_The Whites and the Blues_ is an interesting chimera of a book: it is a sequel that’s really a prequel (written after The Companions of Jehu, but rela_The Whites and the Blues_ is an interesting chimera of a book: it is a sequel that’s really a prequel (written after The Companions of Jehu, but relating events that occur before it); it is a composite of at least three main storylines (or four if you count the distinction that Dumas makes between the political turmoils of the 13th Vendémiaire and 18th Fructidor ) that are, if not quite distinct, definitely separated by time, place, and often the main characters involved; and is, as Dumas himself states, a work that is “…the most strictly historical of any that I have undertaken…a book in which romance is relegated to the second place.” Still, it was a book I enjoyed, though it is definitely not one to be counted amongst the top tier of his work.
We begin in Strasbourg at the height of the terror, when the Revolutionary tribunals could, and did, use the guillotine in the most heavy-handed manner possible, executing people not only for being royalists, but even for the slightest infringements of ‘correct’ revolutionary thought, or being a member of the wrong revolutionary party (a circumstance that could change from day to day). We meet young Charles (an interesting instance of Dumas using one of his friends, Charles Nodier, as a character in his story based on the latter’s reminiscences) as he arrives in the city at the behest of his father to study Greek with the famous scholar Euloge Schneider. Little does Charles know that Schneider is one of the most infamous of the local revolutionary leaders, known for his bloodthirsty and indiscriminate use of ‘Lady Guillotine’. Soon enough Charles finds himself embroiled in local politics partly through his befriending of young Eugene de Beauharnais, a young man trying to free his aristocrat father from the clutches of the revolutionary tribunal, and who is also destined to make a very famous step-father in the future.
This early part of the tale follows Charles as he moves first from under the shadow of Euloge Schneider to become the secretary of the famous General Jean-Charles Pichegru at his time of ascendancy and we see already the myriad maneuvers and machinations of plots, counter-plots, reprisals, and conspiracies that made up the daily life of revolutionary France. It is astounding to see the successes that the revolutionary army had at this time when one considers the instability of their government(s) and the back-stabbing nature of the many parties that vied for control of the revolution for their own ends. Of course when the price of failure, even the most understandable by the greatest general, resulted in the loss of one’s head it is easy to see how motivated they were to succeed. This is also the section in which we meet a noble young aristocrat, the current Count of Sainte-Hermine, who has been captured by Revolutionary forces and is being led to his execution. Though only a ‘bit’ character he is important as he is the brother of Morgan, whom readers of The Companions of Jehu will recall as one of the main protagonists, and whose fate is fuel for the fire that motivates all of the Sainte-Hermine scions.
With nary a backward glance Dumas drops the character of Charles once this section is complete and the narrative moves to Paris where he recounts the various political turmoils of the 13th Vendémiaire and 18th Fructidor that coincide with the burgeoning rise of a young artillery officer named Buonaparte, or Bonaparte, to the highest ranks of military prestige. Here we meet the dashing counter-revolutionary Coster de Saint-Victor (something of a lost opportunity by Dumas as not much is made of him), as well as witness the rise of the fictional Morgan de Sainte-Hermine in the ranks of the Royalists and the historical Paul Barras in the ranks of the Revolutionaries. A romantic sub-plot between Coster and a famous courtesan, Aurelie de Saint-Amour (who is also entangled with the aforementioned Barras), sadly goes nowhere and we begin to see that Dumas’ competing desire to tell a ‘true history’ as well as a romance means that one side of the equation will have to suffer. From this point forward Dumas more or less consistently wears his ‘historian’ hat and allows the ‘romantic’ one to be relegated to a minor role.
The final section, ‘The Eighth Crusade’, tells of Napoleon’s conquests, and ultimate defeat, in Egypt (a defeat whose circumstances would eerily mirror the crippling one he would later suffer in Russia). Another character from The Companions of Jehu, Roland the dashing and death-seeking lieutenant of Napoleon (and Morgan's opposite number), gets to play a relatively large role here though he is still very much a minor character (and largely the one through whom any remaining romance elements of the plot are conveyed). Eugene de Beauharnais (now Bonaparte’s step-son since introducing him to his mother, the famous Josephine, in an earlier section) is one of the few characters from the first part of the story that re-appears, though always only in casual mentions and never as the prominent character I thought he might become. This final section was, to me, the slowest going and the one where Dumas most explicitly seems intent on writing something akin to a ‘pure’ history. There are still scattered elements of romance to be found, though they seem to largely be colouring for the primarily historical text. No main ‘hero’ arises from the narrative, aside from Napoleon himself, who in some ways still remains on the periphery of it, perhaps being a character too large (in Dumas’ mind) to be treated merely as a character in his story. Thus we mostly see him from the outside, a colossus whose decisions will shape the world (as they do the narrative), but into whose mind we never fully enter and who looms more as an external presence than a true protagonist.
