Jack Hight

Author of Historical Fiction

Welcome to my blog, where I discuss current events, Medieval history, the Crusades, movies, and the life of the novelist.

I often get asked what it's like to be a writer. Let's see: there are coffee shops involved; I spend a lot of time doing research; and of course, there's the writing. Simple enough, right? Well, judging by the number of "how-to" books on writing at my local bookstore, there must be a lot more to it than that. In this blog, I'll be relating my own experience as a novelist, as well as my take on world events, both past and present. There will be plenty of advice, but this is not an advice column. It is my experience. So come on in, and take a peek into the mysterious world of the novelist...

For a topical index of past blogs, click here: Blog Index

Atrocity. Civil war. Growing up in a world filled with horrors we cannot imagine. Living with no hope of a better future. These things break people. Broken people are dangerous. They break more things. In the wake of the Paris attacks, in the midst of the pain, anger, and incomprehension we are all feeling, I hope we can somehow cling to the truth that the only way to stop this cycle of violence is to fix things, to mend broken people. We need not be naive; bloodshed will no doubt be necessary to create a space in which this work can begin. But let us not make bloodshed and destruction our only goal. We all want to destroy ISIS and stop terrorism. To do so, we must all work together to try to heal the broken people of this world, and to protect the innocent from the sharp edges that would break them. My heart goes out to everyone in Paris. Vive la France.

My first novel, SIEGE, is now available for download in the US. For those on this side of the pond who haven’t read it, now’s your chance! And if you have read it, it’s worth taking a second look.  I’ve made a few improvements; see if you can spot them…

Click here for a sneak peek.

http://www.amazon.com/Siege-Jack-Hight-ebook/dp/B00RC1QYV4/

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I talk Holy War, the Lionheart, the Crusades, and the clash of religions with Richard Lee of the Historical Novel Society:

http://historicalnovelsociety.org/holy-war-the-conclusion-of-the-saladin-trilogy-launches-23rd-may-author-jack-hight-talks-the-lionheart-the-crusades-and-the-clash-of-religions/


First, some shameless self-promotion: Holy War is out on 23 May (order your copy now!). In this, the final volume of the Saladin Trilogy, Richard the Lionheart makes his long-awaited appearance in the Holy Land, where he does battle with the forces of Saladin. Richard provides great fodder for fiction, and writing his character was some of the most fun I’ve ever had as a novelist. In many ways, he was the perfect example of the knight-king. He was brave. He was hailed by even his enemies as a peerless warrior. He had a keen eye for battlefield tactics. And he seems to have been able to motivate his troops like few others. During his crusade, he subdued Sicily, conquered Cyprus, successfully completed the siege of Acre, and despite being outnumbered, won victories over Saladin at Arsuf and Jaffa.

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Oh, and one more thing: he failed. Yes, he re-established the Latins in the Holy Land, allowing them to hold out for another one hundred years, but that was not the goal of his crusade. Richard came to take back Jerusalem, and he did not succeed. For while he bested Saladin in battle, he could not match the Saracen king’s ability to hold his army together. Richard’s outsized personality drove away his French and German allies, and his lack of foresight – he left behind a toxic situation in England – necessitated his return. So despite never losing a battle in the Holy Land, he was forced to make peace, a peace that he found so distasteful he refused to put his seal to it.

Of course, his rather mixed results on crusade have done nothing to dent Richard’s legend as perhaps England’s greatest king. He has that great moniker – Coeur de Lion… Lionheart – with all the romance and chivalry that it invokes. His statue occupies one of the choicer spots in London, the Old Palace Yard, where he looms over the entrance to Westminster Palace. He has been the hero of many a tale, from the late Middle Ages to our day.

