Saturday, 14 July 2012

Julian Rathbone: Kings of Albion (2000)

Edition: Abacus, 2001
Review number: 1458

L.P. Hartley's line "The past is a foreign country" is often quoted, but it can be hard to realise just how different things were in former times. Kings of Albion is a novel which literalises the quotation to great effect. The plot is about an expedition sent out by the threatened Indian kingdom of Vijayanagara, to see if they can learn something from the far away English, who are rumoured even that far away to be the most warlike race on Earth. And the rumour turns out to be accurate, for they arrive at their destination in 1460, at the bloodiest period of the Wars of the Roses.

This device makes it possible for Rathbone to make us see how different England was 550 years ago, as the cultured Indian delegation react in horrified fascination to the things they see. Apart from being clever, Kings of Albion is also funny, with anachronism being used in a creative and humorous fashion: it is not out of place for the party to survive being caught between two gangs of youths from rival factions in Verona, but it seems so to the modern reader, because this is an episode from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. This sort of pre-echo is used to evoke films, plays, books, and twentieth century physics without technically breaking the historical mode of the novel.

Vijayanagara is a kingdom about which fairly little is known; according to Rathbone's preface, this is why he chose it, on the advice of an expert in Indian history. It enables Rathbone to construct a culture which produces a delegation with a philosophical outlook more like a person of today than a medieval Englishman, which heightens the shared reactions that we as readers have with the characters in the delegation.

Some modern devout Christians could still be offended by the religious themes of Kings of Albion, which concern on the one hand links between Hinduism and the origins of the medieval cult of the Virgin Mary, and some of the practices of the fifteenth century church on the other. But on the whole, most people should enjoy this evocation of medieval England which is reminiscent of the spirit of George MacDonald Fraser.

My rating: 9/10.

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