All of this perhaps does not make it seem as though _The Whites and the Blues_ is a very well-constructed narrative, but I did quite enjoy it (perhaps largely due to my fascination with the period and curiosity to see how Dumas would handle the character of Napoleon) and would recommend it to anyone interested in the era, or devoted to Dumas’ works (it is certainly not the weakest of his books I have come across even if it is not his strongest). The colour and detail with which Dumas paints his history alone makes it a fun read. Indeed, the picture of Paris in the middle sections of the narrative, which showed France teetering between fully embracing the Revolution and returning to the arms of the Bourbon dynasty, presented a fascinating picture. I especially found the bizarre and almost hipster-like figures of the royalist ‘Incroyables’ (who nearly amounted to dandyish royalist street gangs), and their female counterparts the decadent and diva-like ‘Merveilleuses’ particularly intriguing. Still, I think this book does show that Dumas-the-romancer is ultimately a much more entertaining writer than Dumas-the-historian, and he is most successful when he either lets the romancer take the driver’s seat (as he does in the more famous The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo), or manages to strike a more harmonious balance between the two (as he does in the intriguing Memoirs of a Physician). All in all a good read and I still aim to complete my reading of the ‘Sainte-Hermine’ cycle with the final volume (the famously fairly recently discovered The Last Cavalier: Being the Adventures of Count Sainte-Hermine in the Age of Napoleon) at some point in the hopefully not-too-distant future....more
I am still something of a newcomer to the Icelandic Sagas, having only read a handful so far, but I would be surprised if Egil’s Saga was4 – 4.5 stars
I am still something of a newcomer to the Icelandic Sagas, having only read a handful so far, but I would be surprised if Egil’s Saga was not the best of them. It’s certainly my favourite thus far, eclipsing even the fantastic Njal's Saga.
This saga makes central to its story what was perhaps the primary catalyst in the formation of Icelandic culture: the tensions between Iceland and Norway which led to the creation of the younger nation. These tensions were ultimately embodied in one man: Harald Fairhair, who rose to supreme power over a united Norway in the ninth century. Those who fought against his rise to power, or who found themselves unwilling to bend the knee and live under the authority of a single despot, and who managed to avoid being killed for their troubles, found themselves driven from their homes. Many of these refugees ended up being the founding families of the newly settled Iceland. Amongst these families was the one headed by Skallagrim Kveldulfsson, the father of our titular hero Egil.
As with most sagas this one begins a generation or two prior to the main action and we are introduced to the powerful landowner Kveldulf and his two sons Thorolf and Grim (soon to become ‘Skallagrim’ or ‘Bald Grim’ due to early becoming follicly challenged). Kveldulf and Grim both want nothing to do with the rising power of Harald Fairhair and do their best to retain their independence in Norway while neither taking sides for or against the newly minted king. Thorolf, on the other hand, sees an opportunity for fortune and glory and becomes a stalwart partisan of the new king. Thorolf proves to be an effective vassal, perhaps a bit too effective, as he gains his own following and becomes very rich…rich enough to make a king jealous and be willing to bend an ear to those who would speak ill of Thorolf. In the end ill-will prevails and Thorolf finds himself on the wrong end of a sword from Harald, earning Thorolf his death and Harald the undying enmity of Kveldulf and Skallagrim.
Skipping ahead somewhat Skallagrim becomes one of the founding fathers of Iceland, owning huge tracts of land which he partially parcels out to his bondsmen and family. Skallagrim has two sons, Egil and Thorolf, who both maintain a tenuous hold on some properties in Norway when they are not raiding the north as vikings. Thorolf, apparently not having learned from his namesake uncle, attaches himself to Harald’s son (and the new King of Norway) Eric Bloodaxe. Egil instead allies himself to the English King Athelstane. Many adventures ensue in which we see Egil’s misanthropic character display itself. He is definitely not a typical heroic figure: dour, avaricious, and prone to bouts of temper, he is also a pre-eminent skaldic poet and brave warrior. In the end his brother Thorolf dies in battle and Egil manages to become a favourite of King Athelstane at the same time that he earns the undying enmity of King Eric (and his perhaps even more dangerous queen Gunnhild).
The saga follows the adventures of Egil as he traverses the North: whether fighting for his family rights in Norway and walking a knife’s edge with the various Kings there; harrying the islands and coastal regions and carrying off “great fee” in treasure; fighting in England for the king (or trying to avoid the newly placed under-king Eric Bloodaxe of Northumbria, formerly King of Norway); or seeing to his rights and family holdings in Iceland. As readers we are granted a front row seat to pivotal events in the foundation of Iceland, as well as the development of the Kingdoms of both Norway and England. We also get to witness the life of perhaps one of the most interesting figures in the sagas (a literature chock-full of intriguing personalities, many of whom we come across in cameos in this saga) in the form of Egil Skallagrimsson. As noted above he is hardly a typical hero, though this is of course what makes him so interesting. Egil is definitely a hard man whom you would not want to meet on the wrong side of a battle (or a lawsuit) who is usually looking out for his own best interests, though we do see the glimmers of loyalty and more personable human feeling in his devotion to his lifelong friend Arinbiorn, his heart-felt lament for the sons whom he loses early, and his fierce loyalty towards his family. In the end the picture of Egil’s life is fascinating and we see him grow from a precocious (though somewhat ill-starred) boy, through being a fierce and high-handed man, to his ultimate decline and old age, lamenting the lost years and loved ones of the past.