The opinion of historians has been more mixed, so much so that John Gillingham, the renowned historian of the Angevins, titled the first chapter of his biography of Richard “The Best of Kings, the Worst of Kings.” Richard has been hailed as a great warrior and paragon of knightly virtue, whose crusade secured the Holy Land for a hundred years and who in Europe successfully defended English lands from the French. He has been castigated, in the words of Sir Steven Runciman, as “a bad son, a bad husband, and a bad king, but a gallant and splendid soldier.” Critics have taken him to task for his high taxes, for failing to provide England an heir, and for wasting time, money, and lives on a crusade that accomplished nothing of lasting good for England. So which is it? Is Richard the best of English kings or the worst?

But wait! Before determining his relative greatness, we must deal with the English part of the equation. For despite the fact that Richard has become something of an embodiment of English virtue, he was really rather French. Yes, he was born in Oxford and raised in England until around the age of eight. And yes, he was crowned king at Westminster. But that’s about all there was about him that was English. Richard spent his formative years in France. He spoke French. (He might have known English, but there is no record of his having spoken it.) As a king, he spent less than six months in England. (He spent more time in the Holy Land!) Of course, there was a good reason for this. Richard’s English territories were secure, so his presence there was not needed as it was in France or Outremer. That said, he really did not seem to care much for England. Accustomed to the sunny climate of Aquitaine, he is said to have complained that England was always cold and raining. Indeed, he treated it much as later kings would treat the colonies in the Americas: as a source of revenue for wars elsewhere. To fund his crusade, he levied heavy taxes and sold offices and royal lands. He is even said to have declared, “I would have sold London if I could find a buyer.” He was not buried in England, but rather piecemeal in France – his body in his family’s ancestral lands of Anjou; his heart in Rouen, the seat of his Norman dukedom; and his guts in Châlus, where he died. His heart, then, literally belonged to France. Richard may have been King of England, but in language, culture, and attitude he was more French than English.

But was he a good king? By modern standards, he seems a rather nasty piece of work. He twice made war on his father and hounded him to death. His coronation was marred by an anti-Jewish pogrom that he played a key role in provoking. He conducted war through rape and pillage – most notably in Cyprus. He executed over three thousand Saracen prisoners of war at Acre. He was unfaithful to his wife. But of course, it is not fair to judge him by today’s comparatively lofty ethical standards. Richard was hardly alone in promoting anti-Jewish violence, and at least he did put laws on the books to limit it (even if those laws were hardly enforced). Rape and pillage were a part of war. Even executing prisoners was far from unprecedented. Being unfaithful to his wife was almost expected in a king of his age (though his failure to produce an heir was rather more disappointing for contemporaries).

How does Richard stand up to contemporary judgment? It depends on who was doing the judging. Accounts of Richard come almost exclusively from two sources: nobles and clerics. One might think his Crusade would win him the favour of the Church, but at least in England, not so much. The Church tended to judge kings mainly on one criterion: did they leave the Church’s vast wealth alone? Richard did not. He taxed the Church heavily to fund both his Crusade and his ransom. Accordingly he received low marks from many clerical chroniclers.

His nobles – or at least the troubadours and poets they employed – viewed him in a different light. They were born and raised to fight, and what they valued above all was a king who was an effective warrior. They wanted someone who could lead them to victory and in doing so protect their holdings. Richard was really good at this. He won his first battle at age 16. His youthful exploits earned him the name of Lionheart even before he became king. Once on the throne, he kept his vassals in line, and protected his realm from King Philip of France. And his crusade is a chronicle of one victory after another.

But what about those who have left no records: the common people? For the people in his French territories, Richard’s reign meant near constant war. For the people of England, it meant heavy taxes. It also meant a rise in brigandry: many of the men he had freed from prison to go on crusade became outlaws upon their return. And it meant years of civil war, for which Richard must bear much of the blame. When leaving for his crusade, Richard approached choosing a regent as a chance to collect money from the highest bidder, which is perhaps why he chose two: Hugh de Puiset, Bishop of Durham, and William de Mandeville, Earl of Essex. Two regents is typically one too many, and so it proved in this case. William de Mandeville promptly died, to be replaced by the chancellor William Longchamp, who rather swiftly removed Puiset from his post. Longchamp, a native of Normandy, was a poor choice, who quickly alienated the English.

