". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

King's Ransom - Sharon Kay Penman - Reading Wednesday

King's Ransom is the sequel to Lionheart, as well as the concluding volume in the chronological series of five historical novels by Sharon Kay Penman, a fictional narrative of the reigns of the first Plantagenets.

By chance Penman began the series with the Last Plantanget, Richard III.

This was followed by what Penman has named "The Welsh Series"  -- Here Be Dragons, Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning. Fictional characters (as opposed to the historical personages such as Henry III,  Llewelyn the Great, Llywelyn Fawr Simon de Montfort) from the Welsh trilogy, and their descendants appear in the Plantagent series. As time rolls on, these figures become an ever looser net of connections among all the novels, until in King's Ransom, the fictional Welsh characters are more name checks than characters of scope within the historical events described.





2014 USA; 2013 UK
This series of meticulously researched novels has been the author's principal writing occupation for twenty years. Penman says there will be no more Plantagenet books.  Perhaps, even as fair as Penman's always been to the youngest of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine's sons, as much as she has worked to understand John, she could not bear to give the disloyal provocateur of the Magna Carta -- who then, like Pharaoh, hardened his heart and attempted to go back on that contract -- his own book?

As the author herself put it, Lionheart, though entirely historically based, was a novel of the legendary Richard II, a fitting figure of courtly romances, heroic ballads and joi d'vivre.  King's Ransom is a novel that focuses on Richard the man, one who may have suffered from post traumatic distress syndrome.

The greater part of King's Ransom is directly focused upon Richard’s adventures and disasters in Europe, after leaving the Middle East. There is a long series of shipwrecks (three!) and other misadventures in his attempts to get back his own French lands after being denied safe passage from what is now Marseilles and the lands of Provence. This forces him into territories ruled by the cold and perhaps mad Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI.  The King escapes capture by hair-breadths several times, until finally he is captured.  Though readers know how this part of the story turns out -- though it isn't at all the story of romantic ballad and novels like Ivanhoe -- the tale is as filled with suspense and tension as an adventure novel read for the first time.

How he escapes being turned over by Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI, to his implacable enemy, Philip II of France, for prolonged torture, humiliation and inevitable death, is nail biting.  This is because Penman's deep research tells a very different story from the legend of faithful wondering minstrel.  The reader really doesn't know what will happen.  As it happens, very early, the reviled by high born English churchmen, the Bishop Ely, discovers Richard's whereabouts quickly and informs the intrepid Queen Eleanor.  Nevertheless, it takes nearly three years to get Richard back to Normandy, due to various twists, turns and factional interests that range from the Vatican, to the courts of Philip II, Henry VI and Richard's ever treasonous brother, John. In contrast to those interests, Penman does a splendid job showing just how much it was in the interest of so many -- also beginning with the Vatican -- to get Richard released.  What isn't fictional though, was the enormity of the ransom that needed to be raised -- and the consequences of such an outrageous sum for the empire Richard had inherited from Henry II.

What perhaps is fictional, but it is plausible, but cannot be proven one way or another, is Penman's sense that King Richard I's catastrophic fall from the pinnacle of the medieval world into which he was born, to being a prisoner stripped naked of every royal prerogative, had a permanent effect not only on his physical health but his core identity.

This long arc of Richard's ordeals that begin even before he attempted to sail back to Europe, makes this final volume a more intimate presentation of a medieval monarch than in any of the previous Plantagenet novels. As well,  the cast of characters around the royal protagonist are compelling, particularly, as per usual, Queen Eleanor, who even after her Lionheart dies, still has major work to do, and Richard's sister, the former queen of Sicily, Joan -- who experiences a romance worthy of one of the courtly ones composed back in the courts of her mother as well, in the court of her future husband, the Count of Toulouse.

Though Penman has long made convincing argument out of historical records that Richard was not gay, she still has not managed to solve the question of Richard's marriage to the unfortunate Berengaria of Navarre.  She investigates that the Lionheart's seeming disinterest in his Little Dove (his pet name for his Queen), which made the disaster of no heir of his own body is connected somehow to his experience of being imprisoned.  But again, there is no way to know this certainly.

With the end of Lionheart and Eleanor both, it appears Penman has come to the end of the Plantagents in whom she is so passionately interested that she spent years researching each volume in this series.

The author has left her readers with perhaps the most complete, comprehensible portrait of one of the most fascinating people to have lived, whose life adventures, like those of her son, inspired one courtly romance after another.  There never was a queen again, quite like Eleanor of Aquitaine.

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