Friday, March 21, 2014

Sworn Sword

Last year, I wrote about changing views toward heroism. James Aitcheson, in my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction, tackles the question of the military hero head on. Tancred, the narrator of Aitcheson’s Norman Conquest novels—Sworn Sword, The Splintered Kingdom, and Knights of the Hawk—is a character defined by war. It provides not only his means of subsistence but his identity, his reason for being. When a raid leads to the death of the lord Tancred has sworn to protect with his life, that loss jeopardizes his place in medieval society.

In that earlier post I traced a trajectory from the heroism of Beowulf, intensely individualistic and focused on the grand gesture that will lead to immortality—a system in which glory and vengeance make the inevitability of death worthwhile—to the esprit de corps of career soldiers. Tancred is, as one might expect, midway along that trajectory: he wants to avenge his fallen lord, yet the demands of knighthood send him, at least for a while, along a different path. He glories in battle but fights as part of a group, not as one heroic individual against a monstrous or magical foe. He questions the need to kill without avoiding the practice of killing. He fights to defend his lord and his fellow soldiers as well as himself. He is an independent person, a leader, but also a sworn sword. These tensions make him an interesting character, one worth following—even for me, a person more likely to pick up a good cozy or a smart, funny romance than a book about armies.

James and I talked about other things, too, including what it’s like to switch hats from historian to historical novelist and about the real Norman Conquest, the one that followed the Battle of Hastings and tends to get left out of the schoolbooks. It’s a good interview, and it’s free, so give it a listen. You won’t regret it.

And best of all, no smallpox. Even the laryngitis is gone. Maybe all the warriors scared it away.

Although the podcasts are free, the New Books Network has bills to pay. The hosts are a group of dedicated volunteers, but the server space and equipment cost money. One way you can help out at no cost to yourself is to click on this link just before you plan to buy something at Amazon.com, then choose a department from the drop-down menu on the right-hand side of the page. If you bookmark the page, you’ll be able to find it even after this blog post rolls out of sight. And we will appreciate it!

The rest of this post comes from the NBHF site.

The chivalric society of medieval Europe resembled a pyramid, with each man sworn to serve the lord above him in a social hierarchy that reached up to the king. A warrior without a lord had no future, no means of support, no identity. So when Tancred, a Breton knight sworn to defend the newly appointed earl of Northumbria, loses his lord in an English raid, the loss not only deprives him of a leader as close as a father but threatens his entire sense of himself.

No matter that Tancred is away on another mission when the raid begins, that he fights nobly to defend his embattled lord, that he loses his sweetheart and almost his life in the raid. He has broken his oath, despite his best efforts, and no other lord trusts him to fulfill the terms of his service.

It is England in 1069, three years after the Battle of Hastings, and Tancred is fighting for the Norman invaders in hostile territory, where the English forces have rallied under the leadership of Edgar, the last Saxon prince. The earl of Northumbria and most of the two thousand knights under his command are the first casualties in what will become England’s last attempt to throw off a successful invader.

As James Aitcheson reminds us in this month’s interview, the grand battle that makes it into the history books marks only the turning point in any invasion. And although it has become a cliché to say that history is written by the victors, the Norman Conquest has traditionally been one area where that adage does not apply. Sworn Sword and its sequels reveal the other side of a familiar story through the eyes of victors who do not yet know whether they will win or lose.

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