History repeats on me

More on the idea that the children’s fantasy writing can offer freedom to discuss contemporary issues.
I don’t deny it. It’s just that this is nothing particularly new, even for JK Rowling, and nor is it a freedom confined to fantasy books. I don’t read much realist fiction because I figure the world’s dreary enough as it is. Although I do read a lot of non-fiction and reportage – so clearly I’m conflicted and contradictory. And I read a lot of history and nowadays a great deal of (preferably good) historical fiction for kids.
Over the past month or so, I’ve read a few of Catherine Jinks’ Pagan books, all about a young Jerusalem street kid who gets caught up in the Crusades and their aftermath. Her latest is Pagan’s Daughter, who is stuck in the middle of the European Crusades against French heretics – not all Crusades, of course, being based in the Holy Land.
There are myriad concepts in these books, almost an antidote to all the great children’s Crusade adventures of the past, where the Infidels (always partly clad and swarthily untrustworthy) were little more than slavering hordes, and Richard the Lion Heart rode up on his charger at the critical moment (I always loved that bit).
Those moral conceits were more anachronistic, in a sense, than Jinks’ street slang. On the other hand, the recent movie Kingdom of Heaven failed to achieve credibility, with a protagonist who was 1990s wishy-washy liberal and a plot that bore no relation to the real historical characters on which it was based, nor their actions and documented beliefs.
I recently re-read Ronald Welch’s Knight Crusader, which I remembered clearly from my childhood, and which is perhaps a midway point between that tradition of great heroic Crusader novels and our contemporary story-telling.
But moral-heavy Victorian interpretations still weigh on our image of the Crusades, and create a potency around them almost unmatched by other historical events.
It’s the tradition that led to George Bush seeing modern parallels, although he’s stopped using the word “crusade” about his own efforts. Perhaps Condoleeza Rice managed to get through the idea that he had the wrong end of the stick: that the Christians failed, and took hundreds of years to realise it (not a good precedent, after all); and that Holy War, martyrdom, and excessive slaughter have often been associated with Christian wars.
But Jinks is not using history (nor is Rowling, for that matter, using fantasy) to whack readers over the head with a current message about violence, or religious intolerance, or war. Those ideas are timeless and will often be part of good writing about the Crusades; or historical fiction set in any war; or indeed fantasy. Someone clever, like Jinks or Rowling, or Jackie French in Hitler’s Daughter, can present more facets of these ideas, and pose questions without sermonising.
Pure evil and pure good exist – or do they? Where do temptation, and fury, and fear, and weakness fit?
Into the fictional human stories that are woven from history – the conflicts and messages aren’t trumpeted, and the stories are above all compelling adventures. That’s what matters, what engages, what creates drama.
In his action-packed A Very Short Introduction to the Crusades, Christopher Tyerman (Oxford, 2004) mounts a sensible and determined argument that bears repeating:

There can be no summoning of the past to take sides in the present. Plundering history to deliver modern indictments serves no rational or benign purpose. To observe the past through the lens of the present invites delusion; so too does ignoring the existence of that lens. However, the burden of understanding lies on us to appreciate the world of the past, not on the past to provide ours with facile precedents or good stories, although of the latter the Crusades supply plenty.

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