Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Elizabeth's Misfits by Arthur Freeman

There are two things that really appeal to me about genre fantasy: magic and history. The attraction to magic is well understood, I think, a symptom of that affliction shared by all fans of fantastic literature. Anyone that reads fantasy, SF or horror knows it, the warm rum of the mysterious, the otherworldly, the macabre, the uncanny and the outré.

The attraction of history is a more specific appeal, more intellectual than emotional. The typical fantasy occurs in some version of western Europe around 1300, before the invention of guns or movable type, but after the discovery of steel, but even those interested in more exotic settings – ancient China or medieval Japan, for example, or Native American or African cultures – have a similar almost documentary approach to the setting.

There's a degree of implied erudition in these worlds, a commitment to a sort of pseudo-historical veracity, although this diminishes the further one departs from real history: John M Ford's The Dragon Waiting, for example, a highly fantastical but recognisable version of fourteenth century England, has more of that erudite quality than, say, Moorcock's The Stealer of Souls set in the entirely made-up Young Kingdoms, despite the latter's pseudo-historical trappings.

As a rule, the historical and magical elements seem to act in inverse proportion: the more history you want, the less magic you can insert; conversely, the more magical the world, the less historically accurate it will be.

Thus, it follows that history is just fantasy with the magic turned down to zero, and perhaps this explains the appeal of books such as Elizabeth's Misfits.

I'm not interested in the history of great events so much as the lives of people who lived in remote times. There's a stereotype of the philistine movie or TV exec who tries to soften factual content by inserting inappropriate human interest material into some worthy historical project, but personally I sympathise with their populist point of view. Sure, I value the kind of veracity that we mock the entertainment gurus for diluting, but at the same time I want a history book to contextualise great events in terms of the lives of ordinary people.

Elizabeth's Misfits is exactly that kind of book. Rather than kings and queens and dukes and earls that make up the main narrative of history, it looks at the lives of a handful of “English eccentrics, exploiters, rogues and failures” from the fringes of history. While they lack any overt fantasy content, these fringe types and oddballs fall into what I consider the world of the Fortean – cranky beliefs, mad criminal schemes, crazes and eccentrics of various sorts. In this sense, these stories have a fraction more magic in them than one gets in general histories, with their mainstream focus. It's a very familiar kind of magic, the sort that appears under the “fancy that” heading in the tabloids, but its separation from the norm tilts it, in a tiny way, towards fantasy.

It's an era, of course, that comes pre-loaded with magical elements that have been liberally raided by fantasy writers: the magic of Dr Dee, early exploration of the American continent, and the re-discovery of ancient wisdom from the classical scientists to the rapid spread of new knowledge. It was a time when the vocabularies of science and magic were yet to fully diverge, when old certainties were coming down, the world expanding, and any wonder or prodigy was still in the realm of the possible. The religious conflicts in Elizabethan Britain have the whiff of real magic. The English king's break with the Pope represents a genuine struggle for metaphysical power as mystical in the hearts and minds of many as that between Gandalf and Saruman.

If you reconsider this in the context of the fantasy novel, it's all quite exciting. Freeman gives us the pathetic figure of William Squire, a jack of all trades who found himself mixed up in a plot to kill the Queen. Following his participation in an unsuccessful voyage of plunder to the Americas (with Drake and Sir John Hawkins in 1595) he was captured by the Spanish and fell under the jurisdiction of the Society of Jesus. By Squire's own account, he was subjected to a kind of brainwashing routine that finally saw him convert to Rome and agree to assassinate the queen on his return to England.

The scheme communicated to Squire involved smearing poison on the pommel  of the queen's saddle. It failed, of course. While Squire confessed to having carried the scheme out, he doesn't seem to have thought through just how the poison would make it from the pommel into the queen's system. Having acted, Squire lost his nerve and attempted to disappear back into society before being netted by the espionage ring run by Francis Bacon and finally executed for treason.

The puritan paranoia against the mesmerising, idolatrous, luxury loving Catholics looks to me a lot like Howard's puritanical Conan versus the exotic Eastern wizards that plague him such as Thulsa doom. Upstanding protestant people are constantly under attack from the Church of Rome, and contemporary depictions of the Pope as anti-Christ show how fantasy writers have just literalised these old metaphors in their depictions of wicked magic.

The paranoid religious atmosphere is evident in the story of John Gee, a trainee anglican minister and scholar living in London in the 1620s. Tempted by the dark side, Gee was present at a clandestine service for Catholics in an upstairs room in Blackfriars in 1623, when the floor collapsed sending the congregation of almost three hundred plummeting through the floors below, followed by a shower of timber and brick. Hundreds died, but Gee himself miraculously survived and saw his reprieve as an act of God. He subsequently published a pamphlet outlining his experience and reaffirming his faith in protestantism, thanking God for saving him. In the first edition he listed the Catholics present at the service who had died, but in later editions he listed Catholics and Catholic sympathisers that he knew of within London adding increasing flimsy and even entirely obviously made up accusations, thriving on a public appetite for knowledge of this enemy within.

