The Path of the Martyrs Book Review

Bataille de Poitiers en octobre 732  By Charles de Steuben - Unknown, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=363367

Bataille de Poitiers en octobre 732

By Charles de Steuben - Unknown, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=363367

The Path of the Martyrs: Charles Martel, The Battle of Tours and the Birth of Europe
by Ed West
Kindle Edition, 496 pages
Published June 26, 2018 by Galaxy's Edge
ASIN B07F2M73XV

How could I not review a history book that starts off with the Battle of Tours? I only picked Charles de Steuben’s painting of the battle for my site banner.

West has written the kind of book I would give to a teen-aged boy that I think would end up being quite interested in history for its own sake, but needs an introduction to the subject that is neither stuffy nor boring. Perhaps the young man in question has heard bits and pieces of the chansons de geste through popular culture, perhaps knows of Beowulf or the Song of Roland, and is curious to know what really happened.

Quite a bit happened in the seventh and eighth centuries in France, and most of what did happen is not only epochal, but rather exciting, scandalous even. This is the spirit that West captures in his book. In order to capture the breath and scale of what was going on in the world, West does make some detours in both time and space. While this makes the narrative skip around a bit, I think the context it provides is crucial in understanding, for example, exactly why it was so surprising that the unlettered Franks stopped the advance of the Umayyad Caliphate in 732.

Saint Boniface felling Donar's Oak  By Bernhard Rode - Self-photographed, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5780989

Saint Boniface felling Donar's Oak

By Bernhard Rode - Self-photographed, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5780989

West also has the time point out less romantic facts like it was the Catholic Basques who killed Roland, Lord of the Breton marches in Roncesvalles, rather than the Muslims, and to highlight the rather unecumenical stance of St. Boniface when he chopped down Donar’s Oak. We get to see history, not legend nor hagiography here.

I read this on Kindle, and I found the footnotes were well-implemented, but I did find a number of typos. This sort of thing seems to be common in short little ebooks of this type, and the meaning is always clear from context, so it doesn’t bother me much. Ed West’s short little history book is pithy, irreverent, and above all, fun. I think you could spend 99 cents in many worse ways.

My other book reviews

The Song of Roland Book Review

Pater Europae

Pater Europae

Translation by W. S. Merwin, Notes, Glossary, and Select Bibliography by M. A. Clermont-Ferrand
The Modern Library, 2001
137 pages
ISBN 978-0375757112

The Song of Roland is a classic of Western literature, part of the mythology surrounding Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire. Probably composed in this form sometime in the 11th century, the Song of Roland was hugely popular for a very long time, and it informed what it meant to be a Christian knight during the High Middle Ages.

While the Song of Roland contains the fanciful embellishments common to all epic poetry [the superhero movie of medieval Europeans], the core of the story seems to have been transmitted substantially intact: the rearguard of Charlemagne's army, led by Hruodland, captain of the Breton Marches, was ambushed and killed to a man in Roncesvalles Pass in 778. The only things resembling a historical record of this come from a brief passage in a revised edition of the Life of Charles the Great, and a coin bearing the names "Carlus" and "Rodlan".

However, something noteworthy seems to have happened in that mountain pass, given that the story appears to have been already popular by the time it was written down. With the evidence thin on the ground, barring the discovery of any heretofore unknown manuscripts, a heroic folk memory is likely to be all we have.

My own interest in the Song of Roland has been developing slowly for fifteen years. I had heard of the book before then, but it was the game Halo that really sparked my interest. There is a tradition in science fiction and videogames of drawing upon the deep wells of classical literature and mythology. Probably because both are popular art forms that speak to our souls, and anything old enough to truly be classical usually has to also be popular, or to have been popular for a long enough time to survive accidents of history.

Cortana

Cortana

Roland and the other paladins of Charlemagne carried named swords, weapons of unusual power granted as boons to worthy warriors. These swords, among them DurendalJoyeuse, and Curtana, all featured in the epics that grew up around the character of Roland. Real swords that still exist are known by these names, usually used as part of the mythology of legitimacy that surrounds kings of ancient lineage. It is at least possible that some of these objects might actually date to the periods in question, although many of them lack the supernatural qualities the epics describe.

