The Red Keep, by Allen French

This is a good story at the very least because Allen French was a historian and the historical detail is worth it. Two examples of many: the crowded conditions in which people in a castle lived and the social order of the Middle Ages. One of the things that French perhaps overindulges is instruction. But it is interesting–he points out things the reader would not notice that the characters in the story live with, such as the lack of privacy in the surroundings of a castle. He brings these things alive in the situations of his book, and they don’t come up as unnecessary adornments. What is really well done and done gradually, like a theme that keeps being developed throughout the book, is the social order of the middle ages. French works it into a major theme of the work, and it is splendid. Clearly he is sympathetic rather than hostile to the order of medieval society. It is worth seeing how he shows the glories and benefits of a medieval order, from peasant to aristocrat, from guildsman to outcast.

He is in sympathy with the lack of squeamishness that life involved as well. There is a lot of fighting and killing in this book, but these things are told almost as if they were technical tips about things one takes into account in the heat of battle. I don’t know what kind of experience French had, and I certainly know nothing about fighting myself, but he seems very persuasive in his descriptions of how battles and confrontations play out. He’s detailed on the armor and its purposes, but not tediously so. I think some of the ingenious siutations that come about must be the fruit of historical research–that he’s often retelling stories and bits and situations he’s taken and adopted for his own (he takes from Invanhoe, and maybe he was a latter day Walter Scot).

Allen French is good with character. His storytelling is rather like that of the Sagas, and indeed, his Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow is a retold Saga. He also did Grettir the Strong. It means the telling is sparse, terse, quick to get to the point, including no uncessesary details or detours. There is little of atmosphere as a result, oddly, for all that he gives you the sense that you understand Medieval characters better. There is no psychological moiling about, no externalized inner states. It is a very businesslike writing, taking the reader through what is necessary, no more.

One of his weaknesses is that he seems to take little joy in evocative expression. So one does not read his stories for the words, but for the people and their situation–for the tale itself. It is nothing more than caring about how things turn out for these characters rather than haunting prose or unimaginably compelling descriptions. His descriptions are rather detached, intelligent, logical–and when it comes to the details of battle, somewhat clinical, which helps squeamish persons such as myself. I would be put out by the precision of the blows struck but that his object is never to impress those on me as much as to be careful about how things happened. French is good at that, good at planning things, connecting reasons, exhibiting changes of mind, making the psychological progress of his characters obvious. All with bare, straightforward prose. And he knows when the right few words are striking.

The bad are punished, the repentant are forgiven, the worthy are admired, the vile despised, the simple acquire subtlety and are rewarded, and the foolish are reduced. The story is a comedy very obviously heading toward marriage, and that also is happily achieved. One wants these things in stories: a rightness in the conclusion that is more than a clever ending. And it is that the ending is more than clever that gives it its high emotional impact. It is right. One wants an ending that was worth all the ups and downs of the story, one that affects one strongly rather than weakly. If at the end of the book one is unambiguously glad one read it and has obtained food for thought, it is a good book, whatever its faults.

I’m ready for another one by him.

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