Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Agincourt (2009) and 1356 (2013), by Bernard Cornwell

The Cornwell reading marathon continues with this pair of novels set in France during what we now call the Hundred Years War. Because of the proximity of dates and locations, I thought there might be some continuity of fictional characters from 1356 (date of the battle of Poiters) to Agincourt (1415). The fact, however, that the earlier novel describes the later historical event should have disabused me of that notion. I now realize that 1356 is actually the fourth novel in Cornwell’s Grail Quest series, featuring fictional hero Thomas of Hookton (the other three are The Archer’s Tale, Vagabond, and Heretic).

As the series title indicates, Thomas of Hookton’s adventures involve a search for various venerated Christian relics reputed to hold extraordinary power. The object of pursuit in 1356 is the sword wielded by Saint Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane to cut off the ear of one of those come to arrest Jesus (insert chapter and verse here). Cornwell’s mastery of and faithfulness to historical detail raises 1356 far above the level of other Christian mystery/intrigue/thriller novels like The Da Vinci Code.

Both of these novels are somewhat disappointing to a reader interested in the history. Compared to The Fort, with its skillful construction of fictionalized historical characters from their own writings, these two seem shallow and formulaic. The overarching historical theme seems to be an argument that the English longbowmen of that period were almost superhuman in mastery of their deadly weapon - enough to bring unlikely victory to the badly outnumbered English armies.

Still, these are very well-written and entertaining tales, if somewhat over-the-top in blood and gore. Fans of Cornwell's Sharpe series will enjoy Agincourt. 1356 has the added medieval mysticism of the Grail Quest.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novels inspire me to further historical research?
Yes, to some extent - mainly because these were my first novels set in the Hundred Years War. Some follow-up reading about the English longbow was interesting.
Score = 3
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes, but I would have liked more - including an explanation of the spelling change from Azincourt to Agincourt for the American edition.
Score = 3
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes, although the abilities of the longbowmen were somewhat exaggerated for dramatic effect.
Score = 4
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
Probably - Cornwell is very conscientious. I don't yet have any straight biography to provide a comparison. The historical characters weren't deeply involved in the fictional story, so there wasn't much need to question their actions.
Score = 4
  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters (or new ones)?
Yes. Both Thomas of Hookton and Nicholas Hook are compelling lead characters.
Score = 5