I’ve been reading Peter Ackroyd’s writing for almost twenty years now, and I’m frankly beginning to fall behind. It’s hard to keep up with the man: he’s produced poetry, fiction, biographies, creative nonfiction, and, most recently, narrative history. One of his nonfiction books, Albion, was subtitled ‘the English Imagination,’ and was an essay or set of essays investigating exactly that; in fact, much of Ackroyd’s work can be seen as an investigation of, or a struggle with, the nature of English literary, historical, and imaginative traditions — especially as manifested in the history of London. And so his current project (or one of them) is an ambitious six-book history of England. Two have been published so far; as I say, I’m behind, and have only just completed the first, Foundation, examining the past of England from prehistory to the end of the Wars of the Roses.
I think it’s worth looking at here not only because it’s a good and fascinating book, but because the ways in which it stands out are perhaps especially relevant to fantasy fiction. Of course, medieval English history has had a significant influence on English fantasy writing. And certainly the style of the book is gripping and narrative. Specifically, you can see that this is a novelist writing popular history, and at times there’s an imaginative feel of the sweep of time, oddly like the history writing of a Harold Lamb — there’s an ability not only to find themes and ideas in the process of history, but to concretise or distill those themes into a specific moment. As a result, the depiction of history becomes an imaginative act, suggesting the habits of thought of past eras, in a way that I think may be especially relevant to fantasy writers and readers.
It is worth noting, though, that Ackroyd here is consciously an Englishman writing to an English audience about England. As a Canadian, I felt at times as though I was eavesdropping on a conversation, or at least a speech within a conversation. That’s not a bad thing — at no point was the book inaccessible — but it does emphasise the self-reflective nature of the enterprise. As I say, Ackroyd’s been fascinated by Englishness for much of his literary career; this book, and this series, is a logical outgrowth of that. In practical terms, it means that the book consciously chooses to look at English history within a strictly English context, with other parts of Britain or Europe mentioned only so far as they’re relevant to English history.
I think that works, because much of what makes the book succeed is the way in which it uses the facts of history to launch a kind of fantasia on the theme of Englishness. That’s not to say that it avoids concrete fact and detail; but those facts often seem to inspire a meditation on the nature of the English identity. In Ackroyd’s view, this history is a continuity, extending from long before the arrival of Angles or Saxons in the land that would become England.
I’m not sure, as an outsider, and not being a professional historian, how much to accept that. There is obviously a problem of perceptual bias in Ackroyd’s claims to continuity. If you look for continuities, you will find them. If you seek out hints of a persistent culture, you will find that, too. If you approach history from a teleological perspective — if, knowing the end point of the current moment, you look for matter in the recorded facts to explain that moment — then, certainly, you will find what you look for. Ackroyd covers here a vast span of time, and I’m skeptical that his assertion of continuity does justice to the range of cultures and worldviews within that time.
I tend to be more sympathtic to Ackroyd’s emphasis on the importance of chance in the political life of the country. As he sees it, English political history is a sustained blind improvisation. But while I don’t think he’s wrong, I’m not sure how that’s different from the political life of other countries. And even then, I wonder if he over-emphasises his point. He asserts that no English king intended to build a state, but I would have liked to have seen more of an elaboration of this statement with respect to Edward I, whose legal reforms lasted for hundreds of years. Ackroyd briefly asserts that Edward’s reforms “were practical and specific measures to confront immediate problems,” but this is not necessarily inconsistent with a monarch also taking the long view.
What is perhaps most interesting is that Ackroyd contrasts the chaotic improvisation of the state (as he sees it), not only with the continuity of culture and custom, but with a sense of hierarchy. He insists on a hierarchical quality to English society, going back to the prehistoric Bronze Age and Iron Age. Kingship, as he sees it, is essential: “The history of England cannot be written without a careful account of its sovereigns. … The image of England might be that of the king outstretched.”
I’m not convinced by the sweep of his arguments about prehistory, which to judge from his text rests on specific interpretations of relatively slender archaeological evidence, and again wonder what he sees in the remnants of English prehistory that stand out as particularly distinct from the prehistories of other places. But it should be said that Ackroyd is by no means an apologist for kings or kingship. Much of the book is taken up with a description of the brutality and viciousness of the Plantagenet kings.
The point is that Ackroyd creates an interesting tension in his view of England: the contingent churn of rulership in opposition to the unchanging essence of life. Themes exist in a work of historical writing as much as in a work of fiction, and in the contrast between continuity and chaos, Ackroyd finds a balance of themes that help to drive his story onward. As history, it therefore lacks something: rather than look to economic history, or any similar theoretical framework that could put everyday chaos into a larger context explaining the development of a nation through time, Ackroyd concentrates on the narrative of everyday events. That resolute lack of overarching explanation allows the narrative to shine, so that the book succeeds as a piece of writing. It’s history somewhat on Gibbon’s model: the description of what happened when, written in a lively style, with sharp observations about character and irony thrown in.