Richard might have done better to choose his heir as one of the regents. That was not possible, however, because in another error of judgment, he left England without having chosen an official heir. Later, while on Sicily, he selected his cousin Arthur of Brittany, but it was too late. Richard’s brother John had already set himself up as an alternative to the unpopular Longchamp. The result was four years of chaos and unrest until Richard’s eventual return, by which time John had already lost a sizeable part of the English crown’s French possessions. Yes, John was a famously bad ruler, but much of this mess must be laid at the feet of Richard.

Richard made matters worse by getting captured while returning from his crusade. Again, he had only himself to blame. His captor was a fellow crusader: Leopold, Duke of Austria. At Acre, Richard had cast Leopold’s standard down from the wall and refused to give him an equal part of the spoils. Leopold also accused Richard of conspiring in the death of his cousin, Conrad of Montferrat. Richard certainly wanted Conrad dead. The barons of the Holy Land had been named him King of Jerusalem instead of Richard’s candidate, Guy de Lusignan. A few days later, Conrad was murdered by assassins. We will never know if Richard was responsible, but it wouldn’t have been out of character. While Richard sat in prison, the chaos in England and his French territories intensified. His eventual ransom came at a huge cost: 65,000 pounds of silver, or two to three times the annual income of the English crown. On his return, Richard poured all his money and energy into war with King Philip of France. He again won some great victories. Again, the common people probably did not care.

That said, the lot of the common people was not exactly great under the other English kings of Richard’s era. His father Henry II also spent most of his time and the kingdom’s wealth on wars in France. Indeed, this would be an ongoing obsession of English kings. England may have been a bit chaotic when Richard was on crusade, but it never reached the destructive level of the civil war between Stephen and Matilda. In terms of taxes, Richard’s were more onerous than those of his father, but less than those of his successor John.

In terms of daily governance, then, he was not the best of kings, but he was far from the worst. He was certainly a great warrior, and in his day and age, that was a lot of what made a good king. But while he was almost unbeatable in the field, he proved his own worst enemy by bungling his choice of regent and hair, and alienating fellow rulers like Philip of France and Leopold of Austria. He also failed in one of a king’s most important tasks: producing an heir. Richard was capable (he birthed at least one bastard), but he delayed his marriage and then seems to have been less than interested in his wife.

How great, then was he? Calling Richard the greatest English king is a bit much. His politics were too clumsy for that and his rule was marred by the troubles during his prolonged absence on crusade. And it must never be forgotten just how French this English king was. That said, he was probably the greatest warrior to ever be king of England. In my humble opinion, he is also the most enjoyable of all English kings to fictionalize. And perhaps that more than anything explains why he remains such a legendary figure.

A wonderful book that is at once deeply philosophical and thoroughly enjoyable, while bringing the first half of the 20th century to vivid life.

For a book titled Life after Life, there certainly is an abundance of death in Kate Atkinson’s wonderful new novel.  Given the setting – the book’s arc encompasses both World Wars – that is hardly surprising.  Atkinson, however, takes her exploration of death a step further.  She makes it omnipresent in a way that would have pleased the philosophers Søren Kierkegaard or Martin Heidegger.  Kierkegaard wrote that most people live their lives while studiously ignoring their impending death.  That is to say, we know that we will someday die, but we treat our death as a future event with little bearing on the present.  We are mistaken.  Death is real, inevitable, and can come at any time.  Kierkegaard was only halfway joking when he wrote that when accepting an invitation to a party, you should not say, “I shall certainly attend,” but rather, “I shall certainly attend your party, but I must make an exception for the contingency that a roof tile happens to blow down and kill me; for in that case, I cannot attend.”

