We have seen a large number of historical novels written and published in recent years. What makes these books different is the fact that they are set in the Middle Ages. These novels range from mysteries and fantasies to adventures and romances.
The Dream of Scipio by Iain Pears
The book tells three tragic stories. Each happens in Avignon, however in different periods of crisis. The three eras are the Roman Empire’s conquest of Gaul, the Black Death and its impact on the Roman Church, and the German Occupation of France during WWII.
All the storytellers know about their predecessor(s), and wish to understand their situations, the better to deal with their own time and serve the women they adore. Arguably, only one of them succeeds in achieving greatness as a man, and this imparts a universal moral message to the book.
“For the first time, she did want more. She did not know what she wanted, knew that it was dangerous and that she should rest content with what she had, but she knew an emptiness deep inside her, which began to ache.”
Pears successfully explores what is love, the wonderful way love make us act contrary to our own best interests, and what does reliability mean, and many other topics through the lives and decisions of three men broadly isolated in time, joined by reading a manuscript, “The Dream of Scipio”, created by one, and read by the other two.
Manlius Hippomanes, the writer, is a Roman aristocrat and virtuous admirer of an Alexandrine philosopher called Sophia; the manuscript is the last love-offering to the goddess he worships, written after a false conversion to Christianity, which he accepts to save his adored Provence.
“Was not Hypatia the greatest philosopher of Alexandria and a true martyr to the old values of learning? She was torn to pieces by a mob of incensed Christians, not because she was a woman, but because her learning was so profound, her skills at dialectic so extensive, that she reduced all who queried her to embarrassed silence. They could not argue with her, so they murdered her.”
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
In one of the more interesting stories about how an author was first attracted to his calling, Umberto Eco was an Italian history teacher and expert on the Medieval period for quite a long time before moving into exploratory writing; as indicated by legend, it was his exciting and demanding retelling of genuine stories from the Dark Ages that motivated people close to him to continue asking him to compose a novel, which he at last did, in the 1970s.
“Then why do you want to know?“
“Because learning does not consist only of knowing what we must or can do, but also of knowing what we could do and perhaps should not do.”
All things considered, The Name of the Rose is an unusual amalgam you hardly ever find in contemporary writing – a murder mystery with a great deal of exaggerated components at its center, yet in the meantime a point-by-point exposition which creates a genuine image of 1300s Europe. Among the important reasons to read this book are the fastidious details of Eco’s descriptions of the Medieval period’s dresses and the design of its religious structures.
“Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means…”
Eco wrote a novel that could be categorized as chronicled fiction, mystery, religious philosophy and theory, metafiction, and numerous others. There’s even a touch of adoration and sex tossed in and of different sexual orientations. The two fundamental plots, the murder and the religious arguments, are woven together easily, reinforcing each other as the tension rises and the plot thickens.
“Fear prophets, Adso, and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them, at times instead of them.”
Company of Liars by Karen Maitland
It is 1348. The Black Plague holds much of Europe in its grip. In a world administered by fear and faith, nine outsiders, united entirely by chance, endeavor to escape the unavoidable death that is advancing toward them.
Every individual from this diverse group has a story to tell. From Camelot, the relic-merchant who will end up being the leader, to Cygnus, storyteller . . . from the interesting, quiet kid called Narigorm to a painter and his pregnant spouse, each bears a mystery. Nothing is as it seems to be. One among the company is hiding the darkest mystery of all – moving these liars to what they don’t see coming.
The Plague, in a couple of ways, is enormous, but nonetheless a minor character. Seemingly like Canterbury Tales, this is the account of a diverse gathering of explorers brought together in a desperate endeavor to get away from the ravages of disease.
“You’ve heard tales of beauty and the beast. How a fair maid falls in love with a monster and sees the beauty of his soul beneath the hideous visage. But you’ve never heard the tale of the handsome man falling for the monstrous woman and finding joy in her love, because it doesn’t happen, not even in a story-teller’s tale.”
Something I loved best about Company of Liars is its absence of craziness. The explorers are naturally anxious of the Plague, and of the numerous threats of their continued existence, and many repulsive things occur en route, yet the narrating is straightforward and lacking in drama.
Even if you, as a reader, first shy away from first person narration, it ends up being appropriate, and more convincing than the third person would be.
The book is highly recommended due to its originality and candor.
“Home is the place you return to when you have finally lost your soul. Home is the place where life is born, not as the place of your birth, but the place where you seek rebirth. When you no longer have to remember which tale of your own past is true and which is an invention, when you know that you are an invention, then is the time to seek out your home. Perhaps only when you have come to understand that can you finally reach home.”
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