Thursday, October 26, 2006

Old friends

Looking back now, I think it was at the leading edge of the SSHRC stress that I found myself without any new reading material. I had all my stuff that I needed to read for teaching, all the stuff that I was feverishly working through for the research proposal, but I suddenly found myself sans bedtime reading that was unrelated to both. Sometime immediately prior to when the grant-writing started to take over my life I read The Nine Planets by Edward Riche, a gift from my friend and colleague Danine and a brilliant little satire on the political/literary scene here in St. John's (and only my second genuine sampling of Newfoundland Lit -- I really have to get on that at some point) ... but after that I had no book waiting for me. And as the SSHRC ridiculousness grew, I became really quite frantic for some reading that would take me away from all that.

So I did what I frequently do, which is to grab some old standbys off the shelf and sit them on my night table -- because what I was really looking for was something to read in the half hour or so before I fall asleep.

My first grab was one of my favourite books by one of my favourite SF writers -- The Kraken Wakes, by John Wyndham. That's a name everyone will probably know from grade 9 English: The Chrysalids, anyone? But work past the instinctive high school anti-nostalgia there. Wyndham doesn't get nearly the credit he deserves, to a large extent (I do believe) because we all have to suffer through The Chrysalids in grade 9. But really, give the man a chance. The Chrysalids, when you get down to it, is a pretty decent book. The Day of the Triffids is even betters, and The Midwich Cuckoos is downright creepy. And for those arachniphobes, try out Web: a story about a group of people attempting to found a utopian society on a deserted South Sea island, only to discover that it is ruled by a species of spider that hunts in packs.

But to my mind, the best of the lot is The Kraken Wakes. This is the story of an alien invasion ... an alien species that comes from a planet with (we assume) a masively higher atmospheric pressure than ours. So they colonize the Deeps -- the deepest parts of our oceans, and then slowly assert their dominance over two-thirds of the Earth's surface. It took me years to find a used copy of this novel, because it was out of print. No longer -- when in TO over Thanksgiving, I wandered into The World's Biggest Bookstore, and found that it has be re-issued. Read it. A great dystopian yarn.

But, as with all JohnWyndham's novels, it is not that long, and I soon needed to find more bedtime reading. So I have been returning to one of my favourite crafters of historical fiction, Bernard Cornwell. You might know him as the creator of the "Sharpe" novels -- a series of stories set in the Penninsular War that follow the adventures of one Richard Sharpe, a British officer promoted from the ranks by none other than the Duke of Wellington himself.

Cornwell is a master of retelling military history in fictional form. Sharpe's tales take us from the Battle of Talevera to Waterloo and, while somewhat formulaic, are always entertaining and educational.

Alas, though I once owned most of this series, most of them have been loaned or given away. I did still possess two titles however, and they were distracting for a few days. Meanwhile, I have ordered the BBC film verions over, and have been watching those -- some pretty cool made-for-TV movies starring the incomparable Sean Bean as Sharpe (muskets, villainous French, silly hats -- what's not to like?).

My sole two Sharpe novels dispensed with, I stayed with Cornwell, whose ability to produce prolific historical novels of some quality makes me hate him. The Sharpe novels were just his first sally into fiction -- he has also written a four-book series set in the American Civil War, a novel about Stonehenge, a trilogy about an English longbowman during the Hundred Years War, a still ongoing series about the Viking raids on the British coast, and -- my favourites -- a trilogy of novels about King Arthur.

This is what I am now working (or re-working) through. Collected under the moniker "The Warlord Chronicles," the novels The Winter King, Enemy of God, and Excalibur re-imagine the Arthurian legends from a rigorously historical perspective. Granting the premise that there was a British leader named Arthur in the fifth century, Cornwell tries to imagine what he might have been like. The Romans have been gone from Britain for several decades: they leave behind their roads, villas, and forts, but the technology they used to build them is a mystery to the British; Christians infest the landscape, trying to shoulder out the British gods; the remnants of the Druidic orders, Merlin among them, fight to re-establish the old religion and reconnect with the old gods; and the Saxons increasingly encroach on British territory, invading from the east. Arthur is the last, best hope: not a king or even a knight, but a warlord whose dream of a peaceful, united Britain flies in the face of the invading Saxons, the internecine rivalries of the British tribes, and Merlin's own vision of a Britain given back to the old gods.

I remembered some time after delving again into The Winter King the pleasure of revisiting well-trodden books. Old friends.


Anonymous said...

Michael Winter is definitely a Newfoundland author you should pick up. Particularily, This All Happened. Also, have you seen the new Pengion editions for all the Wyndham books? They are so great. Day of the Triffids is my favourite Wyndham.

-anonymous reader

Invisible Shield said...

That's funny, I was just about to make the same recommendation. Must be a generational thing~