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27 March 2017

Book Review: Sarum

Sarum: The Novel of EnglandSarum: The Novel of England by Edward Rutherfurd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rutherfurd writes grand-perspective historical novels that center around a particular place. So it's like watching a timelapse video; from 6000 BC to 1985 AD in 1000 pages.

I love books like these; where normal people are placed in an important place with important people as almost secondary characters. These characters are all that matters in that moment in time.

But, at the same time, books like this highlight the futility of it all. Because the characters that were so important in 60 AD, no on knows about in 1066 AD. The place remains. The meadows. The hillforts. The henge. The cathedral. People are like so many ants, swarming around the behemoths that operate on a different, slower time scale.

So what's the point? In 100 years, no one will remember me. Or what I worked so hard to accomplish. So I might as well take it easy, have a beer, and read a book. Hell yeah.

This was a re-read, because I finally visited Old Sarum, Salisbury and Stonehenge. I remembered very little detail from my first read (and, truth be told, once I got to the end of the book, I remembered very little about what had happened at the beginning...) but I enjoyed it as much, if not more, than the first time I read it. Maybe it's my age and wisdom. Or maybe it's that I had finally laid my own eyes on the landscape and could envision a real reality from Rutherfurd's descriptions. The landscape is the main character, after all.

But besides making me feel small and insignificant, this book is steeped in history. I cannot say how complete Rutherfurd's scholarship is; there are no footnotes, but it's the little details like one finds in Sarum that make history come alive.

Things like;

In Roman times, one would often see this on walls;

These words form a palindrome, yes. But they can also be rearranged to form

Or that Pelagius, in Roman times, had the gall to suggest that men had free will and needed to choose God. "For were it to be true that a man could really make such a choice for himself, then that man would be a separate being, an individual entity with absolute power to choose to embrace God or the Devil as he liked. How could any right-thinking Christian suggest such a thing when the Church taught that man, like everything in the universe, was created by God and belonged to Him?"
Such thinking makes Absolute Rule and the power of the church so much clearer. And also highlights how revolutionary ideas of education and self-determination actually were.

Or the theory that the legends of King Arthur likely originated only two generations after the Romans; "They were probably Christian; they won a great battle against the Saxons at a place, still not identified, called Mons Badonicus; and it is quite likely that they had a general named Artorius. Behind the legend of Arthur and the knights of the Round Table lie several elements of historical reality, however. The world of Arthur, though it is chivalric and romanticised in a way that belongs to a later era, is nonetheless a Celtic, Christian world, with ties not only to Wales and the west country but also across the English Channel to Brittany, to which, in the century that followed the end of Roman Britain, a number of British families emigrated."

Or the fact that in the 800s and 900s, Saxon justice turned not on truth or falsehoods, but on how many people you could get to swear to your side of the story and what rank they were.

Or the messy mixture of cultures and religions as humanity is developing; "Although many generations of Anglo-Saxons had been Christian, the memory of the pagan past was alive, an accepted part of everyday life which no church could attempt to stifle. Were not the gods still celebrated in the days of the week, like Wodensday? Did not the code of honour that made a man loyal to his lord, the law of blood feud and wergild, and the songs and poetry they loved all come from pagan times? Aelfwald the thane did not try to cudgel his brains over the fact that the Saxon culture he loved and the Christian religion he believed in were logically incompatible. He was an Anglo-Saxon Christian and he was content."

Or that Europe wasn't Europe in 1066; "No people claimed a single country as their nation state: Europe was a huge patchwork of estates to be bought, sold, fought for, or obtained by marriage."

Or that the extension of the 1215 Magna Carta in 1258 was authored by Simon Montfort, who had no interest in democracy. He didn't even like the English. But he couldn't resist a challenge and swooped in to fix messes that Henry III kept getting himself into.

Or that Charing Cross derives its name from 1290 when Edward I lost his great love, Eleanor of Castile. The king accompanied the queen's body from Lincoln to London and every place the party stopped for the night, a cross was installed in the dead queen's honor. The last one was at Charing.

Or that our weird and confusing language, with all its inconsistencies, was created when a fellow named Caxton started printing books with a printing press. "Caxton had, as most men did, his own views about how English words were to be pronounced and had chosen to spell them accordingly. The result on the newly printed page was a curious mixture of dialects from several parts of the island. 'See--he writes 'plough' like a northerner,' the merchant-turned-gentleman complained: for as written, the word would have sounded more like 'pluff' or 'rough.' Robert said nothing. He was not interested. But his father was right, and the confused and illogical spelling chosen by Caxton's whim was to be the hallmark of written English from then on."

Or a moment after the English Civil War when a group of Protestant radicals called the "Diggers" foreshadowed practical communism.

Or how much our polite societal manners, and the words we use to refer to them, have changed; "The clergyman said several kind words about his valour in the American campaign; and the company in general did him the honor of speaking to him as if they had known him all their lives. In short, they practiced the art known then as condescension--which meant not at all what is meant by the word today, but rather the art of letting a man know, through perfect politeness, that you do not seek to patronise him"

So much learning. So much history. So much life that the trees and the meadows and the hills quietly watch from their stately perch, amused to be considered the background for our tiny lives. So I'll close with a quote Rutherfurd puts on an 18th century gentleman's sundial; "Life is but a walking shadow."

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