If Kierkegaard had lived today and had written a novel (a lot of “ifs” I know, but bear with me), it might have looked something like Life after Life.  Martin Heidegger – who shared Kierkegaard’s philosophy of death – wrote that “As soon as a man comes to life, he is at once old enough to die.”  And sure enough, the book’s heroine Ursula Todd has no sooner been born than she departs this world, her umbilical cord wrapped around her little neck.  This is no spoiler.  It happens within the first ten pages.  As the story unfolds, Ursula dies, and dies, and dies.  She drowns.  She falls.  She is crushed.  She is shot.  She asphyxiates.  And each death starts a new life, a chance to do it over again, a chance to get it right.

The result, for me, was a rather novel experience in which I read in constant anticipation of death, the precise state of mind in which Kierkegaard and Heidegger insisted we should all live.  The question constantly lurked: when will Urusula die?  Rather than being morbid, this obsession with death adds an extra measure of poignancy to each telling of Ursula’s life.  It also allows Atkinson to explore the contingency of life.  As we go through cycle after cycle of Ursula’s life, we see how the smallest events can change the course of an entire existence.  A chance encounter with one of her brother’s friends leads a young Ursula to a life of misery.  A decision to take a walk saves a life.  The gas on the stove flits out for a moment, and she dies.  It stays on, and she lives another twenty years.  Chance plays a role, as do the decisions of Ursula and the cast of interesting characters that surround her.  There is no fate, only repetition.

Which is another of Kierkegaard’s favorite subjects.  Indeed, I suspect that Atkinson has read her fair share of the Danish philosopher.  Fortunately, her book is a more enjoyable read than anything Kierkegaard produced (which is not damning with faint praise, as I rather enjoy Kierkegaard).  Normally the use of words like “fug”, “thrawn”, and “pulchritude” might be enough to turn me off, but Atkinson is a good enough writer to get away with such embellishments.  And she brings the past to vivid life, particularly the Blitz.  Some of the images she invokes – crawling though the ruins of an apartment building and finding oneself kneeling on the spongy remains of a baby caught in the explosion – will stick with me for some time, though I might rather forget them.  And I was glad to see that Atkinson also takes us inside the German bomb shelters.  For as horrible as the Blitz was, the bombing of Germany was much, much worse.  More than 40,000 civilians were killed in England, while between 300,000 and 500,000 German civilians died in RAF bombings that did little to aid the Allied war effort, but which certainly exacted a grizzly revenge for the Blitz.

Life after Life does not have much in the way of traditional plot, nor could it, considering the frequent deaths of its heroine.  It is a meditation on the nature of life and a character study, and fortunately, Atkinson has peopled it with a number of compelling characters.  Ursula’s acerbic mother and kind father, her boorish older brother and sweet, clear-headed sister Pamela, her unorthodox aunt, her lovers, neighbors, and friends are all vividly portrayed.  Indeed, the cast of characters is rich enough that the necessarily repetitive nature of the novel never becomes tedious.  In addition, Atkinson does a wonderful job of continually tweaking the book’s formula in order to keep the reader interested.  When a moment in her life starts to grow stale, the book moves on.  Sometimes, I longed for Ursula to dies.  Sometimes, I rooted for her to live.

In the end, Ursula embraces her mortality in a way that is a bit fantastical, but utterly satisfying.  Kierkegaard felt that to truly live, we must accept that we could die at any time.  By the end of Life after Life, it is safe to say that Ursula Todd has surely done so.

The civil war in Syria, which began in March 2011, has now gone on for so long that it has ceased to be news. As the opposition struggle against the Assad regime has stretched over weeks, then months, then years, the conflict has migrated from the front to the back pages of western newspapers. In the age of the 24 hour news cycle, we like our revolutions fast. We appear to have little patience for this sort of drawn out affair. Only when something truly terrible happens do we take notice. If then.

Last week, for instance, a truce was called in Aleppo to allow for the collection of rotting corpses. Red Crescent workers and members of an opposition council drove into the Al-Sakhour district to pick up bodies, many of which had been decomposing for months. The majority of the dead were children. At a time when the Boston Marathon bombing is grabbing all the headlines, it is worth remembering that things like this are still happening on a regular basis in Syria.

