Mystery, History, Murder and “Terrible Beauty”

London, Traitors’ Gate, 15th Century

The Invention of Fire: A Novel, Bruce Holsinger’s sequel to his highly acclaimed novel A Burnable Book again lets us smell, hear and especially see the intrigues and dark deeds that go in London and other locations, this time in the year 1386. We again get to enter this world through the eyes of the historical figures and poets John Gower and Geoffrey Chaucer. Holsinger’s poetic prose and lovingly rendered details of the lives of his characters make this novel not just a great work of fiction but a view of a world and a time that gave rise not just to English poetry but to the technology that still affects our lives today.

John Gower, a man who knows how to use damaging information he has about just about everyone who has some form of power also knows how to pay for others to give him telling details. He lives, metaphorically at least, by sifting through the dirt. The book opens with a beautifully grisly discovery of a mass murder by those who clean up the literal fecal matter that is dumped outside of London. No one seems to know who the men are, the way they were killed and who is responsible. Gower is called on to answer these questions. The more he learns, the more he and we see how intricately the plots within the historical fiction are spun by many of the leaders in London and within entire country. The more he learns the more he puts himself in danger as “a man who knew too much”. If I had to sum up what Gower’s journey (and ours too) consists of, I will borrow a phrase from Gore Vidal who used it to describe one of the great books ever written about mythology, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony: “ a labyrinth lit by fire”.

Throughout the book, Gower travels through the maze that are the London streets, trying to hold on to a thread of clues and words from those who are mostly those who are outcasts doomed to poverty or the hangman’s noose. He also walks another maze, the narrow walks that the guards on the walls of London inhabit. They and their leaders look down upon the masses in some case metaphorically but certainly with what the theory minded would call the “panopticon of power”. The see, if not quite from Olympian heights, what happens below and take actions to control the ebb and flow of daily life. London may not be the prison that Foucault uses to invoke his panopticon trope, but Holsinger certainly does depict the city as trapped within what Blake calls in his poem London “the prison house of language”. Few trust anyone else’s words and many of the words they themselves share are misleading or outright fabrications both to others and themselves too. Gower must sort through the refuse of words to find out the “true” story or at least a version of the story that serves to help place things in a useful and perhaps ultimately poetic order that will outlast the age in which they occurred.

One theme that runs throughout the book is the interplay between seeing and blindness. John Gower is losing his sight, literally:

Yet this creeping blindness itself is not the worst of it. Far worse is the swelling of desire. As my sight wanes, my lust for the visible world surges, a boiling pot just before the water is cast to the dirt. Dusted arcs of sunlight in the vaults of St. Paul’s, crimson slick of a spring lamb’s offal puddled on the wharf, fine-etched ivory of a young nun’s face, prickle of stars splayed on the night. Color , form, symmetry, beauty, radiance, glow. All fading now, like the half-remembered faces of the departed: my sisters, my children, my well-beloved wife. All soon enough gone, this sweet sweet world of sight.

This prose sings as well as well or better than most poems. Gower, the poet, captures the pathos he is sentenced to. The sounds of words may not be “abundant recompense” for Gower himself, but the way Holsinger lets us hear Gower’s thoughts also lets us see into his being. Gower must meet with many people and ask them what they saw, but only after the fact. He must listen to the words and decide if they help him “see” what is really happening among the various factions vying for power in England. He spends time talking to the full range of society from Lords to Chaucer to hermits and orphans to a man on the way to being hanged. He has to sift through each of their words to learn what they have seen and what they are willing to reveal. The rhetorical term chiasmus captures the movement of the book. As Gower loses literal sight he gains greater insight into the working of the world and himself.

The labyrinth that is the plot is lit, sometimes dimly and sometimes not, by fire. The title refers to the myth of Prometheus who stole fire to give to man and thus started man’s fate to grow powerful through technology. The fire that is underscored in the book, however, is new. It is what lights the fuse of “handgonnes”. These new weapons changed the way wars were fought and this fire continues to affect our lives today. Holsinger describes the importance of “handgonnes” in his preface: “Across Europe, these decades witnessed unprecedented innovation and experimentation in the development of small arms, as gunpowder weapons grew increasingly portable, efficient, and thus terrifying.” The novel however is not a historical tract; that is what makes reading it so pleasurable and educational at one and the same time.

14th Century ‘handgonne”

Holsinger gives us lovingly rendered details of this new technology though his descriptions one of the Promethean characters, Stephen Marsh (Is his first name a nod to Stephen Daedalus, Joyce’s character whose last name is the same as the great artificer of Greek myth?)

He is the best smith in London and his unsurpassed skills improve the technology of handgonnes to a degree that makes this weapon a paradigm-shifting event. He also learns that in doing so he has a great price to pay morally and ethically. In our modern world we have heard from those who brought fire and understood what it means: Robert Oppenheim after the first successful fiery detonation of the atomic bomb, quotes the Indian sacred tests: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of Worlds.” The world that will be destroyed by technology will be what most of us call the Medieval. The shifts toward technology as well as the shift to ratiocination rather than religion to solve mysteries are the two changes that usher in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

If what I have said makes readers think the book is only an apocalyptic and dystopian view of London in 1386, then I have thus far misled you. Beneath the fire that leads to wars and scores of dead there are several love stories. Holsinger deftly shifts from the dark side of London to the side that still affirms the transformative power of love. The world in the novel and in our world today is a mix of stories, some tragic, others magic and others that will live on in art. We follow the plot through various mysteries, both of love and death. Holsinger’s book will, I think, live on as one of the better books not just of the year, but also of this genre. I am not the only one who thinks this. In The Washington Post, Patrick Anderson ends his review this way: “It’s one of the few historical mysteries I know that bears comparison with Iain Pears’s great “An Instance of the Fingerpost.” The past rarely comes this splendidly to life.”

At one point, the many guards located above on parapets take up the song and the song is passed from man to man around London of a hermit, Piers Goodman His name is in some ways more symbolic that the name he picks for himself. We are meant to think of Piers Ploughman, an everyman as well as a Goodman among many who are not. Piers call himself The Hermit of St. Giles-along-the-Wall-by-Cripplegate a name which places him literally within the labyrinth, but it also makes him an abstraction that enters into the mythic.

The soldiers above sing the hermit and his song fire but it and it hovers in the air and becomes a part of the myth and poetry of the age. He too will have his terrible trial by fire. More importantly, he represents the importance of words, of poets and of tales they tell. He is the book’s Homer. The song he sings echoes into the air and becomes a part of myth that transcends the age. It is a moving lyric.

Holsinger’s book rises, however, above lyric to include epic, if by epic we use Ezra Pound’s definition: “a poem including history”. Holsinger’s poetic prose, his deep research and his deft way of making characters come to life even as some die fits well within this definition. I encourage readers to pick up the book to see if they agree with me. Even if you don’t the journey into this labyrinth is well worth the risk. You won’t think of this time and place in the same way again.

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