Saturday, February 29, 2020

Count Robert of Paris

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)

Constantinople in the early 12th century: Alexius Comnenus is on the throne, along with his
wife Irene and daughter, Anna. They are protected in part by the Varangian guard, a collection
of refugees from Saxon England (as a result of the 1066 invasion) and various countries in
Scandinavia. The bulk of the first Crusade to rescue Jerusalem from the pagans is about to
arrive and consequently the intricate politics of court life are becoming increasingly complex.
Count Robert and his warrior wife, Countess Brenhilda are a major part of the noble
contingent, along with Bohemund and Godfrey de Bouillion. Alexius wants to utilize the
crusader army as a defensive ploy against the Seljuk Turks, who are aggressive and ambitious,
but he's afraid of being besieged by the relatively undisciplined force as well. In addition, he's
become aware that a plot to dethrone him is in existence, but he's not sure who is involved.

Hereward the Saxon is a Varangian guard renowned for his skill, strength and loyalty. He
suspects the leader of the Varangians, Achilles Tatius, of being overly ambitious and snaky in
his friendships, one of the latter being Anna's husband, Nicephorus Briennius, who has gained
a reputation as an overly enterprising noble with an eye for the main chance. An old court
retainer, Agelastes, is an intimate friend of the two, and is known to harbor archaic and
possibly disloyal fantasies.

When the Crusaders actually arrive, Alexius persuades them to establish their encampment on
the east side of the Bosphorus straits, thereby isolating them from the city and its tempting
riches and luxuries. Before this happens, however, Alexius throws a large reception for the
crusade leaders to demonstrate his pomp and impress the uncultured Franks. An exemplar of
the latter quality, Robert takes advantage of Alexius' temporary absence to seat himself upon
the throne, the boorishness of the act apparent to all. The event is smoothed over, but results
in a challenge from Hereward, who is aggravated by Robert's egoism and pushiness. Robert
and Brenhilda, remaining behind while the balance of the army shifts to the east, are kept
prisoner by order of Alexius, and Robert is cast into a lightless dungeon below the Blacquerel
palace, the domestic residence of the Comnenus family. Ultimately he escapes with the help
of Hereward, and the two agree to duel sometime in the future.

Meanwhile, Nicephorus has made overtures to Brenhilda, for which Robert has challenged him
to a joust, but since Robert was in jail, Brenhilda wants to take his place, in part because she
can't stand Nicephorus and also because she has just as much a sense of honor as her
husband. But a number of events occur before the agreed joust occurs. Agelastes is killed by
an orangutang named Sylvan. The large red-haired creature had been part of the prison
establishment and was befriended by Robert during the latter's escape. Agelastes' house was
by the side of a cliff overlooking the ocean and while he was plotting with accomplices, Sylvan
appears and strangles him. Then he chases Bertha, Brenhilda's personal maid into the garden,
where she's rescued by Hereward. They recognize each other as former acquaintances in
England, where they had pledged their troth to each other.

The day of the joust approaches and 50 knights from across the water are invited to
participate. As they are sailing across, their ships are attacked by some of Alexius' navy who
shoot Greek fire at them. Several of the vessels are burned but most of them arrive safely.
Since Robert can't be found (he's hiding in Hereward's room), Brenhilda offers to take his
place to tilt against Nicephorus, but because Nicephorus is elsewhere occupied, Hereward
agrees to take his place. Then Robert appears and takes over from Brenhilda and the two,
Hereward and Robert chop at each other (they both are wearing heavy armor and fight with
batle-axes) until they get tired, and then agree to forget their differences.

Afterwards, Alexius forgives Nicephorus and Achilles for their treason and Hereward and
Bertha carry on with the main force to Palestine and Jerusalem. They both survive the conflicts
and eventually return to England where they marry and live happily ever after.

This was one of Scott's last books and i think it showed. While it held my interest, it was sort
of gangly and loosely constructed, with lots of interspersed legends and side plots that didn't
do much to further the principle action, but were interesting anyway. Scott is rather an
acquired taste; his language can be difficult to follow upon occasion. It was evident in several
places that the author was getting tired. As in fact he was, having literally written himself to
death in order to pay off a very large debt that accrued to him as a result of his participation in
a friend's (Ballantine) publishing business and its consequent failure. His books are rarely
boring, though, and usually have a surprise or two for the reader's edification. Like
orangutangs appearing out of nowhere...