The battle for Aleppo, in particular, has produced tragedy on a truly horrific scale, with over ten thousand dead – over half of them civilians – some 4,500 people missing, a million having fled, and most of those who remain in need of humanitarian assistance. The battle has raged for nearly a year since 19 July 2012, when rebel forced stormed the city. It has featured some 7,000 rebels battling the Assad regime’s army of 10,000. After initially capturing several districts and pressing close to the Old City at the heart of Aleppo, the rebels were driven back. What followed over the next months was a continual cycle of rebel offensives met with government shelling. Initially, the government had the upper hand, but gradually, the rebels expanded their toehold in the city, winning a few more neighbourhoods with each cycle of violence. Eventually, they managed to seize the southwest Aleppo and the towns to the city’s south, thereby cutting the government forces off from reinforcements coming from Damascus. The battle has become a siege.

And in this siege, there are no heroes. Government shelling of neighbourhoods controlled by rebel forces has killed thousands of civilians. Bodies of men and children executed by the military have been found dumped in the Quweiq River, which flows through the city. The rebels, meanwhile, have resorted to car and suicide bombs during lulls in the fighting. They, too, have killed countless civilians. They have undertaken widespread looting to supply themselves. And by taking shelter in civilian homes – often against the will of the civilians, the majority of whom support the government forces – they have contributed to the shelling of innocents. The ones who suffer the most from all of this are the people of Aleppo. The city has become cut off from the outside world. Many of its people are starving. There are reports that soldiers on both sides of the conflict, as well as some civilians, are taking advantage of the chaos to commit rape on a large scale.

All of this horror can numb us to the point where we just want to look away. I cannot. I have watched the battle for Aleppo from afar with grim fascination, because I have spent much of the last three years writing about Syria and the Holy Land in the age of Saladin. In my Saladin Trilogy I chronicled Saladin’s sieges of Aleppo. Now, the past seems to be intruding on the present. The current battle for the city even started in the Salaheddine district. Much of the fighting has centred on the Old City, which the rebels have repeatedly tried to capture. It is this city – which dates from Greek times – that I have described and written about repeatedly in my novels. Now it is being destroyed before our very eyes.

It can be hard for people unfamiliar with the Middle East to understand the significance of this. Aleppo (or Halab in Arabic) is no sleepy hamlet or backwater town. It is one of the great historic cities of the world, with a current population of over two million. At the heart of it lies the Old City, which was at one time encircled by a wall, much like central Paris or London. So imagine open warfare breaking out on the streets of London or Paris and you will have some idea of what is happening in Aleppo today. The Umayyad Mosque which sits at the heart of the Old City is older than the Tower of London, Notre Dame, or the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Also known as the Great Mosque of Aleppo, it has influenced the construction of mosques throughout the world. Now, this symbolic structure has become the focus of fighting between opposition and government forces. The rebels have blown holes in its walls to gain entrance. They destroyed its northern gate. And at one point, the government appears to have set fire to the great structure before retreating. The mosque has not suffered his level of damage since it was largely destroyed in the great earthquake of 1138. Imagine armed men battling for control of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, and you’ll have an idea of what this means in Syria.

The rest of the Old City has not escaped the carnage. In August, shortly after the rebels attacked the city, the great citadel at its heart came under attack. One of the oldest castles in the world, the citadel sits on a mound of white rock that rises above the city. The mound has been fortified since the days when the Greeks controlled Aleppo. It was manned by the Romans and the Byzantines, who build churches atop the mound that stand today. In Saladin’s time, a mighty gatehouse into the citadel was built, and the imposing walls, which rise directly from the stone slope of the mound, were reinforced. The citadel had not come under attack since 1401, when Tamerlane took Aleppo. Now, it has returned to its original function. The great gatehouse build by Nur ad-Din is pockmarked from bullets, and crumbled stone is piled in the entryway.

