There's something stirring about a castle. I don't really know what it is, but it touches a different part of me compared to what a cathedral does. Cathedrals are more impressive, in a lot of cases, requiring cleverer stonemasons to get it happening, and they are generally far more decorative. But there's something about the naked aggression (if that is the right word!) of a castle, its entirely warlike purpose, that speaks to a part of me (and, evidently, a lot of other people) that enjoys a good battle. As I've got older, that part of me is less prevalent. I find myself less interested in battles, tactics, weapons and armour. Perhaps that is because through vicariously living my characters' lives I have lost a taste for it. Perhaps it is a young man's game, and I am no longer young. Perhaps it is the stark realisation that despite the portrayal in books, battle is a pretty miserable affair. I once witnessed a medieval revivalist group, who showed how fighting would have happened in about the 11th or 12th century, and it was extremely revealing about exactly how big the gap between the film/TV version and the reality of it is. In the first instance, the weapons are a lot smaller than they are in the films. Most of the swords they wang around in films or TV would bend unhelpfully at the first sign of any action. And the swords all had big notches in them. The armour is heavy, the men move slowly in it, and within five minutes of engaging in the fights they were exhausted, sweating and incapable. Admittedly, these weren't people who were trained athletes - they were amateur enthusiasts - but this is instructive. The impressive swordplay of Kingdom of Heaven or King Arthur (the Clive Owen and Keira Knightley version) is exactly that: play.
Swords seem to be the thing, for some reason. Whether it is because of their appearance, or the appeal of being able to call yourself a great swordsman, or something else I do not know. But the sword seems to have an enduring appeal, even in this era of drone strikes and sniper rifles. One only needs to inhabit the writing community of Twitter for a few weeks to see exactly how limited - and I don't mean that in a judgemental way - the range of fantasy actually is, with swords being fairly high on the agenda, and magic even higher. It's relatively rare to see a fantasy book advertised that seems to be doing away with these tropes and replacing them with something entirely different. And I appreciate that there are conventions within a genre, and that it perhaps isn't my area of expertise. But it does seem to me that the idea of fantasy opens up a lot of doors that are then closed by those conventions. The inventions of, to go for a recent and well-worn example, Game of Thrones (and I warn any die-hards that I have seen only some of the TV programme and read none of the books) seem to be limited to a set of fairly convention-conforming tropes and a bit more of the 50 Shades of Grey than is normally seen in the genre. It's rare to find a fantasy that isn't hinged around a war or a battle of some kind, although there are notable exceptions to this rule. For example, even though there is a sort of conflict at the heart of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, it is not a fantasy in which swords and armour do their thing. It is a much more fully realised fantasy than a lot of fantasies, although it doesn't stray very far from the real world in being so.
I mentioned cathedrals a bit back, and there's just one further observation I want to make. Regular readers may know that I have a very awkward relationship with churches, to the extent that an hour in a church with the service going on can be a very testing hour for me. I love churches, most especially the small village-y ones that contain more love (of God and of people) in their way than the monstrous medieval cathedrals do. A few quiet moments in a church - or even, on a recent trip to the West Country, just the yard - can pull my reflections in all manner of directions, not all of them sad, and some of the sad ones are those sad reflections that actually contain a core of happiness (even joy), but happiness passed. It is difficult to reflect on that happiness passed without thinking that once being happy brings a sort of inevitable sadness, but it doesn't (or at least shouldn't) render the past any less happy or make that happiness any less real. Some moments in church - the voices of the people who inhabit particular churches and particular memories - are truly devastating, and will never fully quiet themselves into peace. Re-reading book IV to try to knock some sort of shape into it shows me that Edward Strelley has that same trait. He walks into a church and is at once both distant from it, the religion that it embodies, the ritual and the relationship with God, and at the same time has what is probably a more significant relationship with it than most of the Christians who congregate there. It is the very absence of God, of forgiveness for sin, of the tranquility of knowing that out there is benevolence, of the redemptive power of Christ, it is this that tears him (and me) so violently. And the desperate struggle to accept that love of a different kind does not bring peace or redemption. God does not speak to him, as he frequently says. No matter how often he asks. Nor, for that matter, does God speak to me.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought