Sunday, April 21, 2013

Steen’s Spare, Brave Lionheart

Thorvald Steen’s Lionheart, a historical novel I read in James Anderson’s translation from the original Norwegian, is that odd book that walks—very successfully—a fine line between mundane and (to borrow blurb verbiage) riveting.

File:Richard I of England.pngLionheart tells a stark life story of England’s Kind Richard I, from a tender young age—when his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, begins preparing him for life as a Crusader—and ends with his death from gangrene caused by a kitchen knife that lands in his shoulder because he is too slow to duck. Though the Richard the Lionheart I found on the Internet died from an arrow, I rather like Steen’s version, particularly since Richard is wearing no chain mail and has just eaten two chicken legs before the fatal knife throw.

Steen’s cause of death for Richard fits an almost surgical-feeling sense of the absurd in Lionheart. Steen focuses largely on Richard’s relationships, showing Eleanor’s meddling control (I think I wrote “Freud” somewhere in the margins), the sense Richard might have liked to be a poet, and a bit of an obsession with his enemy, Saladin. And King Philip II of France. And a beautiful nun. There’s action, too, with battles and an imprisonment, but Richard comes across most of all as a conflicted man who thinks maybe he’s destined to fight the good fight, for God.

I realize it’s dangerous to get too many of my history lessons from fiction—and movies like The Lion inWinter, where I first met both Eleanor, reincarnated in the form of Katharine Hepburn, and Richard, as presented by Anthony Hopkins—but books like Lionheart make the fictional versions so much fun I can’t help myself. Steen’s spare mixture of history, court and familial conflicts, novelisticness, and dry humor might not work for you, but it worked mysteriously well for me, and Anderson’s translation read well, too, creating a nice example of a translated text about the distant past that’s written in modern language.

Up Next: Christopher R. Howard’s Tea of Ulaanbaatar and Charles Elton’s Mr. Toppit

Disclaimer: I received a copy of Lionheart from University of Chicago Press, which distributes books for Seagull Books in the United States. Thank you very much!

Image credit: Portrait of Richard I, from 1620, from, via Wikipedia Commons.