The Knight Templars weren’t always some Holy-Grail-Guarding Super-Army. In 1314, as Maurice Druon’s “The Iron King” opens, they’re a scattered, humiliated has-been quasi-cult. King Philip IV, ever the acquisitional entrepreneur, has appropriated most of their riches, as he had previously done with the riches of the Jewish population of France AND, in a visionary display of equal-opportunity thievery, with the properties of the Catholic Church. Now Philip has ordered the capture and torture of the last Templar Grand-Master, Jacques Molay. Under duress, Molay confesses to assorted deviations, from sodomizing young recruits to ritually spitting on the Holy Cross.
While burning brightly, Molay issues one of those trans-generational Biblical curses to King Philip, and there’s the conceit of Druon’s “Les Rois Maudits” (“The Accursed Kings”), a cycle of seven historical novels tracking the series of unfortunate events that defined the French monarchy during the 1300s. Of course, unfortunate events define the history of ANY country over ANY century. “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” goes the James Joyce quote from “Ulysses”. Substitute “curse” for “nightmare” : both are nigh inescapable.
The “curse” takes obvious the form in the scandal of the Tower of Nesle. (Refer to Alexandre Dumas’ stage hit.) The details are less lurid in Druon: there’s only your regular extra-marital fling, and nobody gets dropped from the top of the tower. In any case all three of the King’s daughters-in-law, (Marguerite, Blanche, and Jeanne of Burgundy) have their locks shorn. Two of them are sent away to a less congenial tower, the Chateau Gaillard. I guess we would call it “slut-shaming.” It’s worth noting their unfortunate male lovers suffered more, er, “definitive” sentences.
The adulteries were, as these things tend to go in the public eye, not a forgivable sign of irrepressible female sexuality but a shameful failure by the King’s sons to keep their wives happy: a prince unable to subdue and satisfy one princess can’t be expected to do much for a whole nation, went the 1314 logic, and so it’s somewhat understandable that Philip ( whose emotionless ways were legendary ) showed no mercy to his daughters-in-law : they reminded him of the weakness of the boys who would inherit France.
Besides, he wasn’t known as the Fair (Le Bel) for any even-handedness in his decrees, but because of a relative lack of horrifying “monarchic” traits : (by “monarchic” read “inbred”.) Now, one era’s cutie is another era’s fugly discard, but I’m not really seeing the beauty here. The spaced-out eyes, the weird arch towards the pointy nose, the weak pimply chin; at best, Philip looks like a mix between king and fox.
Of course the physical scale is tilted when it comes to divinely annointed monarchs, and Philip, ( of the Capetian line) was not affiliated to the alarming inbreeding disaster that was the Hapsburg line.
History is deep, so let’s not be shallow. “The Iron King” is an entertaining opening chapter, one that, like Dumas’ play, does not really allow research to stymy the fun. Be warned that it’s not a self-contained work. Also, if you don’t care for old-fashioned historical fiction and only arrived to Druon because of a recent George R. R. Martin-blurbing reissue ( “Totes like ‘Game of Thrones’!”) expect a major disappointment. No dragons and (almost) no boobies, my friend.
RATING : COOL!
POST-SCRIPT : BTW, kudos to Martin for giving a boost to an older foreign series. Pretty refreshing, at a time when every blurb seems to be the result of incestuous back-scratching and favor-calling.
I totally sounded like a frustrated, non-blurb-getting author there, didn’t I? Not true! Here are some blurbs this site has gotten:
“A valiant blog! I wouldn’t be surprised if the blogger, through some bizarre string of contrivances, was a descendant of the highest nobility!” – Alexandre Dumas
“I stole most of the ideas for “Les Rois Maudits” directly from the pages of ‘The Pageaholic'”- Maurice Druon
“I wouldn’t give “The Pageaholic” a positive blurb even if it somehow found way to a resurrect me and other dead authors of French historical fiction for that express purpose”- Victor Hugo