Unlike Gibbon, though, Ackroyd has no footnotes or citations. That can be frustrating. He argues that feudalism was present in England before the Norman invasion; so far as I know, that’s an ongoing debate, and some buttressing of his claims would be worthwhile. Later, he mentions as an aside that the king referred to in the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence” might be Henry VII; I’m really skeptical of that, but have no idea where the notion came from to invesigate it.
It may be that the lack of notes is necessary, though, in order for Ackroyd to retell his history freely, even novelistically. The virtues of the book are the virtues of a novel. Character is described briefly and memorably, using recorded dialogue and incident to give a sense of a whole person. One wishes only for greater attention to some of the minor characters — I would have liked more on Lanfranc, William the Conqueror’s Archbishop of Canterbury — but then space is limited. Consistently, though, the prose is incisive but also evocative. It presents information clearly yet allusively, picking the right image or symbol to create a broader sense of a time or subject. I find Ackroyd has a particular musicality to his prose — it’s why I’ve been reading his work for so long — and that knack for the right word, the right phrase, shows here.
Structurally, the book alternates chapters following the story of the monarchs of England with shorter chapters examining aspects of daily life: the nature of houses, of roads, of crimes and the law. Extended asides within the narrative chapters further round out the description of daily life. It’s a strong idea, though again inevitably one wishes there’d been room for more subjects. Given the amount of space discussion of war takes up in the narrative chapters, for example, it’s surprising that there’s no consideration of the effects of war: what it was like for the common soldiery, but also how war affected the country and individual communities.
More seriously, there’s a surprising lack of interest in gender and sex. Gender roles and women’s stories don’t receive any specific consideration in the interlude chapters. Sexuality’s underplayed. Ackroyd himself is gay, but is skeptical of projecting a modern understanding of sexuality onto past figures, questioning assumptions that figures like Richard the Lionheart and Edward II were homosexual.
Ackroyd also comes from a Catholic background, which at first glance seems like it might be more relevant to a book about pre-Reformation England. But there’s little discussion of religion or doctrine, except in a few cases — as in Thomas Beckett or John Wycliffe — where it’s inevitable. Ackroyd’s medievals are pragmatic more than anything; he emphasises churchmen quoting the high number of atheists they claimed to find in England much more than debates in the schools of Oxford or Cambridge. On the one hand, there’s a sense where this actually tends to emphasise the strength of religion in the Middle Ages: in the same way fish don’t notice the sea, the history doesn’t notice Christianity. On the other hand, part of the story, not just of England, but of Europe, from at least the time of Henry II on was the struggle between the papacy and secular kings; not only does Ackroyd’s focus on England lead him to treat this as a strictly English matter, but generally it raises questions about whether and how the conflict led to changes in belief and observance.
Even more surprising, Ackroyd spends essentially no time discussing the one thing that is indisputably utterly vital to the English character, however defined: English itself. There’s brief mention of Chaucer, quotations from Langland and some Anglo-Saxon poetry, a mention of Caxton establishing England’s first printing press. And mention of the preference of many of the medieval kings for French over English. But nothing about the development of Old English as a separate language, or the growth of Middle English, or the beginning of what we now call modern English. In other words, the birth of the English language as we speak it today (more or less) takes place during the timeframe Ackroyd’s examining, and he chooses not to examine it.
That’s surprising for two reasons. Firstly, Ackroyd consistently conveys a sense of the culture of the times he’s describing. That partly comes from writing about the elements of daily life, but he’s also sensitive to the narratives of the time: he spends one interlude chapter talking about the development of the story of Robin Hood. In general, he describes the national reaction to political events, to turns of war and the like, and does it through noting the stories that were being told: reports of rains of blood. Given that, it’s surprising that the development of the basic language in which these things were articulated was not accorded a more prominent place.
Secondly, it opens the question of exactly what Ackroyd means by ‘English.’ Who, in the end, is English? Ackroyd has a brief interlude chapter on Jews, and on Anti-Semitism. But there’s no discussion of how the presence of a Jewish community in England (or its absence, as they were expelled by Edward I in 1290) affects Ackroyd’s overall assumptions about an English identity; how different national consciousnesses and identities might have coexisted, how one could feed into another. How the arrival of different peoples affected or built a national consciousness. Perhaps my wondering about these things represents my bias as a Canadian, as these questions are the essence of the ever-mutable Canadian identity. Perhaps Ackroyd’s thesis of an essence of Englishness precludes a discussion of how Englishness as such evolved or was formed. But I felt more work was needed here, to support whatever his point was about that identity.