Ogier the Dane

Ogier the Dane

The statue that appears in the sidebar of my own website, Ogier the Dane, or Holger Danske, came out this same milieu. It is conceivable that Ogier actually lived in the eighth century, and that he was a servant or vassal of Charlemagne, although it is also possible that he is simply a figment of our collective imagination. In the epics, Ogier carried Curtana, a sword with the tip broken off, to symbolize mercy. Since it is the tip of a European style sword that is truly dangerous, this random bit of chivalric legend has appealed to me for a long time.

The more I learn about the myths and legends like the Song of Roland, the better I like them. Random bits of history, technology, and theology I learn tend to accrete to them in ways that make them more plausible as bits and pieces of real events passed down over many generations. Stories are never just stories.

My other book reviews

The Song of Roland
Modern Library

Last Call Book Review

The one-eyed Jack

The one-eyed Jack

Last Call
by Tim Powers
Perennial 2003
$15.95; 535 pages
ISBN 038072846X

Last Call is one of my all time favorite books. I can return to this book again and again, and find something different in it each time. According to LibraryThing, the last time I read this book was in May of 2011, almost exactly six years ago. Which probably explains why I find the father/son relationships of the book so gripping now.

But I get ahead of myself. Tim Powers is a long time favorite author, and this was one of the first books of his I ever read. I am amazed that I persisted, because on first read, the book is bizarre. Who is the Fisher King? Why does Bugsy Siegel feature so prominently? Why does everyone keep quoting T. S. Eliot? What about the fractals and chaos theory? How does this all fit in with poker?

That very first reading, I was very, very confused. But I was also deeply intrigued. I immediately read the book again, and I tried to put the pieces together into a coherent whole. I didn't get there, but I started looking into the mythology of the Fisher King, and the historical events referenced in the book. I learned about the history of playing cards, and how they related to the Tarot. I tried to read The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot

That last proved too dense and esoteric even for me. But I persisted. Last Call is the first book of a trilogy by Tim Powers, and reading the other two books did actually help fill some of what is going on, but I think Last Call is by far the best of the three. I got quite a bit of help from the collected works of John J. Reilly, who while not a Tim Powers fan, was conversant with Jung, comparative mythology, and the Fisher King.

I learned that all of the things about Bugsy Siegel actually happened. When I first read Last Call, I wasn't familiar with Powers' secret history style of writing, but his fastidious research paid off in hooking me forever. I learned about the Arthurian legend of the wounded King who ate nothing but fish and represented the health of the land and its people, and how this figures into the legitimacy of the Emperor who rules the Earth.  I learned of the way in which the Tarot cards had morphed into the playing cards we use today. Finally I understood why early Protestants were so opposed to card games. I was intrigued by the sacramental imagination of Powers, who made the Eucharist real to me.

Last Call is part of the reason I mostly read fiction. Many people otherwise like me mostly read non-fiction, but I find that I learn the most about the world from fiction. This is probably a function of the kind of fiction I read. And probably the kind of person I am. Last Call is also the reason I deeply distrust Tarot cards, and all forms of fortune-telling and gambling. It just isn't worth the risk.

Also, Las Vegas will never, ever be the same to me after reading this book. I've never really been the kind of person who enjoyed the spectacle and excess of Vegas, but now that I've seen Las Vegas as the fortress of a bad King and a shrine and sacrifice to the gods of chaos and randomness, I really don't like it. Which is unfair to the people who work and live there, but what has been read cannot now be un-read.

A nuclear weapon test from Las Vegas

A nuclear weapon test from Las Vegas

Returning to where I started, this time through the aspect of the book that was foremost in my mind was Scott Crane and his fathers, both real and adoptive. Fatherhood: real, adoptive, and mystical, is central to Last Call. The King is in a sense a father to us all, and thus the character of the King matters in the same manner as a father's does. Powers sets this up in the prologue, where we meet five-year-old Scott on a fun outing with his real father. They eat breakfast at the Flamingo, and flatten pennies on the railroad tracks. Scott worships his father, as most five-year-olds do.

Cronus

Cronus

Then we learn exactly what Georges is willing to do for power. What he has already done to Scott's older brother Richard. For just a moment, Georges finds his resolve wavering. To his own surprise, he actually loves his son. But he sets his face against his weakness, and proceeds.

