Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell

Thats a nice pose, Pierre, but look out behind you.

That's a nice pose, Pierre, but look out behind you.

Ever picked up a book on a lark and enjoyed it so much that you curse yourself for not having discovered its author earlier? “What the hell was I doing trying to read The Iliad for fun (or… well, you know…) when I could have been enjoying this guy? I’m an idiot.”

This idiot has finished Bernard Cornwell’s new standalone novel, Agincourt. The Battle of Agincourt, known to the French as “The Unfortunate Day,” stands in that same historic tier of English victories as Waterloo and Trafalgar. It was won against ridiculous odds by Henry V and his medieval brand of a rope-a-dope strategy. Even in an historically faithful retelling, the legend proves enthralling.

Cornwell presents Henry’s campaign to us through the story of Nicholas Hook, a crack archer fighting in the vanguard. This dog’s-eye-view to British history should be familiar to those who’ve read the author’s Warlord Chronicles series on King Arthur. In this case, Hook is a former forester who is on the lam for having struck a priest, the insidious Sir Martin, in a struggle (you’ll agree he should have done much more to the son of a bitch).

The outlaw Hook is then hired on as a mercenary archer to help defend Soissons, a Burgundian town that rebels against the French unsuccessfully. Narrowly escaping the hellish fallout, Hook makes it back to England and is placed under a new lord, Sir John Cornwaille. Hook trains under Sir John and soon launches with 1,500 shiploads of English to conquer France.

A coworker of mine who is a Cornwell fan (and who is honestly quite miffed that I’ve nabbed this book before him) says Agincourt meets the author’s standard of awesomeness, but it’s a bit slow to start. That is, it’s got less juice than Cornwell’s Saxon Tales saga.

This makes sense to me because there are historically few events of note until we get to the epic slobberknocker that is the titular battle. Until then, most of Hook’s combat heroics are earned through Henry’s Pyrrhic siege of Harfleur. And it’s here that we’re introduced to the unpleasantness that is the Medieval battlefield, complete with a dysentery outbreak that kills off many English soldiers and makes the camp… inhospitable… for the survivors. All the while the standoff is strikingly resonant with the trench warfare of WWI.

As mentioned in my last post, Shakespeare’s beloved Henry V is going to hang a shadow over this book, but Cornwell’s retelling holds up quite well.  Some parallels, like the newly realized version of the St. Crispin’s day speech, are laudable in their own right, but others cuh-lunk. The king’s disguised stroll among his ranks the night before the battle was one the play’s high points for me, but it’s a creative trough in this novel.

If you’ve read Cornwell before, then you know he doesn’t exactly smile on early Christian dogma. Agincourt’s no different in this regard; there’s no villain more despicable than Sir Martin, who improvises fake Bible verses to justify his cravings of rape and murder.

For all the sneering, moustache-twirling clergy about, there are some positive characters of the cloth, particularly those who are rather agnostic (perhaps too much so to be believable in this period?). The amiable Father Christopher proves a knowledgeable mentor to Hook on scripture and saints, but he is also quite open with his theological doubts:

‘God’s favour is a fickle thing.’

‘Are you telling me he’s not on our side?’

‘I’m telling you that God is on the side of whoever wins, Hook.’

Speaking of good guys, it doesn’t get much more fun than Sir John Cornwaille, Christendom’s tournament champ and the loyal spearhead of Henry’s men-at-arms. Mowing down Frenchmen at Harfleur, Sir John barks out for his standard bearer.

“My flag! I want these bastards to know who’s killing them!”

Notice that the dialogue, especially the Patton-esque barking, aims for no linguistic authenticity whatsoever — but it works. No thees and thous are to be heard from these medieval English, and praise Jesu, I say. The atmosphere still feels right, the happenings remain believable, and the characters gain relatability from their no-frills modern tongue.

What you get is a wonderful formula that has the advantages of both credible historical literature and a super-readable yarn. Cornwell knows what he’s doing.

And, dammit, which of his am I going to read next?

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