In the past couple of months I read two outstanding books of historical fiction and also a book on linguistics that was quite thought provoking.
The first is The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by a true master of fiction, David Mitchell. You may have heard of the novel Cloud Atlas, yeah that was him. This book is nothing like Cloud Atlas and the fact that he can jump from a multi-layer piece of speculative fiction, a work that was short-listed for the Booker Prize to a novel that is more understated and nuanced, as well as one of the best books of historical fiction out there, says multitudes about Martin’s prowess as one of the best writers of fiction, period.
Dejima, The Granger Collection, NY
The novel centers on two protagonists, the first is Jacob De Zoet, a straight laced Dutch trader who is living on the artificial, Japanese island of Dejima in Nagasaki harbor. Dejima is the Dutch traders’ home and also prison for they are not allowed to go onto Japanese soil unless they have special dispensation for fear that they will pollute the Japanese citizens with western ideas and Christianity. But Japan itself is also a prison. No Japanese citizen may leave under penalty of death. This isolation and xenophobia is where the main conflict of the novel lies. A conflict because Jacob falls in love with a Dutch-trained midwife from a gentry-class family named Orito Aibagawa; and in Japan, Westerners are not allowed to marry the Japanese. So the novel starts out as a slow burn but then picks up to a frenetic pace almost like an Akira Kurasawa movie when Orito needs to be rescued from a notorious, homicidal monastery after her stepmother sells her to pay Orito’s deceased father’s debts. But this isn’t Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress and the author makes sure that your expectations are dashed for nothing is predictable. But nestled in between the action is a great love story and a history class that you don’t even realize your taking because the narrative is so good.
Mitchell’s prose is usually impeccable with florid descriptions, historical authenticity and great character studies.
The next novel that read and found exceptional is Hild by Nicola Griffith. The first-rate research and word smithing that went into this superb novel about 7th century Britain really kept me in awe. I love words and this book was bric a brac with archaic old English and Brythonic words as well as beautiful metaphors and similes. The setting is a transitional period where the Germanic Saxons, Jutes and Angles were sweeping away the old Romano-Brythonic culture and language. The novel’s focus was the Northumberland Anglisc and the niece of their dour King Edwin, named Hild.
Hild was a real person from history named Saint Hilda of Whitby and the book is based on her life. She lived during the first half of the 7th century and what is known of Saint Hilda was written by the Venerable Bede, a contemporary of hers and one of the few scribes whose writings have survived from this period (It’s called the Dark Ages for a reason). Griffith has mined Bede’s writings but has also formed a rich background of the period from many other sources. Against this lush backdrop we follow Hild as she matures from a precocious child that is wise and existentially aware beyond her years to an astute and powerful woman of mercurial sexuality and strong martial prowess. Hild is a complex character, a woman who is keenly observant of the natural and human world which gives her clear insight into decision making. These traits would be greatly valued in a leader, but that is not possible in the patriarchal world of the Anglisc. So she finds a place for herself as a seer for the king; her astute observations being construed as prophecy by Edwin and his court. But it is a precarious role as the king’s seer, for there is always the chance that she will be wrong and the shifty King Edwin is clear that any false predictions would mean her death. But fortunately she is never wrong and Edwin grows in power, always one step ahead of his enemies.
Hild is also best friends with her secret half-brother named Cian. Cian does not know that he is her brother and is kept in the dark for his safety because King Edwin would see him as a rival if the secret was revealed. Cian is also half wealh (Briton), so you get a strong sense of the dichotomy that was interplayed as the Anglisc tried to fuse two sometimes disparate worlds into a hybrid culture that England would become. This is also evidenced by the fact that the pagan King Edwin becomes baptized as a Christian, which is an astute political move to increase the loyalty of his wealh subjects, who had been Christian since Roman times.
One aspect that I really enjoyed about the novel is its portrayal of the Anglisc and Brythonic language. Griffith didn’t shy away from including a fair number of authentic words in the book; in fact there is a glossary at the end of the novel that contains about seventy words. A few words that appear frequently are wealh- the word that the Anglisc refer to the Britons meaning stranger, the root word for Welsh. Wic- the Anglisc word for port. Aetheling– the Anglisc word for prince.