So far, I’ve outlined a number of caveats. But here’s my point: all or most of the issues I have with the book are linked, probably inextricably linked, to its virtues. This is, I think, primarily what might be called an imaginative history, which I would define as a specific sort of creative non-fiction that, while maintaining attention to verifiable fact, moves beyond fact to evoke a novelistic sense of a given era. In the way that we get a specific sense of the Victorian era by reading Dickens (himself one of Ackroyd’s great fascinations), we get a sense of the late Roman Empire by reading Gibbon. Or a sense of, say, the rise and fall of the Mongol empire by reading Harold Lamb’s books on Genghis Khan. How people thought and acted, as imagined by the writer of the history.
This is a specific kind of popular history, which quite aside from its merits as history, lives as literature insofar as it’s well-written, insofar as it presents a convincing vision of its era and the characters within it, and, usually, insofar as it presents an engaging narrative. At its best, this kind of history survives even when the facts it uses are incorrect or disproven — because it makes a given era live in a way that seems imaginatively true. That is, it evokes something of the quality of imagination of the time itself.
Ackroyd succeeds at this, I think. So far as I can tell (being, as I’ve said, neither English nor a historian of England) the history’s accurate without being especially radical in its approach and assessments. But as writing it tends to live almost especially as it gets away from sober historical fact. Here’s an extreme example:
The origins of kingship cannot be found. We may deduce from the evidence of the Neolithic monuments that there was power in the land from the fourth millennium BC. Who once lay in the great works of Sutton Hoo or Avebury? The kings of the dead have also gone down into the earth.
And then we begin to see flashes of regal pre-eminence. The early Saxon kings claimed that they were descended from the gods, in particular from Woden, and and it was believed that they possessed magical powers. Even the supposedly saintly Edward the Confessor traced his descent from pagan Woden. In some more remote age of the world the king might also have been the high priest of the tribe. It is likely that, his true wife being a goddess, he was allowed to have intercourse with whomever he chose. This may help to account for the excessive promiscuity of later English kings; even until recent times they were always permitted and even expected to keep mistresses.
It’s hard to know how ironically all this is meant. I think the prose is wonderful. The metre is strong and gripping. But I have no idea where the material about ancient kings being married to goddesses came from (again, no notes). And the idea that somehow this relates to to the promiscuity of kings in the last few hundred years seems, to be polite, highly improbable. Imaginative, yes, but perplexing.
But then a page later you get this:
The main task of the king was indeed to lead his people into battle. By the aggrandizement of land and wealth he rendered the country more powerful and more worthy of God’s grace. All the land was his. He owned all highways and bridges, all monasteries and churches, all towns and rivers, all markets and fairs. That is why from the earliest times England was controlled by a minute and complex system of taxation. The coin itself was minted in the king’s name. The voice of the king was the voice of law; it could be said that he held the laws of the land in his breast. This was also the claim of Richard II, many centuries after his Saxon ancestors.
That’s marvelous not so much because of what it literally says about the specifics of kingship, but because of the way it conjures up an image of what kingship means: “he held the laws of the land in his breast.” There’s a novelist’s eye for the telling detail at work there, and, I find, an effect like fiction: the creation of a sense larger than rational understanding, a passage that seems to mean more than it says.
The symbolic union of king and law points up the symbolic aspect of kingship, the theme of this particular chapter. So the enumeration of things owned by the king seems to unify the land and the body of the king. And the list of those things tells us something about what would have been important in the given time: thus what kingship meant.
There’s an element of bravado to this sort of thing, in moving beyond sober fact to symbolic thinking. Mostly, Ackroyd’s restrained; this particular chapter, the key to one of the book’s major themes, ventures further than most. At his best, he’s able to find equally resonant images in recorded fact. To me, his success in that justifies the more extreme fancies of the book. It’s well-written, and the good writing is not divisible from the book’s quality as history: it forces the reader to enter imaginatively into the world of the past that Ackroyd describes. In another book, Ackroyd wrote something to the effect that it is a mistake to think that people in the past knew less than us — rather, they knew different things. What Ackroyd does here is bring across the effect of that knowledge, to convey something of the shape of the world as it was known in the past.
Inevitably, time deals harshly with histories. Even in the year since the book was published, some of Ackroyd’s facts have been disproven. On page 416, he denies that Richard III had a deformity in his back: “As a result of strenuous martial training one arm and shoulder were overdeveloped, thus leading to a slight imbalance, but nothing more.” Richard’s skeleton having been recovered a few months ago, we can now see how curved his spine was. But this is the nature of history; it is constantly being revised and re-imagined and occasionally debunked. That is the business of historians. How is a writer not a historian to approach writing history? I think Ackroyd has found a good balance. I think this book is a useful introduction to medieval English history. And in his use of novelistic approaches — not novelistic techniques, but a kind of novelistic thinking — there is perhaps much here of interest for readers and writers of fantasy.
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.