Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Azincourt, by Bernard Cornwell

Cornwell has used a tried-and-tested formula for many of his books, which I have previously encountered in his ‘Sharpe’ books. He chooses a common man as his hero (in this case Nick Hook), has him fight heroically and victoriously in every major battle in his time (Harfleur and Agincourt), makes him a master of his weapons (principally his longbow, but also handy with his poleaxe), gives him a beautiful love interest (Melisande), sets up a strong, arrogant enemy (the French noble Lanferelle, who also happens to be Melisande’s father – such subtle plotting!) and adds extra spice in having enemies on his own side (the wicked Perrill brothers and Sir Martin).

It is a successful formula, tugging the reader on to turn the pages, at the expense of important household chores. However the transparent artifice, and the inherently unlikely nature of all the events that happen to one man dented my opinion of this book. It is as if Hook, the archer, has his own special angel hovering over him – the author, who miraculously makes every strike against the hero a slap or glancing blow, and nearly every strike of the hero a bulls-eye with arrow or poleaxe.

You have to admire Cornwell’s ingenuity of side-stepping and overcoming the massive reputation of Shakespeare’s ‘Henry V’ (which incidentally does not mention the English archers once). He subtly incorporates all the Shakespearean highlights, such as the attack on the breach at Harfleur, the ‘Saint Crispin’ speech and the King’s midnight fraternising with the troops on the eve of the battle.

This is a gory book. The author goes out of his way to emphasise the horror of war more than any other of his books I have read. There are numerous descriptions of brains splattering, blood gurgling, guts slithering, eyes being pierced and so forth. He lays it on thick, garnished with some very choice earthy language. I guess it has to be done, to convey the reality of Medieval Warfare and the massacre of the remarkable battle of Agincourt.

His hatred of priests in the hierarchy of power is evident. Most priests (but not all) are portrayed as lustful, power-mad, gluttonous, sadistic and hypocritical in this book. Cornwell raises the intellectual level of the book by pondering on the contradictions and confusions of religion, with both sides praying and believing that God is on their side. Their’s is a harsh and vengeful God, wanting heretics to be burned at the stake and mass slaughter to take place to support a King’s rightful claim to a throne.

Cornwall uses the narrative device of the hero hearing the voices of Saint Crispin and Saint Crispinian in his head. This lets us glimpse a slightly deeper psychological depth and complexity, but not much more. Don’t pick up this book for subtle or complex insights into human nature.

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