The citadel, however, was built to withstand attack, and it has stood up surprisingly well to modern arms. The souqs of the city have not. These covered markets are what made Aleppo famous in medieval days and beyond, when the city was the chief entrepôt for eastern goods entering the West. They still are – or rather were – the glory of the city. The souqs – much like the more famous covered markets of Istanbul – consist of streets that have been roofed over with stone. Each street or neighbourhood specializes in a certain good. As the pictures below make clear, they are largely in ruins now.

Aleppo Souk    Aleppo Ruined Souk

 

The tragedy in Aleppo is thus a double one. The human suffering is first and foremost, as it should be. But alongside it is the destruction of one of the world’s great cities. The past that I write about – the past of Saladin and the Crusades – is special in many ways, one of which is that it has remained mostly intact in Syria. Until recently, the citadel, Great Mosque, and souqs of Aleppo appeared much the same as they did in Saladin’s day. One could in a sense step directly into the past. Now, that past is being destroyed piece by piece, as the bloody conflicts that defined the city’s past recur in the present. When writing about Saladin’s sieges of the city – about the suffering of the people cut off from outside supplies and help – I never dreamed I would live to such a thing played out again. It is with great sadness that I have.

I love to read and have since I was a child.  My love of books is why I became a novelist in the first place.  It has been a bit disappointing, then, to find that the more I write, the less I seem to read.  When I do find time for a book, it is usually research for one of my novels.  Between writing, research and my lovely-but-time-intensive young daughters, it has gotten to the point where I’m lucky if I read ten novels in a year.

No more!  In an effort to force myself to read more, I have decided to start posting bi-weekly (that’s fortnightly, not twice a week) reviews of books I have read.  Most reviews will be of historical fiction novels, although the occasional non-fiction book will creep in.  I’ve started with a review of David Cowley’s non-fiction book, How We’d Talk if the English Had WON in 1066, which is a beginner’s guide to how English might have looked had William the Conqueror been instead William the Defeated.  Upcoming reviews will include Tim Griggs’ Distant Thunder, Manda Scott’s The Art of War, and Jane Harlond’s The Chosen Man.

David Cowley’s book is an enjoyable thought experiment – a beginners guide not to Old English, but to how modern English might have looked had the English won at Hastings.

How would we talk if the English had won at Hastings?  The giant question hinted at on the cover of David Cowley’s interesting book is front and centre throughout.  As Cowley himself admits (in updated Old English), “Swith hard to tell!”  Indeed it is.  Counterfactuals tend to make historians like myself a bit uneasy, and this one is a doozy.  Nearly a thousand years have passed since William bested Harold.  That’s a lot of time.  If the outcome of the battle were changed, it is impossible to know where we’d be today.

One can say with certainty, though, that a lot besides our language would be different.  The Norman invasion took England out of a Scandinavian orbit including Denmark, Sweden, and Norway and brought it into a different one focused on the relationship with France and Western Europe.  It ended slavery in England (over 10% of the English were recorded as slaves in the Domesday book of 1086) and replaced it with feudalism – hardly an improvement since slaves, unlike serfs, could at least in some cases buy their freedom.  And it perhaps made England a more secure country through the Normans’ devotion to castle building.  It is worth bearing in mind that before William and his followers conquered England, it had already fallen to the Romans, the Angles and Saxons, and only fifty years previously, the Danes.  Would England have remained unconquered if Harold had won?  Maybe not.

All of these uncertainties mean that it is impossible to know how the English language might have evolved had Harold won.  Before William, the language of the Britons had already been pushed to the fringes of the island, living on only in Wales.  It left only a few traces in Old English.  And in Harold’s time, the Danish presence in England was making its presence felt on the language, producing words like “earl”, “berserk”, “lad”, and even “egg”.  It was the rubbing together of Old English and Old Norse that had begun to remove the case endings from Old English.  Had Harold driven out both the Danes and the Normans, might English have remained a case language, like German?  Had the Danes invaded again, might it look more like Danish?  Or might it have evolved more like Cowley suggests when he presents a list of words “based on a knowledge of how current words which are from Old English have changed since that time”?  Any or none of these is possible.

