Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Pen Is Stronger Than the Sword---Philippa Gregory, The White Queen

philippa gregory author

Real people are what drive the course of events in the world. Human beings, doing what they do, making the choices they make. That is something I look for in reading. It's the reason I like Gone With the Wind so much. As much as we know (or at least I do) that Scarlett O'Hara is a brat and does thing purely for self gain, I admire her guts. Her tenacity, and strength when the harshest of reality tries to beat her down, as it has so many others. These are characters that last. I love characters that are good people, of course. But it's easy to write of someone who is the typical, good person. Or what it is perceived to be. But that sort easily feels like a manufacture--a farce.

  I just finished The White Queen by Phillipa Gregory. It was worth the read, absolutely. The format was strange for me, in that Gregory jumped time so much, but I thought in the end that it accomplished what she needed to do well. And her character, Elizabeth, is a real person. That blurred in between of good and evil that so often is a part of our lives, especially in politics. I can't say it one of my favorite books--but it is a book I would say that is written well.

  One thing I will say, is that there is one part that I would read the entire book for just to read that part. It was so potent, human, and real. The truth of the reality of war. Here is an excerpt:

I should close and bolt the gate behind them, but I do not. I stand in the gateway to watch. I think of myself as a heroine in a story, the beautiful queen who sends out her knights to battle and then watches over them like an angel. 
  At first, it looks like that. My brother, bareheaded, in his beautifully engraved breastplate, goes quietly towards the camp, his broadsword in his hand, followed by his men, our loyal friends and those of our affinity. In the moonlight they look like cavaliers on a quest, the river gleaming behind them, the night sky dark above them. The rebels are camped in the field by the river; more of them are quartered in the narrow dirty streets around. They are poor men; there are a few with tents and shelters, but most are sleeping on the round beside campfires. The streets outside the city walls are full of alehouses and whorehouses, and half of the men are drunk. Anthony's force forms into three, and then at the whispered word everything changes. They put their helmets on their heads, they drop their visors over their kindly eyes, they draw their swords, they release the heavy ball of their maces, they turn from mortals into men of metal.
  I somehow sense the change that comes over them as I stand at the gate watching, and even though I have sent them out to battle and it is me they are defending, I have a feeling that something bad and bloody is about to happen. "No, " I whisper, as if I would stop them as they start to run forward, their swords drawn, their axes swinging.
  Sleeping men stumble up with a cry of fright and get a blade in the heart or an axe through the head. There is no warning: they come out of dreams of victory, or dreams of home, into a cold blade and an agonizing death. The dozing sentries jump awake and scream the alarm, silenced by a dagger through the throat. They flail about. One man falls into the flames of the fire and screams in agony, but nobody stops to help him. Our men kick the campfire embers  and some of the tents and the blankets catch fire and the horses rear up and neigh in fear as their fodder blazes up before them. At once the whole camp is awake and running in panic as Anthony's men go through them like silent killers, stabbing men on the ground as they roll over and try to wake, pushing men down as they rise up, slitting an unarmed man's belly, clubbing a man as he reaches for his sword. The army from Kent rolls out of sleep and starts to run. Those who are not brought down grab what they can and dash away. They rouse the men in the streets beside the Tower, and some come running towards the field. Anthony's men turn on them with a roar and charge at them, their swords already red with blood, and the rebels, country boys most of them, turn and run.
  Anthony's men give chase but he calls them back: he won't leave the Tower undefended. A group he sends down to the quayside to capture the Neville ships; the rest head back to the Tower, their voices loud and excited in the coldness of the morning. They shout at each other of a man stabbed in his sleep, of a woman rolling over to be beheaded, or a horse breaking its own neck, rearing from the fire.
  I open the sally-port gate for them. I don't want to greet them, I don't want to see any more, I don't want to hear any more. I go up to my rooms, gather my mother, my girls, and Baby, and bolt our bedroom door in silence, as if I fear my own army. I have heard men tell of many battles in this cousin's war, and they always spoke of heroism, of the courage of men, of the power of their comradeship, of the fierce anger of battle, and of the brotherhood of survival. I have head ballads about great battles, and poems about the beauty of a charge and the grace of the leader. But I did not know that war was nothing more than butchery, as savage and unskilled as sticking a pig in the throat and leaving it to bleed to make the meat tender. I did not know that the style and nobility of the jousting arena had nothing to do with this thrust and stab. Just like killing a screaming piglet for bacon after chasing it round the sty. And I did not know that war thrilled men so: they come home like laughing schoolboys filled with excitement after a prank; buy they have blood on their hands and a smear of something on their cloaks and the smell of smoke in their hair and a terrible ugly excitement in their faces.
  I understand now why they break into convents, force women against their will, defy sanctuary to finish the killing chase. They arouse in themselves a wild vicious hunger more like animals than men. I did not know that war was like this. I feel I have been a fool not to know, since I was raised in a a kingdom at war and am the daughter of a man captured in battle, the widow of a knight, the wife of a merciless soldier. But I know now.

  How incredible true and powerful is that? I was stunned. I had enjoyed the story up to this part, but when I came to this...this is why I read. I want what is real, and good. The truth. Phillipa Gregory did that beautifully, savagely. She is a craftsman of words, words that pierce. To me, this is the best piece of writing in the entire book, although I enjoyed the whole of it. I am looking forward to reading more of her work.

  But it makes me speak so potently, what knowledge did Gregory have that made her speak like this? Tell something so vivid, and real? What changed her understanding that she knew?

  As a writer whose work often includes fighting and warfare, I often wonder about the reality of war. As someone who has not served, I cannot speak from personal experience. I can only imagine through what I've learned, try to open my understanding to the reality of what it is. Because there is always a difference between someone who knows, and someone who only has an idea. I want my work to be real.

  What are your thoughts on this? Please leave a comment below, and tell me what you think.

  ~E. C. Shore

P.S. I just discovered that they are making The White Queen into a miniseries. Looks interesting...but I also discovered that like most medieval shows--there is nudity and sex scenes. Typical. I would love to find a great medieval show that has class.