Only the rebellion of Georges' wife saves Scott before Leon can consummate the ritual. Which Georges should have seen coming, because his life is an archetype. Scott is thus set up to displace his father in a re-enactment of mythology. The epilogue is a refrain of the prologue, and very bittersweet.

Sci-fi or fantasy novels that have mythological themes are not difficult to find. What makes Last Call remarkable is Powers' ability to make Georges Leon and Scott Crane seem like real people, while still instantiating a type. They seem real to me, rather than characters in a book. Each one, their loves and loss and failings, is like a person. That human verisimilitude is what balances out the craziness of a world where Tarot cards can kill you.

Powers has a fierce love of particular places, specifically Los Angeles and the areas nearby. Since I live across the Mojave desert from LA, and I have family there, I have driven across the Mojave more times than I would like to. 

The highway was a straight line in the twilight, a tenuous line between the dark horizon so far ahead and the red horizon so far behind. The old Suburban barreled along steadily, squeaking and rocking but showing low temperature and a full tank of gas in the green radiance of its gauges. On either side of the highway the desert was pale sand, studded as far as the eye could see with widely spaced low markers that looked like, but couldn't have been, sprinkler heads.

This is exactly what the inhuman vastnesses of the Mojave feel like. I've been to LA and Vegas often enough to validate Powers' descriptions of them. Suspension of disbelief is a lot easier when you've been to all of the places in a book and find the descriptions spot-on. I imagine Tim and his wife Serena taking trips on the I-15 to get it just right.

I am a bit late this year, but I may make this a regular feature of my celebration of Easter. Much like Tolkien, and more inventively than Blish, Holy Week, the week of Passover and Easter, is at the center of the chronology of Last Call.  This week represents an ending and a beginning, and certain things can only happen during this time. Classical allusions are one thing, but to interleave them with Christian sacraments and eschatology and make it look easy is quite another. 

Tim Powers is the only author I know who can do all these things well. And Last Call is one of his best. Read it.

My other book reviews

The Long View: The Holy Roman Empire

The idea of the King holds great power in the West, even when actual kings and queens largely do not. For us Westerners, what the Emperor means comes from Rome through Charlemagne and Otto I. There is a mythical undercurrent however, that is far older.


The Holy Roman Empire
By Friedrich Heer
German Original 1967
English Translation 1968
(By Janet Sondheimer)
Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers
309 pages, Various Editions & Prices

 

The Empire was not a state, but a system of dispensing justice.

We find that lucid formula near the end of this sprawling book by Friedrich Heer (1916 – 1983), the great Austrian authority on intellectual history. The formula is welcome, since there has always been some mystery about what the Holy Roman Empire was, as well as about what it was supposed to be. However, just as the formula comes late in the book, so it best applies only to the final phase of the empire, when the emperors were preoccupied with the defense of their solid Habsburg possessions in Austria and Hungry, and the empire was a sort of German United Nations that functioned through the Perpetual Diet of Regensburg and through the imperial courts. Even in the 18th century, however, the empire never lost its connection to the days when the emperors were priest-kings, who reflected an even more primordial past.

And indeed, just as there is some mystery about what the empire was, so there is some mystery about how to characterize this book. Heer's work is like a good film adaptation of a complicated adventure romance: it is filled with lyrical language and splendid images (wonderful graphics in this book, by the way), but it is really an illustration of the story rather than a retelling of it. A full history of the Holy Roman Empire would be almost a political and intellectual history of Europe. This “History of the Holy Roman Empire” is set out chronologically, and most of it is a narrative of the reigns of the emperors, but the effect is almost of a cycle of prose poems.

There are key dates and events in the political history of the thousand-year empire, naturally. The Roman imperial title was revived, or created, for Charlemagne in 800, and survived the rapid disintegration of his empire. Eventually it passed to Otto I, who was crowned in 962, which in many ways was the real beginning of the Holy Roman Empire. It was a largely, but not exclusively, German league of princes, bishops, and municipalities. All were under the authority, if never quite the control, of a nominally elective king. The fundamental constitutional text of the empire was the Golden Bull, issued by Charles IV in 1356. Among other things, the Bull fixed at seven the number of imperial electors, the college of lay and ecclesiastical lords who elected the emperor; their number eventually rose to nine. In 1555, at the end of the reign of Charles V, the first round of the wars of religion ended in the long truce of the Peace of Augsburg. Through a combination of malice and stupidity, the truce collapsed into the Thirty Years' War in the next century. The war (wars, really) ended with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which made it possible for Catholics and Protestants to co-exist in the empire. The cost was a broad and precise definition of the rights of the German principalities that prevented the formation of a national German state. The empire was dissolved, under pressure from Napoleon, by the Emperor Francis I in 1806. Heer repeatedly assures us that the dissolution was beyond the emperor's power, and illegal; he's probably right.

