One of the joys of being English, is whichever foreign country you may be visiting, the urge to apologise on behalf of the actions of your nation is strong. Throughout history we have oppressed, enslaved, conquered, pillaged, waged holy crusades and generally stuck our noses into all manner of societies. Even to this day it provides a rich source of material for various TV programmes. The History Channel currently has a lighted-hearted series hosted by the comedian Al Murray entitled, ‘ Why Does Everyone Hate The English?’.A brief look at the history books should enlighten anyone.
I raided my own somewhat spotty knowledge of history when presented with this month’s book for review, its The Black Prince, by Adam Roberts, published by Unbound (www.unbound.com ) on the 4th October and being featured here as part of the Random Things Black Prince blog tour.
Adapted from a screenplay by Anthony Burgess a British comedic author, whose best known work is A Clockwork Orange. Adam Robert’s novel is set during the reign of Edward the Third and part of the Hundred Years War. This isn’t a period I’m familiar with, my school learned history apparently having moved from the Norman conquest directly to Henry the Eighth, so I was interested to learn what I could about the Black Prince and the war for France.
Beginning at Cressy, the book takes the story forward using a large cast of characters. The titular Black Prince, a foot soldier called Black George, priests, clerics, villagers, miners and gentlewomen. Interspersed among the prose are news bulletin style story breaks, poetry and sections described as,’ camera eye’, which I initially took to be part of some kind of news footage but now think is more of a psychic scrying type of phenomenon. Its hard to know where screenplay and novel unite or differ. There are some modern images such as the Pathe cockerel from 20th Century newsreels, which the author refers to. Its all very Guy Ritchie.
Poetry aside, and I know ballads were a form of oral news-feed in medieval times, but I have no time for poetry in novels, and a slight excess of religion which is also to not to my taste; the style changes made it, in my opinion, more appetizing to modern tastes and less of a dry historical account. Intermittently following the fortunes of characters from differing walks of life gave the story depth, thus you get a glimpse at the events from lots of angles. There were perhaps too many different stories as sometimes the narrative felt in-cohesive and meandering? History very rarely records the stories of the foot soldiers and bit players of life and so it was good to see their short, often brutal, existences detailed.
As for its Brutality, this is not a book for the fainthearted or squeamish. When we talk these days of being chivalrous we think of good manners and kindness. In medieval times it referred to a system of behavior knights and highborn ladies should adhere to. There was much talk of chivalry in the book but one could be horrified by the wanton cruelty and disregard for life. No mercy is shown, nor quarter given. To me the characters seemed the opposite of chivalrous. One of the lords says,” A fine word chivalry. It means appropriate to the chevalier. And what is a chevalier? A man on a horse.” Whilst we may have been deluded by accounts of King Arthur and his knights, written as romanticized tales long after the events, I think the level of barbarity and graphic violence may shock some readers.
This the 16th book by English author, academic and critic Adam Roberts (www.adamroberts.com), his others a mix of science fiction, collected short stories, non-fiction, parody and academic works, include the prize winning Glass House (2012). While his most recent novel was The Real Town Murders (2017). He is the professor of 19th Century literature at Royal Holloway, University College London and currently lives in the South East of England.
The Black Prince of the title, Edward of Woodstock is the is the son of Edward the Third and therefore the Prince of Wales. He never becomes king as he died before his father. He won his spurs in his first battle at the age of 16. Pursuing an English claim to reign over France his army marched across France waging war and laying siege to towns. Known as the Black Prince, his name is linked historically to cruelty. Most notably in his sack of the town of Limoges, where it is said he had the entire population of the city was killed, more than three thousand people. However, recently a letter written by the Prince was discovered in a Spanish archive. It was written three days after the sack of Limoges and details the prisoners taken and reduces the estimated death toll to nearer three hundred. So maybe Edward of Woodstock has undeservedly been cast as an evil figure in history. Whatever the truth is this novel makes you realise that if war didn’t claim you, plague or poverty may still.
This book will be a good read for those who like their historical fiction raw in tooth and claw or grew up on the children’s books “Horrible Hostories”, personally I don’t see it being a recommended text for schools however!
Reviewed By Georgina Murphy
To see what the other reviewers thought of the book, find their websites on the poster below and go and visit them.