While Squire and Gee may not be remembered, the sectarian strife that lay behind their lives certainly endured into the present day, and still flares up in various forms from time to time. It seems that the need for that sort of story endures. Some times it comes out in racist invective or in the kook narrative of Satanic panics or UFO paranoia, but it's also present in the fantasy narrative, often as pure good against evil, sometimes in more ambiguous terms. The more Manichean version can be seen in The Lord of the Rings, for example, where the Satanic Sauron and his army of demonic orcs battle the innocents of a bucolic, almost pre-lapsarian Anglo Saxon  Britain and its mystical protectors, the elves. Glen Cook's Black Company series presents a more cynical vision of this religious war from the jaded viewpoint of the veterans on the battlefield.

A fantasy of a different sort is provided by the story of the charismatic gentleman highwayman, Gamaliel Ramsey. Ramsey recalls the roguish wits that have grown increasingly popular in fantasy, the sort of character that might turn up in gritty modern fantasies, such as the work of Scott Lynch and Joe Abercrombie.

A wit, and a gentleman of the road, Ramsey was still well aware that his job depended on threats, and indeed the occasional practice, of brutal violence. For every time he hands back the purse to a poor victim, or takes colourful revenge on popular figures of disdain (brewers who water their beer, greedy landlords, lawyers - the usual suspects), he will slit someone's throat or take the hard-earned money of a farmer or small merchant  without compunction.

Most appealing, I suppose, are the occasions when his assistance of others ends with him profiting from the deal regardless. In one case, for example, he lends a poor farmer the fifty crowns he needs to pay his full complement of three hundred pound's rent, then robs the rent collector on the way back to his master: the peasant's rent has been paid and Ramsey finds himself handily two-hundred and fifty crowns in pocket.

A section on “Daredevils and Showmen” reveals how secondary worlds can be used as a commentary on contemporary life. There's a touch of Jack Vance or Terry Pratchet in these stories of wits abroad, and even Freeman can't help falling into the distinctive droll litotes-laden tone that characterises these sorts of story.

You couldn't make up two better characters to reflect the world of post-modern celebrity than William Kempe and John Taylor. Freeman discusses these two in terms of “dare journeys”, being bizarre or fool hardy quests undertaken in the spirit of courage or just a sense of random inspiration.

Kempe was a famous comic actor and clown who worked with Shakespeare in the Chamberlain's Men and then abruptly left the theatre in 1599. Finding himself under-employed, he struck on the idea of Morris dancing from London to Norwich in nine days. He undertook his journey in February 1601 and it was such a sensation that he was feted in every town, and had to be accompanied by assistants who cleared the roads of well-wishers.

John Taylor was a wit and poet known “The Water Poet”, as he earned more money operating a ferry on the Thames than he ever did from his tall tales and doggerel verse. In 1619 he announced that he was to travel from London to Queenborough in Kent in a paper boat. In the weeks before hand he chose his crew, built his paper vessel and accepted bets and subscriptions against the success of his venture. He undertook his journey in July that year, and like Kempe was wined and dined at every port along the way. When he was done he collected his bets, and wrote a pamphlet outlining his humorous adventures along the way (The Praise of Hemp Seed, with the Voyage of Mr Roger Bird and the Writer hereof, in a Boat of Brown Paper).

It's hard not to think of the antics of the Top Gear crew in Taylor's outlandish self-challenge, or one of those annoying TV show/book/stand-up tours by Dave Gorman or Danny Wallace. Kempe's dance made me think of that comic actor and semi-retired clown Eddie Izzard and his (admittedly more arduous) forty-three marathons in forty-three days. The attraction of this type of challenge seems eternal, but as with the secondary world, the historical setting makes it seem strange, makes its odd angles stand out, perhaps as we see the peoples of the past as a more homogeneous mass than we do in the close-up view of our own world.

The Elizabethan world is a strange and sinister one that exists very close to our own, peopled by folk much like us - and we understand their behaviour, even if we can't share their beliefs. Freeman does a great job of making us really see these people, to understand them in a way that their contemporaries understood them. He shows us recognisable traits – fear, self-preservation, flamboyance, greed – but in the setting of another world. There's more in this book than these vignettes, all carrying this thrill of the fantastical mind set and atmosphere of another world. In the Elizabethan milieu, violence exists close to the surface, and there is always much at stake – worshipping the wrong god or travelling the wrong road can see you dead. It shows us a strange world of danger and excitement, mystery and magic at work in everyday lives, just like the very best fantasy.

As a final note, this is another one from PSbooks that I bought back in November, and was published by Garland Publishing Inc in 1978! Where on Earth has it been sitting around for thirty-two years before making it into my little hot hands?

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