The difficulty with telling the story of the Holy Roman Empire is that all the verbs and adverbs are attached in every generation to different nouns. The empire's center of gravity was generally in Germany, or Austria, but sometimes the emperors identified more with their possessions in Burgundy or the Netherlands, or in Bohemia. Charles V, the first ruler on whose domains the sun never set, was as Spanish as he was Burgundian or Austrian (though the Spanish Empire and the Holy Roman Empire were coincident only in Charles's person). The hold of Charles's family, the Habsburgs, on the imperial office was almost secure in the last few centuries of the empire. The various branches of the Habsburgs perfected the art of being everywhere present and nowhere a foreigner. The fact of being cosmopolitan did not make the Austrian Habsburgs chiefly concerned with protecting their most cosmopolitan title, however. They cared for the empire, just as they cared for their other possessions. At the end, though, they could let it go without diminishing their house's real power or influence.

Nonetheless, the empire does have a history, because there were constants. Heer tells us that the Ottonian conception of the empire characterized it to some degree until the very end:

“What could be finer, what more right and proper, than a Holy Empire conceived as a great federative league, based on trust rather than subjection, composed of friends from within and without (at their head the Pope, both as bishop of Rome and the king's friend), the whole under the leadership of the Emperor-king?”

Despite the empire's protean geography, there were some basics that all emperors struggled to retain. They all protected the jurisdiction of the imperial courts, for instance, and they all tried to secure communications through imperial territory. There was a small number of imperial rights they insisted on keeping, and to a remarkable extent they succeeded.

Political theory is relevant to the study of the empire, obviously, but the empire stays in our minds because it is where all those emperors in European fairy tales come from. Heer does not cease to remind us that the symbols and the functions of the emperors go back 5,000 years, to the first city-states with their eagle emblems and god-kings. The emperor was in some sense a universal ruler, in dignity if not in fact. His archetypical claim to deference had nothing to do with his power.

They emperors always did certain things. They hunted. They cured by touch, at least reputedly. They protected the Church. They made peace. More precisely, they had the duty to give peace. Also, the emperors, and the empire as a whole, were the restrainers of Antichrist. (Curiously, Heer does not cite II Thessalonians 2:7.) The German emperors played this role when they defeated a Magyar invasion of the West in 955 at the Battle of Lech, and thereby created the sense of “Germanness.” They played the same role six centuries later, when they were the only European rulers to offer serious, systematic, and ultimately successful resistance to the Turkish jihad aimed at central Europe. According to persistent myth, when the Emperor of the Last Days lays down his crown at Jerusalem after finally defeating Babylon, then the Antichrist will appear.

Sometimes, of course, the emperor was Antichrist, at least in the opinion of the pope. The tension between holy empire and holy church, both claiming divine sanction, runs right through the history of the West. Heer points out that the largely successful campaign by the popes of the 12th and 13th centuries to desacralize the empire was the basis of every other claim of right that would ever be made against the state. It also meant that the Church, the City of God, would eventually become just another political body: society as well as the state was ultimately desacralized.

Interesting as the medieval material is, Heer's book is most valuable for its treatment of the period after the Treaty of Westphalia. He points out that the empire's only “native style” was the baroque. Baroque art, politics, and philosophy were employed by the empire (and also by the Catholic Church) to preserve the world of images that the Reformation had begun to destroy.

The high baroque was a “festival culture,” colorful and profligate. Underneath the gilt and gemütlichkeit, however, there was an unshakeable foreboding. In Heer's telling, the good humor of Mozart's empire was an expression of the understanding that life is based on sacrifice, on self-sacrifice, which was to be carried out with style and without complaint. The music, the painting, and the overwrought architecture all reflected this. The result has never been to everyone's taste. Had Heer lived longer, he might not have been surprised that post-Habsburg Eastern European cities became the locales of choice for horror films.

