Thursday, January 29, 2009

"We few, we happy few..."

Reading has always been one of my primary pleasures, and when reading for pleasure I'm usually reading mysteries, history, or historical fiction. I've probably learned almost as much history from good, conscientious writers of historical fiction as I have from those actual historians constrained by the documentary evidence.

One of the best historical novelists today is Bernard Cornwell. I have particularly enjoyed the Sharpe series, centered on an English soldier in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, fighting first in India and then in the Napoleonic wars. Sharpe's Waterloo helped me understand that battle better than any of the many other accounts I had read. Another superb Cornwell series follows an archer through the early Hundred Years War. My most recent acquisition — Cornwell's most recent book — is Agincourt. It was reviewed this week by Ronald Maxwell who, himself, has told the story of a great battle in the film Gettysburg, which he wrote and directed. Maxwell on Cornwell:
...Shakespeare, with "Henry V," has already taken us on this journey, as seen through the eyes of England's young king. Mr. Cornwell selects for his protagonist a man as lowly as the king is exalted, as powerless as the king is omnipotent. By the end of this gripping novel we understand that it was the common soldier — personified by a man named Nick Hook in Mr. Cornwell's telling — who embodied the English character and in large measure determined the outcome of its military adventures. Revealing as well is the fact that Hook is exceptionally skilled at a particular kind of warfare — shooting arrows with a longbow.

Anyone who has ever held a bow and arrow will savor Mr. Cornwell's affectionate descriptions of designing, crafting, maintaining, transporting and fighting with this weapon. He emphasizes that it was the English archer who often made the critical difference in 15th-century battle. He was trained from youth to develop the muscles of his arms, chest and back in order to acquire the reserves of strength to repeatedly draw a bowstring that most strong men could barely pull half-way — and trained as well in the art of guiding the arrow's flight to his prey. ....

Until recently, most adolescent boys growing up in the Western world have had the dream of being a knight in shining armor, part of a world involving chivalry, damsels in distress, brightly caparisoned destriers, turreted and crenellated castle walls, tapestries, tournaments, broad swords. These elements are present in Mr. Cornwell's story, but only as a thin outer layer that gets peeled away with every turn of the page. Here the medieval world transitioning to the Renaissance is much closer to Hobbes's vision of humanity: "continual fear, danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." .... [more]
Victory by Longbow -

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