Knightly adventures from the 12th century
"Revenge of the Rose," by Nicole Galland, Harper Paperbacks, 2007, $14.95. 480 pp.
Tisbury author Nicole Galland -- her family put the Holmes in Holmes Hole -- may just corner the market for popular historical novels set in the Middle Ages. She has finished two, and "Crossed: A Novel of the Fourth Crusade" is due out in February. A new one about the abduction of an 11th-century abbess is in the works. "Revenge of the Rose," her second novel, was recently released in paperback.
"Revenge of the Rose" brings alive an era that most of us might assume was too alien to have much modern-day relevance. The story is based on the adventures of a knight, his sister, their minstrel friend and the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Thanks to Ms. Galland's vivid, fluent, and thoroughly modern prose, these four central figures capture the imagination as readily as any 21st-century characters do.
The Prologue to the story locates readers in the 12th century at Emperor Konrad the Fair's summer camp in the Black Forest, where courtesans have dressed up as highborn ladies for the entertainment of the male members of the court. The setting makes it clear that this novel will not mince words about sexual matters. Like Chaucer and Boccaccio, Ms. Galland depicts a bawdy world, inhabited by people who have an easy, relaxed attitude about most forms of sexual behavior. Male privilege reigns, but the novel quickly makes its position clear about women's rights.
Courtly love, the belief that illicit love of a knight for a lady was ennobling, had opened up possibilities for women, at least to a small degree. Ms. Galland drew from the lively 13th-century romance, "William of Dole," by Jean Renart with its insightful descriptions of medieval life.
The disadvantaged Burgundian knight Willem of Dole, orphaned as a child and left without property thanks to a local count's skullduggery, takes his duties seriously as protector of his mother and sister Lienor. Not that Lienor is altogether pleased with her brother's protection. Mischievous and adventurous, she resents her lack of freedom.
The novelist animates the characters of "Revenge of the Rose" through dialogue that mixes medieval convention with modern inflections to set up the primary tensions in the story. Lienor has reached marriageable age, but her prospects are limited by her diminished circumstances. Through the manipulations of the troubadour Jouglet, Willem is summoned to Konrad's court, where he has the chance to improve both his and his sister's fortunes through his good nature and martial skills.
The mysterious Jouglet, whose singing talents and political acumen have won him a favored position with the emperor, plays a key role in the plot. This wily fellow, who displays ambiguous sexual proclivities, feels a deep loyalty to Willem and Lienor, and he knows how to stay in the emperor's favor. He is determined to advance Willem and Lienor's fortunes for reasons that become clear by the end of the novel.
The imperial steward Marcus also plays a pivotal role in the story. Besotted with Lady Imogen, daughter of the emperor's uncle, he needs the emperor's support to marry her. While the emperor dotes on the humbly born steward, he must also listen to the political currents of his Koenigsbourg court. Konrad's uncle Alphonse, father of Imogen, may prove critical to his imperial holdings. With many members of the court trying to influence him, the emperor must choose a bride for himself before the August First Assembly in Mainz where all his nobles convene.
Ms. Galland's storytelling employs appropriate historical background and terminology without lecturing or talking down to her readers. Especially entertaining is the section on a tournament, which because the reader has come to know the characters so well, moves far beyond static spectacle.
The tone in "Revenge of the Rose" is never solemn. The novelist enjoys poking fun at her characters: Willem's cousin and squire, Erec, has a face "aflame with the imbalances of late-adolescent humors." And conversation never grows stilted or antiquated: Lienor tells her brother, "You'll never be able to marry me off if word gets around that I've been cozying up to some migrant musician."
Witty and literarily sophisticated, Ms. Galland employs the device of titling each chapter as a conceit appropriate to the action as well as the era. The reader is treated to an eclogue, fabliau, panegyric, palinode and madrigal, among others, and each title has a brief explanation for the uninitiated.
By the end of the novel's first of two books, Jouglet makes a startling revelation that sends the story in a new direction. As humane and democratically oriented a ruler as Konrad may be, his court bubbles with intrigue and harbors its share of villains. In addition to the devious Uncle Alphonse, Konrad has an unscrupulous younger brother, Paul, who as second-born has become a priest and papal nuncio to the court. When Alphonse and Paul begin to collude in the second book, Willem finds himself in grave danger.
Then events in "Revenge of the Rose" unfold fast and furiously. Who, for instance, stole the all-important signet ring belonging to Konrad's late father? To what lengths will Lienor's independent temperament take her? Is Willem too noble for his own good? How long will Konrad's patience with the young knight and his court minstrel last? Who will get poisoned? Who will end up marrying?
By the whirlwind ending, these questions get answered, along with a few more. If you're a historical, geographical or linguistic purist, don't look for slavish accuracy, the author herself warns in an appended apologia. The book is a fabulous fantasy, meant to be enjoyed. If you happen to learn a little about the Middle Ages along the way, that's fine, too.
The frantic twists and turns of the plot may wax a bit melodramatic at the end, but the book's strength lies in its investigations of gender bending and sexual identity politics. Many of the characters don't fall into comfortable gender pigeonholes. They're not always sure themselves who they are, and they're not always averse to change. Cloaking some of these very modern confusions in medieval trappings, "Revenge of the Rose" treats them with humor and understanding.
Brooks Robards is a contributing writer to The Times.