Hild lives alongside the wealh, the native Britons who are now second class citizens and slaves. Scholars now believe that the Anglo-Saxons were outnumbered by the Britons by at least 4 to 1. And although in the novel they are ascendant on the eastern shore of the island as the story progresses you realize that they are balanced on a knife-edge as two British kings seem poised to crush King Edwin. In fact Hild predicts that King Edwin will be destroyed by King Cadwallon of Gwynedd (north Wales) and King Penda of Mercia, which she logically keeps to herself.
The book is from a feminist perspective, but set in a period where women were little more than property, but not quite as rigid perhaps as later more conservative, dogmatic, Christian Medieval times. People in this period, at least how Griffith presents it, are expected to take lovers but the sex of the lover appears to be flexible. This did not ring false to me from an anthropological context, because there are many traditional societies who have been documented to have made allowances for this behavior, giving evidence that this has always been a natural part of the human condition.
Whatever you do in privacy during this period is your own business, but you are expected to marry, and if you are a high born lady, the king tells you who you will marry. And King Edwin’s choice for Hild comes as a slight shock. And that is where the novel ends with the promise of a sequel. I can honestly say that I am excited plunging back into this detail and character driven world.
The next book I examine has linguistic ties to Hild and is titled, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English, by John McWhorter. John McWorter is an accomplished linguist who is an expert in creole languages, an opponent of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and has written many books on African American dialect and culture. But in this book he wants to overturn the convention of how modern English evolved. In the past scholars tried to say that they Romano-Brythonic peoples of England were annihilated by the Anglo Saxons except for pockets in the west (Wales, Cornwall). The evidence of this was the fact that there are very few Brythonic words in English. But a lack of mass graves in the archaeological record from the period and recent DNA evidence shows that the ancient Britons are alive and well. Dr. McWhorter also feels that the language of the Britons is alive and well… in English.
Although there aren’t many Brythonic words that English has borrowed, its grammar is very different from the original Old Germanic that English is based on and McWhorter believes that its grammar has more in common with Welsh and Cornish than German. One major piece of evidence is what McWhorter calls the meaningless “do”. Did I open? Notice the word “do”. It really has no purpose. In Welsh it would be Nes i agor. Nes is the Welsh word for “do”. No other Indo-European language uses do in this way and neither does almost any other language in the world. And Middle English sounded even more Welsh. They used do in affirmative sentences instead of just the negative or question framing. McWhorter uses a line from Hamlet as an example: My pulse as yours doth temperately keep time. Welsh and Cornish also uses do in the affirmative.
Another construction of English that is like Welsh is its use of the present progressive. The example that McWhorter uses is the present progressive sentence Mary is singing; in Welsh it would be Mae Mair yn canu. In modern English, singing is a participle and in Welsh, canu is a verb-noun. But in Middle English they also used verb-nouns. Originally, in Middle English, the sentence Mary is singing would be written as Mary is on singing, with singing being a verb-noun just like in Welsh. In about the seventeenth century the sentence would have been Mary is a singing. The on has changed to a, but singing is still a verb-noun. Although that way of speaking has died out in England (if you know different, let me know) I have certainly heard it growing up in Gaston County North Carolina, a region that was deeply influenced linguistically by an influx of people from the Appalachians to work in the textile mills in the early 1900’s. Although the verb-noun is gone, our present progressive is still more Welsh than Germanic.
Not only the Welsh and Cornish influenced English but also the Norse who settled in England and Scotland starting in the 700’s. The Norse settlers were taking native wives and were speaking their own Pidgin English to communicate with their families. These Vikings were shaving off all of the many Germanic endings of Old English as well as neutering the gender, making English more streamlined. Soon their children were being taught their Pidgin English, therefore making the new form (Middle English) a creole language. McWhorter doesn’t directly say this but it can certainly be inferred. He also touches on many more interesting nuances about English and language itself, including his disdain for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This hypothesis states that language determines thought. I have never liked the hypothesis either because many times the conclusions are subtly racist.
So if you want to impress people at the next football game with your knowledge of Tokugawa period Japan, Dutch trade, Dark Ages Britain and argue that English isn’t Germanic, then read these great books. The only one that the Wilson County Public Library doesn’t have is Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, I bought that one at the superb Reader’s Corner Bookshop in Raleigh.