Cornwell, Bernard. Agincourt. New York: HarperCollins, 2009., p. 451. $27.99.
Cornwell’s historical novel of the 14th century battle at Agincourt had the potential to be remarkable. Cornwell writes well. The battle was significant in the overall strategy of Edward III during the “Hundred Years War.” I was looking forward to a carefully researched portrayal along the lines of what Ron Hansen usually gives us in a historical novel. Unfortunately, I found Cornwell’s predominantly gruesome and sensational. Not that I have a weak stomach or can’t abide “reality.” Agincourt is full of fortuitous gore and profanity as well as expendable images of rape and perversion. These scenes may have been the reality. Yet, we have no way of knowing for sure (except from the
author or more careful study of the time period portrayed). More likely they are crafted and constructed with contemporary cinema in mind.
Many movies (and novels) today–it’s almost a maxim–must appeal to the hysterical vulgarity of twenty-first century American society. Films, even the good ones, tip their hats to our culture’s schizophrenic preoccupation with sex and violence, especially its sadistic voyeurism. Following how may otherwise excellent movies have we asked ourselves, “Why was that scene necessary?” I found myself asking the same thing at several points throughout the novel. Seems that many modern authors have traded the subtle art of insinuation for the
unimaginative and obscenely lurid.
Plot is paper thin. They story moves but does not convince. Rather, too much needless personal detail among slim historical pickings. Very little by way of history, though apart from the sights and smells of battle, a quick and active narrative.
Characters remained undeveloped. Cornwell follows his bowman through the gritty battles leading up to Agincourt. But we never really feel we know him. Women are used as motivation for gratuitous violence. The author did make good use of his knowledge of the weaponry and accoutrements of that period. A medieval glossary could have proved helpful.
Unfortunately, Cornwell has succumbed to the spirit of the age. The story could have survived without much that Cornwell seemed to enjoy giving us. What little he gave on one page, he took away on the next. Meager by way of literature that could last.
So here’s a historical novel otherwise interesting. Yet, I am prevented from being able to recommend it to those who look for distinctive historical insight in a good story.