Setting aside, then, the impossible question of how we might speak had Harold won, Cowley’s book is great fun, and a real treasure for authors and re-enactors seeking to write or speak in a form of English that is both intelligible to modern readers and at the same time closer to the language of our Saxon ancestors.  For readers who read Old English, scanning his list of updated words is a fun game of linguistic what-if.  Personally, I have found his book something of a godsend as I seek to create more authentic dialogue for the Saxon characters in my books.

While Cowley attempts to impart some of the basics of Old English grammar with a few interesting lessons, for the most part his book is simply a really big list of updated Old English words.  Because the words are updated, he is in effect presenting a different version of modern English, a version stripped of Latin and French additions and enriched by some lost words from the past, some of which are immediately understandable and some of which are not.  Among the former some of my favourites include “bonebreach” (bone fracture), “eldfather” (grandfather), “goldhoard” (treasure), “hungerbitten” (famished), “oathbreach” (perjury), and “searim” (shore).  These words have an otherworldly yet familiar feel that takes the reader back immediately to “days gone by” (to borrow another phrases suggested by Cowley).  Amongst the less obvious words, are such treats as “smicker” (which means “elegant” but sounds, to my ear, anything but), “swike” (deceit), “tharfer” (pauper), and “werekin” (the human race… as opposed to, say, werewolves).

All told, the book has more than enough interesting and fun words to entertain even the casual reader.  But is there enough here to justify Cowley’s contention that our language might be better off if the English had won at Hastings?  Of this, I am less certain.  Cowley argues that class differences would be less sharply drawn had there been no linguistic split between French speaking nobles and English speaking commoners.  Perhaps.  Looking across the Channel, however, we see no such split in France, and yet the French managed to develop some pretty stark class differences.  And we must remember that pre-Conquest England – a land of ealdorman, thegns, ceorls, thralls, and slaves – was not exactly egalitarian.

As for the fate of the English language, it is true that we are missing some words from our past, but we have gained many, many more.  For Cowley, this is a potential problem.  He points to “sight” and “vision” as the sort of unnecessary duplication that Hastings wrought.  But to my mind, the wealth of words we have to choose from is part of what makes English such a rich language.  For “sight” and “vision” are not exact equivalents.  Calling someone a man of great vision does not mean the same as calling him a man of great sight.  And a woman can have foresight or second sight while forevision and second vision sound like medical conditions.  Combining Old English and Old French has given us a wealth of words with subtly differing connotations.  It has given us the language of Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Dickens, Austen, and Eliot.  That, in my opinion, is worth a little confusion.

One of the more surreal aspects of being a writer is receiving fan mail (or fan email, to be more precise).  It’s not something I thought much about before I published my first novel.  I write because I love it.  I love digging into history and bringing the past to life.  I feel privileged – ridiculously lucky, really – to be paid to do it… all the more so since I would keep writing even if I were not paid.

The writing process can be intensely private.  For months, I’m locked inside my own head, only coming out to consult history books or ancient documents.  During the day, I live with my characters in Constantinople or the Holy Land or, lately, Rothom and Westchester.  And when I finish a book, I move right on to the next one.  The publication schedule lags about a year behind my writing pace, so by the time one of my books hits the shelves, I’m usually putting the finishing touches on draft one of my next novel.

So when someone writes me to tell me they liked one of my books (or not), I feel somewhat like a fish that has been caught in a net and yanked from the water.  I am immensely pleased, of course.  I feel honored that my writing could inspire someone to write to me.  But it’s also a bit disorienting.  Here I am, swimming in the waters of 11th century Normandy and England, and along come an email about the fall of Constantinople (Siege) or the Crusades (Eagle or Kingdom).  It’s a strange feeling.  I often blink in surprise as I think: yes, I did write that, didn’t I.  Then I smile and write a note of thanks, which is truly heartfelt.