Even in its final, Enlightenment era, the intellectuals of the empire expressed as philosophy something of that Great Chain of Being that was directly intuited by the medieval mind:

“The picture of the world presented by Leibnitz, his outlook on the world and the entire body of his religious and philosophical thinking, whether he knew it or not, is a eulogy of the Holy Roman Empire: his universe is one of a pre-established harmony, sustained by a regulated but voluntary harmony of the 'monads' (an expression he borrowed from Theresa of Avila). Just as in the Holy Roman Empire – as Leibnitz saw it – the princes, the imperial towns and all the other groups and individuals who were centered on the Emperor were supposed to work together in free and orderly fashion, so did faith and reason, God and man, nature and the supernatural, the smallest objects and the greatest, work together in the cosmos.”

The end of the empire as a political entity was overdetermined. Among the specific causes that Heer points out, I might mention just two. One was the theft of Silesia by Frederick the Great from the Habsburgs. The province was not that important to Austria, but it gave Prussia (which was founded by the Imperial Elector of Brandenburg, by the way) the human resources to carry out the long-term project of hegemony in Germany. More important was the fact that the emperors themselves were turning their backs on old Europe.

The greater cause of the empire's end was internal. Before the beginning of the age of mass revolution, the Enlightenment encouraged revolution from above. The 18th century was full of reforming despots, among the most radical of whom was the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II. He expropriated Church property and regulated the clergy in a way that the French Revolution would only imitate. He expanded the rights of religious minorities within his own territories. He attempted to elevate the peasantry, especially in backward Hungry, from serfs to freeholders. He promoted education and manufactures. And when he died in 1790, he realized that he had largely failed.

In every age the empire had its patriots, figures of the caliber of Dante and Goethe. Such people were also intense local patriots, with deep attachments to cities and small states. The universal patriotism of the empire complemented these native loyalties, because the empire was not a country, but an idea. Indeed, there is a sense in which the mere death of the political empire has in no way diminished its importance, or its hold on men's hearts:

“The crisis of the Empire and the crisis of the Church were terrifying to live through. In twelfth-century Germany and Italy the painful experience stimulated thinking men to attempt a philosophy and theology of world history. These writers, as they reflect on progress and decay, consciously or unconsciously hold up for us a mirror to the history of their epoch, the epoch which saw the rise and decline of the Empire and the rise of the Church...Underground eddies of this historical thinking reached Friedrich Hegel as he in turn reflected on world history in the last days of the Holy Roman Empire, and they re-emerge (some of them clearly identifiable) in his philosophy.”

One could easily extend that chain of influence to people like Francis Fukuyama, and to 21st century transnationalism and neoconservatism. The empire has its patriots still.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Holy Roman Empire
By Friedrich Heer

Myths have Daimonic Power

 The daimonic force of great myths and legends

From The Notion Club Papers by JRR Tolkien – in Sauron Defeated, Volume IX of the History of Middle Earth, edited by Christopher Tolkien.

Page 228, Ramer speaking:

“I don’t think you realize, I don’t think any of us realize, the force, the daimonic force that the great myths and legends have.

“From the profundity of the emotions and perceptions that begot them, and from the multiplication of them in many minds – and each mind, mark you, an engine of obscured but unmeasured energy.

“They are like an explosive: it may slowly yield a steady warmth to living minds, but if suddenly detonated, it might go off with a crash: yes, might produce a disturbance in the real primary world.”

...

One current myth with daimonic force are the ‘trickster’ stories (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trickster) , which underlie much popular culture – myths concerning a protagonist who is amoral, un-idealistic, selfish, hedonistic. Someone who breaks the rules, not for higher or transcendent goals, but for their own benefit. 

Thieves and fences, serial seducers, bon viveurs, escapists, bounty hunters, skivers and sturdy beggars, druggies and drunks, guns for hire, rock stars and rappers, wide boys, liars, blaggers and charm merchants.
...

This myth (or rather, the many myths and stories featuring this archetypal figure) has such force because these protagonists are (we imagine) living by id not super-ego, by instinct not training; and thereby in touch with ‘life’ –that connection so painfully missing in the world of the bureaucratic state which we inhabit. 

...

Yes, myth does have daimonic force, easily powerful enough to destroy anything; and the only force which can restrain destructive myth is creative myth. 

h/t bgc