author outs himself where his alterations occurred in the story in an appendix. To give you an idea of the kind of changes he made: there is a siege in the novel’s middle. It takes up a considerable portion of the book, this event really did happen, and the results of the siege happened in the same way as in the novel. What the author changed were little details about the siege tunnels the attackers used for story reasons. It’s not like the siege itself was invented.

Also, I really appreciate Cornwell’s character work regarding the hero of the story and the major and minor characters that surround him. Cornwell understands that readers primarily want to get to know, relate to, and understand the protagonist and the people in his life. The plot, while important, isn’t worth anything if we don’t care about the people who live through that plot. Finally, and the real visceral reason I love this novel, Sir John Cornwall, no relation to the author, a major character in the story, a real person who fought at Agincourt, steals every scene he’s in from every other character. Every line of dialogue, every action he takes, if not over-the-top violence, suggests over-the-top violence—all that mixed with a heart of gold. An internal contrast of characteristics that jarring makes him by far the most fun character. The best way I can describe him is he’s exactly like a human grizzly bear. From a distance, cute, maybe even heartwarming. Up close, he’ll tear your limbs off and probably enjoy doing so immensely.

What I don’t love about this book:

For a novel about the battle of Agincourt, Agincourt is the seminal event of the story but only takes place at nearly the end. It’s a small quibble, but still, the book is titled Agincourt, and that battle is the last third of the end product. Another thing that happens a lot is that the plot relies heavily on coincidence—I’m forgiving of this point because, in the end, all events are really coincidences if you think about them too deeply.

Also, as much as I love the protagonists and heroes of this novel, most of the story’s antagonists are of the mustache twirler kind of villain. They aren’t evil for a specific reason or are even particularly misguided in thinking they’re in the right, somehow. A lot of them are just evil for the sake of being evil. I’m not saying there aren’t people like that, sadly there are, but this is a trait I can’t usually find engaging—sometimes I can when it comes to non-human characters or entities, but since this is historical fiction, there are none of those on hand.

Sure there is a paper-thin reason given for hostilities between the main character and his adversaries. They’re engaged in a long-standing family feud—but it isn’t like the evil murdering rapist priest is possessed—although he could be mad, it isn’t really clear. Mainly, he’s just a colossal dick, whose only function in the story is that, and the cathartic moment of…

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

…his end, which is where he gets shot to death in the dick. This isn’t exactly the start of the synopsis, but I really wanted that jump, and hey—it’s my blog, dear, apathetic internet strangers.

The story begins with Nicholas Hook, our hero, engaging in the decidedly unheroic crime of attempted murder, and on Christmas none the less—well close to Christmas at least. He’s trying to kill his chief rival, Thomas. Why is Nick trying to kill Tom? Tom is a dick, comes from a family of dicks with a proud tradition of dickery. The murdering rapist priest mentioned above is Tom’s father, which is supposed to be a secret, but it’s one of those, poorly kept, everyone knows, sort of secrets.

Hook escapes real punishment, other than a few lashes, probably because he is likely the bastard son of the local lord. Regardless, Hook is sent with the other archers to London, where some heretics are being rounded up and executed. They are heretics because they believe in a different flavor of Christianity at a particularly bad time to do so in London—thus the executing. Hook pities one of the condemned, an archer like him, and tries to save the man’s granddaughter.  Hook’s rescue goes sideways immediately because murderous rapist priest is about and does what murderous rapist priests do—rape and murder, with a blasphemous bent. Hook then decks the priest, and that goes over so well he ultimately has to flee for his life and become a mercenary in the war against France.

Hook ends up in an English occupied town of Soissons, as a hired archer, and if you know about the history leading up to the battle of Agincourt, you know that France takes back that town, brutally. The truly shocking thing, though, is Soissons is a French village, in France, and after the French soldiers got done torturing the English archers to death, they then pillaged, raped, and murdered the townsfolk who were French and were just there. They weren’t really helping the English or anything, they were an unwillingly occupied territory by a foreign force.

Anyway, Hook manages to survive and even rescues a French woman who was about to suffer the same fate as the prior woman Hook tried to save. The two of them escape Soissons together and make their way back to England, or more precisely English territory that was actually occupied France.

