Please do be aware: spoilers.
What if there was never any possibility of justice? Not “what if there was never any possibility of justice, despite the fact that we live in a society characterised by laws and law-courts, lawyers and law-makers?”, but, what if there was no possibility of justice as we understand it at all? What if there was no such concept that we could recognise, what if guilt was determined by trial by fire, virtue by armed combat, and power defined entirely by who you were rather than what you did?
It’s such a relief to find so little of the 21st century in Hermann’s Eloise de Montgri. Not only is the second volume in The Towers Of Bois-Maury series entirely free of the pseudo-chivalric affectations of so many historical romances, but it’s unmarked by any of the usual political allegories which tend to frame sword-flashing tales set in medieval times. The peasantry aren’t there to represent the admirable-if-repressed proletariat or the slovenly underclass, the aristocracy don’t stand for either an enlightened and threatened elite or a vilely repressive faux-bourgeoisie. The past is another country, as Hermann emphasises, and they do do things differently there.
Only the character of Eloise de Montgri herself seems an anachronism, but even that serves a purpose. It does appear absurd to imagine the Biba-beautiful, crossbow-wielding, sexually sovereign Eloise travelling alone across feudal France, her “hair cut like a boy’s”, hunting down the renegade noble who once imprisoned and raped her, who decapitated her lover and threw his severed head before her. Yet that very implausibility underscores what a hopeless world Hermann’s is. Justice here is a matter of the violence of vendetta, of the Lord of Montgri destroying his opponent’s castle and slaughtering all inside, of Eloise relying on no-one but herself as she travels up from what’s now northwest Spain in her search for vengeance. There is, of course, no-one else for her to rely on. There’s no rule of law as we’d know it, no police as we’d recognise them, no familiar process by which those who’ve slipped away from their victims and accusers can be pursued and punished. Unlike so many of the vigilantes of today’s revenge fantasies, Eloise steps savagely beyond the boundaries of law and custom because there simply is no other way for her to find any measure of equitable recompense. In her world, justice can’t be anything other than revenge.
If Eloise is no blandly virginal princess, then Sir Aymar de Bois-Maury is similarly no chivalrous blueblood. He occupies the place in the narrative where we’d expect to find a virtuous protagonist, and Hermann often shows Aymar speaking as if he were a textbook, if somewhat down-at-heel, knight in shining armour. But Aymar’s understanding of virtue isn’t ours, and despite moments when he presents himself as the voice of both reason and honour, his own sense of his moral obligations are tellingly parochial and often entirely self-interested. He introduces himself to the peasants of “young Master Basil”, announcing that he’s “heard of much suffering in these parts”, but he does nothing to help ease their plight. Their local war with a murderous gang of brigands is one he refuses at first to join, deciding that it’s far too follyfull a business. When he does throw his hand in, it’s hardly for nothing but high-minded principle, with Aymar shown reminding Basil that he had been offered “a quarter share of the booty” if he’d join the shoeless Lord’s cause. Forever evoking the memories of the Towers after which Hermann’s sequence of books are named, Aymar’s determination to create a more just refuge of a fiefdom in a corrupt world doesn’t match up with his inability to resist sleeping with Eloise, or to even recall that his servant Olivier has been waiting outside in the freezing night while Aymar finishes enjoying himself. To the disinherited Lord of de Bois-Maury, chivalry is something which is in no way entirely incompatible with self-interest, and if he’s a far, far less depraved figure than most of his fellow knights, he’s also no Disneyfied Ivanhoe either.
Hermann’s medieval France is a world so fundamentally corrupt that it reduces the vast majority of its inhabitants to the most heartless of creatures. The pre-pubescent Lord Basil wants nothing more than for Eloise to promise that he can “watch the killing” of his parent’s murderers. His peasants assassinate their unfortunate fellow villagers when they unwisely propose Christian values rather than thieving self-interest. The ram-helmeted shepherd and his marauders cold-heartedly destroy everything they can of the communities which they’ve already looted. Even a senile old man’s scrawny pet of a chicken sparks a protracted family feud over whether such a pathetically unappetising bird should end up in the pot or not. The reader looks around for any cause which might promise something better than the endlessly protracted war of all against all that Hermann plays out for them, but there’s nothing so comforting on view.
Eloise de Montgri begins with the destruction of one castle, climaxes with a reference to a previous such bloodbath, and then concludes with the reconstruction of the de Caulx fortress. It might be imagined that such a closing note would be an optimistic one, with the long winter finally supplanted by spring and the outlaws exterminated. Yet Hermann leaves the reader with the sense that the new castle will inevitably fall too, because it’s not virtue that’s allowed it to be rebuilt so much as exactly the same merciless violence which caused its destruction in the first place. The very last scene in the book shows us an elderly man dragging his aged chicken through a field of daffodils, knowing that his son is set on finally slitting the fowl’s throat. Why would he want to do that, now that the seasons have changed and the community is prosperous enough to live well again? In the absence of the rule of law, Hermann reminds us, that’s just the way that a great many people will be.