Conor Kostick’s new novel, The Retreat, is a thrilling tale set in the Middle Ages during the crusades. It is narrated by Guibert of Rocadamour, a naïve aristocratic youth, who joins a crusade expedition having soaked up the propaganda of the chansons and the chronicles. He is swiftly disabused of his illusions when the expedition is derailed at the outset, with the would-be crusaders sacking the castle of Devinium and stealing its wealth. From there, the novel follows a course of violent actions and reprisals all determined by the cupidity of the characters. So exciting is this tale that it is easy to overlook the political dimensions to the novel and the intriguing ambiguity at its centre.
This is not a history. I write because I feel a dark geas upon me: almost as though I have been condemned to search my own memories and relive these experiences.
Throughout The Retreat, there are references to Hades, the underworld. The narrator, Guibert of Rocadamour, references the line that Achilles’ shade gave to cunning Odysseus: ‘you told him to choose one day of life as a slave in dusty fields over an eternity of death as the ruler of Hades’. Later, he imagines himself as Orpheus, another voyager to Hades. Geas is a Gaelic word that the dictionary defines as ‘(in Irish folklore) an obligation or prohibition magically imposed on a person.’ This central ambiguity about whether the narrator is dead provides a fascinating lens to interpret the novel.
Historical accuracy is subtly present in the novel
Kostick is also an historian of the crusades who has written works like The Social Structure of The First Crusade, which built on his doctoral thesis, ‘The Language of Ordo in The Early Histories of The First Crusade’. So, there is considerable historical erudition subtly introduced in the story. In Chapter 5, Guibert writes:
The news of an expedition travelling to the Holy Land had attracted peasants and burghers of all ages. Entire families of poor people had joined the enterprise: grandparents, parents, and infants. Some of these farmers and city dwellers bore arms, worthless rusty scythes or spears with flimsy points. Most didn’t. Then too, we had monks and nuns of all ages marching with us.
The narrator is a noble who is forced to confront his class bias. This is fundamental to the story. Why? In part it is because the heterogenous make-up of the expedition’s members eventually upend his world view. Guibert often must rely on the good advice of Gerard, a commoner, for example, ‘I did not resent the fact that Gerard, a footsoldier, gave the orders for our army. Unnatural as it was by the standards I was used to at home, we were a long way from Rocadamour’. The is a double meaning in the word ‘unnatural’, implying both a break from the strict hierarchy but also ‘not existing in nature’. The excellent Song of Count Stephen which appears in chapter 16 captures the notion of a world turned upside down in one of its verses:
A monstrous roar comes from the trees.
Another army has appeared where none should be.
It is the cook, the nurse, the old and the sick.
The smith, the washerwoman, the former serf.
In their hands are tools not weapons of war.
The world has turned upside down.
To the monks, the nuns, adolescents and wives.
Count Stephen and his knights owe their lives.
There are some great conversations in the novel that quite subtly fill in the background realities of life in the middle ages. In one instance, there is a tantalizing glimpse of religious heterodoxy when Robert, a knight tells Jacques, a mercenary, about his experiences in the Holy Land. ‘Did you know the Bible doesn’t have all that should be in it?’ Guibert’s tart appraisal is, ‘his voice had in it the enthusiasm of men and women who carried obsessions in their hearts’. ‘Enthusiasm’ conjures up images of religious heresy which was rife in the middles ages.
Later in the novel, Gerard offers an amusing summary of the situation in Ireland,
There are a hundred kings in Ireland, each with a dozen princes, each with a dozen lords and each of them has at least a dozen followers. But every one of these men reckons a descent from the high-kings and that he would make a great and famous king himself one day. So fortunes rise and fall there faster than anywhere else in the world.