After a series of unlikely events, Hook ends up being discovered by King Henry himself, who then passes him off to serve Sir John Cornwall. From there, he is trained by Sir John, in what has to be one of the greatest, the hero is taught by a master, sequences ever. Imagine if Mr. Miyagi was a barely contained rageaholic who swore all the time, and you’ll get the picture.

When the army finally moves out to invade France, again, Hook goes in the employ of Sir John, with his other archer friends, Sir John’s personal priest who is not a rapist and is actually a pretty chill guy, and the woman Hook rescued from Soissons—they had fallen in love by this time of course. The very first town the English encounter is Harfleur, a coastal village in France, and a key port. Henry wastes no time in laying siege to it, and that was a disaster.

England ultimately prevails, but it took a long time to take Harfleur, and Henry’s army is substantially depleted. However, Henry can’t just take his army and go home. If he did, then he would look stupid for launching an entire campaign with technically only one engagement for a single port town in France—well more stupid at least.

So Henry, King of England, takes the alternative genius tactic of charging his diminished force deeper into France, in what he hopes will be a sort of medieval victory lap. Thus showing the French that he as the proper king of not just England, but of France as well, in his mind at least, could go anywhere in his country—and then fuck off back to England. This goes so well that Henry and his starving army gets cornered by a massive French force, that if I'm generous to Henry, outnumbers the English three to one, plus the French aren’t starving—and it’s raining.

Hook and friends, along with their King, even though they have faith that God is with them, realize it doesn’t look great for them. The French are overjoyed, a lot of them get drunk, for they knew God was on their side, and they were about to stomp the English the following morning. So it came as a complete shock to literally everyone involved when the following day, the English army kicks the ever-living shit out of the French. This happens partly because the English ran out of supplies days ago—so forced into sobriety—they weren’t drunk or hungover the next morning, unlike the French, and also unlike the French, the English had longbows and the archers to use them.     


The fictional characters, and plotting, in any historical fiction, are always by their nature, a vehicle to tell a compelling story about a specific exciting time in history—without just writing a history book. So they’re always kind of second banana to the history, and their stories are often tried and true, to put it nicely.

Agincourt, as a novel, isn’t any different. Often, I find that the characters who were real people are more compelling than the fictional creations. Sir John Cornwall and King Henry are both painted with complex motivations and goals, and neither man can wholly be described as good or evil. I also get the sense that these historical figures wouldn’t quite understand our modern sensibilities of what is good or evil, which is an excellent history. Attitudes, even those of whole societies, change with time, and if current values were pressganged onto these characters, it would have felt unduly artificial. 

The fictional characters of the story universally fail to reach the depth of the real people, and this was probably inevitable—although I’d argue the fictional protagonists were done a bit better than the fictional antagonists.

The only possible exception is maybe Nick Hook himself, and this is a neat detail, he was technically a real archer at the battle of Agincourt—the author used the names of the archers from the records of Henry’s army to name his fictional archers. The rest of their stories Cornwell, of course, made up.

Hook as a main character comes from humble beginnings, a classic storytelling trope, if not a cliché, but his development from adolescent to man is complex and interesting. Hook’s call to high adventure isn’t something he always dreamed of or even considered, it isn’t until he becomes an outlaw because of following his conscience that his life begins. This is intriguing to me because before he hits the priest—who is a rapist and a murderer—Hook hadn’t shown any qualities that could be described as heroic. Quite the opposite, at the beginning of the novel, remember he’s trying to murder a guy because their families are feuding primarily because of superstitious bullshit. When Hook’s moment comes, sure he fails to save the young woman and ultimately gets banished for it, but what I find most interesting about him is he never really feels sorry for himself after having to leave everything to become an outlaw mercenary. The thing he is constantly sorry for is that he failed.

Parting thoughts:

One of the details I really like in this novel is how much research went into the description of the English yew longbow, and the archers who used them. The longbow was, at the time, like the machine guns of their age, technically the right kind of crossbow, even in the fifteenth century could outdistance them, but longbows could be fired by trained archers far more rapidly. In addition to that, the archers themselves were fascinating manmade freaks. Training for an archer had to start when they were just boys, to build not only the skill to use the bow but the titanic strength to draw them. There is even archaeological evidence that shows that these men didn’t just have big muscles because of their profession, but their very skeletons were warped from the strain. I put this in parting thoughts because it isn’t really analysis, I just think it’s interesting, and I’m an insufferable nerd.

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