Once more into the breach…

>On October 25, 1415, about 6,000 battle-weary English troops faced some 30,000 fresh French soldiers outside the town of Agincourt, who blocked the way to Calais and escape. Four hours later, most of the French lay dead, the English had lost less than 200 men, and the only explanation anyone could imagine was that God had lent a hand. This may have been the case, but military historians agree that it was certainly the hands of some 5,000 English and Welsh archers that carried the day.

Bernard Cornwell is a prolific historical novelist who lives on Cape Cod and has written almost two dozen books about his most famous character, Richard Sharpe, a British soldier in the Napoleonic era. His twenty or so other novels have been set in diverse time periods and places, from English pre-history to the mid-nineteenth century, and all are well-researched.

In Agincourt, Nicholas Hook is “Joe the Archer” in fifteenth-century England—just a guy with a bow, trying to make a living. Nick is nineteen and not the sharpest arrow in the quiver, but he can draw a 150-pound longbow, shoots better than most, and has the stomach to do what needs to be done on the battlefield. In an interesting twist, saints whisper advice to him. As is often the case in Cornwell’s books, one particular villain (usually on the same side) keeps cropping up at the most inopportune times to jerk the rug out from under Our Hero. In this case it is a mad priest named Sir Martin, who loves to hang heretics and ravish nuns.

There is no Shakespeare here, for those who would look for echoes of Henry V—in fact the king is presented as an egomaniac convinced he is fulfilling God’s will. In true Cornwell fashion, we are given lots of blood and guts, action, rough-and-tumble interaction between fighting men, and a generally ripping good tale. Nick rescues and subsequently falls for a pretty French girl, rises through the ranks of the army, and kills a great number of people.

Cornwell is at his best when describing military action, especially the workings of siege machinery, small unit tactics, and the organized chaos of battle: “Men of mud and steel, no flesh in sight, lumbering toward the waiting English. And the English were howling hunting cries like rabid devils pursuing Christian souls. And the second arrow storm fell. And the devil’s hail rattled and more men screamed. As the French, at last, attacked.”

As historical novelists go, Cornwell falls in the middle range—good dialogue and action, and convincing settings in broad strokes. His characters and historical detail lack the depth and complexity of the novels of, say, the late lamented Dorothy Dunnett, and his prose is not as edgy as that of Madison Smartt Bell. But he is quite a fine storyteller, which is, after all, what most of us want—and Agincourt will satisfy any armchair adventurer.

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One thought on “Once more into the breach…

  1. >One of the worst pseudo-historical novels I’ve read. Not for the history–Cornwell certainly does his legwork here–but for the unsatisfactory resolution. Situations in history are not known for their neat and easy solutions; History is not something that can be wrapped up and tied with a pretty little bow. And yet, this is what Cornwell does with the ending of his book.

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