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One of the things which obsesses Grail scholars is how the legends originated. Many of the myths that emerge at different times in different cultures have the same roots. After dinner one night I found myself reading The Waste Land out loud to my children - the real Waste Land, the great Waste Land, that is, T.S. Eliot's, not mine. The blend of Grail imagery with other myths, and with Ovid in particular, drove me back to re-read Jesse Weston's From Ritual to Romance, and to Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, and then to Metamorphoses itself. Somehow this resulted in the idea of tying the Grail legend together with Ovid in a story set in the First Crusade. Using the same title for my book, and allusions to it in my chapter titles, and in various places in the text, is really a homage to the great poem, as well as adding a little literary joke to the novel. (There are 23 allusions to the poem in the text if you are looking for them).

I wanted the First Crusade tale to read a little like the adventure stories that I was brought up on and still re-read often - Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda, John Buchan's Greenmantle, Henry Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, for example. If you know those books you may recognise genuflections to each of them in my story. To please my children I also promised them a reference to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But medieval French is less well known and I did not want to lose the connections to the Grail legends.

That's why I came up with the device of the Dons' story. Some of the friends who read the book before I published it liked the Dons. Some did not. If you don't, just ignore the Saint Lazarus's College sections and read Hugh's story. It stands by itself. But I decided to leave the Dons in, because for me they add another dimension. I thought that if they were commenting on some of the literary origins of the story they could talk a little about the history behind it. I have read many historical novels where I have asked myself part way through 'did it really happen like that?'. Some of the events of the First Crusade are so extraordinary that they are hard to believe and I wanted the Dons to point up some of the background. I also wanted them to inject a bit of humour into the story and dilute some of the blood and battles. In part some of the parallels with Hugh's story poke gentle fun at the 'time slip' novel genre. And in part they are meant to confirm that Hugh's story should not be taken too seriously.

-Simon Acland on the Genesis of The Waste Land

I confess that had I been one of the friends to whom Mr. Acland showed his manuscript, I'd have recommended ditching the framing device. That's not to say that the portrait of murderous academic politics isn't amusing, nor that there isn't some value to their comments on the veracity of the core story and their musings on its connection to the Grail legends, just that I'm a big fan of the older style of historical fiction, where authors plunged us straight into the period, without pretending that we were dealing with a long lost manuscript or invoking time travel or what have you. In fairness, Mr. Acland himself pokes fun at these conceits, even giving us a Best-Selling Author who's brought in to gussy up the manuscript and who calls to mind Dan Brown. And he carries the whole thing off well enough--right down to a detective who seems on the verge of branching off into an Inspector Morse storyline--that it's hard to quibble with the decision to keep it. But once you add in the repeated allusions to and citations of T. S. Eliot's Waste Land, you have a very busy "Entertainment" indeed. I'm going to have to go back and reread the book just to see if I can find all 23 hidden (or. at least, not footnoted) quotations from the great poem.

As to the historical adventure that makes up the bulk of the book, while Mr. Acland says that he wants to summon Hope and Buchan and Rider Haggard, the two largely forgotten authors he reminded me of most were Alfred Duggan and Frederick L. Coe. In particular, his hero, the young monk turned Crusader, Hugh de Verdon, entrusted to the Church by his widowed mother, is fairly similar to Olaf, the young Viking of Coe's Knight of the Cross. That has been my favorite book since I first read it in adolescence and, I'm happy to say, Acland and Hugh are worthy successors to Coe and OIaf.

Hugh is left with his kinsman, the future saint, Hugh of Cluny. He studies to join the order, but has no true calling and is only too eager to join the Crusades when another relative, Godfrey de Bouillon, comes calling on the Abbott. His ability to read and write and his facility with languages make him useful to Godfrey while remembered preparation for knighthood and determined training make him a surprisingly capable soldier. With Godfrey's company he travels to Constantinople and witnesses the siege of Antioch and the fall of Jerusalem, as well as all of the vicious infighting between the supposedly Christian brethren--Godfrey; Emperor Alexios; Count Bohemond; etc.--and the numerous atrocities committed by the Crusaders. Meanwhile, some illicit reading of forbidden texts--the Metamorphoses--while he was in the monastery returns to haunt Hugh when the leader of the Assassins, Hassan-i Sabbah, carries him off to Alamut, makes him a guinea pig for an experiment with the Holy Grail, and orders him to find a copy of the text by Ovid that is hidden in Jerusalem or the young woman Hugh fell in love with on the Crusade will be killed.

It is no little accomplishment that Mr. Acland manages to introduce all these plots and subplots and keep them all percolating along. Nor is it any surprise that he'll require a second volume to bring them all together and finish off his tale. This first installment is terrific and we eagerly await the follow-up.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Historical Fiction
Simon Acland Links:

    -PODCAST: Simon Acland (Meet the Author)
    -PROFILE: Simon Acland (Meet the Author)
    -REVIEW: of The Waste Land by Simon Acland (Historical Novel Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Waste Land (Random Jottings of a Book and Opera Lover)
    -REVIEW: of Waste Land (Purse Warden)
    -REVIEW: of Waste Land (Maggie Hartford, Oxford Times)

Book-related and General Links:

    -ETEXT: The Waste Land (1922) (T. S. Eliot)
    -ETEXT: From Ritual to Romance by Jessie L. Weston
    -ETEXT: The Golden Bough by Sir James George Frazer
    -ETEXT: Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte Darthur: Sir Thomas Malory's Book of King Arthur and of his Noble Knights of the Round Table
    -ETEXT: Metamorphoses by Ovid (Internet Classics Archives)
    -ETEXT: Anna Comnena: The Alexiad
    -WIKIPEDIA: First Crusade
    -WIKIPEDIA: Hugh of Cluny
    -WIKIPEDIA: Pope Urban II
    -WIKIPEDIA: Alexios I Komnenos
    -WIKIPEDIA: Anna Komnenos
    -WIKIPEDIA: Baldwin I of Jerusalem
    -WIKIPEDIA: Bohemond I of Antioch
    -WIKIPEDIA: Tancred, Prince of Galilee
    --BIO: Duggan, Alfred Leo (Dictionary of Irish Latin American Biography)
    -Wikipedia: Alfred Duggan
    -ESSAY: Alfred Duggan's Past: On the author Alfred Duggan and his wonderful mastery of Historical fiction (John Derbyshire, February 2005, New Criterion)