Monthly Archives: February 2017

“The Flame Bearer” by Bernard Cornwell

Copyright 2016, 280 pages.

Historical fiction is great! You can be distracted from your worries and at the same time be (gently) reminded that there have been difficult times before. “The Flame Bearer” takes place in Britain around 900 AD, before its (still uneasy) consolidation into a single, country with a commons language. Now I understand the Roman wall (built to keep out the wild Scots) a bit better. Christianity was fighting it out with paganism. Some characters were hedging their bets, praying to both sets of gods and waiting to see which rewarded them.

“The Flame Bearer” is written in the first person, from the perspective of a displaced warlord named Uhtred. Wait, wasn’t I just writing about a REAL warlord? Yes, see my blog entry of January 15, 2017, about Dostum, a contemporary Afghan warlord and politician. One thousand years have passed, and the descriptive term “warlord” still has meaning. What would these two men have in common? Both fought on horseback. Each relied on a cadre of loyal followers. Each was motivated by family and tribal loyalty. Each lived in a time of rapid change, and worried about betrayal. Each carried responsibilities well beyond the range of military concerns. Each “appealed” for divine intervention in battle. (Read Williams “The Last Warlord” for details on that aspect of his campaign.)

Differences? Uhtred dismounted for hand to hand combat and was an expert in deploying a shield wall. Dostum advanced from horseback to trucks and tanks, and faced a pace of technological change Uhtred would not have believed. Uhtred lived in a pre-modern world. Dostum is “modern”, with some traditional personality traits. (He’s also in the news lately. I’ll refrain from trying to comment here.)

What can we say about warfare based on these two “warlord” portraits? Each had available some mechanism for negotiation, temporary truce or surrender. Uhtred approached his enemies with a lowered sword, carrying a green branch. Dostum suffered the loss of soldiers when a surrender attempt went bad. War is seldom “total”. In each case there was some concept of protecting prisoners and non-combatants, but that was often violated. Do meaningful “rules of war exist”?

Cornwell has written scores of books, “The Flame Bearer” being #10 in his “Saxon Tales”. He admits in his “Historical Note” that the book contains little actual history. Maybe it’s more of an adventure novel. Cornwell obviously enjoys writing about battles and the psychological complications of fighting. The plot is revenge and redemption, with lots of BLOOD.

Another of Cornwell’s series follows a character named Richard Sharpe from 1799 to 1821, in 20 novels. What is Cornwell trying to do, outwrite Patrick O’Brian? I suppose I should not judge based on one book, but I don’t think his work equals the stature of O’Brian’s. (Yes, I’ve read the awe inspiring Aubrey-Maturin series.)

Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels work because they convey the arc of history, the sweep of the Napoleonic Wars. He invented his charmingly quirky protagonists, but the battles (I understand) are ALL taken from the naval records of the times. And sometimes they are surprising! I wonder if Richard Sharpe is as interesting as Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.

But Cornwell is good, and I’ll undoubtedly read more of his books. I think they would be excellent in audio format, for long car trips. Pre-modern Britain is more interesting than Route 95.

“Arsenic with Austen” by Katherine Bolger Hyde

I finally found fiction to relax with! Wait, I shouldn’t say it that way… The heroine is a Professor of English (at Reed College in Oregon, no less) and she would disapprove of a preposition at the end of a sentence.

Emily Cavanaugh is an appealing protagonist, and the frequent literary references (ranging from the Old Testament to JK Rowling) in this mystery amused me. When stressed, Emily retreats into the worlds of Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope. When confronted with murder, she relies on Dorothy Sayers. Emily is a bibliophile who suffers from a level of technophobia even worse than my own. She would never condescend to blog. Horrors! Such an ugly neologism!

Two of the themes of this book are old grudges and land development. It works. There’s romance, too.

This is Ms. Bolger’s first novel and I look forward to more. She is calling her series “Crime with the Classics”. I don’t think she can go wrong.

“The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements” by Eric Hoffer

This book was published in 1951, when the world was struggling to understand what had led to World War II and the Holocaust. The “true believers” Hoffer analyzed were Nazis and Fascists, with some discussion of early Christians and other movements. He believed all mass movements shared a definable set of characteristics.

Full disclosure: I didn’t read this book! I attended two 2-hour seminars on it, sponsored by my husband’s alma mater, and I read ABOUT the book and the author.

A subtext to our discussion was the election of Donald Trump. We’ve all suffered from shock. What does this mean about our country? Are we headed towards fascist type authoritarianism? Who voted for Trump, and why? As far as I know, the fourteen people (total) who attended the two seminars did not vote for Trump.

We decided that Trump’s supporters were not “true believers” in the same sense as Nazis and Fascists. There’s no reason to believe they would die for Donald Trump.

Hoffer believes certain segments of a population are vulnerable to demagogic leadership, namely those who feel angry and powerless. He speaks of spoiled or damaged lives, and mentions “failed artists”. I can’t parse that category.

Our discussion veered to other groups that offer up their lives. Suicide bombers. The Arab Spring protester who burned himself to death. Kamikazi pilots.

Though often described as a philosopher, Hoffer was not an academic. Wikipedia lists his occupations as “author and longshoreman”. He may not have graduated from high school. He was fluently literate in both English and German, and read voraciously. The US military refused to enlist him due to medical condition and possibly his age – he was 40 at the start of WW II. How he managed to publish “The True Believer” while laboring as a dockworker in San Francisco puzzles me.

A great deal of Hoffer’s writing was never published, but is available to scholars. I hope more of it will be extracted for publication. Now is the time for public dialog on the issues he studied.