"During his reign, France was a great country, and the French were the most miserable of all people."
George R.R. Martin has apparently called The Accursed Kings, a seven-book historical novel series by Maurice Druon, 'the original game of thrones'. Which pretty much means that soon everyone and their grandma will be reading these.
Well, for once I'm the cool kid (ahem, I mean, nerdy overachiever, of course) who can say - Well, I first read¹ these books years ago, having spent every penny of my sparse pocket money on these tomes.
¹ Actually, 'read' is an incorrect description. I *inhaled* these books (figuratively) at the age of 11, completely entranced by the fascinating world of historical intrigue, for the first time having realized that history is not just the boring collection of dates, names and battles - that the wheel of history can be turned by people who are very much unaware of the overarching implications of their actions and scheming.
This book, the first in The Accursed Kings series, drops the reader smack into the middle of French palace intrigues that surrounded the last year (1314) of the reign of Philippe IV (a.k.a. Philippe the Fair - as in 'pretty', and not 'just') - and into the thick of the events that eventually precipitated the Hundred Years' War between England and France.
'Sir, you have turned the fractured land into a united country that is beginning to have a single beating heart.'
Philippe IV, informally known as the titular Iron King because of his iron will and cruelty, "the impassive and cruel ruler" who "harbored the dream of the greatness of France as a nation" and managed to turn it into a force to be reckoned with (but, at the same time, the land of incredibly heavy taxes and cruel tyrannical attitude to anyone from whom the king could get the money to finance his dream of absolute power) and also the place where "everyone had to obey, bend their backs, or break their foreheads on the granite of the monarchical rule". Philippe entered the annals of history as a ruthless, merciless, cold ruler - something that in this book he's unaware of until the baffling discovery - alas, too late.
"Two terrifying phrases that turned his heart cold: "Even if there's nobody in the world more handsome than Philippe, he can only look at people but he has nothing to say to them. He is not a human, not even an animal - he's just a statue."
And another testimony of yet another witness of Philippe's reign: "Nothing will make him bow; he is the Iron King."
'The Iron King,' muttered Philippe the Fair. 'So was I this good at hiding my weaknesses? How little the others know about us, and how strictly will I be judged by the posterity!"
Philippe the Fair did not appreciate strong opposition - something that the Order of the Knights Templar has learned the hard way, having been mercilessly destroyed by the king's power, with its elderly leader Jacques De Molay burned for his supposed crimes to which he had confessed after years of torture. And, burning to death, De Molay, tortured and betrayed, screams out a curse that, according to Druon, will haunt the King and his progeny for years to come:
"Pope Clement... Knight Guillaume de Nogaret... King Philippe - within a year I will call you to the Lord's judgment and you will be justly punished! Accursed! You shall be accursed to the thirteenth generation!"
King Philippe seemingly would have had no reason to worry. With three adult married sons and a daughter married to the King of England, his descendants should have ruled France for centuries to come. Alas, the direct line of ruling House of Capet came to the end a decade and a half after the chilling curse (not a spoiler, okay - it's history). Was it the Knight's Templar curse? Was it simply an unlucky yet inevitable chain of events? Who knows. But, as history shows, the actions of people involved in making history can have consequences no one can foresee.
"People called to play an important role in history mostly are unaware how the events they usher in will play out. These two, talking in Westminster palace at the March sunset in 1314, could not even imagine that due to coincidences, due to their own actions they will give push to a war between the kingdoms of France and England - a war that would last for more than a hundred years."
These two, as it turns out, are Queen Isabelle and Robert D'Artois, conspiring to bring to light the infidelities of Princesses Marguerite and Blanche, married to Isabelle's brothers, the sons of King Philippe the Fair.
Robert D'Artois, a scheming brute giant of a man (six feet tall in the 14th century was no joke!), deprived of his inheritance and status, will do anything to hurt his aunt Mahaut to whom he lost his inheritance - another skilled intriguer and a mother and cousin of the adulteresses. Queen Isabelle, a spurned wife of Edward II of England who allows his 'favorites' to run his kingdom, is indignant of the shame the affair brings to her royal family of France - and is resentful of the pleasures and happiness the others - and not her, the Queen and the unloved wife - are allowed to have.
One of the strongest elements in the entire The Accursed Kings series is the larger than life character of Robert D'Artois, the scheming intriguer pursuing his never-ending goal of righting the real and imaginary wrongs against him, obsessed with power struggle between him and Countess Mahaut D'Artois, a powerful woman who appears to be evenly matched in the art of intrigue with her boisterous nephew. Robert, a cruel and merciless man is nevertheless somehow absolutely charmingly fascinating in his humor and unstoppable vitality.
When I was 11, I was torn between having a serious literary crush on him and his complete opposite - cold-headed and rational Philippe, count of Poitiers, the middle son of Philippe IV (and, since history precludes the idea of spoilers, future Philippe V).
In this world of palace intrigue, Robert, Mahaut and Charles Valois (Philippe IV's younger power-obsessed brother) are the aspiring puppetmasters trying to use the rest of the world as their marionettes. Philippe IV's children Isabelle and (eventually) Philippe de Poitiers are worthy schemers in their own right. Tolomei, an Italian banker, however, knows where the money is - since no scheming can be done without the money. And Louis X the Quarreler (Philippe IV's eldest son and the heir to the throne) is a weak pathetic man who is destined to be a marionette rather than a puppetmaster.
This is a book full of intrigues and politics - and scandals, love, deceptions, betrayals, heartbreaks, murders, cruelty, vitality, blood, money, and all the other things that make history so alluring and yet so terrifying. And, if you want to find out what happens in the end, you don't need to wait until you read all the books (even though they all have been finished long ago, in 1955-1960, with the unexpected 7th volume following in 1977) - you can consult your history books (or Wikipedia, really) to see how it all turned out. And you will see that everyone is in this book to play a role that the unrelenting history has decided they should play, no exceptions. (Even Guccio Baglioni is here for a reason other than being a liaison between the powerful of this world - the reason that we will eventually find out - or, for the history buffs, remember what small but tragic role history eventually set aside for a man who shared Guccio's surname.)
And you do not have to be a history buff to understand and enjoy the plotline of this book (I surely wasn't one at eleven!) - Druon weaves the political details of that time into his narrative quite seamlessly, easily bringing his readers up to speed on the 14th century France.
When I started my re-read, I was a bit afraid that the overwhelming childhood adoration of this book will not stand the test of time. I should not have worried - it withstood that test with the untouchable air that would have made even Philippe the Fair envious. It's a lovely fascinating and nicely paced book that brings history to life - to the point where a certain nerdy 11-year-old reader would bring it to school to read it at recess.
4 French lilies and a relieved sigh at the lack of disappointment and disillusionment in this beloved childhood companion.
"Do I need to remind you, Isabelle, what we are obligated to sacrifice for the sake of our position and that we are born not to succumb to our personal grievances? We do not live our own lives; we live for the sake of our kingdom and only through this we can find satisfaction - of course, only if we are worthy of our high station in life."
A side note: There is a lovely 1972 French TV series based on this book, made to look almost like a theater production, and it has English subtitles. It's quite interesting, and can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TIdo7BsI17Q
Another side note: I read this book (both times) in Russian translation as I don't read French and English translations of French books are in my opinion too lifeless and cumbersome. So I cannot comment on the quality of the current translation - but the Russian one (for those who read it) is full of life and is truly excellent.