Monday, 28 March 2011

The Crusades and all that

Perhaps I am an unusually eclectic reader, but I see books as a source of enjoyment more than anything else. Sometimes that enjoyment is rooted in the fact that they are intellectually stimulating, at other times funny, or thrilling or involving. I cry over books. I get hooked up in them. They live in my imagination afterwards and sometimes it is a wrench to leave them.

I finished Brethren over the weekend. Robyn Young's debut novel is like a fabulous, glittering mini-series directed by Ridley Scott. It has a huge cast of characters and more twists and turns than a medieval banquet had courses. Set between 1260 and 1272 it weaves historical figures with fictional ones, brings the Templar knights to life.

Ah yes, the Templars. In the midst of all The Da Vinci Code hype I did a bit of reading on the Templars, who built Rosslyn chapel, near Edinburgh, which Dan Brown uses in his book. The Templars are terrific source material: a monastic cult of warrior knights who grew extremely wealthy, introducing a form of international banking centuries before the Rothschilds. The Templars, because of their connection to the Holy Land and the Grail mythology, have attracted conspiracy theorists for years and Young builds on this nicely. I suspect the Grail theme might get stronger as the trilogy progresses, but in Brethren it was neatly done: the revelation less mystical than it was political.

It's the politics which allow this book to work. The English Prince Edward is portrayed as a scheming gangster. The Templar sect our young hero gets involved with as idealistic internationalists. The book toys with out current ideas of Jihad, of Islamicist extremism, of East vs West, and while never quite dismissing them it never gives into them either. The Templars were ultimately destroyed by the French King Philip II, some forty years after the action of this book, after they were accused of heresy. Their rites were said to include spitting on the crucifix. In reality, Philip was heavily in debt to the Templars and destroying them allowed him to seize their assets. Politics and religion never really change.

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