Occasionally, I receive a message that inspires a bit longer of a response.  Recently, a reader wrote to me about Eagle concerning the image of Arabs as portrayed in the West and “Neo-Orientalism.”  Since one of my goals in writing the Saladin Trilogy was to challenge popular stereotypes of the Middle East (and of Christian crusaders), I thought I’d post her letters (edited a bit for brevity), and my responses here:

Message to me:

Hi,

I am working on my MPhil dissertation these days. I am working on the Arab image in Tariq Ali’s “The book of Saladin” with reference to what he calls the Orientalist’s exotica… In Mr Ali’s book I came across the fact that he is over turning the Stereotypes related to the Arab’s and portraying instead the ‘barbarian’ western invaders. Keeping this idea in mind i was looking for a book that portrays the same idea and I came across your book “Eagle”, I read it, liked it…  You have mentioned in your historical note that the Islamic Orient at that time was much more advanced than the west. If we keep this in mind can we safely say that the Overturning of the Oriental and Occidental stereotypes is an upcoming feature of Neo-Orientalism? Plus is it safe to say that in doing so, you have abrogated the Western seat of power and appropriated the same dynamics of power to the East? And do you consider yourself a Neo-Orientalist?

Waiting anxiously for your reply

My response:

First off, I’m glad you enjoyed “Eagle.”  I’m also glad you’re working on Tariq Ali’s “The Book of Saladin.”  It is a wonderful book.

If by Neo-Orientalist you mean someone who would like to overturn established tropes and stereotypes regarding the East and West and replace them with a more nuanced and accurate picture, then sure, I am a Neo-Orientalist.  While I do believe that it is important to overturn these stereotypes, I don’t see myself as “appropriating the same dynamics of power to the East.”  Indeed, I don’t believe that power can be transferred by the mere construction or deconstruction of what Edward Said referred to as “imaginative geographies.”  If you have not read Said’s “Orientalism” — which seems to have strongly influenced Tariq Ali’s ideas — then you should.  Said points out that the practice of imaginative geography (the way that exotic, distant places are imagined in terms of local experiences and concerns) takes “place between all cultures, certainly, and between all men.”  That is to say that people in the East have their own set of stereotypes and misconceptions of the West, based more on their own history, politics, and concerns than on reality.  But these sorts of ideas alone do not generate any sort of power dynamic.  Indeed, the West’s imaginative geography of the East only became Orientalism, in Said’s view, when it was applied in a context of imperialism.  That is: imaginative geography allied to political, military, and economic dominance is what produced Orientalism.  So overturning the myths of Orientalism will not be enough to dissolve western power or to grant power to “orientalized” peoples.  That must happen at the level of politics and economics, though, hopefully, cultural changes can help to spur political and economic change.

That said, the best that I hope for from my books is greater understanding between the West and the East.  Understanding is the first step to overcoming fear and prejudice, and if people in the West can overcome their fears of the East, and the Middle East in particular, then perhaps it will free our leaders to make more enlightened decisions.  I hope so, anyway.

All the best.

Her reply:

Thank you so much for your reply, it has made me rethink my idea of the appropriation of power to the East. I just have one more question, do you believe that the twain (East and West) can meet? Can East and West be friends on, lets say, more than individual levels? Are nations of Johns and Yusufs possible?

My answer:

I’m glad to have been of help.

I do think that the East and West can be friends, although I think that the East (a rather all-encompassing term for a rather heterogeneous group of nations) first needs to address its own internal divisions.  Remember that for most of its history, the West has itself been riven by internal conflict.  If you had asked a European as late as 1944 if all of Europe could coexist in harmony, they would have been deeply skeptical.  The current period of peace and cooperation amongst European nations (disagreements over monetary policy aside) is truly remarkable and I think offers hope for the rest of the world.  If India and Pakistan, China and Japan, Iran and Iraq, Armenia and Azerbaijan, can find a way to cooperate and set aside their difference, then I think that will be a first and perhaps necessary step towards greater harmony between East and West.

….

And now, it’s back to medieval England!

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