My translation of Egil’s Saga was the one done in the 1930’s by E. R. Eddison, a man perhaps better known (though even then fairly obscurely) as the author of the fantasy works The Worm Ouroboros and the ‘Zimiamvian’ series. These works are perhaps most famous for their archaic diction, complex philosophical foundations, and ultimately ‘difficult’ nature. I for one am a big fan of them and knew through them that Eddison had a great love for the myths and stories of the North. What I didn’t know until picking up this volume was how extensive his learning was in this area. Far from being simply a dilettante or dabbling aficionado, Eddison appears to have been very learned in the field. His translation was very enjoyable and while it does contain its fair share of archaisms it is nowhere near as ‘flowery’ in its diction as his fantasy works and in his essay on his principles of translation he goes a long way in defending this choice. Eddison also provides copious notes throughout the text (in addition to mini-essays devoted to specific topics of interest to readers of the sagas such as berserkers, shape-changing, and skaldic poetry) that display his deep love for, and learning in, the culture and geography of Iceland as well as its myths, sagas, and poetry. In this latter area Eddison goes so far as to translate the skaldic verse attributed to Egil which copiously peppers the text into English verse (as opposed to giving a more prosaic direct tranlsation), an endeavour fraught with peril. Luckily, given the complex and even opaque nature of skaldic verse, he provides copious notes on the original text and the meanings of the various kennings that make up the poems and while any poetic translation is generally dubious at best, it at least gives an outsider something of a view into the rarefied world of skaldic verse. I’ll be curious on my next reading of the saga to try a more modern translation to see how it differs, but I was certainly happy with my choice in Eddison as my first guide through this saga. Perhaps I should tackle Eddison’s re-imagining of a saga in his novel Styrbiorn The Strong soon. I certainly have confidence that he will have done his material justice based on this text....more
I don’t think I have too much to say about _The Treason of Isengard_. It is very much, of course, a continuation of the previous HoME volume as we folI don’t think I have too much to say about _The Treason of Isengard_. It is very much, of course, a continuation of the previous HoME volume as we follow Tolkien’s further development of the story of the Lord of the Rings in as near a chronological manner as Christopher Tolkien is able to piece together from the numerous drafts, re-writings, and changes in his father’s text. That is perhaps the first thing to note: throughout the HoME series it has become obvious that Christopher Tolkien really did take on a monumental task in choosing to edit the early works/drafts of his father given the method (or madness?) of Tolkien’s writing process. That is definitely apparent in spades in this volume. Not only was Tolkien an inveterate re-writer, continually going back to the beginning of a previously written text to ‘polish it up’, only to end up re-writing the whole damn thing…usually before he had even finished the first draft of the initial phase, he was also in the habit of erasing and/or overwriting earlier pencil drafts in ink, adding marginal notes throughout, was often working on multiple competing versions of the same plot elements at the same time, and even inserting riders and writing stray notes on any scrap of paper he could find that refer to text on the ‘main’ pages. Truly a dizzying puzzle to try and unravel if one wants to discover a sequential progression in the text.
Some of the major developments to note in this volume:
- Here we see the final change of our friend Trotter the wooden shoe wearing hobbit-ranger to the figure that would eventually become Aragorn, son of Arathorn, heir of Isildur.
- Saruman emerges as a figure in the text (already a traitor), though still in a fairly minor role compared to the one he will occupy later.
- Lothlorien and Galadriel emerge seemingly from nowhere, an important development indeed given the central place Galadriel would come to occupy in Tolkien’s mind (to the point where he would go back and re-write huge segments of the Silmarillion material so she could be included…though that is not even hinted at yet).
- Gandalf is gradually raised in stature from the little old man who happens to be a wizard we saw in the original version of The Hobbit to something much more (though the concept of the Istari is not yet in place).
- Rohan and the society of the Riders developing out of whole cloth with obvious nods to Tolkien’s love of Anglo-Saxon culture and literature (esp. Beowulf) being apparent in their genesis.
- Some fun tidbits: it appears that Gandalf’s fall in Moria and subsequent return were part of the plan from the beginning; since we still have no Arwen the initial plan points to Aragorn falling for Eowyn when he meets her in Theoden’s Golden Hall (great vindication for numerous fan fic writers out there no doubt); Boromir was at first going to be an unremitting traitor who didn’t heroically die at the hands of Orcs while trying to save Merry and Pippin, but who would actually have been a full rival of Aragorn as the two vied for control of Minas Tirith.
Required reading if you have read the preceding volume and want to know how the story further grows and develops, but definitely not the point you want to start with the HoME series....more