Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell
[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
Often there is a fine line between historical fiction and fantasy. In the case of Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell, the line is especially blurry. Of course, there is no magic or elves or dragons. That’s not to say that things are completely mundane, but there is that very important distinction.
Agincourt is set in the time of Henry V and Bernard Cornwell paints a vividly bleak picture of the conditions that people lived in back then; It’s dirty, people are often sick, and the difference between the haves and have-nots is profound. It’s not a good time to be a woman and the atrocities that are committed are absolutely horrific, but true to life. Some of these events are not for the easily offended.
Although he is the main character — the “hero” — of Agincourt, Nicholas Hook is not a very nice guy. He is a deadly English archer and we are not given many reasons to like him at the beginning of this story. After running into trouble with the local lord, Hook journeys through London and eventually to France as part of the army Henry V has raised in order to try to claim his right to the throne of France. Again, Cornwell realistically depicts the crude conditions that the army lives in as the soldiers die more often from the horrible conditions and disease that breeds in their camps than they do from actual fighting.
Agincourt skirts the line between historical fiction and fantasy when Hook begins to receive inspiration and specific instructions from saints. There are a number of instances where he is supernaturally prompted to action that he does not follow, leading to tragic consequences. Hook is surprised to realize that he is most fortunate when he listens to, and obeys, the saints. Cornwell heightens this conflict by juxtaposing the bleak state of religion and the loathsome excesses of the clergy with the voices of the saints who these priests are supposed to represent.
Cornwell’s Agincourt is a great read and a wonderful reminder of how far society has come that physical might does not always make right. From the depredations of an army at war to the heroic acts of an inspired individual, I was deeply touched by the story. There is plenty of fighting and violence, but more importantly, there are acts of honor and nobility that reminded me that even in darkness there are deeds that are worth commemorating.