An historical novel about the crusades that shows how myths begin
We witness in the novel the myth-making process of the middle ages: the creation of chansons and chronicles which celebrate the valorous deeds of lords and knights. Through a single reference to a chronicle entitled The Deeds of Count Stephen the novel hints of the existence of a history of these events and the reader gets to witness the performance of a section of a chanson, The Song of Count Stephen, which exaggerates the bloody battle that we witnessed in the Beserkir chapter. Guibert is apotheosised as follows: ‘I am thunder and lightning. I am / Storm and wrath. I plunge my blade through iron / And bone. Unquenchable heat burns through me, / Like a forest fire.’ Guibert is slightly dismayed at the liberties that the poet takes with the truth. But the poet is unperturbed, ‘the song requires it. If you want history, speak of your deeds to a scribe. If you want fame, then have me leave the verse as it stands’
Turning the world upside down is probably one of the most enduring leftist slogans of all time, so it’s not accidental when it appears in the work of a left-wing writer. But here, its impact is compounded by the ambiguity at the heart of the novel. That is, the continual reference to ‘Hades’, the underworld, in lines like:
And I had not rid myself of the sensation that the shadows of the forest were those of Hades and we were all dead, that perhaps we had all died in the field with the rest of Shalk’s army, it was just that we did not know it.
‘…then the sky beyond the windows changed to a silvery grey and I knew we were now in Hades.’
Interestingly, this description occurs during the narrator’s nightmare episode in the chapter entitled: ‘A Dream That Affrightens’. I count ten references to Hades in the novel. Is the narrator in fact dead, hence his susceptibility to the levelling of class distinctions?
Class and gender are brilliantly interwoven in the relationship between Guibert and Cataline. Our narrator, the young knight, is full of the cliches of courtly romance while the peasant girl Cataline has already lived through a life of hardship and the savage death of her parents. Her post-coital words are profound: ‘Hush. It’s done. It’s all done. We live.’ Her later brusque rebuttal of his oppressive proprietary romanticism is brilliant and deeply problematic.
I lay with you because you deserved it, for what you did for us. And also because I think we will all be dead soon. Why not enjoy a little sweetness while we can? But I’m not some farmer’s daughter with designs upon a local knight.
Guibert’s relationship with the woman Cataline is a lens through which to view the class differences in medieval society. Noble women did not go on crusades, whereas Cataline and Melinde (a powerful wife of a mercenary leader) are active participants. Guibert is full of romantic clichés, no doubt gleaned from chansons, whereas Cataline is alert the hard reality of life. Her experiences provoke Guibert’s observation that ‘a lady who had never experienced the certainty of her own death, never witnessed a battle, nor carried a knife to slit the throats of wounded enemies, such a lady could never understand and comfort me like this’.
The Retreat is a tragedy driven by greed
Cupidity is the undoing of the expedition. Greed for loot provokes atrocities that propel the group towards disaster. The ‘Mutur’ leader, Rainulf, murders the rapacious Bishop Wernher later in the novel and steals his treasure.
One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is the very just criticisms that characters direct towards their class enemies. For instance, when Rainulf disdains the contempt of Count Stephen (and Guibert, too), ‘do I need to witness the contempt of a man whose refined ways are paid for by the toil of a thousand serfs?’ While they are tracking down the forest dwellers that kidnapped Cataline, Guibert offhandedly makes a stunningly revealing statement of his cruel class position:
‘Sometimes a serf runs. But they hardly ever get far. One time though, Count Theobald sent one of ours all the way back from Troyes. Runaways would never manage to set a home or village of their own.’
This is a savage world where the innocent are slaughtered by paid mercenaries, ‘when a man is paid to wield a sword, he loses the right to follow his own wishes’. There is a dark irony in an expedition ostensibly travelling to Jerusalem to ‘lift our sins’ (as Melinde says at one point), which perpetrates atrocities along the way.
The Retreat is a great novel which merits a second reading to really get to savour the morally complex and brilliantly rendered ambiguity of this failed expedition. I read it the first time as a gripping and violent adventure tale. But then, looking through it again, I began to appreciate the novel’s many subtleties. It is fascinating how the novel successfully condenses so much of the world of the Middle Ages in the text.
The Retreat is currently available as an eBook: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B086RQSN94/
An online book launch takes place for Conor Kostick’s novel on 2 May at 9pm (Dublin) via zoom.