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I used to work with this guy, we’ll call him Bill. Bill sincerely felt that it was his God-given natural-born right to say whatever the heck came into his head no matter how damaging, embarrassing, or just plain wrong it was. Where another man might hold off a bit, Bill was already talking and saying something we would all regret. You could say, “Bill, mayhaps you could throttle it back a little.”  But Bill would get up on his hind legs and proclaim that in order to express the Billness that was Bill he was honor-bound to say whatever the heck came into his head, no matter how damaging, embarrassing, or just plain wrong it was.


It was not too long before Bill got fired.


I got fired too, but for reasons that had nothing to do with talking.


Point is, there are places where it’s ok to shoot your mouth off, and places not. Of course, the very best thing would be to keep it firmly shut, all the time, but what fun would that be?

There are places where you can say whatever you like. They’re called fiction.


I once read a book where the author espoused the theory that the quiet confidence that General U.S. Grant was so rightly admired for was attributable to his time in Mexico, where Grant had met Mescalito, who told him everything would be OK. Well, I’m no expert on Grant, But I’m willing to bet that the old gentleman’s encounters with Mescalito were exactly nil, despite his time in Ol’ Mexico. But, not so strange to say, no one ever came forth and called the author out on this. Because right up front, the thing was labeled fiction.  Right there among the pages with little numbers, where all the business is conducted it said: ‘This is a work of fiction.’


General Grant no longer troubles us with his picadillos, his weaknesses, and his questionable taste.  The guy everyone loves to hate now, even after his death, is Carlos Castaneda. Castaneda, it appears, wrote some books and made a boatload of money. The thing is, he never took the trouble to say he was making stuff up. He put a bunch of fantastic stories out there as fact. Said it was all research. No one really believed he hadn’t made it all up, but now he’s one of those pariahs of academia.


The great thing is, writers of fiction really do try to tell the truth. They don’t have to, but they do. If it doesn’t interfere with the story, it goes in. I learned all about the American Revolution from Kenneth Roberts. I learned about sailing from Arthur Ransome and Patrick O’Brian. I learned about England from P.G. Wodhouse, Haiti from Madison Smartt Bell. All from works of Fiction. However, it is possible to go down the path of facts and lose the path of story:



For years I’ve tried to like Bernard Cornwell. Really. I’ve read some of the Sharp’s series, read Enemy of God, read The Archer’s Tale, Lords of the North, but to me it’s all like that Grateful Dead thing: You know the words, and you know the tune, but you’ll never know the song. The guy will never go out on a limb. By now Cornwell probably knows so much about the Napoleonic era he could tell you what Wellington had for lunch at Waterloo. He could tell you what size shoe Napoleon wore. He could tell you what size shoe Napoleon’s horse wore. He knows all about his characters, what they ate, what they put on, what they fought with, but don’t expect any surprises. He writes finely-crafted histories with nary a rivet or paving stone out of place, and he never cracks a smile. There’s never the sense that these stories take place in real life. Things happen because the writer needs them to happen. There’s never anything wrong with his novels, but let’s face it, Cornwell could pretty much write whatever the hell he pleased, and his fans would lap it up, but he never swings for the fence.


Agincourt, naturally, deals with  adventuring in France with England’s Henry the Fifth. This episode was originally written up by Shakespeare, who presented Henry as a misunderstood naughty boy trying to get international clout for old Albion. Cornwell’s version of the tale has Henry as a hardened fighter, mysterious, distant, and completely ego-driven. Henry’s incursion into France might serve as a Don’t Do list for West Pointers. Bad planning, poor replenishment, rudimentary tactics. Although Henry is C-in-C of the mission, we never see much of him. He shows up in the trenches from time to time, then goes back to wherever kings go.

            To keep the pot boiling though, Cornwell has created Hook, a violence-prone archer with voices in his head. Luckily for those around him, the voices belong to a couple of saintly brothers, Saints Crispin and Crispinian. They shout advice in moments of duress. Sort of like stressed-out angels. True to the tradition of seers throughout history though, Hook’s voices really aren’t much help, come right down to it. Fight, run, the saints don’t get much beyond this.  Any idiot could call their shots. 

            Apart from the ethereal voices, Cornwell doesn’t have much use for religion. Hook’s arch-enemy is a priest. One who goes by the name of “Sir” Martin. Sir Martin’s hobby is raping young women, much like Obahdia in the Sharp books, and about as repentant. The other priests aren’t much better. You might think Cornwell would stretch himself out a little here, with some weird rationalization for the man of the cloth, but no. Don’t worry though, the good stuff is coming.

            One thing about Cornwell, he’s not shy about letting his people get violent. Finally he gets us onto the field at Agincourt. Then it’s all blood and guts, guts and blood. British and French lads lose vital body fluids and major body parts in the hellacious fighting, which goes on all day. 

Finally though, it’s over. And so’s the book, come to find out. A bit of mopping up, a bit of well-deserved retribution, and it’s so long until the next one.


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